I spoke to Dina the other day. She was having a hard time dealing with the recent anniversary of her daughter’s death. She told me that before the actual day, things are always busy with planning the yearly memorial service, so emotions are held in check. But afterwards, she finds herself left to her thoughts, lonesome for Rachel, forever 21 years old, the wound still gaping and raw after six years. She said it’s hard to get back into the routine of things, back to dealing with work, cooking dinners and getting involved in her six other children’s activities. Then she cleared her throat and changed the subject. Her good cheer was back
Dina and her husband Chaim are remarkable people. When they moved into our neighborhood of Karnei Shomron eight years ago, they immediately became part of the community. Chaim started teaching Talmud in our local boys’ high school and became a popular reader of the Torah Portion of the Week, in synagogue on Shabbat. Dina naturally became involved in local charities. Only later did we find out that their eldest daughter Rachel was suffering from a struggle with cancer, fluctuating between remission and treatment for years. You would never have known. They always had smiles on their faces and time for everyone else.
I remember visiting my father-in-law in the hospital, when he was undergoing a minor procedure. I heard that Rachel had been admitted to the oncology ward there and went to say hello. Dina and Chaim welcomed me with the same charming hospitality they do at home, blessing me over and over for bringing a bit of light into Rachel’s room.
She died a week later at the age of 21. I took part in the Sanctification Process, the final preparation of the deceased for burial. There is no undertaker; no one puts makeup on the deceased, no one dresses the body. There is no embalming, and no viewing of the body. There is cleansing. I needed to do this. My daughter Avigayil was 21 years old at the time. Here but for the grace of God… This was my final gift to this young woman who had suffered so much. The process is humbling, gentle and loving. We dressed this young woman in a simple white cotton tunic and trousers, trying to ignore the image of the bride dressed in white which she would never be. We tried to ignore the fact that she should have been dipping in the purifying waters of the Ritual Bath as a bride meets her groom. Instead, we were purifying her with water to ready her to meet her Maker.
At the end of that sad, sad funeral, I was able to tell Dina that I had seen her daughter right before she was buried, and that her face was free from the ravages of pain, that we had washed her wounds and she returned to God, beautiful, cleansed.
In Jewish homes, following a funeral, the immediate family of the deceased—parents, siblings and children—return home and “sit shiva” which literally means to sit for seven days. For a full week they don’t leave their homes. However full of pain and sadness this week is, it is therapeutic- a way to allow the mourners time to focus fully on their lost loved one. Traditionally, visitors do not greet the mourners but give them the chance to set the tone, to choose between silence and speech.
It was amazing! Chaim and Dina had something warm and heartfelt to say to each person who came. Dina pulled me over, gave me a powerful hug and told me that hearing about my part in Rachel’s Sanctification Process comforted her greatly, and in her pain, she thanked me. My husband Kuti is the director of Karnei Shomron’s Burial Society and Chaim thanked him for taking care of the burial. Then and there, his daughter placed in the ground only hours before, he asked Kuti to register him as a volunteer for the Burial Society. Anything that needed doing. The cleansing of bodies, the reciting of Psalms for the deceased, even the digging of graves. What strength! Every single person who walked into their home that week left inspired and strengthened by their strength and faith.
I once spoke to them about their incredible ability to show gratitude to others. They explained that this is a lesson they learned from their daughter. Weakened by pain, Rachel never missed a chance to say thank you to her doctors and nurses. Her caretakers were stunned by her constant and consistent attention to their feelings and her gratitude was genuine, her bashful smile making them feel they were caring for a princess, and not a broken, frail, cancer-ridden young woman. Chaim and Dina found notes in her journal, listing people who helped her with meals, a phone call, a kind word. They insisted that if she could find gratitude in her heart, they would carry on that attribute.
My daughter Leora works in a high school dormitory for new Ethiopian immigrant girls. She had chosen “Faith and Courage” as her topic for the month and automatically thought of Chaim and Dina. She knew that they have a program that they present jointly to youth groups all over the country, in memory of Rachel and she invited them to share it with the girls she is working with.
Chaim and Dina arrived at the dormitory, bringing their two other daughters with them. Chaim first spoke to the girls. He spoke of Rachel. He spoke of a simple and basic faith, a faith so strong that it helped him deal with his daughter’s sickness then, and continues to steer him through the trials and suffering G-d sometimes places in his path. He introduced the girls to a religious text called The Path of the Upright. He opened his heart to them, explaining how the ethics and morals presented there, are guidelines to a life of righteousness. Some of these immigrant girls were new to structured religion, and found his manner of talking with them instead of preaching at them, a wonderful lesson in true Judaism.
Then Dina took over the program. She spoke to them, too, of withstanding hardships with the aid of her belief in her Maker. She explained to these young Jewesses, what it means to be a true Woman of Valor. She passed out smooth rocks in different shapes and sizes. In a voice, at times cracking with emotion, she explained how the project, once Rachel’s favorite pastime, has become a project of love. She handed out markers and told the girls to take what is inscribed on their hearts and write it on the slabs of stone. The girls chose verses, passages from the Bible, and left the room overwhelmed with Dina’s warmth. Most approached her to offer their personal thanks for an inspiring evening; many hugged her, not sure if they were offering or receiving strength from this woman with a huge heart.
Dina and Chaim are both educators. Chaim is the principal of Karnei Shomron’s boy’s high school. Dina teaches art at the local girls’ high school. The circles of young men and women they influence and impress is endless. Their lives are dedicated to good deeds. Following the death of Rachel, Chaim started giving Bible classes to the boys of his son’s class. He also volunteers his time, teaching 12-year old boys how to read from the Torah, in preparation for their Bar Mitzva. Dina organizes a food project for the needy — collecting prepared food from neighbors for delivery to the poor and infirmed of Karnei Shomron. Our Sages say that good deeds done in the name of a dearly departed, perpetuates his memory, and helps the soul, in the next world, ascend to a higher level. All of Chaim and Dina’s good deeds are done in Rachel’s name, to immortalize the essence of who she was and continues to be for them.
Every year, at Rachel’s memorial service, the mourners and friends and family go down to the Karnei Shomron cemetery to pay their respects. Following, is a service at the local synagogue, with renowned Torah lecturers. It is so beautiful to see the spreading of G-d’s word, the words of the Torah, which the family achieves, reaching and meriting hundreds of people. The lecturers are invited to speak about Rachel, but what often happens, is that the speakers end up speaking more about the special people Chaim and Dina are.
This year I was privileged to hear the speech of a well-known rabbi. He spoke of renewal… of revival. That our strength, our ability to cope comes precisely from our yearning for something, and not in spite of it. He said that Chaim and Dina’s super human strength comes not from denying their longing for Rachel, but because of it. He compared it to our hopes, our aspirations for the Redemption. We are able to see, to feel the light of the Redemption because we long for it… we ache for it daily.
Chaim and Dina… May you know no more pain. May you find joy in your lovely family, and may you live to greet Rachel at the time of the Redemption, may it come soon.
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