The following event happened in 1997, after which Rabbi Winston wrote it up as part of his weekly parshah sheet to help others who suffer or have suffered in the past.
Finish the following statement: Man does not live by bread alone, but …
Many people might think this was an ad for some food manufacturer, or perhaps a restaurant, reminding us that one must consume foods such as meat, or dairy products, etc. Who can survive only on bread? The truth is, this statement is from this week’s parsha, and turns a different corner from what most people might imagine.
The full verse says,
“He afflicted you there, and caused you to suffer hunger, and gave you manna to eat which you never knew, nor did your fathers know it, to make you understand that not by bread alone does man survive, but by whatever the mouth of G-d brings forth does man live.” (Devarim 8:3)We take for granted that it is the food that makes us survive. We live with the belief that it is the nutrients and vitamins that make us strong and full of life. However, this is not quite accurate; the Torah is telling is that at best physical food is a “vehicle,” or better yet, a “mask” for the real nutrient of life, which is far from being physical.
Kabballistically, what motors our body is our soul, which, for most, is not a new idea. What is new, perhaps, is that it is our soul that we must “feed,” so that it can provide the body with the SPIRITUAL energy it needs to PHYSICALLY survive.
But what does a soul eat? Surely the soul derives far less pleasure from a banana split than the body does!
That is true-the soul does not care for one food over another, except for moral reasons, such as for the sake of fulfilling mitzvos (including the one from last week’s parsha to take care of our bodies). Physical taste and satiation merely allow us to inspire our bodies to join our souls in showing appreciation to G-d for the wonders of life.
This is what Moshe alludes to later on in the parsha when he says,
“When I went up the mountain to receive the stone Tablets, the Tablets of the covenant which G-d made with you, I stayed on the mountain for forty days and forty nights neither eating bread nor drinking water …” (Devarim 9:9)What’s the point of telling them that? Why did they need to know that Moshe didn’t eat or drink on Har Sinai for forty days and nights?
The answer is that Moshe was telling them:
Look what it is like to be close to G-d; look what happens when you are in the presence of the Holy One! You rise above the physical reality, to the point that you resemble angels more than you do man. You don’t even need to be sustained naturally, that is, through the veil of and the form of physical food! You can receive your sustenance DIRECTLY, from the “mouth” of G-d itself!
It is a difficult concept for us to accept and get used to, especially growing up in a physically-oriented society whose motto is: Seeing is believing. But next time you eat, and say Birchas HaMazone (Grace after Meals-another mitzvah found in this week’s parsha in verse 8:10), keep in mind that, as much as the food is an important vehicle for receiving life-sustaining nourishment, the real spark of life is the hidden spark of holiness, which emanates from the “mouth” of G-d.
The following is going to be a departure from my regular format, for which I beg forgiveness. However, what happened to me and my family this week has compelled me to share the experience and to find meaning for it within this week’s parsha.
When my wife told me last Friday that she felt no movement from the baby, I was only slightly alarmed. After all, something similar had happened the day before, and after a visit to the doctor, everything checked out fine. In fact, throughout all of my wife’s pregnancies, we always had reason to panic at some point or another, only to find out later that the miracle of birth had preceded as scheduled, thank G-d.
However, when the doctor told me in his calm but serious voice that I ought to take my wife for an ultrasound, since, for the first time, he was unable to locate the heartbeat, I too began to worry like never before. There we were, one week before the due date, erev Shabbos Nachamu which comes to console us after Tisha B’Av, rushing across Yerushalayim to the hospital to confirm something that we thought could never, and would never happen to us.
For years we had dreamed of a fifth child and another daughter. Our first daughter, who turned eleven, ba”h, that Shabbos Nachamu, longed for a sister after an interval of three brothers (who wouldn’t?). And we waited with baited breath to see if we could deliver the most fantastic birthday present we could be a part of: a baby sister.
However, as the doctors at the hospital continuously searched for that heartbeat, any heartbeat and a sign of life, first with the monitor, and then through the ultrasound, hope faded with each passing second, the terrifying and unacceptable reality of a fetal death hit us like irreversible nightmare. By the time the doctors began discussing the importance and procedure of immediately removing the baby, we had descended into a state of emotional shock. Though they tried to convince us to stay, we instead opted to return home for Shabbos to deal with the nightmare.
Never before had I experienced such a sense of futility. To have come so far, for my wife to have experienced so much, and then for what? And what was worse, and uncomfortably ironic, we would have to go through all the normal procedures of giving life to a new human being, and right among those who would do exactly that, except that when all the pain was over and the time came to go home, we would leave without the cherished new child it was all done for. Never before had the words, “Vanity of vanities, it is all vanity …” rang so true for me.
And of course, there was the overwhelming sense of guilt. What did I do to cause this to happen, and so close to the end? Both my wife and I asked ourselves this question, while each of us assured the other than it was not his or her fault. And as we began to work it through, and try to find meaning in what had happened and what we were about to go through, it began to occur to us that we had made some mistaken assumptions. Perhaps what had happened had been planned long before the signs of it happening became obvious.
According to Kabballah, a miscarriage or a stillborn child represents the final stage of a spiritual rectification for a soul before it can arrive at its final stage of eternal bliss. It is a beautiful and holy idea, but other worldly. Parents conceive children to bring them into the world, to give them life, and to share whatever they have with them … to nurture them from their state of total vulnerability to an age of independence and self-worth. Being a vehicle or a way-station for a migrating soul is not what the average parent has in mind when going through nine months of pregnancy (and all that it brings), and the birth process.
Very early Monday morning in a birthing hospital, amid the screams of other women giving birth, followed by that joyous sound of a baby’s first cry, my wife gave birth to silence. At first the midwife thought that the baby might have developed improperly. This was a temporary relief, because it means that we had been spared the birth of an unhealthy child. But the birth itself confirmed two painful facts: the child had been healthy, and a girl, a beautiful baby girl. It turned out that the umbilical cord had been responsible …
I was devastated. My wife had been very brave until the very last moment, and cradled the baby and spoke to her lovingly and sympathetically as if she had known her while she had still been living (which she had for nine months). For my part, words flew through my mind, like those of Eyov who suffered a far greater personal disaster losing his entire family: G-d gives and God takes … But I also heard words such as, “How could you do this to us, G-d? How could you tease us so … taking us down the road to so close to the end, and then snatch ‘victory’ away from us at the last moment … and make us go through the motions, for what? For lifeless child to whom we will never be able to give, or hold again??
But I also remembered the words of Rebi Akiva, who, upon being tortured to death by the Romans, was saying the Shema. His students were amazed that at such a personally painful moment that Rebi Akiva could find it within himself to confirm the hand of G-d in all that he was going through, as if it had been no different from the happier, more successful moments in life.
“Even now, rebi?” the students asked incredulously.
What did the great Rebi Akiva answer his talmidim?
“All of my life I have said the words, ‘You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your possessions.’ I have done so with my yetzer tov (good inclination) and my yetzer hara (bad inclination), and with all my possessions as well. And every day it pained me that I could not yet serve G-d with all of my soul … Now that the opportunity has presented itself, should I ignore it and turn away?”As a rabbi and writer, I have dealt with the topic of suffering, in order to help others to work through theirs and grow closer to G-d. But, thank G-d, tragedy is something that I had seemed to approach on several occasions, but in the end, had escaped. It gave my words of spiritual consolation a “tinny” sound to them; all of sudden, that sound faded and was replaced by the sound of crying.
I’m not saying that losing a child prior to birth compares to losing a child one has already bonded with on the outside world, or any of the other countless types of tragedies one can, G-d forbid, suffer. But to me, to us, and our families, and especially my daughter, the loss of our daughter, whom we named Shalva (tranquility), who was conceived during the miraculous holiday of Chanukah, and who was born on the happy day of Tu B’Av, represented a very painful and untimely loss of something unimaginably precious.
Tragedy had hit me and my family, especially given all the great reasons why that child should have lived, and died so needlessly (there are many ironies involved in all of this).
As my wife and I took turns holding our daughter, amazed at her beauty and purity, we desperately looked for a way to infuse a lifeless situation with meaning and life. It was not easy to do, for we had lived for almost a year with the belief that the baby had been ours, and destined to live out a normal, healthy and fulfilling life. We had no idea of G-d’s alternative plan for our child. HIS reality and OUR reality, that week, came head on like two trains fighting for the same trestle, at the same time.
Perhaps that was Shalva’s greatest contribution to us, and to those whom will take this message seriously. We learned through her short and hidden existence that, until that moment, we had merely paid lip service to that dual reality of G-d’s master plan, and our own version of it. Through Shalva, within our minds, those two realities merged (though with resistance), and I became better suited to hear the message of this week’s parsha, and all of Moshe’s final parting words to the anxious Jewish nation.
“Now, Israel, what does G-d, your G-d want from you, but that you should fear G-d, your G-d and walk in all of His ways and to love Him, and to serve G-d, your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul …” (Devarim 10:12)… Even when one is denied the child she ought to have had, or worse, G-d forbid, when the child one did have is returned to his or her Creator early.
We wish that our daughter had been born, oh, do we wish we could have showed her our love, and the love of her family. It will take time to accept the finality of the situation, one that does not have an option to make things work out ok in the end. We will always blame ourselves, I suppose, on some level for what could have been, but wasn’t, at the last moment yet.
But what amazes me the most about the whole thing, in the end, is how much love we feel for her, even though we never had the chance to know her at all, something I believe made possible only after accepting life in this world to be as G-d sees it. This is the true basis of fear of G-d, which Moshe alludes to in this week’s parsha, and which Shlomo HaMelech uses as the antidote to perceived meaninglessness in this world. It is THIS that turns “hevel” (vanity) into “hevel” (breath of life), and which allows us to accept our roles as “facilitators” for the spiritual completion of our fifth child, and second daughter.
For those who have known such tragedies, or worse, may the light and promise of the future provide hope and consolation, and bring only joy. For those who have not faced such adversity, may your sensitivity to the suffering be your merit to avoid tragedy. And may the merit of all the kindness showed to us by our family and friends, and to the countless others who have known pain and suffering hurry the arrival of Moshiach and the Temple.
Have a great Shabbos,
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org