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Alice's Cake

May 8, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Israel is traumatized when a terrorist bomb maims three children, but one woman is catapulted to a new level of gratitude.

I was never before so happy to be up at night with a sick child.

It was last Monday, the night after an Arab terrorist bomb exploded beside a school bus carrying children from Kfar Darom. Two teachers were killed and ten passengers injured. Among the wounded were three children from the Cohen family. Twelve-year-old Orit's right foot was blown off. Seven-year-old Yisrael lost his right leg. Eight-and-a-half-year-old Tehilla lost two fingers and both legs. The doctors at Soroka Hospital made a valiant effort to sew her legs back on with a 17-hour-operation. The operation failed, leaving little Tehilla with no legs below the knee.

At 4:45 AM, my six-year-old son's cries woke me up for the second time that night. He was suffering from an earache and sinusitis, and the pain-killer must have worn off.

Although being awoken from my always too few hours of sleep is my least favorite part of motherhood, that night was different. I groggily got out of bed and groped my way to the medicine chest. Squinting my eyes from the brightness of the bathroom lights, I measured out a dose of Acomol (the Israeli equivalent of children's Tylenol).

As I stumbled to my son's bed, my usual grumbling was suddenly replaced by a surge of intense gratitude.

As I stumbled my way to my son's bed, my usually grumbling attitude to such sleep interruptions was suddenly replaced by a surge of intense gratitude. "Thank you, God," I said out loud in a choked voice. "Thank you that I am not Noga Cohen, who tonight is running among three hospital rooms, in each one of which lies one of her permanently maimed children. Thank you that my child has nothing worse than an earache, which will pass in a day or two, leaving no trace."

Gratitude, of course, always brings along its sidekick, joy. As I struggled to make my crying, half-asleep child sit up so he could swallow the medicine, a feeling of exultation welled up in my heart. My child was alive, with all his limbs intact. "How good is our portion," the line from the Psalms flashed before my mind's eye, like a neon sign above Times Square. I had a reason for rejoicing.

Sitting on my son's bed trying to soothe him back to sleep, my two-chambered heart held within it agonizing sorrow for the Cohen family next to lilting joy for my son. The darker the former, the more brightly shone the latter. When ten minutes later, I had finally quieted him, I almost glided my way back to bed on a feeling of jubilation.


The next morning my good friend Etty, who is a first cousin to Ofir Cohen, the children's father, came to my apartment. Distraught and distracted, she told me she was on her way to Soroka Hospital. I asked her to gather the names and mothers' names of all the wounded. In Judaism, when praying for the recovery of a person, the soul is identified by the first name along with the mother's name. I needed the full names to give to my colleagues, a group of 32 women who weekly recite the Book of Psalms for the recovery of the sick.

At 4 PM that afternoon, the news on the Internet reported that an 18-year-old boy, while waiting to hitch a ride near the same intersection where the school bus had been bombed, had been shot in the head by an Arab sniper. He was being transported to Soroka Hospital by an army helicopter. A couple hours later, the next bulletin informed us that the boy had died.

At 8:45 that night, Etty called me from Soroka Hospital and gave me the full names of all the wounded. At the end, she added, "And Itamar the son of Rachel, who was shot in the head today."

"But I thought he was dead," I exclaimed.

"No," Etty answered somberly. "He's still alive. But after the operation, the doctor told his sister that he won't make it."

"He's still alive. But after the operation, the doctor told his sister that he won't make it."

I hung up feeling, "Where there's life, there's hope." Armed with his name and his mother's name, I sprang into action. The religious women of Jerusalem have an emergency system which goes into operation in drastic circumstances. One woman will call three, four, or five other women, tell them which psalms to say for whom, and bid them to call the same number of other women. In this way, thousands of women are reached in a matter of two or three hours.

I hurriedly called three women, asking them to say psalms for Itamar the son of Rachel, and to pass the message on. Since I live in the Old City, near the Temple Mount, which is considered by our sages to be the "Gate of Prayer" from which all prayers in this world ascend to the higher realms, I determined to run to the Western Wall, the retaining wall from the Temple Mount, to pray. I asked those women who could manage to drop everything to meet me there at 9:30.

A brigade of nine women met and fervently recited psalms for Itamar's recovery for half an hour. A few minutes after I returned to my apartment, the phone rang. It was one of the women I had called.

"Did you hear the 10:00 news?" she asked gloomily. "Itamar died. This time there's no mistake."

I went to bed that night depressed and dispirited.


The next morning, when I opened the refrigerator to take out orange juice for my children's breakfast, I noticed that the light was out and the food inside was barely cold. I listened for the hum of the refrigerator motor and heard only silence.

"Oh, no! A broken refrigerator!" I thought. "That means finding a repairman, paying at least a thousand shekels, when we're already thousands of shekels in overdraft, and shlepping the food in the freezer around to find space in neighbors' freezers until the repairman finally gets here and replaces the parts."

No sooner had my mind emitted this burst of aggravation, than I stopped myself short: "Itamar's parents are arranging for their son's funeral today, and you're upset about a broken refrigerator? Are you crazy?"

The daily tragedies of this war are a slap in the face, waking me up.

The daily tragedies of this war are a slap in the face, waking me up from the somnambulant state in which I habitually bemoan any event which costs me time or money. I feel like Alice in Wonderland after she eats the cake which suddenly makes her grow so big that all the objects around her become tiny in comparison.

The life and death events of this war are that cake. All the irritations and annoyances of my life have suddenly assumed their true proportion: small and petty.

As I retrieved the orange juice, and quickly closed the refrigerator door to retain whatever coolness was left inside, I felt that same surge of gratitude and joy: Jewish mothers are burying their children today, and all I have to contend with is a broken refrigerator. How good is my portion!

With a heart full of equanimity and gratitude, I opened the yellow pages and started to search for a refrigerator repairman.

Moments later, I heard gagging sounds from my son's room. I ran in to see him vomiting on the area rug in the middle of the room, spewing tangerine, bile, and phlegm all over the thick pile. I ran for a basin, held his head, and stroked him as he finished vomiting. Then I led him to his bed and went to fetch a damp washcloth to wipe his face.

This time my usual reaction (Oh, no! How will I ever clean up this mess?) barely managed to rear its head. I took care of my son, then tackled the rug. There I was on my hands and knees working away at the vomit with wet rags, and feeling a wave of veritable bliss. "My husband and children are alive. Their bodies are intact. How fortunate am I! Just a vomity rug. Thank you, God, that the tribulations You give me are so puny."


In the summer of my 43rd year, my mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. The doctors gave her three to six months to live. I was plunged into a dark world of sorrow and impending loss.

One day, shortly after receiving the terrible news, I had to go to our neighborhood grocery store to buy some butter and yogurt. As I walked through the square, I felt like an alien from another planet. The sky was blue, children were playing, and their mothers were chatting amiably. Only I was grief-stricken and burdened.

I picked out my butter and yogurt and took my place in line behind my friend Slotana. "Hi, how are you?" she greeted me warmly.

I told her the truth about my mother's diagnosis.

I told her the truth about my mother's diagnosis.

"I know just how you feel," she said shaking her head. "My mother died of cancer when I was 21. I was in college when my father called me to come quickly. The whole experience was terrible, just terrible."

"I heard your mother has cancer, Sara." It was my friend Donna's grave voice behind me. "You know my mother died of cancer when I was 16. It was awful. I know just what you're going through."

For a few moments we stood there in silence, a camaraderie of pain and sorrow.

But when I left the grocery store and was again crossing the square, I was aware of a shift in my consciousness. Slotana had lost her mother at 21, Donna at 16. I had had my mother's loving presence in my life for 43 years. She had lived to see me married (at the age of almost 39) and had lived to hold my first child in her arms. I had so much to be grateful for. The sorrow at her impending death was still there, but now accompanied by a feeling of profound gratitude for all I had received during 43 years of love and support.


This attitude of keeping gratitude uppermost in our consciousness is more than Pollyanna's "glad game." It is the essence of what it means to be a Jew.

The very word for "Jew" in Hebrew is Yehudi, which comes from the root word meaning, "to acknowledge, to thank." Acknowledging the reality of God's infinite giving is synonymous with thanking Him.

Indeed, most people's stumbling block on the road to faith is suffering: the Holocaust, the death of children, etc. But focusing on suffering fails to acknowledge the truth that the world is filled with the goodness of God, from the plenitude of air and fresh water to the tireless beating of our hearts and the intricacies of the immune system. Healthy children outnumber fatally ill children by thousands to one.

Once, years ago, I was traveling on a bus with Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller. We were discussing how a good God could let children suffer, a subject that was my obsession at that time.

The reason that we notice the tragedies is because there are so relatively few of them.

"Look at that tree," Rebbetzin Heller said, pointing to a cedar tree outside the bus window. "Its leaves, with nothing more than sunlight, air, and mud, manufacture food to sustain itself, and it also gives off vital oxygen into the air. If it were the only tree in the world, people would be lining up to see this wonder. But because there are zillions of trees in the world, it is commonplace and therefore ignored. The very multitude of God's kindnesses conceals them from our awareness. The reason that we notice the tragedies is because there are so relatively few of them."


Every Jew in Israel -- right and left, religious and secular -- shared the trauma of the Cohen family's tragedy. Etty told me that after the bombing, hundreds of visitors, many of them total strangers, thronged the corridors of Soroka Hospital. In each child's room, a veritable mountain of gifts and toys appeared. When the nurses cleared them away, within a couple hours a new mountain would appear. In the streets of Israel, everyone's face was tortured with the horror of the Cohen family's triple catastrophe.

The day after the bombing, the father, Rabbi Ofir Cohen, stunned the nation. In a televised interview, he loudly proclaimed the prayer which is the first words out of the mouth of every religious Jew every morning: "I gratefully thank You, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion. Abundant is Your faithfulness." For those who didn't get the point, he added simply, "I am grateful to God that my children are alive."

Rabbi Cohen was not teaching us that the glass should be seen as half full. He was teaching us that the glass should be seen as 99% full. His children will never run or dance again. Orit and Yisrael, with the help of prosthesis, will walk again only with great difficulty. Tehilla will never walk again. But they can see and hear, feel and think. They can talk and sing. They can move their hands, feed themselves, learn to play a musical instrument, learn to operate a computer, and eventually learn a trade by which they can support themselves. They can show kindness to others and serve God with what they have.

Rabbi Cohen, while facing a future in which every day and hour will be fraught with struggle for his family, was making the statement that life, even a life of disfigurement and difficulty, is precious and wonderful and something to thank God for.

How good is everyone's portion.




Please help the victims of terrorism and war in Israel. A fund was established to provide financial assistance and support to the survivors and their families, as well as to the families of the dead and the hostages. 100 percent of each and every donation will go directly to aid the victims of terrorism and war in Israel.

Checks can be made out to The Jerusalem Fund of Aish HaTorah in trust for "Help the Victims of Terrorism and War in Israel Fund."

All contributions are Tax Deductible according to U.S. Law.

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Help the Victims of Terrorism and War in Israel Fund
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