“I say I’m impressed. With the way you’re processing this. Slowly and safely. Just do it at your own pace”
IN the evening, Tovi suddenly couldn’t breathe.
She sat on the pink chair in the foyer of the guest apartment, choking, with both hands clasping her heart.
“Abba, help! I’m having a heart attack!” she shrieked, terrified. “I’m going to die, Abba!”
“Tovi, calm down, I’m here,” he said, bending over her, giving her a shake, trying to make her catch her breath.
That was a mistake, he quickly realized. She was shaking plenty already. “Come, lie down in bed,” he tried. “You are breathing, Tovi. You’re talking to me, you’re breathing.”
Her hands were trembling. “I’m no-o-t, I’m no-o-t, I can’t breathe,” she sobbed. “The room looks all dark, Abba — do something! I’m gonna die!”
Gedalya commanded himself to think. It didn’t work. Tovi slid to the floor, panting with difficulty. Her breaths sounded like a struggling animal. He put a hand to her little heart, detected a rapid pulse.
“It can’t be from the surgery,” he muttered. “They didn’t even do anything to you today… just took some blood samples.”
“There’s not going to be any surgery!” she gasped, as if in the middle of running a race. Her tears were wetting the rug. “I’m not going back there!”
He looked at her, his child, his smart, funny, eldest daughter, who’d always been a little different from him and was now quietly crying on the blue rug, head down, body shaking.
What should he say?
“It looks like you’re having an anxiety attack,” he tried. “But you know, the surgery is totally safe, practically risk-free.”
His words floated away and were lost.
“And you don’t die from an anxiety attack. They’re not fatal.”
That wasn’t the right thing to say.
Was there any right thing to say at a time like this?
Clumsily, he clambered down beside her on the floor. When we get back home, I’m going on a diet, he thought as he shifted his weight.
“You need to strengthen your emunah and bitachon,” he almost said. And stopped himself just in time.
“I can’t breathe,” she wailed.
A black hole was crushing her, flattening her limb by limb. Dudi had once told them how a person would die in a black hole: First the legs are pulled in, growing infinitely long, and then….
Gedalya opened his flip phone. He scrolled through the recent call list. Back in Israel, everyone would be sleeping now. It was around four in the morning there. Shifra had asked him to call about anything that happened, at any hour, and not worry about waking her. But he had no intention of waking her. She needed her strength, and she was already dealing with all the other children on her own — while worrying about Tovi long-distance.
Dudi had driven over to Shifra’s second cousin to pick up their supper for tonight and tomorrow, and to buy a few items on the way. He’d be no help here, anyway, with his leitzanus, said a familiar inner voice. And then it fell silent.
What about Nechami? She might be up. She often worked nearly until morning. People with smartphones could send text messages to find out if someone was awake before calling them, but he, with his kosher phone, couldn’t risk calling the Bernfeld house at this hour. He might wake up the whole gang. And Shua, too.
He had the phone number of the clinic, and another number they’d given him in case of an emergency, but he’d never be able to explain to them what was happening, and he certainly wouldn’t understand what they’d say to him.
“Tovi — how do you say anxiety in English?”
“I don’t know,” she panted. “Abba, do something!”
There was only one thing he could do.
When Dudi came in, laden with warm bags of food, he found Tovi asleep on the rug, and Gedalya sitting at her side, stroking her back, whispering words he couldn’t hear, but didn’t need to.
“So what do all these papers say, actually?” Gedalya asked.
They were eating fish and chips and vegetable soup, saving a portion of everything for Tovi, who was still sleeping.
“My project started out as a few short booklets on atomic physics, meant to be study aids for kids learning science,” Dudi explained. He smiled. “You know, I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”
“The moment when you finally asked me what I’ve been working on.”
“Okay, so now I asked,” Gedalya said cautiously.
“And now I’m answering. There’s this foundation that gives grants to students if they’ll produce some sort of educational project, and it gets their approval. So I was given a grant to produce some science booklets.” He pulled a ring binder out of his backpack. “I have tons of material here on the chemical elements, and on the laws of physics.”
Gedalya looked at the first page, which displayed Nechami’s rendering of a hydrogen atom. “Why does hydrogen come first?” he asked.
“Because it’s the first element on the periodic table — the table of elements. It’s the lightest atom, with just one proton in its nucleus.”
“And how many protons do the other elements have?” Gedalya studied the page.
“It depends which element. Helium has two… gold has 79, uranium has 92.”
Gedalya leafed through the binder. “It’s nice,” he said. “It looks very organized and well done. So what’s the problem now?”
“There’s no real problem,” Dudi replied, while pouring himself a glass of tropical fruit juice. “Would you like some too? Shifra’s cousin said this hechsher is absolutely reliable.”
“It’s okay, Dudi. I trust you.”
Dudi poured his brother a cup of juice. “Anyway, when my project supervisor saw how much material I had, he said it should be a whole book, not just a few booklets. He wants it to be published as a school textbook for frum kids.”
“Nu, nu.” Gedalya wasn’t sure he’d have a book like that in his house.
“You’re thinking you’re not so sure you’d allow a book like that in your house,” Dudi said coyly.
“Right,” Gedalya admitted. “Don’t take it personally, Dudi. The whole subject of science is very sensitive. Certain ideas can creep in between the lines, things we wouldn’t want our children reading.”
“Yeah, I get that. Two publishers already told us the same thing. They’ll consider it only if a recognized rabbinical review board goes over it with a fine-tooth comb first. And we have to arrange that, and get the haskamah.” Dudi sighed. “I just don’t feel up to tackling that issue right now… I don’t have the patience to start looking for a rabbinical board that will take on this kind of material, and to spend hours explaining to them what I’m trying to do.”
“Why do you need to look for a rabbinical board?”
“I just told you.” Dudi crumpled the empty juice carton.
Tovi, curled up on the rug, began to stir. She rubbed her eyes and mumbled, “Did you save food for me?”
“I didn’t understand the problem about looking…” Gedalya addressed his brother.
“I need rabbinical reviewers, censors who are recognized in the frum community, to go over the material and approve it.”
“Nu? You’ve got one sitting right here with you. Tovi, of course we saved food for you. Come and eat.”
That night, as was their nefarious habit, they were both working until morning, chatting on the phone while doing the tasks that didn’t require all their attention.
“You’re in shanah rishonah,” Nechami protested. “You shouldn’t be working at night. Didn’t Rebbetzin Sekornik teach you that?”
“I have a mortgage to pay, on an apartment in Yerushalayim,” Chaya said, yawning.
“That’s your problem. Go live in Neve Tzinobarim.”
“Said the lady who’s lived in Yerushalayim since the day she was married,” Chaya answered tartly.
“We each have our own struggles, honey. I don’t think you could be married even for one year to an absent-minded illui, for example.”
A year? I wouldn’t survive it even for a day, Chaya thought to herself, recalling all the funny stories about Shua’s slipups in the early years.
A minute of silence passed, filled only by the clicking of mouses and keyboards on both ends of the line.
An “Oysh!” from Nechami broke the silence.
“I broke my keychain.”
“The one with the wooden cola bottle that Shua gave you as a yontif gift ages ago?” Chaya was convulsed with laughter. “Good! It’s about time he got you a new present.”
“Hey, don’t insult my first Yom Tov present!”
More silence, punctuated by clicking.
“Tell me, Nechami — is there a problem with moving into an apartment that used to be occupied by a woman who had a mental breakdown?” Chaya asked tentatively.
“No. Why — who was living in your apartment before you?”
“Nobody. I mean, I don’t know who lived here. I meant the apartment that’s available for rent in Neve Tzinobarim. The young couple that was there previously… it was that unhinged woman who’s now living on your street, and her ex-husband.”
“Her name is Ruti,” said Nechami.
“Okay. And what do you say?”
“I say I’m impressed. With the way you’re processing this. Slowly and safely. Just do it at your own pace.” Nechami searches among her files for the folder labeled “Dudi Project.” Here it is, one of the first ones she modeled for him in 3D. Nuclear fusion. Two hydrogen atoms are close together. They merge. They fuse, through a chain of chemical reactions. They are no longer two now — they are one. A helium atom is formed.
And she remembers Shua coming home, glowing, from Rav Baruch’s shiur. They were still young then. She was holding a baby, or maybe two. “Nosnim lecha sechar harbeh,” he said to her. “If you learn Torah, they’re giving you a great reward, in the present tense — already now, this itself is the reward. I don’t know what in Gan Eden could be better,” he told her, and he was radiant. And she was the moon, shining with his light.
But she had wanted some light of her own, too. She had wanted it to be given right then, not 70 years later in Gan Eden. And all her life she’d been searching until she found it.
Now she knows. The Torah was her penimiyus, her inner essence. She’d learned step by step how to bring it all in. How to do what’s good, not what makes a good impression. How to merge with another person.
The new atom that is formed is lighter than the two atoms as a pair. One particle of matter disappears, becoming a tremendous burst of energy, she reads, through the tears that blur the screen. She knew this already. When two become one, one must let go of something.
And then, either you become a hydrogen bomb, scattering devastation all around you…
Or you become a sun, a source of life, warmth, and light. And entire worlds are sustained by your energy.
to be continued…
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 907)
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