Finish Line in the Cancer Ward| December 13, 2022
All of it, almost ten years of learning, paled in comparison to the excruciating difficulty of learning the last five dapim
As told to Rivka Streicher
Ten years ago, I was 20 years old, leaving Eretz Yisrael and the hallowed walls of yeshivah, headed for college and then the corporate world.
The world was open for me, and I knew the coming years would mark a succession of changes in my life, professionally and personally; I also knew I had to hold on to Torah, keep the beis medrash inside. I was only 20, wet behind the ears, but I made myself a goal then and there: I would finish Shas in the years to come.
I started college and started ploughing through Shas alongside it. For the first three years — through college, through my first job in an accounting firm — I learned with chavrusas early each morning.
I got married and soon the kids started coming. I was working full time. I had to be at work early, daven earlier, and learn even earlier; it didn’t work anymore to learn with a chavrusa. I’d wake up at 4 a.m. and sit down to learn at home on my own.
The house was quiet and calm in those early morning hours, and I could immerse myself in the Gemara. I was covering ground, early morning by early morning, the commitment I’d made back then seeing me through.
It wasn’t easy. There were long work days that often spilled into evenings. Come tax season, I’d be up to my eyeballs in work. Then the kids were born — we have five, all girls — and sometimes it was impossible to wake up early in the morning after the baby had been screaming through the night. And then just the struggle to understand the Gemara…
But all of it, almost ten years of learning, paled in comparison to the excruciating difficulty of learning the last five dapim, while sitting in a small, airless room high above the city of New York, beside my small, whimpering daughter, Tehilla.
Ten years. Ten years. They’d been the most happening years of my life, and somehow, alongside it all, I’d managed to get through Shas. I was about to celebrate my very own siyum haShas.
We’d set a date a few weeks before for July 24, 2022.
It was the beginning of July and I should’ve been feeling euphoric at what I was about to accomplish, but instead I was feeling ambivalent.
Had I achieved what I set out to? I asked myself. Yes, I’d covered all of Shas, I’d put in intense work, countless hours, but still, I felt like something was lacking. Had I done it right? I wasn’t feeling the accomplishment, the excitement. I was feeling tired, dulled, harping on what hadn’t gone right.
I had to rid myself of those feelings. I’d accomplished something huge and these thoughts were hindering me from accessing the simchah of my achievement.
I suddenly had the idea to write a letter to my 20-year-old self, to that guileless young boy who’d made an incredible commitment, who didn’t even know what a visionary he was.
I sat down with a pen and paper and wrote and wrote. What emerged was a poem, a paean to my 20-year-old self.
I realized as I was writing how much chizuk it gave me to think of myself as that bochur in the beis medrash with a light in his eyes, with the enthusiasm and confidence of youth to take on a goal like that.
I felt an overwhelming surge of gratitude to him — to myself. I sat there writing for hours, and finally was able to reconnect with that idealistic, hopeful side of myself. I was able to touch the enthusiasm and feel renewed excitement about the impending siyum. I wrote to myself in poem form, in stanzas like this:
You created a reality which you hoped would keep me learning and striving,
Having the Gemara by my side to ensure I was growing and thriving.
I ended off the letter with thank-yous from us both — the 20-year-old me and the 30-year-old me — to our chavrusas, grandparents, daughters, rebbeim, community, and wife. And a last thank-you from the me of today to him — Thank you again, my friend, for your tremendous foresight and vision…
When I finished the letter, I exhaled, I felt so much better. The siyum was happening! I was invigorated to finish the last few dapim of Shas and make it to the finish line.
And then the letter and the siyum all but slipped my mind. Mere hours after I sat there writing, my little daughter, Tehilla, was rushed to the hospital. Four-year-old Tehilla, our middle child, had been complaining of stomach pain for a while, but the doctors kept brushing it off. But something wasn’t quite right with Tehilla. She was tired all the time, she wasn’t eating properly, nor going to the bathroom normally. They thought it was mono. But she kept on complaining of stomach pain.
That day the pain got so bad she had to be taken to the hospital. My wife went with her, while I stayed home with the other kids.
Somehow I got them to bed, then later stumbled into bed myself, all the while worrying about Tehilla. The doctors still hadn’t found anything conclusive, and Tehilla and my wife would be staying the night. The next morning, I got up early as usual for my learning seder. I was sitting in the dining room, making my way through the Gemara as dawn slowly broke outside the window, when my wife called.
“It’s cancer,” she said. “After the scans and tests, the doctors found a tumor in her stomach.”
My world went dark. I closed the Gemara.
I would open it again the next day at Tehilla’s bedside in Cohen Children’s Medical Center, where she was immediately transferred for emergency chemotherapy — an intense weeklong regimen of chemo, followed by monitoring.
I sat in the hospital, looking at my daughter, this tiny girl with the brown curly-ish hair, and the tanned skin. Clumps of hair were already falling out, and her skin looked pale. She was in terrible pain from the effects of the chemo. Only four years old, she was in shock from everything that had happened — the hospitalization, the IV needles, the nausea — in such shock that she’d stopped talking. Our bright and bubbly daughter refused to talk to anyone.
I sat beside her, trying to anticipate her needs and keep her comfortable and occupied. I knew I needed to keep her spirits up, which was hardest of all — I could barely muster my own spirit. Tehilla was weak and slept a lot, as well, and that was when I tried to learn.
I was up to the last masechta, Niddah, which is one of the hardest and most complicated masechtos. It was difficult to learn; my mind was in a fog and my emotions were all over the place. When I looked up from the sefer, my poor daughter was lying before me. I tried to focus and concentrate, but inevitably I’d be distracted by the medical personnel.
I thought back to all the times I’d struggled through the Gemara; none of them came close to this. Why was Hashem testing me like this, right at the end? How had it come to be that as I was holding by the last few dapim of all of Shas, my daughter was out cold in the hospital?
I couldn’t think about it. I didn’t think, so I wouldn’t have to feel. A numbness, cold and thick, settled over me, and still, from that place, I resolved to stick to my commitment. I was going to finish Shas, and I was going to finish for Tehilla. I would do the siyum as a zechus l’refuah sheleimah for my daughter.
The date of the siyum had been set a while ago, and it was scheduled to be held in just two weeks’ time. We weren’t sure when Tehilla would be able to be discharged. The medical team thought it could be in time for the siyum, but they couldn’t say for sure. At this point, all the doctors and nurses, whether Jewish or not, knew about the upcoming momentous milestone.
“Should we really go ahead with the siyum?” my wife and I wondered.
We thought of canceling it. But I looked at Tehilla, at the sefer near me, and I knew I couldn’t, not at this point.
“Yes,” I said. I suddenly had this conviction that we should, that we must. Everything had become interconnected. The years of learning, these hardest last pages, the hospital, Tehilla, my conviction to do it as a zechus for her….
“We don’t need much, we should do it even if we have to serve pizza on plastic plates,” I half joked.
Little did I know…
We’d recently moved to a new, close-knit community in East Meadow, New York, and one of the community members reached out to us to say she’d take care of all the details of the siyum. We gratefully handed it over to her.
The week passed, Tehilla had the chemo, and she was being monitored until the doctors could pronounce her well enough to go home for now.
In the life Before, before me or my wife were constantly at an ill little girl’s bedside, I’d thought about saying a speech at the siyum. Now I couldn’t collect myself to prepare anything. Then I remembered the letter I’d already written, and decided I’d read it at the siyum.
Chasdei Hashem, Tehilla finally left the hospital on a Friday, with the siyum scheduled for the Sunday after.
I had made it. We had made it. Even Tehilla was able to join.
She was so weak and fragile that first Shabbos, but she was home with her sisters at last. And then it was Sunday, a beautiful summer’s day, the day of the siyum.
I stepped into our backyard and blinked. Our friend who had taken charge of planning the siyum had turned the siyum into an event. A marquee was set up in the yard, and inside there were tables set for seventy guests. There were tablecloths and flower arrangements, dinnerware, flatware, and centrepieces. The buffet tables were stacked with meat boards and sushi platters, and waiters milled about. There was a dais and a mic, and music and large screens with the invitation and even a video montage prepared by my wife. The party planner, along with the rest of the community, had gone all out. My mother’s friend baked 100 challah rolls for the event b’zechus refuah sheleimah for Tehilla. We were all celebrating together.
I sat down, amid all the guests who had come out for me, and before I knew it, it was time for the siyum. The moment was upon me, but I didn’t feel ready.
This was a summation of an entire decade of my life. I’d actually finished Shas. But we’d just gotten out of the hospital, and there was so much going on. How could I process anything? How could I make this simchah — this huge simchah — now?
I cleared my throat. I couldn’t talk. I was flooded with emotion, nauseous and anxious. It was a hot summer’s day and I was sweating and nervous as I held the letter, willing myself to breathe, to be calm.
I’d added a few lines to the poem in honor of Tehilla, when I made the decision to reach my goal in her merit.
Where was she?
I scanned the crowd. There she was. It was the first time since the diagnosis that she was seeing everyone again, and I could see that just being among the people who know and love her was giving her joy. That she was here at the siyum, when last week she could hardly move… it was unbelievable. Just seeing her gave me strength. I looked out at the crowd, removed my hat and jacket to cool off, and started to talk from my heart.
“When you start a journey, you never know where you’ll end up,” I said, “For me, it was a chizuk to think about where I started. So I’ll read this letter, this letter that reminds me of the beginning of the process.”
I started by thanking my 20-year-old self. The emotions came thick and fast. I was welling up, tearing up. In essence this was a love letter from one self to another self.
When I finished, I was flying, I went straight into the siyum and the Hadran. The music clanged, the crowd was on their feet, and we started to dance.
The siyum that we thought we’d have to cancel gave tremendous chizuk to myself, to our daughter, and to our close-knit community who showed they were in it with us.
Life slowly settled into a routine. Our precious Tehilla had to continue with the chemo every week. But she was able to be with the family for the rest of the time, and her personality started to come back.
She lost her lovely brown curly-ish hair. But there’s a part of her — is it her young age, her resilience? — that seems to be unfazed. Our girls are always playing with their hair, styling each other’s hair, braids and bows and girly stuff. The other day they were playing and Ahuva — that’s our second oldest — took a brush and started to “brush” Tehilla’s imaginary hair.
“Hashem’s gonna make me better,” Tehilla says. “My hair will grow back.”
She knows that everyone’s davening for her and fully encourages it.
“Don’t disturb Mommy,” she told her sister the other day when my wife was saying Tehillim. “She’s davening for me.”
As a result of the chemo and the surgery she’s had to have, Tehilla is immuno-compromised and has to be socially distant from others, so she can’t continue to go to her regular school. She joined Chabad’s online school and is so excited about it.
ON Simchas Torah she couldn’t come to shul, and the rest of us had to wear masks and stand on the side in a corner rather than dance, so that we wouldn’t carry any germs home to her.
I wrote a poem later.
On the surface, my Simchas Torah was supposed to be distant and a bit sad,
But actually, and surprisingly, this was the best Simchas Torah I had.
We got a place in the corner of the shul, me and my girls, and we stood alone watching the tight circle of men and boys fly past us.
It was just me and my girls, the closest little circle. My little ones danced on their own, I put them on my back, let them prance around. Ahuva made her own moves and swerves, Hindy’s eyes glistened as she experienced her first Simchas Torah, and Rena didn’t stop asking me questions.
But what gave me the most chizuk and delight,
Was Hindy experiencing it, eyes wide and bright.
It was Simchas Torah for everyone, but it was the year that I’d celebrated my own Simchas Torah, and in my own, isolated corner, I was able to reflect back, revel in the simchah of the day in a way I’d never done before.
It was the day when everything came together, the high points, the deep points, that had made up the year, pulling and pulsing. There was Tehilla:
She pushed herself to come to shul, bundled in the cold,
Back from the hospital, a break from its stronghold.
With her skinny body and tubes, I held her to the window to see,
I saw the spark and life light in her as I held her close next to me.
“Next year, I will dance in my Tatty’s arms when I get better,” she whispered.
I squeezed her hand. Tehilla, this special, suffering neshamah, this walking sefer Torah of mine. I closed my eyes and invoked G-d, the day of Simchas Torah, my own Simchas Torah, and the zechus I’d given for my little girl. And fervently, hoarsely, I said, “Amen.”
Please daven for a refuah sheleimah for Tehilla Basya bas Chaya Tova.
The narrator can be contacted through Mishpacha.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 940)
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