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When Everything Went Up in Smoke

September 12, 2021 | by Debbie Gutfreund

What do you do when everything you own is suddenly taken from you and you're fortunate enough to still have everything that really matters?

We were moving to Florida and had all the complicated details worked out. We kept only the furniture that we really needed and the sentimental items that meant a lot to us. But in the middle of our journey, God had other plans for us.

My husband was driving with a U-Haul attached to it with all of our belongings and had a horrific car accident. The car and the U-Haul caught fire and miraculously, my husband was not injured.

The car and the U-Haul caught fire and miraculously, my husband was not injured.

I had flown ahead for work and images of what the scene must have looked like flashed through my mind. I pictured my husband climbing out of the window of the destroyed car. I didn’t know how to thank God for saving my husband.

But I also thought of the Shabbat candlesticks with each of my children’s names on them crushed and gone. I thought of the photo albums with decades of our lives, disappearing within seconds. The holy books and prayer books that we learned and prayed from, scattered across the highway, reduced to ashes.

I thought of the Seder plates, the menorahs, the kids’ home-made hagaddahs and school projects that I had so painstakingly saved and organized over the years. Gone. Burned. Disappearing without warning.

In my mind I heard the echo of the prayer we say during the High Holidays: Our lives are like a broken shard, like dry grass, like a withered flower, like a passing shadow and a vanishing cloud, like a breeze that blows away and dust that scatters, like a dream that flies away.

What do you do when everything that you have ever owned is taken away from you and you are still fortunate enough to have everything that really matters?

I knew that the answer to that question was to just be happy and incredibly grateful. But instead I stood at the entrance to our new home and cried. I stood there and felt the loss of 23 years' worth of homes we had built together. I felt lost in a new state, in an unfamiliar space, in a world that had seemingly wiped out my past without warning.

And then I heard whispers of the continuation of that High Holiday prayer: “So do You cause to pass, count and record. Visiting the souls of all living. Decreeing the length of their days. On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. How many shall pass away and how many shall be born. Who shall live and who shall die. Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.”

And I felt myself begin to tremble as I realized that all of this was inscribed last Yom Kippur. I had thought that I knew what I needed in my life, but it is God who really decides what to give and what to take away. If I had known last Yom Kippur about this horrific scene of our burning car and our home scattered across the highway, how many hours would I have spent crying and begging for God, "Take everything I own but please, please, whatever You do, save my husband!"

Who shall perish by water and who by fire.”

Take every piece of jewelry. Every piece of silver. Take everything I have ever cared about. Just spare my husband’s life.

If I had known I would have begged, "Take every piece of jewelry. Every piece of silver. Take everything I have ever cared about. Just spare my husband’s life."

And as I stood there in our new, empty living room, I cried again, but this time out of boundless gratitude. I didn’t have my Shabbat candlesticks, but I had all the Shabbats we had ever kept as a family. I didn’t have all of our prayer books and machzors, but I had all the prayers we had ever said. I didn’t have our menorahs, but I had the years of beautiful Hanukkahs we had shared. I didn’t have our Passover dishes, but I had the Seders we had celebrated together.

I didn’t have my kids’ baby pictures, but I had the years of mothering and love that I had been blessed to give them. I didn’t have my medals from the Boston marathon and the NYC marathon, but I had the spiritual endurance inside of me that had been built from crossing those finish lines.

I didn’t have anything that I had wanted to keep from our last home, but I had my children. I had my husband. I had everything inside of me that I needed to build again.

As Yom Kippur approaches, I realize what I've always known. We don’t leave this world with any of our things. We don’t leave this world with photos of our children, but we leave with every moment we have cared for them. We don’t leave this world with any of our accomplishments, but we leave with the indelible marks on our souls that are left from overcoming our challenges.

We are each given a finite amount of time in this world and none of us know how much longer we have here. We have a limited number of encounters slated for us in this world. How are we showing up for those encounters? Are we as patient and kind as we would be if we knew it was one of our last? If this was our last Yom Kippur, we would pray differently this year than we did last year?

This is the first Yom Kippur when I truly understand what it means to come stand before my Creator empty-handed. All of my clothing, all of my past, all of the things that formed my identity are gone like a passing shadow, like a dream that flies away. But You are King, God who lives for all eternity! There is no limit to Your years, no end to the length of Your days...

You give and You take, but You have never given up on us. You are the holder of all of our broken hearts and shards of memories. You are the One who remembers when we forget. When everything is taken, all that remains is You.


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