I will never forget the day. Even now, 16 years later, the memory remains embedded within me.
It was a Thursday. I spent the morning getting the children off to school like I usually do, and then wished my husband a wonderful day as we said our usual goodbyes. That afternoon I was off to the city, teaching a class to a group of women at Hineni. We sat together for over an hour and delved into the life of the prophet Samuel. There was a great sense of connection between everyone in the room.
Class was over and it was now time for my mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, to teach her Torah class. More women appeared. But my mother did not arrive. I figured she must be stuck in NYC traffic and I decided to return home. As I made my way down the staircase of the building I sensed a figure at the bottom of the steps. The person was climbing the steps very slowly. It seemed as if each footstep took extraordinary effort. I got closer and was startled to see that it was my own mother holding onto the banister. Her face was gray and ashen.
“What, Ema?!” I cried. “What is it?”
My heart was pounding. I saw a tear slide down my mother’s cheek.
“It’s Abba. I just spoke to him. The doctor called. He found a tumor. Abba will need to go to the hospital.”
The room began to swirl around me. This could not be! My father had never been sick. He was 6 foot 2, handsome and broad shouldered; a pillar of strength. In all my years of growing up I could not even remember my father lying down with a headache. My parents were a team of constant life and spirit. There was never a day or night that they were not busy accomplishing; building. How could my beautiful father be sick?
My mother gave me a kiss and a blessing as she continued to climb. I made my way home.
Before leaving the building, I tried calling my parents’ house but there was no answer. My father had no cell phone. Where could he be?
The whole ride home I was agonizing. Abba, where are you? Abba, where are you?
Over and over, these words kept playing in my mind. I tried to imagine where my father would go. What does one do when faced with such shattering news? What must he be feeling? What is he doing? Where is he?
I wanted to scream but no sound came. There are times when there is nothing left to say; the silence itself becomes overwhelming and loud.
Finally, I pulled up into the driveway. I was home. It was difficult for me to step out of the car. My heart was heavy and I did not know how to deal with my children. I did not know where to begin.
Our front window shade had not been closed. It was dark outside and the light in the dining room shone brightly outside. It caught my eye. I looked up and noticed two figures seated at my dining room table. One larger than life and the other, a thin little frame, seated beside him. Their backs were towards me.
I could not believe what I saw.
There sat my father with my son at his side. They were bent over a holy book of the Talmud, engrossed in its words.
How could my father be sitting here with this little child as if everything is normal when he just received this news? I recall thinking.
After a few moments of hesitation, I opened the door. Sweet words of Torah filled the air. Zaydie and grandchild were sitting together, studying as one.
“Abba!” I called out.
I walked into the dining room. Both my father and son looked up at me.
“Abba, I tried calling you. Are you okay? I couldn’t find you anywhere!”
I will never forget my father’s words. I can still hear his voice and see his great smile as he replied.
“Shayfalah, of course I’m okay! How could I not be? I am in the best place in the world! Right here, sitting in your home, studying with my zeese Moshe Nosson.”
My son grinned as my father embraced me.
That night would be the final time my father would visit my home. Nine weeks later I would be sitting shiva.
As I walked my father to the door, I squeezed his hand tightly. The children and I said our goodbyes and waved as my father got into his car. He waved back and blew us all kisses as if he had not a care in the world.
I did not know it then but that night would be the final time my father would visit my home.
I did not know that my son would never again sit with my father at my dining room table and hear my father sing Torah’s words.
Nine weeks later I would be sitting shiva.
Though those last days with my father slipped through my fingers, I remain with an eternal image.: I see my father sitting beside my son, wanting to bestow a final legacy despite his fear and pain.
And as I confront the great challenges of our world today, I remain with this question.
“Abba, where are you?”
We are faced with incredible pain.
Unspeakable tragedies have hit us and taken our breath away. This summer left us reeling. A child of our people and a holy rabbi were both shockingly taken from our midst.
Our land and our people are threatened. Missiles fall, terrorists kill. We are surrounded by those who despise us.
Families are grappling as parents try so hard to keep it together despite the bleak economy.
The earth has shaken under us. Menacing winds of a huge hurricane sent us seeking shelter from fear.
Elul is here. We are preparing for our day of judgment. How should we approach God?
If we are truly honest with ourselves, our shortcomings are many. How often have we lost our tempers, gossiped mercilessly, looked away at the pain of another? How often have we prayed halfheartedly, grumbled about mitzvahs, and excused our lack of spiritual growth?
It is easy to become frightened. How can I approach God? I feel so ashamed, even disconnected.
Where do I begin?
On Rosh Hashana we pray: Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King. Hear our voice, and be compassionate with us. Open the gates of heaven to our prayer. Take pity upon us and upon our children and our infants. Be gracious with us and answer us, treat us with charity and kindness. Save us.
Yes, the day is awesome. We are trembling as we stand before God, our King. Nevertheless, He is first our Father. God remains forever our Abba, our sweet Father in the heavens above. And just as a father looks away at his pain for the sake of his children, we ask that God look away at the pain we have caused through our negligence and our deeds.
God is waiting to hear from us, yearning for us to come home.
A child who has gone away and not called home for a few days cannot imagine the joy and relief when his voice if finally heard. Even if we haven’t called home for a while, even if we have not been the best we could be, Rosh Hashanah is the day for us to reconnect. God always remains compassionate. He is waiting to hear from us, yearning for us to come home.
This Rosh Hashanah let us call out to God, our Father filled with compassion and love. Let us ask that He remove from us all the pain and suffering.
The moment we approach God as our kindhearted Father, our teshuvah, our moment of return, has begun. Now we can stand in trepidation and awe as we speak about our fallacies. We can admit our wrongs and cry for the distance we have created between us and God. We can tell God about the regret we feel for the times that we trampled upon the hearts of others and disregarded His holy commandments. We beg God for another opportunity to fix our mistakes so that we can live with a sense of purpose and mission in life.