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This is a difficult article for me to write. Just the same, I have decided to write it. I feel I owe it to you, my extended Jewish family, my brothers and sisters in Am Yisrael.
You held my hands. You never let me go. Even in the densest darkness, you were there.
What is life all about? Most of us tend to avoid that question. We just glide along on the highway of our existence, confident our GPS will protect us from getting lost on murky roads.
But life is strange. There are no guarantees and there is always the unexpected. In a blink of an eye, everything can change.
I should know this as well as anyone. I have lived through traumatic experiences not once but many times. The Nazi occupation of the city of my birth in Hungary, the menacing walls of the ghetto, the bloodshed, the senseless beatings, the deportations in cattle cars without provisions for food, drink, or hygienic facilities.
In my books as well as in my articles I have written extensively on those subjects.
But it was not only during those cataclysmic times that I experienced pain and suffering. Like many my age, I have witnessed my revered parents and beloved husband struggle with illness. I stood by helplessly trying to ease their suffering.
No, I was not a stranger to pain. Early on I learned that all this is part of life. We have to deal with it. We have no other choice.
After the nightmare of the Holocaust I, along with so many others, hoped that the civilized world would wake up and shudder at the Satanic evil that had been perpetrated and take steps to ensure it would never happen again.
I had hoped a new generation would try to tame man’s savage side and build a culture and society on the pillars of justice, kindness, good will, and generosity.
But it never happened that way. If anything, the world has descended lower into the depths of the jungle and people are using 21st-century technology and social media to advance evil.
Even so, as Jews we never give up living with the hope of creating a new and better present and future. Indeed, that has been our calling as Jews – to bring the light of Hashem to all of mankind and thereby create a better world.
Those of us who have traveled life’s pathways know the roads are bumpy and hard, with danger lurking everywhere. Nevertheless, at least in our personal lives we continue to live with the hope that the roads will be smoothed over and we will arrive safely to our destination without any mishaps.
We embark on our journeys with trust and confidence. Our goals are all mapped out. Our calendar is full. Some of us even think we are indestructible. And then, as if from nowhere – the blink of an eye, a flash of lightning, and our dreams are crushed.
Each person has his or her own flash of lightning. In my case it was sudden and unexpected illness. For a brief while it appeared that it would, chas v’shalom, take over my life.
* * * * *
Those of you who know me know I am a “runner.” No, I’ve never participated in a marathon but I did dedicate my life to running for Hashem – trying to carry His mitzvahs to all our people in every part of the globe. That mission never left me.
Fifty years ago when I established Hineni, one of the world’s first outreach movements, I dared to do the impossible. I was a young rebbetzin going into uncharted territory.
To be sure, I was not alone. I asked my dear revered father, HaRav HaGoan HaTzaddik Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, to take me to all the great Torah luminaries of the generation for their berachah – their blessing.
Fortified with these blessings and with the strength and encouragement of my beloved husband, HaRav Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, I went forth. The doors opened. I spoke on every continent wherever Jews lived and Hashem granted me the awesome zechus – privilege – of rousing dormant Jewish hearts and souls.
And now, suddenly, I saw that flash of lightening. I wasn’t well. I wanted to run – to do what I’d always done – but I could not. My legs would not take me. My strength was just not there.
And then I heard strange, foreign sounds – doctors and nurses whispering to one another. I was in a hospital and needed emergency care and Hashem’s miraculous intervention. What to do? What to do?
I reached out for my book of Psalms but at that moment could not find it at my side. No matter, I consoled myself. I will recall the prayers – the Psalms I’d learned and recited day and night, the Psalms that were always on my lips.
So I did have my book – my heart became my Tehillim, my Psalms. I sailed the seas of my illness and my Tehillim saw me through.
* * * * *
I was once interviewed along with several others by one of our fine Torah magazines. We were asked, “What is the most important item you take when you travel throughout the world?”
Those of us being interviewed were travelers. Our journeys took us wherever Jews lived. Each of us went with his or her own mission and we all had had a different answer, a different gift we would never dare leave behind. For me it was my Tehillim – my Book of Psalms.
The Psalms are amazing. They speak to each of us in the language of our hearts. They can pierce the deepest crevices of the neshamah, the soul, and penetrate the depths of the mind.
If you make the Psalms a part of your daily life, you are never alone. The book may not physically be at your side but it doesn’t matter. The Psalms are forever engraved on your soul, on your heart, and on your mind.
At any rate, I found myself in a predicament I never thought I would experience – although, as noted above, I learned a long time ago that there are no guarantees. None of us can dare be too confident. But here I was, and my constant companion – the book I always took with me on every journey – was nowhere to be found.
The physical, printed book may not have been there but the book in its essence was there. And it spoke to me. I began to recite the Psalms as I remembered them. They were my best friends. No matter where life’s journey had taken me, those Psalms never left me.
I kept reciting those holy words and repeating the passages one after another. How grateful I was that those Psalms had become such an integral part of my being that no one could ever take from me.
Time passed and I started to take a few steps toward recovery. I had to make decisions. Should I go public with my ordeal or should I keep it private? I discovered that this is a dilemma confronted by many people who go through an illness.
If I go public, I thought to myself, people will assail me with question after question: Rebbetzin, what happened? When? How? Where? I was not prepared for that.
Then I realized how foolish I was. Why should I go to battle by myself when I have the most powerful, magnificent army at my side? It is an army that stands ever ready for action; an army that would instantly be in uniform at the front line.
So yes, I decided to go public and summon my army. I called upon my spiritual sons and daughters – those who over the years had become my family through Torah and mitzvahs. And I reached out to all of Am Yisrael.
Their war cry was sounded. It was heard everywhere Jews live and their prayers resounded. They called out my name – Esther bas Miriam – for a refuah sheleimah.
Those prayers are the mighty and powerful weapons of the Jewish people. There is no substitute for our weapons, our prayers. They’ve carried the Jewish people throughout the centuries. They carried me personally in the years of the Holocaust and now through illness.
* * * * *
My army, Baruch Hashem, was victorious. The Torah army of prayer never fails.
And here I am – Hineni.
I am home from the hospital. Baruch Hashem, Baruch Hashem, Baruch Hashem. I shout from my soul the words of Psalm 107: “Hodu L’Hashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdoh – Give thanks to Hashem for His kindness endures forever.”
Hineni – here I am, making plans to continue teaching, to continue visiting Jewish communities on every continent, to continue speaking words of Torah as I’ve always done. Miraculously, Hashem gave me back my strength and now I’m ready to run again.
Hineni – here I am, sharing my story with you so that everyone might know that on our precarious journey through life we all need Hashem’s help. We cannot possibly make this trip alone.
When we travel we need only take with us our prayer book and our Psalms – our siddur and our Tehillim. These books must be so attached to us that even if they slip from our hands we should be able to hold onto them in our hearts and minds.
Through the words of prayer you realize you are not alone. Prayers imbue us with incredible strength and as if by magic each word energizes us. And Hashem in His Mercy grants us the ability to go on.
Yes, hineni – here I am ready to share the story. As Jews we are never alone and we triumph against all odds. Our powerful arsenal of prayers is always at our side. We need only summon them, trust them, and never give up.
I write these words with profound gratitude to all of you who have prayed and continue to pray for me. Your prayers reached high – but please continue to pray.
Today our people – wherever they may be, in Israel or any other part of the world – are being severely tested. We are in need of Hashem’s miraculous intervention. We must summon our army to scale the Heavens and cry out in prayer.
We need only make the sincere effort and the rest will be done by our General – our Father and our King.
The battle is not over. Please let us continue to pray for Acheinu Kol Beis Yisrael – all our brethren. And please continue to prayer for me as well – Esther bas Miriam.
“Hodu l‘Hashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdo– Give Thanks to Hashem, for He is good; His kindness endures forever.”