Thursday, May 31, 2001
At 11:40 on Thursday night, May 24, I started to hear the sirens. Living inside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City, where narrow lanes take the place of trafficked streets, we only occasionally hear the wail of a distant siren. That night, however, siren followed siren, loud and close, one winding down only to hear the rising shriek of another.
"Something's going on out there," I told my husband, who had just gone to bed.
Fearing another terrorist attack, I called our local police station."A building in Talpiot collapsed," the policeman on duty informed me.
Talpiot, a ten-minute drive from the Old City, has a large industrial and commercial district."Was anyone in the building?" I queried, adding:"I want to know whether I should be saying Psalms for the injured."
The policeman answered:"A Jew should always say Psalms. Yes, a wedding was going on."
With a sense of dread exacerbated by the incessant wail of what I now knew were ambulance sirens, I roused my husband and our thirteen-year-old daughter, who was lying in her loft engrossed in a book."We have to say tehillim (psalms). A building collapsed in Talpiot in the middle of a wedding."
We had no idea whom we were praying for, nor how many. It was a scene which has become too common: praying for the injured from bomb blasts, drive-by shootings, ambushes, kidnappings; praying for critically wounded children, young mothers, fathers of five, elderly immigrants. This time, however, our prayers were accompanied by the cacophony of sirens, one after another in a dirge of dire urgency.
The sound of the sirens perforated my ears and heart.
Only after reciting our psalms, did we turn on the radio to hear the news: 650 people had been in the hall at the time of the collapse. Jerusalem did not have enough ambulances nor hospital beds to accommodate the 350 injured. Ambulances were racing to the scene from as far away as Tel Aviv.
Somehow, sometime after 1:00 am, I managed to fall asleep, the sound of the sirens still perforating my ears and heart. I awoke to the 7 AM news: 19 dead (later to climb to 23), 350 injured -- the worst civil disaster in the history of the State of Israel.
Israel is a small country where everyone feels like mishpacha — family. A contentious, bickering family to be sure, but family. That Friday morning every Jew in Israel felt scourged by a calamity so grievous, coming on the heels of so many tragedies, so many families shattered by terrorists' bullets, so many youths maimed by terrorists' bombs, that just as our eyes could no longer hold the tears, our hearts could no longer hold the pain.
It is axiomatic in Judaism that all physical effects have spiritual causes. God runs the world. All of human history is moving toward the Final Redemption, the era of universal God-consciousness. That process is fueled by individual and collective"tshuva," becoming conscious of our shortcomings and fixing them. The Talmud says that when one is beset with suffering, one should examine one's deeds and rectify whatever needs fixing. Suffering is not a punishment for wrongdoing, but a goad to rectification.
But where to begin? I could easily run off a list of two dozen areas which I personally need to fix; four dozen that the Jewish people could stand to work on.
On that tear-stained Friday morning, Israel's Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, pointed to our national lackadaisicalness, a tendency toward carelessness and foolhardy optimism ("Yehiye tov"—"It'll be okay") which characterizes not just the engineers and owners of the Versailles banquet hall, but much of Israeli society. The Maccabean bridge disaster, which resulted in four deaths of Australian athletes, was another tragic result of this attitude.
Personally, this diagnosis did not speak to me. If Israel as a whole is plagued by calamity now, then we all have to do tshuva, even those of us who are meticulous and painstaking in their professional and personal lives.
I called Rebbetzin Devorah Cohen, the pseudonym I use for one of the great, hidden holy women of our generation."We cannot do tshuva on everything all at once," I complained, my voice desperate. "What exactly should we be doing tshuva on?"
Without skipping a beat, she replied: "We have to love God more."
That registered. Here was a tshuva that every Jew, religious and secular, man and woman, exalted and lowly, could engage in.
"But how do we do that, practically speaking?"
"Thank God for every single breath."
THE MOSQUITO PRINCIPLE
Love of God, gratitude, and happiness are all intertwined, but we cannot set the process in motion if we fall prey to what Ken Keyes, Jr., calls "The Mosquito Principle." If there are 30 mosquitoes in your room at bedtime, and you kill 29 of them, the one remaining mosquito buzzing around your head is enough to keep you miserable all night. Similarly, if you have 29 of the 30 things you need to make you happy, according to the Mosquito Principle you are likely to be unhappy almost all the time because your mind will focus on the one remaining thing you lack.
Rebbetzin Devorah Cohen is both the advocate and the exemplar of the reverse of "The Mosquito Principle": If you have even one thing to thank God for, you can be happy.
I call this approach the "Every Breath Principle."
Rebbetzin Devorah herself lost her entire family in Auschwitz, was experimented upon by the notorious"Angel of Death," Dr. Mengele, lived with her husband in absolute penury in a dilapidated shack in one of the hottest parts of Israel, never bore any children, and took care of numerous retarded and multiply handicapped children without running hot water or human help. Yet, her neighbors testified that she was always happy. [See"Holywoman"]
Once, I took several women from my neighborhood to Rebbetzin Devorah to ask for blessings. She assured them that they would each get what they had come to ask for. Then one of our group piped up:"But how do we stay happy while we're waiting for the blessing to come down?"
As an adult, I still tended to approach every scene by looking for "What's Wrong with This Picture?"
Rebbetzin Devorah looked at her uncomprehendingly. "How to be happy? You have eyes and they see. You have ears and they hear. You have feet and they take you where you want to go. How can you not be happy?" she rejoined, incredulous.
This is the"Every Breath Principle." If you have eyes that see, you should thank God and be happy. If you don't, but you have ears that hear, build your gratitude and happiness on that. If you can breathe, rejoice – and don't forget to thank your Creator for His largesse.
MY HAPPINESS LIST
This has been a difficult lesson for me to assimilate. As a child, my favorite activity in Hi-Lights Magazine was "What's Wrong with This Picture?" As an adult, I still tended to approach every scene by looking for"What's Wrong with This Picture?" I took this tendency to focus on the negative, dressed it up as a"critical intellectual faculty," and called it a virtue. The result of that virtue, however, was that I always found something to be unhappy about.
Then, one day in May of my 46th year, I had an epiphany on my way to the bank.
Six months after giving birth to my first child at the age of forty, I had a near-fatal ectopic pregnancy. I spent the next five years trying to conceive again. I attempted every imaginable alternative and medical approach: I went to an old Yemenite woman who put burning crucibles on my abdomen; drank bitter tea made by boiling pomegranate peels; chewed the unpalatable"Yemenite gum"; sank a fortune into Sunrider fertility"pearls"; underwent massage from a Kurdistani woman, the 7th generation in her family to practice this technique; prayed at the graves of great tzaddikim; took nightly injections of fertility drugs; underwent surgery to open my blocked fallopian tube; got blessings from the Amshonaver Rebbe and Rebbetzin Devorah; and did I.V.F.
Finally, at the age of 46, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. The ecstatic joy that my husband and I experienced was in direct proportion to how long we had yearned, prayed, and cried for this baby. We were both euphoric.
Then, two weeks after the birth, the daily meals that the community had been sending stopped. My mother-in-law, who had been tending to the house and our six-year-old daughter, went home to Los Angeles. I was left to deal with the childcare and housekeeping chores. But, cognizant how important the first few weeks are to successful nursing, my priority was to spend many leisurely hours propped up in my bed nursing my baby. The dishes piled up in the sink; the laundry piled up in the hamper; the house degenerated into a cluttered mess.
One morning, I had to deposit some money in the bank, a five-minute walk from our house. The bank closed at 1:00 PM. At 12:30 I hurriedly dressed, put the baby in a Snugly, and made a dash for the bank, leaving the beds unmade. As I scurried through the narrow lanes of the Old City, I was feeling frustrated and dejected at not being able to stay on top of the housecleaning.
Suddenly, I stopped dead in my tracks. "Are you crazy?" I asked myself. "Finally, after five years of torture, you have the baby that you struggled and cried for, and you're miserable because the beds aren't made?"
Standing there, frozen to the spot, I made a resolution: My happiness checklist would consist of just three items:
- My husband is alive and well.
- My daughter is alive and well.
- My son is alive and well.
If I could check off those three items, I resolved, I would be happy, no matter what else happened.
In the seven years since then, every time I find myself dejected, I pull my happiness checklist out of my mind's pocket. Check, check, check. "Thank you, God, for the miracle of the lives which are so precious to me." And I feel a gratitude which sparks a profound joy, even during these last eight nightmarish months.
"THE EVERY-BREATH PRINCIPLE" IN ACTION
"I am grateful to God for the two-month grace period He gave us to be together."
Just yesterday, Israel witnessed an incredible application of the"Every Breath Principle." Gilad Zar, a 41-year-old father of eight, was shot and killed by Palestinian terrorists as he was driving near his home in Samaria. Exactly 67 days before, at nearly the same spot, Zar was shot and seriously wounded in the chest and stomach. Miraculously, he survived and recovered, and despite the protestations of his doctors, he recently returned to work.
Yesterday, some time between her husband's murder and his funeral, his widow Hagar proclaimed:"I am grateful to God for the two-month grace period He gave us to be together."
Not, as would have been fully justified: "How will I cope in the years and decades ahead without my husband?" Not: "How will I support, raise, take care of, and educate my eight children without their father?" Even at that moment of incalculable loss and devastation, Hagar Zar was able to find something to thank God for: 67 days of life after her husband's first brush with death.
A person who has so internalized this principle of gratitude to God for every day, every breath, cannot be routed. A nation which internalizes such gratitude and love of God cannot be defeated.
Rebbetzin Devorah's answer is the antidote for our seemingly insoluble national crisis. So far no one from the left or the right, from the political echelons or the military brass, has offered Israel a workable solution to the mini-war which many now say threatens the very existence of the State of Israel. Like the prophets of old, Rebbetzin Devorah is instructing us that the fate of the nation depends not on military prowess nor diplomatic treaties, but on tshuva, returning to the God who originally gave us this land in an eternal covenant.
So what do we have to do? You just did it. You breathed. Now thank God for it.