Winning Words: The Communication Dance

The legacy of Aharon Hakohen is that he was a rodef shalom (Pirkei Avos 1:12). He loved peace and would make sure to create it whenever he could. The well-known example is that he would tell one person that the other person felt bad about their machlokes and wanted to make up, and then he would go to the second person and tell them that the first person felt bad and wanted to make amends. The result is that each person would apologize to the other and thus bring an end to the original machlokes.

Keeping the peace can sometimes be challenging. Often, this is not because we are dealing with challenging people but because communicating with others can be a delicate dance between conveying the message but doing so in a kind and sensitive way.

Saying something one way can be hurtful, while using different words to relay the same idea won’t cause any hard feelings at all.

Ruchama was annoyed at her friend Gitty. It seemed like Gitty would always borrow her pens but never return them. One day, Ruchama had a really special, expensive pen on her desk. Gitty approached her and said, “This is just the kind of pen I need for writing my poem. Can I borrow it for a sec?” Ruchama’s response was immediate: “No, you never return my pens, and then I have to go scrounging for new ones. This is an expensive pen, so I can’t let you use it.”

Needless to say, Gitty was very hurt.

Ruchama’s point was valid, but there is another way she could have conveyed her message. She could have said, “Gitty, it’s frustrating for me when my things aren’t returned. This is an expensive pen, and I’m really looking forward to using it for notetaking today. If you borrow it now, can you be sure to put it back on my desk before class starts?”

Do you hear the difference? Instead of accusing Gitty and getting personal, Ruchama can simply and clearly relay her needs. Gitty will get the message without any damage to their relationship.

Our natural reaction would probably be to speak as Ruchama did in the first example. But if we want to emulate Aharon Hakohen and promote peace, we need to be aware not only of what we say — but how we say it!

Sometimes keeping the peace means remaining silent. Other times, it means expressing yourself. It’s okay to tell someone if their actions are hurting you. It’s okay to share your preference, even if the person you’re talking to might have a different one. But it takes skill to express yourself calmly, without anger and without blaming other people. It also requires good middos and strength of character. Sometimes those middos and that gevurah are what enable you to just remain silent. Either way, it’s an avodah — and not an easy one.

I had a few situations recently where I had to draw on all my reserves of strength to properly communicate, and then, once I said what was necessary, to let it go. My nature is to have the last word.   Often, I feel that if someone doesn’t understand my line of reasoning, it means I didn’t explain myself clearly. So I try again. I explain it this way and that way until the other person gets it. Except that often, they don’t get it because they don’t want to get it. And that’s when I need to just keep quiet.

This past Shabbos, I was feeling down. Why are all these situations happening to me? Is learning to communicate properly part of my avodas Hashem? It was time to discuss it with someone. So I paid a surprise visit to a friend of mine. I told her my stories. And she explained to me that not responding impulsively, keeping quiet when I really want to talk, talking only after thinking things through and relaying my message kindly help build character refinement. When I really look at a whole situation and think before speaking, it helps me become a better person.

No one said this effort is easy, but I’m grateful to have this awareness. It’s a first step in the right direction.

A few weeks ago, I innocently returned a phone call only to be yelled at after introducing myself. It was upsetting and hurtful. But after thinking about what happened for some time, I realized that this woman was lacking proper control over her emotions or proper communications skills. And more than aggravating, that is so sad.

Let me explain. I am involved in a project that required a specific kind of writer. I reached out to a few people who do this kind of work. I asked them if they would be interested in sending us a sample and how much they would charge for their work. That Motzoei Shabbos, instead of sending a sample, one prospective writer completed the full project. I thanked her for her efforts and told her that I would need some time until we could seriously work on this project.

 A few weeks later, I made that return phone call and was shocked by the writer’s response, “Where is my paycheck already? You told me you need time, but it has been way too long!” I sincerely apologized and explained that all we had asked for was a sample. We weren’t sure yet if we were going ahead with the project or if she would be the writer we would hire. At that, she lost control. She was clearly livid and began screaming at me about yashrus. I tried to explain that this wasn’t a yashrus issue, this was a misunderstanding — yet there was no reasoning with her. A few weeks later, she called my boss and screamed at him too.

As I said, communicating with others can be a delicate dance between conveying the message but doing so in a kind and sensitive way. I can truly empathize with this woman. I know what it’s like to be waiting for money and I’m sorry that she’s so angry. But as much as I want to call her back and try again to explain that this was an unfortunate misunderstanding, I know she doesn’t want to hear it. I need to just let it go.

But there’s another part to the picture, and that is that she harmed herself in the way she communicated her feelings. She could have explained her frustration without losing control. She could have listened to me instead of interrupting me every time I tried to talk. She might have given us a masterpiece. But how can we possibly work with her if we cannot communicate effectively? If and when we are ready to go ahead with the project, it won’t be with her work.

Communicating what we need and relaying our feelings in a respectful way creates shalom — strong, everlasting, loving relationships and peace within ourselves.

It is a way of emulating Aharon Hakohen.

The Broken Washing Machine

As the well-known mishnah says in Pirkei Avos (4:1), איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו – Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot. There is no limit to what we don’t have. But what do we gain by going there? Misery? Jealousy? Hopelessness?

We won’t ever be able to find contentment if we are always noticing the things that others have, that we really want – whether material possessions, looks, talents, brains – or even life circumstances. Yes, it is so easy to be jealous of others’ circumstances. She has the perfect family. She never had to experience the challenges that I did. Her children all got married right away, and I still have an older daughter waiting for her bashert. She is such a balabuste; the house is always spotless. Her husband is always available to help her with her the children. The mishnah, however, is telling us to be happy with what we have. Because whatever we have is exactly what we need.

One way to achieve that happiness is to feel gratitude, to be thankful for all that we do have. When we practice being grateful, we train ourselves to focus on all the berachah in your lives. Despite the pain we’ve experienced, and despite the challenges, we may begin to recognize that Hashem does abundantly bless us.  The jealousy might not disappear, but it can decrease a lot. Why feel jealous about something that someone else has when we can see how much Hashem has given us?

My friend Esti took this concept one step farther. She recognized that whatever Hashem has given her is for her benefit. So she started thanking Hashem for whatever came her way – whether she was really happy about it or she wasn’t.

Imagine the hampers in the house are overflowing with laundry – but the washing machine is on the blink. Many people would have a panic attack. But when this happened to Esti, she said, “Thank you Hashem” and called the plumber.

It wasn’t an old machine, so how hard could it be to fix it? Guess again! Esti was taken aback when the plumber told her, “No point in fixing this. You’ll have to buy a new machine.” A big unexpected expense – to the tune of $800! Still Esti said, “Thank you, Hashem. Maybe this money just wasn’t supposed to be in my account.” And then her husband received a completely unexpected, almost $800 bonus from his place of employment for some extra work he had done! Esti was amazed. Her gratitude had kept her focused and grounded.

According to Rabbi Dovid Ashear, when a person thanks Hashem for what she has, Hashem wants to give her more. It’s as if He is saying, “You recognize all the good that I gave you. Well, there’s more where that came from. I’m so glad to give it to you!”

And that is what happened. Esti said thank you. And Hashem said, “Here is more.”

Then she decided that before buying a new one, she would call the company to complain. The company sent down their own repairman. He took a look and told her, “It needs a new part” and proceeded to order it. The next day he showed up with the part and fixed the machine. And as he left, he turned to my friend and said, “Ma’am you are lucky. I don’t know how you got this part so quickly. I know someone who has been waiting for this very same part for a month already!”

But Esti knew. She knew it wasn’t luck – it had worked out this way because she had expressed gratitude to Hashem. Gratitude means accepting Hashem’s will, and acceptance brings one to happiness. It is that attitude that explains Esti’s “good luck.”

We are now at a time of year when we are occupied with introspection about how we can improve. At the same time, we have so many requests from Hashem for the upcoming year. I was thinking that one good idea is to really look inside ourselves and see how much we have. Yes, we may need so many things from Hashem. But noticing all the many things that we do have will make us feel so grateful to Hashem. And when we feel so grateful to Hashem, Who is the Source of all berachos, we are opening up the gates for so much more berachah.

If you ask Esti, she might tell you that she isn’t rich. But I know the truth. She might not be rich in money, but she is rich in what matters. This isn’t my opinion. It’s exactly what the mishnah says.

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

Fitting into Yourself

Have you ever tried to squish yourself into being something that you’re not?
I did. I mean, actually I do. Maybe I am more aware of it than I used to be. But boy do I want to be as accomplished as this person, as geshhikt as that person and as friendly as the next person.
There is nothing like pre-Pesach to induce all my insecure feelings. There are so many people who continue with their regular job schedules straight through until erev Pesach. I can’t. I must take off a few days before Pesach, and even after Purim, I often put in fewer hours than I normally do. So of course I wonder, what is wrong with me? Why am I so incompetent? Why can others do what I just can’t?
As the minhag goes, I was having my annual conversation with my friend expressing my complete incompetence. A little while later she called me back to say, “By the way, I have girls and you have boys. That is a huge difference. Right now, I am cleaning with two girls, while one is watching my baby.” AHHHH. I felt so much better. Because I don’t have that kind of set up. Though my boys help out a bit, it is nothing like what girls do. And so with my set of circumstances, I have to do what works for me. It doesn’t matter what anyone else does.
It might seem random to start talking about new shoes now. But they kind of helped me gain perspective on what I am doing to myself. I needed shoes and spent a lot of time in the store making sure that the shoes I was buying would be comfortable. I finally settled on a pair that I had tried on numerous times. To my frustration, when I actually wore them for the first time, my feet were really hurting! I took the shoes off in the car as I drove, and I couldn’t wait to get home to take them off for good. I couldn’t believe it. I had spent so much time specifically ensuring that my shoes would be comfortable. How could it be? I refused to believe that they really didn’t fit and decided that I would keep squishing my way into them until they would be comfortable. B”H, we got there. Today, I can wear my shoes with ease and comfort.
I insisted on squishing myself into those shoes, sure that at some point they would work for me. But I did have reason to believe it would work because in the store they had felt good.
Sometimes in life, we can be very motivated and determined to make something work, whether it’s a drive to land a certain job, complete a degree or have a completely organized house. It can be a middah. Devotion to doing more chessed. A decision to be more careful with shemiras halashon or to be more patient with cranky kids. We might have to squish and twist ourselves until we are comfortable in our new roles. But like those shoes that eventually fit, we know that with hard work we can reach the goal.
Sometimes, though, we want to squish and twist ourselves into something that we can never be. No matter how much we squeeze and crush ourselves, it won’t work because it’s not who we are meant to be.
I can’t make myself become three inches taller, no matter what. I’ll never be blond, and my sister will never be dark. Like my inability to fit into a too-small pair of shoes, becoming physically different is not going to happen. And just like it can’t happen physically, there are certain other essentials of my makeup that just won’t change.
That’s what I need to accept. In my life, I have to make decisions based on what works for me. Hashem has made me with a certain type of personality and with certain family dynamics. And He wants me to make decisions based on what works for me and my family. It isn’t the right thing for me to make decisions based on what those around me do. I have to fit into my life and my role. The one Hashem has created for me. No amount of squishing and twisting and squeezing and crushing will make me fit into someone else’s role.
And now, as I go through my life learning to accept myself for who I am, I can do it with a comfortable pair of shoes!

One-Way Street


My street became a one-way street, which is actually a good thing. We needed it to be this way. But it can still be annoying when I have to go all the way around to get where I need to go. One day as I put the car into drive, I inwardly groaned as I thought about driving all the way around the street. And then I thought that really, this is life.

Life is a one-way street, and the only way to go is the way that Hashem sends me. It might be mountainous. It might be twisty or really rough. But if I decide to go the other way, I will be going backward, and going backward will send me crashing and really spinning out of control.

As I maneuvered out of my spot and started driving, I thought of my road that Hashem has given me to travel. I think I am going forward, even if my pace is a bit slow.

I know that sometimes I fall. And sometimes I have to go all the way around again. It might be frustrating, but it isn’t the same as going backward because it helps me progress and get closer to my destination.

Just this morning I had that experience. I so badly want to trust in Hashem in every way. When small things don’t go my way, I want to accept. I don’t want to fill up with that anger that can overtake me. I want to just say, “Okay, this is bashert.” I think I have come a long way. But I still have an exceedingly long way to go. I know that it’s a lifetime of work. It never really ends.

This morning I discovered that my landline wasn’t working a moment before I saw that my internet was down as well. I was so frustrated. I wanted to call Optimum, but somehow the bill disappeared. I couldn’t get the number online because I couldn’t get on to the internet. And then I saw a message that it can take two to three hours to restore service. At that point, I felt this anxiety completely overtake me. I don’t know why. I didn’t even need my internet yet. And I had my cell phone instead of my house phone.

So as my body was filling up with frustration, my brain was yelling, “Calm down. This is from Hashem. You will have your internet when Hashem wants you to. You are fine without it. Just accept.” But I couldn’t.

I knew that once I calmed down I would be upset at my reaction. I knew that it was so wrong. And it’s not who I want to be.

I finally figured out how to call Optimum. I felt better. And then I thought of my one-way street. Life goes one way. But sometimes I have to go back and all the way around. That is part of my avodah, whether in a car or in real life. I didn’t go straight today. I went in a roundabout way. And that is okay because it wasn’t backward. It was just a little circuitous, and I came back to where I had left off.

So thanks to the township. Not only for making my street easier to drive on, but for helping me to see that life’s road sometimes takes you in a roundabout way. And that is okay because it will still get me to the right destination.

Self-Care

פרק ב משנה יז
The buzz word of today is self-care. You must take care of yourself. It will enhance your productivity. It will help you become a more emotionally stable person.

We see ads all over the place touting this message: You deserve designer clothing. You deserve a five-star vacation. You deserve to indulge in today’s newest food craze. You… Hmmm…maybe I do. After all I have been through, I really do deserve to buy myself those fancy new shoes or splurge on those stunning earrings. After all, it’s all in the name of self-care; it will keep me sane!

But if you stop and listen to yourself, you just might hear that voice you are trying to run from – and it might be saying that you’re fooling yourself. This is not what you need. Self-care doesn’t just mean throwing yourself into gashmiyus. It might mean taking care of yourself emotionally. Tuning in to yourself. Listening to what your needs really are and sticking to your truth.
Sometimes we really do need that indulgence for our emotional well-being. But that idea of “self-care” can confuse us and really muddle our brains. How do we know if it is just an excuse or if it’s a compassionate gesture toward ourselves?
The Mishnah gives us the answer: .”וכל מעשיך יהיו לשם שמים”
That is the question we can ask ourselves. Am I doing this for my own desire or will it really help me to better serve Hashem? Oftentimes, if we listen to our inner voices, we gain clarity about the difference between our real needs and our desires. And if we do determine that its a need, let’s make it l’shem Shamayim.
The Mishnah is telling us that we can make all of our actions l’shem Shomayim. Serving Hashem is not limited to the performance of mitzvos. A royal chauffer doesn’t only serve the king through driving him. Part of his job is to make sure that the car is working and is kept in perfect condition for whenever the king might need to use it.
We do have to eat and sleep. If we have the intention that we are doing the mundane so that we’ll have the energy to serve Hashem, then the mundane becomes part of our avodas Hashem.
Sometimes self-care serves the same purpose as eating and sleeping. It might mean getting in touch with ourselves. Being honest with how we are feeling and not pretending. It can be expressing our truths. And sometimes self-care might be an extra outfit. It might be a night out with friends. It might be an extra-large iced coffee.
But when we are aware that we are indulging for our emotional stability, to help us stay calm or to help us with simchas hachaim, then that indulgence can be avodas Hashem.
Getting caught up in today’s fads, convincing ourselves that over-indulgence will make us happier or better people is just that. A fad. It won’t last.
I have a friend who needs to have the latest style – in everything. It might be in strollers, clothing or new floors. She talks and talks until she convinces herself that after she gets whatever new item is on the agenda, she will be so happy. But she never is. She might think her preoccupation with all that is new and in vogue is her way of caring for herself, but really, it’s the byproduct of a desperate hope to fill the emptiness inside of her with things.
By nature, I am a less needy person. I am usually happy to make do with what I have. So if I need a stroller, I can buy an out-of-style used one, as long as it works. If my walls need painting, I can manage by having the cleaning lady wash down the walls really well instead. Recently, though, I felt like my whole house needed major fixing up. I tried doing my band-aid fix ups, but it wasn’t helping. When I was honest with myself, I realized that I felt unsettled inside, as if I myself was in disarray. I looked around said to myself, it’s okay to take care of the basics! And you’ll feel better if you do. I don’t need to do anything fancy, but I need to feel like a mentch in my own home!
So I ordered new window treatments for the few rooms that had only disposable shades. I got a great deal on some floor samples for a room that didn’t have furniture, and as I write, the painters are here painting and refreshing my walls.
Each time I made a decision to take care of something in my house, I felt light and airy. It was the feeling of chaos leaving me and calmness settling in. A friend told me, “You sound like you are embracing life.” And to me, that sounds like a good thing.

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here in revised form, with permission.

Know Your Worth: Shoshanah’s Story

Perek gimmel, mishnah yud-ches says חביב אדם שנברא בצלם. The fact that man was created in the image of Hashem shows that he is beloved to Hashem.
The mishnah is telling us the proper way to view ourselves. We should not feel arrogant or proud of who we are or of our talents and accomplishments. At the same time, we should not see ourselves as small and unimportant. Our value is based simply on who we are – an entire being representing Hashem. Each one of us is Hashem’s child, and we represent Hashem’s Torah. That is what makes us so important.
Keeping this in mind will help us feel humble but empower us at the same time.
Poor self-esteem hinders our ability to accomplish. It stops us from trusting ourselves. It deters us from achieving what is achievable. It’s not the outlook Hashem wants us to have.
I once knew a girl with self-esteem so low, she was really unable to believe in herself. It was sad to see, once I realized what was happening.
I met Shoshanah (names have been changed) for the first time in camp. Her face seemed to be announcing loud and clear, I am better than you. Actually, I am great. You should want to talk to me, but don’t bother. I will not honor you with a conversation.
Although we had a few interactions over the summer that only served to confirm my initial assessment of her attitude, once camp was over she became a distant memory. And then I met up with her in seminary. Not only did I meet up with her in seminary, but she was very close friends with my roommate Chavie. Chavie was a fun, popular, nice girl. I didn’t see why she liked Shoshanah so much. But they clicked, and Shoshanah was in my room constantly. I got to see a lot of her up close, and I started to understand why she behaved the way she did. Her self-esteem was so low that she had to put others down to feel even a teeny bit of self-worth.
It was painful to see how little she valued herself. She couldn’t make a move without Chavie’s approval. Each morning she walked into our room and pranced in front of the mirror, asking Chavie if she looked good. Would a different skirt match better or would a particular sweater look nicer? She only felt she was worth anything if Chavie approved and if Chavie was by her side. Without Chavie she felt that she was a no one. It was painful to see this on a regular basis.
I don’t know why she felt like this. I don’t know if she had academic issues, social issues or family issues that contributed to her negative thoughts about herself.
But the mishnah reminds us that we are each a tzelem Elokim. Hashem made us with our weaknesses and strengths. He made us with our flaws and our merits. And He made us in His image. He wants us to be proud of who we are. He wants us to believe in who we are and to live life to the fullest, with all the circumstances He has given us.
I don’t know where Shoshanah is these days. But I hope that she got herself the help that she clearly needed. I hope she realized that she is someone beloved by Hashem by virtue of who she is. She doesn’t need Chavie or anyone else to make her feel worthwhile.
As for me, self-esteem is definitely something I have to work on!

This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here with permission.

Hidden Yellow Circles

My daughter loves to use her yellow highlighter to write on the wall. I say, “Esther Malki, we don’t write on walls.” She shrugs and asks, “Why? You can’t even see it!” She’s right. You really can’t see any marks. That’s because the ink from this marker only appears when you shine the flashlight located on the bottom of the highlighter at the writing.
Last week Esther Malki was in an imaginative mood and decided to pretend she was having a sleepover. She closed all the lights and cuddled up on the couch with a library book. It was dark. She needed a flashlight to see. Her highlighter flashlight came in handy.
Suddenly she started laughing. “Mommy, look,” she called out. And lo and behold we saw that someone had circled some words in the book with this same marker. We han’t noticed any marks until the light was shining on it.
Now I started imagining. Who had written in this book? Had it happened last week or five years ago? Was it done by a little girl who was bored? Or was it a brother who was bothering his sister? Did they ever wonder if anyone would discover this writing?
It was a great lesson for me that so often we don’t know how an action will affect someone else. And we certainly don’t know who or when.
My parents received many letters following their losses. Once in a while I take out the box of letters (that has been bequeathed to me following their petirahs) and read them through. When I come across a particularly touching one, I think about the person who wrote it. What is striking is that by now, all of these letters are a number of years old. Maybe the letter writers remember sending them or maybe they don’t, but each person who made the effort is still bringing comfort today – and they don’t even know it!
This concept certainly does not have to be limited to the physical world. There are so many people in my family whom I miss. How I crave that physical connection – the conversation, the chitchat, the advice-giving, and just the shmoozing? I know that I can’t have that connection anymore.
But the connection isn’t gone. It just changed.
When a meshulach comes to my door and I pull out a dollar, I say it should be for an aliyas neshamah for… and recite the names of my loved ones. When I do that, I have created a connection. I know I did something for their neshamahs, although I don’t know how big or small. Unquestionably, my actions down here count.
I can say, whatever good I do today should be for an aliyas neshamah for my loved one. I might forget that I said it. I might not know how my little chesed or my berachah said with extra kavanah affected the neshamah. And I won’t know because I can’t shine a light up, give a wave and say, “Hi there, please let me know how my action affected you.”
But once upon a time there was a child who circled some words in a book. And this child didn’t know that by drawing some circles, she taught me a lesson about actions and connections.

Baby Talk

Time to talk about my baby. On a whim I decided to see what the definition of baby is. According to Mr. Webster the definition is (1) an extremely young child, especially an infant; (2) an extremely young animal; (3) the youngest of a group.
Seriously! What does Mr. Webster know? My definition is much more accurate. I would say a baby is a shmushy little thing that you can sink yourself into; it fills you with so much love and joy, and you can stare at it a whole day.
The non-biased fact is that my baby is k”ah gorgeous and so deliciously cute. His innocence makes him edible. I have told him numerous times that he couldn’t just suddenly be born and expect the whole world to turn upside down for him. But he just smiles at me with his precious, toothless smile. Because he does expect it. And he doesn’t care how much he disrupted our lives. He knows how much we love him and how happy we are to take care of him. It is amazing what this little human being can do to adults. He has touched each member of my family in the most heartfelt way.
He has enriched my family tremendously. As a mother it is so heartwarming for me to watch each of my other children play with him. Only a baby can get teenage boys to show so much vulnerability. They get down on the floor with him and coax him to crawl. They imitate his baby garble and fight over who gets to hold him.
He is so innocent, so clueless and has such a special place in our family. Those were my musings as I watched an interaction between my baby and my oldest son.
The thing is that babies don’t stay babies forever. As I watch my eighteen-year-old playing with my nine-month-old, I can’t help but reflect on those newborn days of my oldest. I had no idea what a newborn was. I had no idea what to expect. But all it took was one peek at him, and I was awed. He was so helpless and so perfect. He turned my world topsy-turvy. There was no such thing anymore as a schedule or a routine. But I knew that I was the luckiest person that this baby belonged to me.
The years flew by. That baby is my eighteen-year-old bechor off to a new start as a bais medrash bachur. I still feel lucky that he is mine because he adds so much to my family. He has a place here that no one else can take. And I realized that although a baby engenders immediate and automatic feelings, each person in a family is so important. Each person has his place in the home, a place in his parents’ hearts and a place in each family member’s heart.
Years ago I heard Rabbi Paysach Krohn speak about the berachah of borei nefashos. He asked why the berachah includes the word “v’chesronon” (and all their deficiencies). The answer he offered was eye-opening: no person is completely okay all by themselves. You might be a well-respected rebbi, but you need that baker to bake your bread. And as yummy as the baker’s bread might be, he still needs the plumber, the electrician and the barber.
These thoughts came to mind as I watched my children interacting. Each child is so different. They have their strong points. They have their quirks. But together we make a strong unit. And each person in a family fills a spot that others can’t. We all need each other.
When a member is not here anymore, the void is so gaping that it can’t really be filled. There are deep voids in me because of my losses. But I can’t let the pain of the losses loom bigger than the appreciation that I have for all my other family members. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the pain and forget the many important people I am so grateful to have in my life today.
Chanukah will soon be here, and it is a time that reminds me very strongly of those who are not here anymore. Watching other, complete families at our extended-family Chanukah get-togethers is painful. It is wonderful to see all my first cousins. But why are my aunts and uncles there with all their children, B”H? Where are my parents and missing siblings? And I am sure that many of you reading this experience similar feelings.
I think of my soft, gorgeous shmushy baby and how he stirs my heart almost every second of the day. Those stirrings have made me realize how precious each family member is — my children as well as all my relatives. They won’t fill the voids, but they fill other deep places. And the truth is that I love seeing all my relatives even though it does cause pain.
This year as we light the menorah, I can assume that I will be holding my baby. (I said he’s heavenly cute, but I didn’t say anything about being well-behaved!) As I express my gratitude for him I would like to focus on feeling gratitude for my whole family. Because just as the Chanukah licht dispels the darkness, each child, aunt and cousin bring light into our lives.

Accepting The Message From The Messenger

I once saw the following quote: Empathy is like giving someone a psychological hug.
When my sister died only a few months after my father’s petirah, Mrs. Z, who had been through her own challenging times, felt my mother’s pain; her heart ached for her, and she wanted to give my mother that psychological hug. So as she left the shivah house, she handed my mother a paper with some material to learn, something that had kept her going through her own challenges. It was a medrash that she found inspirational and comforting. She was hoping that when my mother was ready, it could benefit her as well. But as she left the house, she felt very unsure of herself. Had she done the right thing by giving it to my mother? Was it tactless? She was only trying to show she cared, but maybe it had been insensitive.
During that shivah my mother herself was very sick, although not many people were aware of it. Her passing a short while later shocked the community. This woman was especially shaken, and she figured she would probably never know if that medrash had been helpful or hurtful.
Several months ago, Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah invited Rabbi Nachman Seltzer to speak on the topic of impacting neshamahs, and that is when I met Mrs. Z. She shared wonderful things about my parents, and then she mentioned this medrash that she had given to my mother and how concerned she was that perhaps it had been inappropriate to do so. I remembered that paper. And I told her that my mother had taken it to her rav, and he translated it for her. Mrs. Z so much appreciated hearing that and offered to bring a copy of the medrash to my house.
Mrs. Z dropped it off one day when I wasn’t around. I saw it lying on the counter and knew that I had to call her to thank her, but I tend to procrastinate when it comes to making phone calls.
A few weeks later, on Tisha B’Av, I took out a box full of nichum aveilim letters that people wrote to my family, and there, rolled up, was the paper with this medrash, including several sticky notes with the explanation from the rav. I knew that I had to call Mrs. Z to tell her that my mother had really learned what she had given her.
But I procrastinated again – until one quiet evening when I thought about Mrs. Z. and realized I had no excuse not to call. So I picked up the phone and dialed. As soon as she heard my voice, Mrs. Z. told me that she had just come from my aunt’s house. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about until she told me that my husband’s aunt was sitting shivah for her father. I couldn’t believe it! Why hadn’t anyone told me that this aunt was sitting shivah? She lives locally, and I have a relationship with her. Imagine if I wouldn’t have been menachem avel! I was really upset.
I called up a friend to vent. As I was finishing my story, I suddenly stopped and said, “Wait, I did hear the news, and there is still time left to be menachem avel. Hashem sent me the message. Meeting Mrs. Z. those few months ago set the wheels in motion to ensure that I would hear about my aunt sitting shivah. Hashem sends us what we need to hear through the right messenger, at the right time. I didn’t have to be angry that I hadn’t found out from what I considered to be the right source.
My anger deflated like a balloon leaking air.
Yes, Hashem sends us the messages we need to hear at the right time, through the right person. Becoming angry that I didn’t receive a message from the one whom I perceive as the right messenger is ga’avah. What’s more, it can cause sinah, and it can be the source of so much pain.
It is important for me to remember this. Let go of what I perceive as a wrong. Because whatever happened was supposed to happen in exactly the way that it happened, with the people that it happened with. After all, Hashem is orchestrating every sequence of events, not people. It’s a message I am really working on internalizing; it is too important not to.

If I Could Do the Year Again…

It was a beautiful fall morning, that Friday of my brother’s petirah. Sunny with a cool nip in the air. The trees were covered in leaves, some colored and some still green, with only a smattering of crunchy leaves covering the ground. But inside the house, no one was aware of the beauty outdoors. We were all sitting with my brother, watching him as if in a trance, as he fought for his last breaths. After his petirah, our house filled up with family, who, like us, walked around in a daze. But our friends noticed something remarkable. By late morning, when my brother had already been niftar, the trees had shed all their leaves. The leaves were our tears and the empty branches were the gaping hole in our hearts.
The trees taught me that it’s okay to cry. It is okay to sit in the pain and to really feel it. But after experiencing so much sickness and death in my immediate family, I stopped feeling. Lucky trees that they can shed all their tears. But my tears dried up. I took my pain, put it into a box and closed it up tightly. There was always some pain that bubbled its way out, spilling into my stomach and heart. But it was so easy to keep myself busy and run faster and faster from the pain.
For me the year of aveilus for my parents was very hard. I was angry. I didn’t want to keep all these halachos. I was in pain; I was grieving. Listening to music or going to a function wasn’t going to make me forget. Of course, I kept the halachos, but only what I absolutely had to. Looking back, I realize how I hurt myself. I didn’t gain what I could have from the year(s) of aveilus. Hashem gave me this time to really feel and fully experience the sadness of my losses – an important step in the healing process. I think that any pain I have today would be less intense if had taken proper advantage of that opportunity.
I like to run. I like to pretend that everything is fine. But I hope that I learned enough to recognize how important the year of aveilus is. Not only is it beneficial for the aveil, but it benefits the niftar as well. And so I look back and think, “If I could redo that year of aveilus, how would I do it differently?”
I think I would really let myself feel the pain. Each time I would be unable to go to a chasunah or would feel a desperate need for new clothing that I couldn’t buy, I would sit and experience the pain. Cry it out. I would focus in and realize: I am keeping these halachos because my mother/father died, and I am so sad. I think I would shoo the guilt away if it would tell me that I can’t take off work, or I must make the entire Shabbos from scratch. Instead of denying my grief, I would recognize that during this year there is no such thing as too much crying: I can cry it out, talk it out, sit in it, feel it.
I would try to have a better understanding of what the neshamah is going through and recognize that my mourning benefits the neshamah of the niftar. This in itself would be a nechamah, since I am happy to do anything for my parents/siblings.
The pain will always be here. But I think that if I had allowed myself to mourn properly, at the end of each year of aveilus, I would have felt more ready to carry on with life – without so much heaviness left inside of me.
This article originally appeared in Links magazine and appears here, with permission.