"Those were amazing moments, exalted moments. They were moments of indescribable closeness to God. If someone would offer me all his money in exchange for the love I experienced then, I would scorn his offer. It was the greatest gift I ever received in my life. It changed me; it changed my entire existence."
The reader is apt to assume that the young woman who enjoyed this beatific spiritual experience was seated in meditation in a serene natural setting -- on a mountaintop or beside the ocean. In fact, she was lying on the floor of a bus during a terror attack.
On the morning of Tuesday, July 16, 2002, 22-year-old Yehudis Weinberg, a Hasidic woman and mother of a 14-month-old baby, left her home in the village of Emanuel. She took a bus to Bnei Brak in order to take a test at a local teachers' college. After completing the test, she caught a bus back to Emanuel. Fifty passengers were on board the fortified, bulletproof bus.
One and a half minutes outside the gate to Emanuel, a blast shook the bus. A bomb planted on the road was not intended to decimate the bus, just to stop it. Then the terrorists, stationed on a hill above the road, were able to direct their automatic weapons' fire through the chink in the bus's armor -- the six-inch-high ventilation windows that ran along the length of the bus, above the large, sealed, bullet-proof windows. The terrorists shot hundreds of bullets into the trapped bus for 15 minutes, killing ten passengers and wounding dozens more, before the Israeli Defense Forces arrived and stopped them.
Yehudis Weinberg tried to find shelter on the floor of the bus, but it was already packed with the bodies of the living and the dying. She was hit by seven bullets. One bullet tore open a major artery in her left leg. As she recounts:
I decided not to think at all about the wound, about the blood I was losing, about when the rescuers would arrive, or why the security forces had not yet killed the terrorists. I said Psalm 61 word-by-word, letter-by-letter, with meaning as deep as the ocean. I had read in a book that the blessing "everything exists by His word" cancels evil decrees, so I started saying those words hundreds of times… Very quickly I sensed why this blessing cancels evil decrees. The words assert that God is watching over me. He determines exactly what will happen. I am completely in His hands, like an infant protected in his mother's clasp. I will experience only the events He decreed I will experience. And He loves me with such a strong love that it is impossible to describe it in words.
The first rescuer to reach the scene was an I.D.F. medic named Eitan. Eitan does not know how he entered the bus. "After the blast, the doors were locked. We couldn't get in through the doors, and we couldn't get in through the bulletproof windows. The narrow upper window at the back of the bus had shattered, so I jumped in through that space. An adult cannot possibly fit through such a small opening. It didn't seem possible for me to get through, but somehow I did."
The sight that greeted Eitan was more horrific than anything he had ever seen in his more than 20 years of experience. A specialist in multiple-casualty incidents, Eitan was well trained in the principle that the most urgent cases are not those calling for help. He always obeyed the rule to approach first those who are silent.
This time, however, when he heard Yehudis screaming, "Come here! I can't breathe!" Eitan inexplicably went to her first. He saw the blood gushing from the wound in her left leg, and immediately stopped the bleeding.
In the hospital, the doctors ascertained that had the bleeding continued a little longer, Yehudis would have died. As it was, she had to receive eighteen units of blood.
THE COPASETIC LIFE
I used to fear suffering. I don't mean just the devastating suffering of illness and loss. If my computer malfunctioned, if a brand new blouse got a stain, if a can of tuna fish got knocked off the cupboard shelf and crashed down on my favorite hand-made ceramic mug, it was enough to ruin my day -- or at least my hour. Not only would I fret over the time, money, and effort it would take to fix the problem, but I would be irritated and resentful that something that never should have happened, happened.
These were intruders that offended my sense of how things should be. How dare they presume to crash the party of my life?
According to my worldview, life was supposed to run like a well-oiled machine, what I call the "copasetic life": As I drive down the boulevard, I sail through one green light after another; unavoidably delayed on my way to mail an important package, I get to the post office five minutes before it closes, not five minutes after; when I need two eggs to bake a Shabbos cake late Thursday night, my neighbor is still awake and has them.
The copasetic life does not mean ease. I was willing to work, even work very hard, to keep the machine running smoothly. But a glitch? A malfunction? A total breakdown? These were intruders that offended my sense of how things should be. How dare they presume to crash the party of my life?
Then one fine Wednesday afternoon, I walked into Dr. Cohen's office to get my biopsy results, and walked out with a diagnosis of cancer. [For a detailed account of my experience, see "My Five Weeks with Cancer," which, since I wrote it while still in the throes of the treatment, I chose to write under a pseudonym.] Throughout the succeeding weeks of tests and treatment, three things were crystal clear to me:
- This tumor came from God.
- This tumor was a gift of God's love.
- This tumor was God's invitation to me to change in a deep way.
None of these points were the product of philosophizing or theologizing. I just knew them with total clarity. Kaballah speaks of the "arousal from below," meaning our own prodigious efforts to get close to God, and "the arousal from above," meaning when God, undeservedly, reaches down to us. God's overwhelming love that Yehudis Weinberg felt while wounded on the floor of the bus, which she repeatedly described as "the greatest gift I ever received in my life," was just such an "arousal from above."
This influx of Divine support explains why I, who could not gracefully endure being woken up late at night by a wrong number, felt periodically, during the weeks I was facing a life-threatening illness, serene, exalted, and privy to spiritual clarity. I was riding high on God's love.
At the end of my treatment, I was left not only cancer-free, but also free of my mistaken worldview.
At the end of my treatment, I was left not only cancer-free, but also free of my mistaken worldview. If cancer was God's loving gift, what about a computer crash? A stain on my new blouse? A shattered mug? If cancer was a golden opportunity to grow spiritually, then the computer crash must be a silver opportunity, and the stain must be a brass opportunity.
I realized how much energy I had squandered fearing and resisting suffering in my addiction to the copasetic life. It's as if every challenging experience has two components: the pain itself and our fear/rejection of the pain. This second factor can multiply the first factor many times over.
For example, the fear that often precedes an appointment to have a cavity filled can cause days of apprehension and nervousness. Once seated in the dentist's chair, the pain of the Novocain shot itself lasts less than a few seconds, while the discomfort of the drilling is in direct proportion to the patient's level of tension.
My experience with cancer taught me to stop slamming the door against Suffering, desperately trying to lock him out with an armory's supply of latches and dead bolts. Once Suffering was standing in my living room, I realized that he had something to teach me.
I began to see that Suffering -- both major afflictions and minor irritations -- was not an interloper in life, but rather the personally invited guest of God. And this guest came for a purpose.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY HOCKEY CAREER
I must have been the most unathletic girl in New Jersey when I was growing up. But during my freshman year of high school, I had one shining moment of glory.
I had joined the freshman field hockey team. (They took anybody, without try-outs.) I spent most of the season on the bench, for good reason, but one afternoon, when our team was playing the freshman hockey team from Audubon, the coach put me in the game. By some fluke, I started to wield my hockey stick with real prowess. I even scored two goals.
The coach was pleasantly flabbergasted. "You're really on fire today," she told me incredulously. She decided to put me into the junior varsity game that immediately followed our freshman game.
I felt like Popeye after his dose of spinach. Suddenly I was a hockey star! I plunged into the game with vigor I never knew I had. I got that ball on the end of my hockey stick and roared down the field. I deftly hit the ball past the goalie and right into the goal. I was a champion!
But why was the other team cheering? Why was my team groaning? And why was the coach pounding her forehead in remorse?
I had hit the ball into the wrong goal and scored for the opposing team.
From this I learned that more important than playing the game well is identifying which is the right goal.
There is always only one overriding goal: to be in relationship with God.
It seems simplistic, but this was precisely the flaw in my pre-cancer worldview. At the beginning of a workday, I thought the goal was to put in a productive day's work. When I bought a new blouse, I thought the goal was to look nice and neat. When I bought my hand-made ceramic mug, I thought the goal was to use it to drink hundreds of cups of herb tea over the next few years.
Judaism teaches that there is always only one overriding goal: to be in relationship with God. As the last line of the Shema states unequivocally: "I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, to be for you a God."
The whole Exodus -- the plagues, the splitting of the sea, indeed, all the suffering in Egyptian slavery that preceded it --was for one purpose: to establish our personal relationship with God.
That's the goal. Sometimes that goal requires the cosmic drama of the Exodus. Sometimes that intense, loving relationship can be achieved through the horror of a terror attack, as Yehudis Weinberg experienced. Sometimes we can come closer to God through cancer. Sometimes through a computer crash. Sometimes through a shattered mug.
Everything, everything, in life is an invited guest. Everything can serve the purpose of bringing us closer to God.