Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Iyar 5766 - May 24, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









by R. Galai


When she found out she was about to die, she learned how to live...

Ruthy took in the sights with gusto. This was nearly the last time in her life that she would see the blossoming dandelions on the roadside. The words, "last time" assumed a dramatic tone. Ruthy wondered how the world would look without her. Within a moment, she reached the train station. Her work that day had exhausted her more than usual. She seized a vacant seat on the bench.

The metallic tone of the announcement burst forth from the microphone, and its timbre glided over her head. Now she was totally awake. The announcement pertained to her. The train to the Kiryot would be ten minutes late. What a pity. Ruthy had always tried to be on time to the twins' kindergarten. From the day she had given birth to them, she had resolved to protect them from life's hardships. Hashem was a witness to her efforts. She had pledged to fulfill her resolutions at all costs.

At the last minute, Ruthy succeeded in holding back the salty swell that threatened to gush from her eyes. She hoped that she would be able to control her tears until her final day, and that the sounds of gleeful childhood laughter would always resound in their home. She wouldn't ruin their childhood days. They would have to cope with enough when she was no longer with them. Ruthy was certain that the their happy natures and easygoing temperaments would help the twins adjust to life without her.

Ruthy apologized to the kindergarten teacher for coming late. The teacher gave the woman, who was dressed in a tailored suit, the once over.

"She's a lady who arouses respect," she mused to herself. "You don't owe me an apology," she then said out loud. "Anyway, I had to stay late in order to decorate the kindergarten for the graduation party. Besides, I'm so happy to meet you. It's a pleasure to have your little girls in the kindergarten. They are two diamonds. I'm not exaggerating when I say that their presence adorns my kindergarten. I hope you'll be able to come to the party."

"When is it?"

"At ten in the morning, next Tuesday."

"That's a problem. I'll see what I can do. You see, I work in the mornings."

The teacher nodded her head in understanding. Ruthy projected authority combined with dignity. "I guess she's probably a top-notch teacher in a lucky class," the kindergarten teacher mused. "Were I a supervisor, I would promote her to the position of principal. Her talent for chinuch is reflected in the refined behavior of her two daughters, Tammy and Deena."

On the way home, they passed a tree-lined avenue. Ruthy strode in the shade of the trees, a twin at each of her sides holding her hand.

"How was work?" Tammy asked. At first Ruthy was taken aback by this innocent question. But then she smiled her loving smile and stroked Tammy's blond hair which had been gathered by a lovely barrette which matched the color of Tammy's dress.

"Ima, are you tired?" Deena asked.

"Darling, I'm never too tired for you. Never."

"What did you make for lunch?" they both asked together. They loved to be surprised each day by Ima's delicious lunches. Every night, when the girls would go to sleep, Ruthy would prepare the next day's meal without skipping a detail. She didn't tell them how hard it had been the previous night to stand in the kitchen and to prepare their food as usual.

Nothing in the world would ever be "as usual" for her. She had been able to repress her crying the previous day. This time she permitted herself to cry, because no one was beside her in the kitchen. True, her husband Menachem was in the front room, but when Menachem learned it was as if he wasn't there. In order to enable him to continue to study without any worry until the last moment, she had to cover her face with the mask of routine.

From her wedding day, she had borne the burden without complaining. She earned a good salary and Menachem still pored over his studies as he had done when he was a yeshiva bochur. His friends in kollel would jealously eye the avreich who had no burdens, and who accepted the yoke of Torah study. No one disputed the fact that Menachem had found a wonderful eizer kenegdo.

In a valiant decision, Ruthy determined that she wouldn't share any of her worries regarding the imminent calamity with Menachem. She internalized. her feelings, fears and foreboding thoughts "He has to study in peace," she repeated to herself. "One daf gemora and another."

"They are also my dapim," she consoled herself during her difficult hours.

"I'll never forget my conversation with Dr. Rottman [a senior doctor in the Oncology Department]," Ruthy mused, and immediately chuckled out loud as if she had heard a good joke. Without realizing it, she was using terms like "I will never forget," as if she had all the time in the world on her hands.

She had made an appointment with Professor Rottman after having undergone a series of very simple tests as part of a follow-up prescribed by her family doctor, a very thorough woman who had refused to forgo Ruthy's annual checkup. Its results had revealed some suspicious findings which proved that the doctor's insistence on such a checkup had been correct. In order to support or to refute the findings, Ruthy was sent for more tests in the hospital, after which she found herself seated opposite the solemn doctor.

The results of the tests did not leave her with much hope. Dr. Rottman lowered his eyes. In a broken voice, he told Ruthy that she might have missed the boat. He explained at length what had occurred in her body and spoke about the possibility of an operation. He himself didn't pin much hopes on the operation. There was absolutely no optimism in his voice.

Ruthy was in the room physically. But her body was hollow. Her soul seemed to have flown out of it. The doctor's words coasted in the void, skipping over her ears. No explanations could have helped when the doctor himself had despaired.

Three red lights flickered in her mind when he spoke. On each respective light the names Menachem, Tammy and Deena glimmered — names which were her entire world, names of those who were destined to live without her. She wondered how that world would look after she had departed it. The red lights flickered and her head swam with warning sirens. She shook her head, but the sirens continued to wail even more intensely.

Dr. Rottman was terrifyingly practical. He gave Ruthy a tranquilizer and a cup of water. Ruthy didn't argue with him. Like a small and obedient child, she swallowed the pill. The flickering lights dimmed and then went out. Slowly, the irritating sirens were silenced and the doctor's words invaded the silence which had prevailed in her head.

He said that she wouldn't live more than three months, but from his expression it seemed as if even this had been an overly generous allotment. The doctor at that moment seemed to Ruthy like the director of a manpower agency who was announcing a cutback that would go into effect within three more months, or perhaps before that.

The man in the white coat mentioned treatments, but with the very same breath added that he was nearly certain that they wouldn't curb the illness which had spread in her body, but would only ease her suffering. Ruthy doubted the benefit she and her family would derive from her spending her final days in hopeless pursuits and she consulted a rov before deciding how to proceed.

Her sole concern during those difficult moments was the fact that she was a mother of twins and the wife of a talmid chochom and had to do her utmost to discharge her mission in life faithfully. She couldn't stop her pursuit in life, no matter how much time she had left to live.

Ruthy knew that from that moment on, she was living on borrowed time. She knew that she had an important role in the play called life and that the play had to go on.

Ruthy walked out the doctor's room, straight into the sunny courtyard. Green foliage climbed the walls of the Hematology Department, hiding the suffering of its patients. She found it difficult to inhale. Her breaths were sporadic. Ruthy paused and leaned on the green wall, trying to calm down. People came and went and didn't seem as if their worlds had caved in. Apparently, the human spirit is strong as flint. People get used to the worst situations, she concluded, and for her family's sake, so would she. "Death itself is nothing," she consoled herself. "It is like moving from one apartment to another. A person of a lofty spiritual stature chooses a nicer apartment each time he moves."


She squeezed the rag with all her might. After that she dried the marble floor one last time. The result was satisfactory. Nava Einhorn peeked out from the kitchen and smiled at her. Nava was holding the three-month old baby in her arms. "What would I do without my devoted household helper," Nava mused.

During the past few days, the helper had made all out efforts to complete her work in half the time, so that she would be able to help Nava in other tasks too. Nava saw all this. The helper didn't ask for a raise, even though she performed jobs she hadn't been asked to do.

Thanks to her, there was a warm pot of soup on the stove. A light cake was in the refrigerator, and the baby's laundry gave off a pleasant fragrance and was neatly folded. When Nava thanked her for her efforts, the helper would offer an explanation which included a broad philosophy of life: "Nava, consider the joys of combining a mitzvah with receiving payment for it. Isn't that wonderful?" she would say.

Nava Einhorn clutched her helper with all her might, and thought that she was the greatest. The helper had originally worked for Nava three times a week and since the birth, she had added on another morning, forgoing her day off which fell on Fridays.

Twice a week, she worked for the Friedman family. It was hard to clean the Friedmans' home, even if she would have worked there every day. The house always looked as if it had never been cleaned. In any event, the Friedmans couldn't have allowed themselves to take in help more than two times a week, and the helper did her best to keep the house orderly under the existing conditions.

Nava fell asleep on the sofa. In the small crib beside her, a satisfied infant slept. A pleasant aroma filled the kitchen. The helper closed the main gas valve. Then, taking her shoulder bag, which included her clothing, she headed toward the washroom. She had to hurry. Nonetheless, she took another minute and left Nava a note which read: "Nava'le. There's freshly squeezed orange juice in the pitcher. The grapes in the refrigerator are washed. I think the soup needs more salt. The stuffed cabbage is fleishig. I minced the remainder of yesterday's chicken. Enjoy! "

She walked down the stairs of the building. Outside, the sun beat mercilessly. It was a typical Israeli summer day. Suddenly, she felt weak. Nonetheless, her steps were confident and quick. In her heart she felt a deep sense of satisfaction. She knew that she was fulfilling her task faithfully from all aspects, and that Hashem would repay her for her efforts — if not in this world than in Olom Habo.

She had no complaints against Shomayim. Every Jew comes to this world to fulfill some sort of a mission. In truth, she had completed her studies in seminary with excellent grades, and had passed the course for medical secretaries with flying colors, but hadn't found a position in teaching or as a medical secretary. But she would constantly tell herself that it was forbidden to sit idly by without an income.

She had thought about accepting the offer to clean the Johnson and Berland offices twice a week in the evenings, since her mornings were taken up. The owners of the office promised her a good salary and the offer appealed to her. The family's expenses had grown, and this opportunity would enable her to expand the income column in relation to the expenditures one. But she had to weigh the issue seriously. After all, a tired mother isn't exactly the most efficient one.

When she neared her neighborhood, she laughed to herself. She realized that she had not considered the truly important aspects of the problem when she had wondered whether or not to take on additional work. She had been comfortable focusing on the marginal reasons, which shuffled on the sides of the road of life.

After the first shock, Ruthy had no choice but to do some penetrating soul-searching before making this vital decision. Afterwards, when the earth would rotate without her presence, it would be too late. Even now, it was a bit late. What are two to three months in comparison with a twenty-eight year old saga of life? She had surely made some fateful errors throughout it, and had to rectify them as long as the candle burned.

Her mother had taught her not to be spoiled or a softie. She had often told her: "Whoever wants to survive, should prepare a strong heart for the forthcoming travails." And indeed, Ruthy had known how to endure life's struggles and hardships bravely.

However, her mother had forgotten to teach her how a young person who still wanted to live, should cope with imminent death. True she was only twenty-eight, but she didn't want to share her misfortune with her mother and she tried to paddle to the main shore on her own strength. What counted most was to eliminate the thorns which had grown, due to her own errors in her life's corridor.

Being a through person, Ruthy took out a pen. She aired the days of her youth on the screen of her mind. Then after much mental effort to dig into her past, she unearthed two ugly stains, which were represented by two names: Chava Ettinger her classmate, and Menucha Tzeiger her teacher.

Would three months suffice her to rectify the terrible injustices to them?

During the forthcoming nights, she had difficulty sleeping. She found herself composing lyrical aphorisms which stemmed from the depths of her heart, such as: "To savor a bit of life before the curtain closes," "Death is the cost of life," "Old age is the ship which nears that shore." She was still so young, and the twins and her husband so needed her. "I am nearing hidden shores," she wept while she wrote.

She had to worry about her dear ones. She had to find a suitable arrangement for their future. Suddenly, she felt like a free bird who soars to the heights. "The soul is free from the prison of death. Only the body is doomed to die," she wrote in smooth, round handwriting. "There is no cause for sorrow. During his life, a person has to teach himself how to die."

When she felt that she had found the right version, her pen glided across the smooth page, and filled it with lines

"The ending line is the beginning one,

Despite the day of death.

The end of the lane on the narrow bridge,

Leads to a bright hall.

Before the curtain closes,

Remember where you belong,

Don't be one who sows wind and reaps a storm,

When the final whistle is blown.


Ruthy located Chava Ettinger with relative ease. However, she didn't manage to find the teacher, Menucha Tzeiger.

Chava Ettinger still lived with her parents. She was the only one in the class who hadn't married yet — and Ruthy knew why. She was to blame. Without bad intentions, and in the name of justice, Ruthy had ruined all of Chava's shidduchim.

When asked about her friend, Ruthy would describe Chava's personality without rounding the rough edges. She did this each time someone called her about Chava. Ruthy never forgot the arguments Chava had fomented in class. During their school years, Chava was always against everything and against everyone.

That was why Chava was still at home, growing older with her parents. But now when Ruthy examined her past behavior, she grew panicky. With her very own words, she had doomed Chava to be an unwanted old maid.

During sleepless nights, Ruthy recalled Chava's other side: Chava who was the first to offer help , Chava who knew how to identify with others' simchas or sorrows.

Ruthy couldn't forgive herself for her one-sided view. But she had no idea how she could rectify the tremendous injustice. Now, no one asked Ruthy when they had a shidduch for Chava — and perhaps no one offered her any. Ruthy was terrified. The moonless nights of the beginning of Elul proclaimed that the, "King is in the field." But Ruthy knew that she had no mechiloh, even if she were to wet all of the pages of the Siddur with her tears.

The moon slowly filled out, bearing with it the message of the Yomim Noraim. Ruthy prepared for her personal Yomim Noraim. She listened to the sounds of her body, to her breathing, to the onrush of her blood in her veins. Her ears were attuned to the most delicate, barely audible tones of the activities of her organs. These organs were supposed to function in amazing harmony, if the worst of decrees hadn't been befallen her.

Her entire body broadcast distress, and was plagued by tiny pricks like those of Chinese needles. It was difficult for her to locate the precise source of the distress. Perhaps the pain was caused by the contraction of her lungs. Her palms froze on a regular basis. Her feet grew heavy.

Were these symptoms the footfalls of Mal'ach Hamovess? She looked him bravely in the eye. She was ready. All she had to do was to erase two stains. While the men were filling the dark streets on their way to Selichos, a brilliant idea hit her.

Her brother, Zevik!

Why hadn't she thought of that before? Zevik was a quiet young man — too quiet, and this attribute overcast his talents. Zevik was nearly thirty-three and hadn't found his mate yet. On dates, he remained silent most of the time and didn't make much of an impression on the young ladies he met. In the morning Ruthy called her mother, and told her about Chava Ettinger, stressing Chava's good qualities. In a brief, garbled sentence, she mentioned Chava's vivacious personality, with all its ramifications.

"But that's exactly what our Zevik needs," Ruthy's mother said excitedly.

The idea began to take shape. The plate was broken on erev Rosh Hashonoh. Ruthy thanked Hashem for having let her participate in that happy event. A month had passed, and she had only thirty days to live.

Now she knew how to appreciate the relativity of time. With her sixth sense, she knew that Shomayim would wait until she had a clean slate. Now Ruthy prayed as she had never prayed before. Suddenly the words of the prayers took on a deep meaning, and she recited Modeh Ani in the morning, Krias Shema al Hamittoh at night and Bircas Hamozone, more intently than ever.

All the suffering had been worth it in order to reach the hidden levels of life, she reflected. The world seemed different to her now. She measured time in a different manner. She examined events from a broader perspective, and knew that she had to ascribe them more spiritual dimensions.

Everyone profited as a result, and she even changed her attitude toward her family. She had always been a devoted mother and wife. But now she also understood why this was necessary. People she knew sensed the difference in her, and esteemed her many times over.

No one knew what was taking place in the stormy soul of the young woman who was living with a stopwatch, except her oldest sister Malka, the only one besides her husband with whom Ruthy had shared her secret. The knowledge hadn't detracted from Malka's esteem for her, and surely not from her great love for her younger sister Ruthy.

Malka was childless. She had been married fifteen years, and longed for a baby. When Ruthy planned the future which would unfold after she had gone, she assigned Malka a chief role in the next stage. Ruthy chose Malka as the surrogate mother for the twins, after her petiroh.

"I am placing them in your hands," she told Malka. They cried together, when they summarized all of the details and comforted each other in a warm, mutual embrace. When the tears dried, Ruthy still felt miserable. Yet she knew one thing: Malka was the best choice. For a moment, Ruthy smiled inside. Malka would care for the twins in the best manner possible,

When she returned home that evening, she found Menachem immersed in his studies. He didn't hear her enter and could continue to study undisturbed. Now he wouldn't have to worry about doing the laundry, mending, ironing, cooking, taking the twins to kindergarten, and buying them uniforms. Malka would take care of all these willingly.

Ruthy was delighted to see her brother Zevik so happy. After the vort, when the excitement had died down, Ruthy felt relieved. An ugly stain had been eradicated. Now she approached the task of eliminating the second stain.

The secretary of the seminary knew what had happened to Menucha Tzeiger. A few years ago she had moved to Switzerland, in order to live beside her ailing father-in- law. Until her dying day, Ruthy would never forget the moment she had offended Menucha Tzeiger. "Until my dying day," Ruthy now bitterly said. "That phrase is suitable for regular people, at whose doorsteps the Angel of Death isn't waiting."

Menucha Tzeiger had taught secular subjects. At that time Ruthy was in eighth grade and was the head of the student council. In that capacity, she volunteered to send a letter to the supervisor, citing the complaints of many students against Menucha: She doesn't explain the lesson clearly. She comes late to class. She wastes a lot of time in empty chatter and, worst of all, she doesn't prepare the lesson.

Of course the letter caused a storm and the supervisory board began to investigate the issue. At the end of the year, when the school had to cut down on staff, Menucha Tzeiger was among the dismissed teachers.

Ruthy found out that Menucha was the sole breadwinner in the family only after the dismissal. Ruthy had cut off Menucha's livelihood. Now Ruthy boldly decided that despite her debilitating disease, she would go to Switzerland to beg Menucha's forgiveness. A telephone call would not suffice. She could go to Switzerland and come home in less than a day, and there was no better time for such a deed than the days between Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur.

The following day, Ruthy had arranged her ticket and had left the twins with Malka.


Nava Einhorn was tense. Her household help had notified her that she would be absent for two days. Her helper had never been absent before and Nava was afraid that her devoted helper wasn't feeling well. She had heard her sigh while washing the floor. But where would she find another helper right before the yomim tovim?

For her this came as a blow — not only because she was still weak after the birth, but also because she had grown very attached to her helper and it would be hard for her to adjust to someone else. She wanted to call the woman and ask how she felt, but suddenly realized that she didn't know her telephone number. All she knew was that her helper was named Ruthy.

A moment before she boarded the plane, Ruthy's cell phone rang. She answered it breathlessly. Someone who had presented herself as a nurse in the hospital requested that she come to Professor Rottman's office urgently.

In her heart, Ruthy scorned the term "urgently." After all, Professor Rottman was only flesh and blood. The decree had already been issued and what would more explanations and instructions from him avail.

Dr. Rottman wouldn't tell her how to prepare for the final day. For that purpose, she had Chazal's directive: "Return the day before your death," would guide her. In a loud voice, she asked the nurse when reception hours were the following day, and made an appointment for 1 p.m. By then, she would have already returned from Switzerland.

She didn't have difficulty locating Menucha Tzeiger's address in Lugano. Menucha Tzeiger was stunned to see her. When she was face-to-face with her former teacher the dam burst and, in a voice which she didn't recognize as her own, Ruthy said: "I have only a short while left on earth, and every passing day draws me nearer to my end. I won't be able to close my eyes forever until I hear you say `mochul loch' — you are forgiven."

Menucha was very touched by Ruthy's effort to locate her. She was overwhelmed by the fact that a woman who had already been branded as terminally ill had taken the pains to come all the way to Switzerland to beg forgiveness. She couldn't harden her heart.

The scene which took place in the living room of Menucha's father-in-law was heart-rending and dramatic. When life is on the balance all barriers collapse, all anger is erased, all injustices forgiven. They had a heart-to-heart talk which lasted for two hours, after which Ruthy had to return to Eretz Yisroel. With swollen and red eyes, the two parted like long-time friends, whose relationship extended way beyond that of teacher and student.

Menucha told her that she would help her as best as she could, and promised to organize a special fund for Menachem when he was alone. "My financial situation has improved a lot," she promised Ruthy, nearly adding: "Your sister Malka will tell me when the levaya is."

Spontaneously, Menucha accompanied Ruthy to the airport and found it difficult to part with her former student. She pitied her deeply and stood beside her on the long line. Over and over again she marveled over Ruthy's inner spiritual beauty which had surfaced during her final days. At last, Ruthy's turn to board the plane arrived, and an unavoidable parting accompanied by deep pain took place — a parting which they expected would be forever.

Ruthy rested a bit after returning home. The alarm clock rang without mercy. Ruthy jumped up quickly because she had an appointment with Dr. Rottman that afternoon.

On her way, she passed scores of Succahs which had already been built, and reflected on the temporality of her own life, wondering whether that year she would merit to ask Hakodosh Boruch Hu to strengthen the falling Succah of Dovid Hamelech. When she finally reached the hospital, she was greeted by a smiling Dr. Rottman.

Ruthy didn't know whether her imagination was playing games with her — or whether the doctor's expression had truly changed. The famed Dr. Rottman, a sought-after specialist in his field, rose from his chair in her honor and then walked over to her.

"Come in please," he warmly said. "Sit down. Would you like a drink?"

Her heart fell, because that was how one greeted a person who was making giant steps toward his end. One smiles at him and offers him a cold drink in order to sweeten the bitter pill.

However, the doctor had made a mistake on one point, she thought with pride. The Ruthy who had come to him the first time to hear a death decree was totally unlike the Ruthy who was standing before him now, purged of sins, strong as a rock, a Ruthy who knew how to confront the Mal'ach Hamovess and to be the one who laughs last, because she is prepared for the day of her petiroh.

She will return her pikodon to Hashem loyally. She is sending a pure soul to the Heavenly Court. No one will succeed in depressing her spirit. She won't let despair overcome her, no matter how bitter the news the professor has to relate.

"What? What is he saying?" Her hands trembled, despite her desire to remain strong as a fortified wall. The words hovered above her, stopping somehow beside her ears. Was Professor Rottman begging her forgiveness? Why?

"Tell me that you aren't angry. All of us are flesh and blood. I erred. Nu, why are you so quiet? I don't understand you. You should be happy. But that's our lot as doctors. We are already accustomed to that. Our patients always blame us."

She persisted in her silence, her mind refusing to absorb the news. It was too good to be true. Professor Rottman continued to speak: "Call me after you've absorbed the news that you will live. I want to hear you tell me that you understand our distress as doctors. The repeat biopsy which we performed revealed that you are healthy. Healthy! When we took the first tests, the lab technicians were on strike and there were a lot of mistakes. But what's the difference? The main thing is that your problem is marginal and can be cured with a simple treatment."

Ruthy dared to breathe.

Now she could stop counting backwards. The nightmare had ended. The shores of death had retreated. She pronounced in her mind the names of her dear ones lovingly. They were hers until 120.

The doctor is surely waiting for my apology, she reflected. Ruthy knew that she had to thank the man in the white cloak for having changed her approach to life. On that dark and grim day, when she had sat in his room, stunned, a few months ago, she was born anew.

Without being aware of it, Professor Rottman had fashioned her personality.

He couldn't understand that, despite his prestigious medical degrees.

She only told him: "Dr. Rottman, you changed my entire life."

But he of course interpreted the words on a literal level.

On the way home, Ruthy eyed the Succahs beside the homes. In the end, she would merit to sit in a Succah that year too. Now she better understood the meaning of the word temporary. She realized that it encompassed the infinity of the life of a believing Jew, which was as eternal as the Succah of Dovid Hamelech, as everlasting as time.

Ruthy had learned how to die. Now she would also know how to live, because the way still wasn't over.


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