Dancing on Thin Ice

Rebbetzin Tzippora Heller

I visited Chaya Rivka Jessel, a”h , in the hospital soon after she underwent surgery. As I rode up to the seventh floor, then turned right toward the Oncology department, my suppressed anxiety surfaced and refused to go back into its subconscious repository. It was the first of about five visits during the unbelievably short time it took for her illness to consume her at the age of thirty-eight. We had been friends for close to eighteen years, and I thought I knew her. The truth is that I had not genuinely known her.

Each of those visits took me deeper into her world, a world in which truth and hope managed to live side by side. She never belittled the severity of her condition, but neither did she submit to fatalistic despair or escapist pseudo-faith (that things had to work out on her terms). She was more than willing to accept the A-mighty's terms with serenity and joy.

“If you are standing on thin ice, you may as well dance,” she told me.

Two days before her passing Rav Zev Leff came to visit her. He informed her that her name was changed and the somewhat archaic “Alte” was now going to be part of her identity. We escaped into fantasy then, envisioning how she could present an entirely new persona to the world. From now on, she joked, maybe she would be a sixtyish, Yiddish-speaking dowager who could get her daughter into any seminary she chose. As she floated in and out of uneasy sleep, I couldn't help thinking how much I enjoyed being with her. Every moment was a “teaching” in trust in G-d and love of life. Two special moments with her are stamped within me forever.

Chaya Rivka had visited a venerable Rebbitzen and sought her blessing. She melted in the Rebbitzen's warmth and goodness and let herself believe that the doors were open, and that perhaps the blessings would be fulfilled and that she would indeed dance at her children's weddings. The Rebbitzen recommended that she say Pirkei Shira . It was beyond her strength to read the lengthy Hebrew pages (or even to hold the booklet for very long). She asked me to tell her what was written there.

I read the introduction to her, and she listened attentively. In the final paragraph of the introduction, our sages tell us that when King David completed writing the Book of Psalms he was proud of himself. A frog came and said, “I praise Hashem even more than you do.” Then the frog told King David of an additional merit he possessed. “There is a creature that lives on the beach and is sustained by the sea. When it is hungry, it eats me. This is my mitzva.” Before I could continue, Chaya Rivka made eye-contact with me and sighed gently. At that moment, I realized she would accept whatever Hashem decreed for her as “her mitzva.” When she had more strength, she articulated this thought: “I can see that whatever Hashem has in store for me is for my good. I accept it with love. I daven that my family will also see love whatever happens.”

Most of us can focus on only one act of the play at a time. During a brief respite from treatment on Chanukah, her friends made a party for her. Chaya Rivka put on an outrageous fake fur coat and played the role of a shadchanis who matches potential acts of chessed with those who can do each one the best. While playing the comic character, she was also on a deeper level actively helping her friends adapt to her reality. The spark was bright, but the candle would soon burn out.

The beauty and drama of Chaya Rivka's last days are a recurring theme in our national history. For two millennia we have danced on thin ice and nonetheless retained something of the spiritual translucence and faith that make us a beautiful people.

The Fourth Bracha

When I visit my daughter in Beitar, I can't help reflecting on what Beitar signifies. While it isn't certain that the site of this city south of Yerushalayim near the Arab village of Batir is the same as that of the ancient city of Beitar, it may very well be. Ancient Beitar is never too far from our consciousness - it is with us every time we complete the grace after meals. The forth and final blessing, in which we praise Hashem as the One Who is good and does good, was written in Yavneh to commemorate an extraordinary turn of events.

Beitar was the beating pulse of ancient Israel. It was populous, filled with synagogues and schools (in fact, the Talmud narrates that there were 400 elementary schools with 400 children in each one). It was destroyed in what can only be described as a bloody massacre. Afterward, the Romans forbade the Jews to bury their dead. When permission was finally granted, all the bodies were still intact and odorless. The blessing “He is good” was added then to thank G-d that they could finally bury their dead, and “He does good” was added because the bodies didn't reek. A strange blessing.

Most of us would rather that the city had been miraculously saved. And if we couldn't manage that, we would at least try to relegate what did happen to the backwaters of religious practice – perhaps mentioning it in passing somewhere in Tachanun . Instead, we say this blessing every time we sit down to a meal!

The Maharal tells us that the detailed description of what Beitar was before its destruction gives us insight into the meaning of its end ( Chiddushei Aggada , Gittin 55b). We are told that among the ruins they discovered containers holding 300 saah (an ancient measurement) of destroyed tefillin. When you consider the enormous loss of human life, knowing how many pairs of tefillin were destroyed seems to be a trivialization. On the contrary. The Maharal tells us that the description of the tefillin tells us about the people who wore them. “The people of Beitar were not made vulgar by their material nature; they were on the same level as their tefillin. Their bodies were pure, clean and clear. The mitzva of tefillin requires bodily purity because the tefillin touches the body. The people of Beitar were the beauty and glory of Israel; tefillin are also referred to as pe'er , “glory,” and that is the reason those tefillin are mentioned.

Maintaining the Glory

How can we avoid being rendered vulgar by our bodies? They are so demanding! When a person thinks that his body is all that defines him, death is for him only an unspeakable horror. This issue is relevant to us both as individuals and as a nation. In Eretz Yisrael we need an economic policy and a defense policy to be sure (and let us not fool ourselves, we need one in the diaspora as well). We have no choice but to listen to what our material selves tell us. This, however, can coarsen us and compromise our identity until we fall.

How far did Beitar fall? Bar Kochva, their leader, said to G-d, “Don't help me and don't harm me.” The people could not consistently maintain the level of tefillin, which bind the heart, the arm and the mind together to serve Hashem. Tefillin must be worn on a body that doesn't obstruct its purpose. That is its glory.

We are now in the post-Beitar era. We often become coarsened and desensitized. “I will remove your stony hearts and give you hearts of flesh,” the Torah tells us in regard to the times we live in. This means that almost nothing will move our stony hearts today. Our callousness is so great that no matter what we hear (ghastly assimilation statistics, horrific tragedies …) we just go on to the next course.

Hashem is the One Who is good and does good. No matter how deadened we are, He is with us. When we are dancing on thin ice we have to remember this. One of the ways that this message comes home to us again and again is by stopping to reflect that the food we eat comes from His Hand. He gave us the ability to sanctify him with our bodies on terms that He sets with His inveterate compassion. We can raise our eyes and thank Him.

This is the sixth in a series of articles based on the mitzvos associated with challa.

A modified version of this article appeared in the English Hamodia newspaper, February 20, 2004.