The following story is true, as told to the author. Some personal details have been changed for the sake of privacy.
It was an icy-cold winter evening. The streets were dark and deserted and covered with snow. The snow was everywhere -- piled high into huge mounds that covered the gutters and blocked the sidewalks, keeping all but the most determined residents of Jerusalem confined to the warmth and safety of their own homes. No one -- except, perhaps, for a few children who were excited at the rare opportunity to build an igloo or snowman -- would go outside in such weather. According to the newspapers, Jerusalem hadn't been hit by such a fierce storm in over 50 years.
Somehow or another, my husband and I found a babysitter willing to brave the weather and come to our over 100-year-old stone Jerusalem apartment. After wrapping ourselves in layers of sweaters and heavy wool stockings, we set out to speak with Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Fisher, the beloved sage of Jerusalem's Beit Din, Rabbinical Court.
The doctors had never encountered the germ, and had no idea what antibiotics could combat it.
Our family had been going through an extremely difficult time. A few weeks before, my mother, may she live and be well, was hospitalized for a minor surgical procedure. Something must not have been sterile during the operation, however, because she ended up with blood poisoning. To make things even more complicated, the Israeli doctors had never encountered the specific germ that was causing the infection, and therefore had no idea what antibiotics they should use to combat it. So she was, as one doctor termed it, "bombed with every type of antibiotic available." Hopefully, he said, one of them would work.
Usually, there is a long line of people standing outside of Rabbi Fisher's home, waiting for their turn to speak with him. We hoped that if we were lucky, we wouldn't have to wait for more than an hour. Much to our surprise and delight, we were the only ones there and the Rav was able to give us his undivided attention.
My husband waited for me in the anteroom while I entered the rabbi's study to speak with him privately. After hearing the details of my mother's strange illness, he asked me for her name, the names of both her parents, and my father's name. I told him and he carefully jotted the names down on a small sheet of paper. Afterwards, he spent a few minutes making different calculations and drawing an elaborate diagram.
"The names are fine. There's no problem there," he finally said.
In kabbalistic tradition, a name defines the essence of a person.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Rabbi Fisher was famous for his unique ability to check combinations of names and their inherent spiritual qualities to see if they are compatible. In kabbalistic tradition, a name defines the essence of a person. Frequently, couples on the verge of a divorce would come to ask his advice on how to repair their marriage and end up leaving his study with new names. Amazingly enough, this name change would often bring about a radical change in shalom bayit, domestic harmony.
But if the names weren't causing the problem, then what was?
I waited for the great sage to continue, but he remained silent, deep in thought. Suddenly, he glanced sharply at me, and then looked down again at the list of names. "Do you have a grievance against your mother?" he asked slowly.
I did not answer immediately; I could not answer immediately. I realized that I was trembling. Although it took a few moments before I was able to speak, I'm positive that Rabbi Fisher had no doubt what I would reply.
My father passed away when I was an infant, so from the time I was a baby until I turned five, my mother was what is known today as a "single parent." I remember that we were very poor. In addition to single-handedly raising her four small children, my mother had to work full time just to cover the bare necessities. Now, as an adult, I realize that it must have been very difficult for her, but I remember that she was always smiling and singing, although most probably she was crying inside.
Despite her loneliness and our lack of financial resources, I had a wonderful childhood, at least until my fifth birthday. Although my mother worked during the day, she devoted the evenings to her four children. I have vague memories of summer picnics in the park and long cozy bedtime stories, while snuggling under the heavy down quilt that kept us warm in our chilly Jerusalem apartment. Although I realized at the time that we were different from other families, I felt secure in my mother's love and was basically happy with the way things were.
All that changed, however, on my fifth birthday when my mother remarried a young widower who had five small children of his own. Suddenly, there were other children there to encroach on her love for me. Now that her love had to be divided among nine young children who were constantly clamoring for attention, I felt there wasn't enough left over for me.
As the youngest of this "blended" family, I was most susceptible to teasing and attacks.
Since I was the youngest of our new, large, "blended" family, and therefore the most susceptible, I became the object of much unpleasant teasing, and on more than one occasion, physical attacks. As an adult, I realize that my older "siblings" were just children trying to cope with a major change in their own lives. But at the time, I was devastated.
I couldn't understand why my mother had done this to me. Why did she have to remarry? As far as I was concerned, everything had been wonderful the way it was and there was no reason to change. I had thought we were a warm loving family. I had loved our cozy apartment, with all the home-made decorations that covered the walls. But now it was too small and we moved into a spacious, unfriendly two-story house. I was even forced to share a bedroom with a stranger who enjoyed hitting me when no one was looking! It just didn't make any sense to me.
My mother often tells a story about those first difficult years, when we were trying to make two separate families, with different backgrounds and customs, into one blended family. It was the day of my kindergarten's Purim party and I was all dressed up in my Queen Esther costume. My father (yes, today I call him my father -- after all, he's the only father I know) was in the middle of eating breakfast before rushing to catch the bus that would take him to his job downtown. Flushed with excitement, I raced down the stairs and ran into the kitchen to show my mother how beautiful I looked.
My father took one look at me and then, with a quizzical look on his face, turned to my mother. "Rebbetzin," he said (for some reason he always called my mother Rebbetzin), "you didn't tell me that we're having such important company this morning. If I had known, I would have worn my hat and tie."
Although I personally don't recall this incident, according to my mother I stopped in my tracks and threw my father a scornful look. Then, I tiptoed to my mother and whispered in her ear, "Mommy, did you hear what he just said? I told you that he was stupid. He doesn't even realize that it's really me and not a queen! Why in the world did you marry such a fool?"
Today, I realize that I had to go through those difficulties to become the person that I am. After all, life is never easy and every period has its own challenge.
By the time I was ready to marry and start building my own home, we had become one family. In addition to raising the two blended families, my mother was kept very busy taking care of the new "common factor" -- my younger brothers and sisters.
It's funny how deep, childish emotions can get in the way of what we know to be true. Of course my mother's remarriage was for everyone's good. I feel very close to my stepfather, and the two families have become so close and united that at times I actually forget which ones are my "real" siblings and which ones are just "steps."
I hate to think what might have happened had my mother never taken that step and remarried. Most probably, she would have become a tired, bitter woman instead of the vibrant and busy wife, mother and grandmother that she is today.
Although I had no doubt that she had done the right thing in rebuilding her life, I still had some anger hidden in a very deep place within me. I was a five-year-old little girl forced to divide my beloved mother with strange children. And although it didn't make sense logically, the grievance was still there.
I didn't tell Rabbi Fisher the entire story. I just answered, "Yes, I am harboring a grievance toward my mother."
The sage glanced at me. It felt as though his eyes were boring into my soul. "Are you willing to let go of that grievance for your mother's recovery?" he gently asked.
I had to pause and think for a few moments. Could I really let go of something that ran so deep? Could my mind overcome my childish emotions?
My eyes were brimming with tears and I quickly looked away. Finally, in a choked voice, I told the rabbi that I could. I knew that I would have to.
Rabbi Fisher quickly stood up and told me that he was going to call in a beit din, an impromptu court comprised of three rabbis. I was petrified. Would I have to tell them this entire story?
Rabbi Fisher smiled and said, "Your mother will now have a complete healing."
The actual hatarat nedarim-- formal renunciation of past vow or grievance -- took just a few seconds. When it was over, Rabbi Fisher smiled and said, "Your mother will now have a refuah sheleima, a complete healing."
My emotions were whirling as I walked out of the rabbi's study. My husband was waiting for me in the outer hall and together we started trudging through the thick snow. Despite the heavy clothing that was weighing me down, I felt light, as though a stone had been lifted off my heart. I knew that although I had come to ask Rabbi Fisher to somehow cure my mother, I had also been cured. Years of bitter resentment had been peeled away and I felt free -- like a bird, ready to wing its way to new heights.
That same evening, the laboratory succeeded in identifying the germ that was causing the infection. Armed with that information, the head of the infectious diseases department was able to determine which antibiotics would be most effective. Within a few days, my mother was discharged from the hospital and after a few months of rest, she returned to her former vibrant self.
Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Fisher passed away the following morning. The Jews of Jerusalem were stunned and mourned the loss of their beloved sage. Despite the heavy snow, thousands of people braved the weather to accompany Rabbi Fischer on his final journey.
When my husband and I heard the news, we were, of course, shocked. But at the same time, we were extremely grateful to have been one of the last to benefit from his incredible wisdom. May his memory be for a blessing.