The death of my husband forced me to reexamine the purpose of my existence.
It was 7 am Sunday morning and I had been asleep for a scant hour after being awake for 45 hours. My good friend Menucha leaned down to the hospital couch and tapped me on the shoulder.
It had been 38 hours since I had pulled my husband's lifeless, 6-foot body out of the jaws of the Tel Aviv ocean one beautiful Friday. After 20 minutes of CPR on the sand, a faint pulse had returned, and he was rushed to the hospital where he lay in critical condition, while doctors checked for brain activity to determine if he had a chance of making it back. A lifetime had passed since then – a living nightmare filled with countless do-or-die moments.
We got the call to come back to the hospital – the signs had become more serious. “The nurses say this is it,” whispered Menucha. “You have to come now.” No more battle-plans, prayers or mitzvah pledges.
Hope for life was over. “It’s a mitzvah to escort the neshama (soul),” she said.
Back in the hospital, I sensed no signs of life at all. The fight to save him was startlingly over. At that moment, the darkest moment – the time when the finality of his life as my husband was apparent – the greatest presence I have ever felt from him came forward. My personal Mount Sinai. The exit was enlightening. I was his midwife to the Next World.
Everyone present was touched. Enveloped in the Shechina (Divine Presence) that came to take him, we were left with a spark of it to take with us – like an embryo to later form into a new being. The end of his life in this world began a new life for us with a glimpse into the Next World. I didn’t want to leave that embrace.
As I sat on my shiva chair, I felt the same connection and light as I did when enthroned on my kallah chair at my wedding years back. It was as if I was just an agent to pass on the messages that were coming through me, to the recipients who arrived to receive them. Then there were the times when I was the recipient.
Three months passed, and my friends and community won the championship for supporting me in every way. Babysitters helped me with the children. Meals were sent in while in my silent protest to stop living, I let the kitchen go. Enlightenment aside, I would accept God’s judgment, but I wasn't going to truly live and give proactively – a decision made by my subconscious without asking me for my approval.
Each kid had been assigned the right therapist and put on the right schedule. The shock was seemingly wearing off and the havoc of scrambling to see what life was now going to be like had dissipated.
Through living day-by-day the kids and I saw that, to our surprise, we could exist and function and eat and sleep and go to school and have friends – without Abba. The terror of not knowing if we could survive a day without him also disappeared.
It slowly became safer to examine my internal reality. And then, one day, it collapsed altogether. I was leaving a family's house motzei Shabbos and the woman said to me: “Most people live for one of three things: their children, their husband, or God. You have to find a reason to live.” So I searched. I searched hard internally for what made me tick. I looked past the truth that sits in my head and discerned the driving force of my heart. The force that pushes me to wake up, to change diapers and to cook dinner.
What I realized shocked me.
I felt like the thread holding together all of the pieces of me snapped.
Almost everything I did in my day – from choosing what clothes to wear to what I cooked for dinner and how to arrange my day was shaped by one thing – what my husband wanted. I chose where I lived because of my husband's spiritual ambition. We chose where our kids go to school because of my husband's Torah outlook. Everything was for him.
I felt like the thread holding together all of the pieces of me snapped. In an instant, the pieces clattered to the ground. They no longer formed a human being. They were just pieces on the floor. I was left holding all of them at once, clueless what to do with them, if to put them back together and with what.
I hit rock bottom. Where to now?
I sat across a teacher of mine one day to question the traumatic beach image embedded in my psyche.
He looked at me and said, "There is a principle in psychology that one has to hit bottom before they can truly change." Bottom was a place that wasn't anywhere. I looked around and didn't see anything to grab onto. No ropes. No sights. Just the feeling of terror and the absence of form. A black, non-existent quicksand. Nowhere to go to and nowhere to go from. No floodlights. No road.
This Way Up
I started asking questions – what do I do with the pieces of me? Why do I do this?
That was no point. As cute and lovely as they may be, I knew that I couldn’t maintain my happiness through my children. How many people live for their kids, only to be sorely disappointed that all didn't work out as planned? As much as I put in, I cannot control whether my children do the right thing and are happy on any given day. I can only control whether I do the right thing. And, of course, kids move on and get married. The only thing that could energize me is something true. Real.
And real equals God.
But was it realistic for me to live for God? I explored my inner world. I found that the ideal was too big for me. Too impractical to maintain for life. I am not an angel.
I examined some more. How could I live for something that would have no end, in a way that gave me enough of a feeling of pleasure to maintain the drive? Eventually I realized that the goal that really moved me was for me to live and develop myself and become the greatest person I could be.
To be Godly. This was a goal that was upward, not outward. Children change depending on a person's incarnation - they are a challenge that are assigned to us at different times. God, and our spiritual potential, is always constant on the other hand. We are always given life in order to perfect ourselves.
Children are just one of the ways.
Being Godly was an infinite goal and constant goal, never to be accomplished. Never to end, that truly did give me a tangible feeling of life, self-love and goodness. To just know that I am doing my mission in the world, aligning my will with His will. To become spiritually great. It makes me love God more, humanity more and of course myself more if I am Godly.
Done. I felt lighter. Less fragile. New person, charged from the inside with the infinite force day-to-day.
Same day schedule, give or take. But my motivation is more aligned to the source of it all. When one wants to send a spacecraft to the moon, the angle of the launch has to be exact if it is going straight there. If the angle is off by just half a centimeter, the spacecraft will miss the moon by hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. If we are trying to hit our spiritual target here, we have to come at it from the right angle. Hitting bottom realigned me so I could reach up to my Godly self.
Our Rock Bottom: Tisha B’Av
I see a mirror of my own work in the Jewish calendar. God actually gave us a mitzvah to hit bottom on Tisha B’Av. We are supposed to see and experience the lack, the suffering, the darkness. For three weeks we descend into this ultimate low.
And yet, in the darkest hour, the messiah is born. There, in the unformed blackness lies our salvation. Pain is an energy. When we decide to use this energy to connect back up to the Almighty, we sanctify it. We take emotional energy and transform it into spiritual light through our free will. God doesn’t do that; only we do that. We take the pain and we make ourselves Godly through it.
Our spiritual labor of hitting rock bottom comes just before the month of change, the Jewish month of Elul. One feeds into the other. The pain, the agony: these can be the forces that push us forward, to a Rosh Hashanah of real change and growth. To the newness of our being. To the inner peace of God’s embrace.
May it fill us all.
A version of this article appeared in Mishpacha Magazine