Being blind has not been the hardest challenge of Leah Efrat Moyal's life, but it was the first.
Born with normal vision in Jerusalem in 1974, Leah was allergic to the formula her mother fed her. At the age of five months, weighing the same as her birth weight, she was hospitalized. One day her mother Miriam entered the neonatal unit and noticed immediately that her baby's eyes were searching rather than focusing as they usually did. Miriam called her daughter's name, but the baby did not look at her. Alarmed, Miriam ran to the doctors and cried, "My baby can't see!"
The doctors confirmed Miriam's nightmare: the baby had lost her eyesight and the damage was irreversible.
Miriam, however, was a strong woman. She was not about to let herself or her daughter be routed by any handicap. Before Leah started first grade at the local elementary school, she went for lessons to learn Braille. Equipped with her Braille typewriter, Leah attended mainstream schools throughout high school. Then she did National Service (an alternative to the army for religious girls), tutoring children from broken homes. She went on to earn her B.Ed. in music education at Michlala, Jerusalem's college for religious women. Since college, Leah has worked for Michlala's radio station as a D.J. and in other capacities.
Leah's life would provide ample challenges to her childhood faith.
As with many blind people, music has played a pivotal role in Leah's life. Since the age of 15, she has given concerts, playing guitar, harmonica, and flute, and singing, often her own compositions. She has performed in "women only" concerts all over Israel, lacing her music with stories about her life and her faith in God. Seven years ago, Leah came out with her first CD.
Raised in a deeply religious home, Leah has always had an intensely personal relationship with God. Growing up, she recalls, "He was my best friend. He was in charge of getting my favorite singer to the top of the charts."
But Leah's life would provide ample challenges to her childhood faith.
Miriam always dreamed that her blind daughter would marry a sighted man. This was the goal -- the sign of having "made it" -- of all of Leah's blind friends. Indeed, Leah did become engaged to a sighted man, but she soon learned that perfect vision does not make a perfect partner.
Then, at the age of 25, considered "old" in her circles, Leah married Avraham Chaim Moyal, a yeshiva student. An albino, Avraham has weak eyesight. He studies the Talmud with jewelers' magnifying lenses. "Like me," Leah comments, "he's a person with tremendous strength of will. He has pushed himself far beyond the limitations of where people thought he would get."
After four years of infertility and treatments, Leah finally, joyfully, conceived. She carried the baby to term. Four days after the due date, she went into labor. With blissful anticipation, Leah and Avraham went to the hospital, where, as a routine procedure, she was hooked up to the monitor. The expectant mother could hear a flurry of concerned, even panicked, voices around her bed. Then came the dreadful words: "Your baby is dead."
At first Leah did not believe them. This could not be happening, not to her, who had already undergone her share of affliction. Leah, however, was well acquainted with the Jewish concept that the greater the soul, the bigger the test by which God propels them up the spiritual ladder. Thus, when the terrible truth did sink in, her first response was: "I didn't know that I am such a tzaddika [high soul] that God would give me such a test."
After that, she recited the verse from Psalms: "God is good and does good. Teach me to understand Your edicts."
To her devastated family and friends, the bereaved Leah assumed the unlikely role of the paragon of faith. "People came to me asking why I lost my baby," she recalls with wonderment. "I had to be the teacher of emunah [faith]."
Yet, the hardest test was still to come.
OUTGROWING YOUR SHOES
A few months later, Leah's mother Miriam was diagnosed with breast cancer. By that time, Leah had conceived again. Her pregnancy was an uphill road running parallel to her mother's precipitous decline. Leah and Avraham's son Yoel was born in January, 2004. Two months later, despite an avalanche of fervent prayers, Miriam died at the age of 52.
Leah was shattered. She who had borne her blindness and the death of her first child with stoic faith now found herself angry with God. She who had always believed in the power of prayer now found herself mouthing the words without conviction. She who had always been resilient in the face of hardship now found herself plummeting into an abyss of depression.
"Faith is like shoes. Sometimes you outgrow them and you have to find bigger ones."
"Emunah [faith] is like shoes," Leah muses. "Sometimes you outgrow them and you have to find bigger ones."
When Leah's life outgrew her faith, she set about searching for a larger faith, one that could accommodate the huge challenge of losing her mother just when she needed her most.
Her first step was to admit that she was angry at God. "In my own heart and mind," she explains, "I knew that being angry at God doesn't mean rejecting Him. It's like He's my father. You have a fight, but you're still together. I allowed myself to be angry at God. I kept saying, ‘Don't talk about God; talk to God.' I would say to Him, ‘I don't understand why You do what You do,' but He was always there with me."
Her next step was to learn more Torah, especially teachings about the World to Come, where souls go after the death of the body. "I upgraded my faith in olam haba [the World to Come]. I came to realize that what we don't understand here, we'll understand there. I'm building my place in olam haba all the time. There is one right choice in every moment; I'm trying to discern what is right and pursue it."
Leah's definition of emunah [faith] is twofold: "Part one is to feel the presence of God in everything that happens, to understand that nothing happens by chance. Part two is to believe that it's good. That's the harder part."
When asked, "Does God love you?" Leah answers with a quiet "yes." How does she know He loves her? She ponders the question and replies: "I think that I know it now more than I knew it before. It took me a very long time to understand that His presence is healing, and not punishing. I was afraid of Him and did not truly love Him. Only when I started loving myself could I start loving God.
"And God led me to people who helped me. My best friend never saw God as scary, but always as loving. She understood that just because we don't get everything we pray for doesn't mean that God doesn't love us. She kept saying to me, ‘God is not Santa Claus but Kal Melech Neeman -- the faithful, powerful King.'"
DOES PRAYER WORK?
During this cataclysmic period, Leah realized that her own special mitzvah is prayer. Although her mother's death had pierced her faith in prayer like a knife stabbing a balloon, Leah set about building a less fragile faith.
Six weeks ago, the 20-year-old son of the esteemed Rabbi Motti Elon was critically injured in an automobile accident. Another occupant of the car was killed. With all of his internal organs injured, Rabbi Elon's son faced a series of lengthy surgeries to try to save his life. Leah, who knew the family well, joined in a massive prayer effort by thousands of Rabbi Elon's students and well-wishers. The result was an open miracle. The first operation concluded successfully much faster than the surgeons had expected, and no other surgeries were needed. Three weeks after the accident, to the shock of his doctors, the boy went home, with no permanent damage of any kind.
"We may not get everything we want. God is not Santa Claus. But we surely get closer to God."
"Prayer works," Leah concludes. "It couldn't save my mother, because she had her own accounting with God. But I saw from Rav Elon's son, that prayer can work miracles. We may not get everything we want. God is not Santa Claus. But we surely get closer to God and become purer people through praying."
Leah has finally emerged from the pit into which she fell upon the death of her mother. Her encounter with Hassidut, a strain of Judaism that emphasizes serving God with simcha [joy] and music, has played a significant role. "Through the simcha of Hassidut," she explains, "I realized that God has always loved me."
Her three-year-old son Yoeli is also a potent contributor to Leah's joy level. "Yoeli is the world's most adorable child!" Leah exclaims. Although the first year of his life was tremendously difficult, Leah, who was raised to be fiercely independent, has learned to ask for help.
One day Yoeli handed his mother a book and asked her to read it to him. "I can't, sweetie," Leah demurred.
"Please read it to me, Ima," Yoeli begged.
"I can't, sweetie. You know my eyes don't work."
"Then use your cane," was Yoeli's advice.
One characteristic of her more mature faith is that Leah no longer blames herself for her bouts of bitterness. "There's a difference between saying life is hard and kvetching. To kvetch is to think that someone was unjust to you. I don't consider myself the victim of injustice. Thank God, I'm learning to understand that being bitter over what I've suffered is okay. When I stop blaming myself for being bitter, then I stop being bitter. I'm not afraid of falling anymore. Who am I not to fall?"
Leah was born on the eve of Passover, and her life has embodied the eternal lessons of the Exodus from Egypt.
The word for "Egypt" in Hebrew is "Mitzraim," which connotes a narrow place. The inner process of redemption, available to all Jews at this time of year, is to emerge from a state of narrowness and constriction to a more expanded state. This is the process which Leah described as outgrowing your shoes and having to find larger ones.
To any observer, the young Leah was a shining example of faith and love of God. But the terrible torment of losing her mother made her realize that her faith was facile and immature. It became too "narrow" for her. She had to grow into a larger, deeper, and stauncher faith. Similarly, each of us, no matter what our spiritual level, must grow beyond our present state into the expanded consciousness which awaits us. Seder night is the time to grasp the spiritual energy of bursting out of constriction in order to emerge into an expanded state. This is the inner Exodus from Mitzraim.
We are bidden to imbibe that bitterness -- not to ignore it, nor gloss over it, nor paint it pink with platitudes.
The Seder is replete with the contrasting symbols of suffering and redemption: the salt water, the bitter herbs, the sweet charoset, meant to remind us of the mortar of slavery, and the matzah, which is called both the bread of freedom and the bread of affliction. This interfacing of bitterness and freedom is intended to drive home the core lesson of Passover: that suffering leads to redemption.
Eating the "bitter herbs" is one of the four mitzvot of the Passover Seder. Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller explains the difference between depression and bitterness. Depression paralyses. Bitterness, on the contrary, galvanizes; when you eat something bitter, you want to spit it out.
Our national experience of Egyptian bondage was bitter. At the Seder, we are bidden to imbibe that bitterness -- not to ignore it, nor gloss over it, nor paint it pink with platitudes. Hardships create yearning, and yearning breaks the illusory barrier that separates the physical from the spiritual. Only when Leah learned to accept her bitterness could she find the way to her redemption.
The quest for redemption requires much arduous inner work. Leah, who works relentlessly on herself, uses a Biblical quote to prove the point. The final words of the Book of Ruth state: "Boaz bore Oved, Oved bore Yishai, and Yishai bore David [King David, the progenitor of the Messiah, who will usher in the final redemption]."
Leah points out that the name "Oved" means worker. Thus the hidden meaning of the verse is that only a "worker" can ultimately give birth to the redemption.
If only we could all see as clearly as this blind woman!
Anyone in Israel interested in Leah performing in English or Hebrew for the women of your community can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sara Yoheved Rigler will be speaking in Monsey, Toronto, and Montreal next month. For details, click here.