A response to challenge and adversity

Looking back at a year of personal adversity

By Emily Amrousi, for Rosh Hashonah 5773

Asher Palmer, a yeshiva student who served on an Israel Navy missile ship and liked to play the violin, planned to begin his first year as an engineering major in Oct. 2011. His son, one-year-old Yehonatan, had beautiful eyes and always flashed a smile. He took his first steps when he was just ten-months old. They were both murdered, together, exactly a year ago, while driving from Kiryat Arba to Jerusalem. Asher’s wife, Pua, was left all alone, without a husband, without a son. She was five months pregnant at the time.

Soon after she gave birth to her daughter, some eight months ago, I asked her if she had met other people who shared her fate, namely people who lost their entire families under tragic circumstances. She answered that with the exception of David Hatuel — who lost his wife and four daughters in a 2004 terrorist attack — she had not heard of similar cases. She said that people had experienced similar situations in the Holocaust. Some had their entire families wiped out. But she could not recall similar situations in her lifetime.

A year has passed since. This year has been plagued by sole survivors, or as the prophets said, brands plucked out of the fire. Time after time the headlines informed us that entire families had been wiped out, leaving behind only one surviving bud: Avivit Shaer, who lost her husband and five children when their home caught fire; Eva Sandler, who lost two sons and a husband when a terrorist went on a shooting rampage in Toulouse, France; 7-year-old Rachel Attias, who had to look at eight fresh graves, the final resting places of her parents and her six siblings (who had died in a terrible car crash). Pua, Avivit, Eva and Racheli. Three women and a girl, all from religious households, who, as part of the annual share of curses every person endures, had to bid farewell to their most love ones, the very people who had filled their lives with joy and happiness.

They were left all alone, facing horrible, quiet solitude. (Eva and Pua could at least be comforted by the fact that they were each expecting a baby.)

How can you explain it? You can’t. Perhaps the complete absence of answers was the precise reason that these tragedies happened to devout women. Faith in God and in his guidance isn’t tested when one wins the lottery and the house is clean and everyone is healthy. Faith is the ability to imagine light when you are deep in a dark hole. These women, my women of the year, are one big ray of light.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once asked: What are the criteria we should use to judge human beings? His answer: not by how learned a person is, and not by how closely a person adheres to the commandments, but rather by the number of times he or she is willing to start all over again.

Would you be willing to relive the past year? Have you fully exhausted every day, hour and minute you have had over the past 12 months? Have you shown loving kindness to others? Have you changed things for the better? Have you made a contribution?

On the one hand, if you live your life right you would be glad to repeat everything. If it happens again, let it not be any different, as the Israeli song says. On the other hand, during this time of year we usually recite the Talmudic saying, “Let all the year’s curses expire and let all the blessings arrive with the new year.”

In Hebrew the word for year (shana) shares the same root as the word for change (shinui). Thus a new year also represents separation, a change of course, a turning point. The same root is also used in the word recur (nishna), meaning the new year could mean that we have come full circle.

A new year is approaching. The current one has all but passed. We yearn for change, but we are willing to go through all of the past 365 days all over again. My view is that these are not necessarily paradoxical aspirations — our trajectory is neither linear nor circular. Rather, we are in a constant spiral; we keep returning to the same point of origin on one dimension while we constantly climb upwards in another dimension.

Shana tova (have a good new year)!

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