When I was a little girl, my mother told me a story, recounted in the Talmud, that has stayed with me ever since:
To show his love, God escorted Adam (and, at least as I envision it, Eve) to a remote corner of the world and paraded before them the entire human race destined to emerge from their union. Adam spotted a beautiful baby named David. When God told him that that baby was to live for only three hours, Adam declared, "May 70 of my years go to him. And may he use those years to sing songs to You!"
And sing he did. Miraculously spared from crisis, King David composed a book of Psalms (Tehillim) that have carried his people through crises ever since. Illness. Infertility. Loneliness. Indecision. Family discord. Financial woes. Even the stress associated with joy. Whatever the circumstance, Jews have known through the millennia that reciting a psalm or two makes a difference.
Throughout my usually ordinary, occasionally extraordinary, but inevitably adventurous life, I have made friends with various psalms. My best friend is Psalm 30, which declares: "I will exalt you, God, for You have uplifted me."
Two Torah giants -- Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch of the German intellectual dynasty, and the other-worldly Sfas Emes of the Gerer chassidic dynasty -- explain that the Hebrew dilitani -- "You have uplifted me" -- has at its root the word d'li, bucket. Just as a bucket must be lowered into a dark well in order to draw water for our benefit, so too we may experience dark, downward spirals -- moments when we feel we are stumbling, even plummeting – and those moments are ultimately revealed to be for our benefit, prerequisites for uplifting tranquility and even transcendence. As the Hebrew adage goes, it is "a descent for the sake of ascent."
Polio and the Naysayers
I'd like to share a personal example of this miraculous phenomenon. But first, some background:
In the 1950s, my wonderful parents created a joyous home for me and my siblings. Books were everywhere; they and our battered record player were our most precious possessions. Between my father's biblical parables at the Shabbos table and my mother's contagious enthusiasm for Hebrew, Yiddish and classical music, not to mention the many guests who graced our table, we felt both rich and enriched.
Four months and one day after Dr. Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine, I contracted polio.
One cloud hung over this idyllic scene: the fear of polio, a virus that, since 1916, had stricken an average of 21,000 Americans a year, killing over 57,000 -- most of them children -- and leaving millions more paralyzed. On August 13, 1955, four months and one day after Dr. Jonas Salk announced his polio vaccine, I contracted polio.
I was hit hard. For months my life hung in the balance. But as a 3-year-old, I remained oblivious to that reality. And over time, my parents subtly shaped my reality with a profound notion: God may have masterminded my disability, but it is only a "tragedy" to the extent that human beings make it so.
Nowhere did the human stigma sting more sharply than on the circuitous road leading me to my husband. Naysayers abounded. "You've got to be realistic," they said. "You may be congenial, charismatic, talented and kind…... but let's face it, who would want to marry a woman with a paralyzed and deformed body who gets around in a motorized wheelchair?" As my 30th birthday approached, their realism became harder and harder to deflect.
I sank to an all-time low in 1980, on a Friday night in Israel, when a friend I really respected -- and still do -- suggested that I might be better off resigning myself to never getting married; that way, if by chance I did, I would be pleasantly surprised but spared years of anguish.
I felt betrayed. That Saturday night, on an Egged bus, I cried all the way to Jerusalem. Thinking to cheer myself up, I stopped on impulse at a concert hall, to take in a popular musical revue of children's songs entitled, The Sixteenth Sheep.
"Sorry, sold out," snapped an usher.
"No problem. I brought my own chair!" I countered, offering to pay the admission fee and sit in the aisle in my wheelchair. Unlike his colleagues, who had allowed me to do this in the past, this man adamantly rejected my proposal. As he escorted me to the parking lot, I felt that God, and not an usher, had shut me out.
Two and a half years later, in 1982, I met a wonderful man named Michael Levy, who -- through an extraordinary series of events -- was soon to become my husband. What happened on our second date, the date on which we both realized that something miraculous was unfolding? Michael played me an audiotape of Hebrew children's songs, with sensitive lyrics that mirrored Michael's love for them. The name of the album? The Sixteenth Sheep.
To me, this is an example of "I will exalt you, God, for You have uplifted me." Yes, I was booted out of the theater by a rigid usher. Yes, I felt rejected 24 hours earlier. But I never would have known the magic of discovering those lyrics under Michael's guidance had it been otherwise. It is difficult to deny the symmetry in the double-rejection that weekend in 1980 and its dovetailed resolution in 1982.
The Cranberry Sauce Maven
Descent for the sake of ascent. My favorite verse in my favorite Psalm has helped me to experience that miracle countless times.
But could there be an opposite effect -- ascent for the sake of descent -- as well?
On a Friday morning in 1994, -- I had quite a few items on my to-do list. Among them were to buy a present for my friend Judy, who was hosting her own birthday party that Saturday night, and to try out a new cranberry-pineapple relish recipe for Shabbos. I went to the supermarket at 10 a.m. in search of cranberry sauce. Much to my chagrin, none of the cans appeared to be kosher. I made a mental note to call the one person who, more than anyone, was a second mother to me and who, without a doubt, was a cranberry sauce maven: my beloved Aunt Blanche.
Now, a word about Aunt Blanche: For as long as I could remember, she was the president of my "fan club." On visits to our home, she would summon me, a 10-year-old pipsqueak, and ask, "What have you written lately?" I would hand her some school composition (like "How I Spent My Summer Vacation") and she wouldn't merely read it; she would read it out loud, enunciating every word, as if it were Shakespeare. Not surprisingly, she delighted in my writing career clipping each of my magazine articles and sharing them with her friends. Often, when struggling with an embryonic writing project, I would consult Aunt Blanche for advice and moral support.
Her support went well beyond the literary. Every Wednesday afternoon, especially after my mother passed away in 1991, Aunt Blanche would show up at our Manhattan apartment. With her came the inevitable care packages, wrapped in aluminum foil and carefully labeled: "Rice pudding, dairy," "Meatballs, for Michael" [she knew her customers], "Noodle kugel, parve." "Just a little something for my dreamboat," she’'d say.
Which brings us back to the cranberry sauce. I was about to run out at 2:45 that Friday afternoon to buy a birthday present for my friend, Judy. I was rushing because the local Judaica store closed every Friday at 3 o'clock. I had one foot out the door when I suddenly remembered the cranberry sauce. With Shabbos fast approaching, I reached for the phone and dialed Aunt Blanche. She immediately set me straight on which brands were kosher. I thanked her profusely, wished her a good Shabbos and headed toward the gift shop, with the supermarket my next destination. That is when Providence stepped in.
As I approached the Judaica shop, I saw amid the hubbub of 72nd Street and Broadway a young woman, dressed in a long skirt, peering through the window of a non-kosher restaurant.
What's wrong with this picture? I asked myself and, despite the time crunch, I approached this stranger.
"Excuse me," I ventured, "may I help you?"
The woman turned to me with a gentle smile. "Is this Famous Restaurant?" she asked tentatively.
"No," I laughed. "Famous closed several years ago. Are you from out of town?"
"I'm from Jerusalem," she replied with the gentlest voice.
"Where are you staying?" I asked.
"At my cousin's empty apartment," she answered. "I was looking to buy some food for Shabbos."
"No problem!" I exclaimed. "You'll join us! What's your name?"
"Sarah Shapiro," she replied softly.
"Sarah Shapiro?" I echoed incredulously, "Not the Sarah Shapiro, author of Growing with My Children and editor of Our Lives?"
Eyes downcast, blushing slightly, she nodded.
"Oh my goodness, I'm one of your biggest fans!" I sputtered. "My name is Chava Willig Levy."
"Chava Willig Levy?" she asked. "The writer?"
Now it was my turn to blush.
Needless to say, Sarah joined us for much of what turned out to be a glorious Shabbos, complete, I might add, with cranberry-pineapple relish. I knew I had made a friend for life. That Monday afternoon, she stopped by again and we spent hours sharing our literary dreams and obstacles. We were becoming each other's mentors.
That night, my older brother called with devastating news: Aunt Blanche had been in a serious car accident. The doctors tried to save her life, but her injuries were too massive. By afternoon, she had died.
My grief was boundless. Aunt Blanche was like a second mother to me. She adored me and I her. She believed in me and my literary potential unconditionally. I tried to imagine the trauma she had endured. Where was I, what I was doing, when her soul departed this world that Monday afternoon?
That's when it dawned on me: that Monday afternoon I was conversing with Sarah, my new soul mate, my new friend and literary mentor who seemed to have fallen into my life straight out of the clear blue... dare I say it? Straight from heaven!
Slowly, my mind and heart began to retrace the steps that had led to this new, precious relationship, one that could never replace but certainly resembled the one I had shared with Aunt Blanche. I began to relive our supposedly chance encounter of Friday afternoon, on the densely populated expanse of sidewalk called Broadway and 72nd Street. Given the rush I was in, not to mention my limited view as a wheelchair user navigating through an ambulatory crowd, how likely would it have been to spot a woman staring through the window of a non-kosher restaurant? And had I passed that non-kosher restaurant one minute earlier or one minute later, chances are I would never have seen Sarah.
My last two minutes with Aunt Blanche led me to Sarah and an exhilarating friendship.
Suddenly, another illuminating discovery shed its light on me: I was supposed to have left my apartment several minutes earlier than I did. But at the last minute, I remembered the cranberry-pineapple relish and called Aunt Blanche with my kashrut question. Those two minutes, my last two minutes with Aunt Blanche, led me to Sarah and an exhilarating friendship. There is no doubt in my mind: This sequence of events was "an ascent for the sake of descent." Yes, the bucket plummeted; but it had just brought me a brimful of replenishing, life-giving water.
On Friday (how the world had changed in one week!) I was numbly trying to decide what to serve for Shabbos. Rummaging through the refrigerator, I spotted a small foil-wrapped package. A cry escaped my lips when I saw the familiar yellow note paper taped to it. On it, in Aunt Blanche's letter-perfect handwriting, were the following words: "Cranberry-oatmeal kugel. Enjoy!"
She had delivered it on her last Wednesday in this world, the last time I ever saw her, but I only discovered it four days after she left us. It looked delicious; it smelled delicious; and that Shabbos evening, my husband, our children and I learned that it tasted delicious. Simply heavenly.