My wife’s grandfather, Isadore (Sruli) Bruckstein z”l, passed away just shy of his 99th birthday. When he was already well into his nineties I asked him, “Bameh he’erachta yamim? Why do you think you merited longevity?”
Without hesitating he responded: “When I was in the concentration camp, I didn’t tip my cap properly to an SS guard who walked by, not out of rebellion but because I didn’t notice him. It didn’t matter; the guard beat me senseless.” (In fact, he became blind in one eye as a result.)
“I returned to the barrack, broken, despondent, and in incredible physical and emotional pain. I was ready to give up. I decided that that night I would leave This World. But in the same barrack was the Chuster Rav. He saw how hopeless I was, and he stayed up the entire night giving me chizuk. He told me that if I made it through the night, he was giving me a brachah that I would survive, and while Hitler and the Nazis would become a distant memory, I would live a long life and merit to see children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, all shomrei Torah u’mitzvos.
“That is why I have merited arichus yamim.”
The brachah of the Chuster Rav meant the world to him because he had been to Gehinnom and back and seen the Rav’s unconditional emunah and effort to do everything he could to live, not only physically, but spiritually. My wife’s grandfather related that one Yom Kippur in the concentration camp, the Chuster Rav found an empty barrack and invited anyone who wanted to join him for Kol Nidrei. They obviously didn’t have machzorim and kittels, and they didn’t hold sifrei Torah, but he knew the entire davening by heart and everyone else listened. Before he began Kol Nidrei, he told those in attendance that he wanted to say something.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 32b) says that on Yom Kippur the books of life and the books of death are opened before the Almighty. Why, he asked, does it say books of life and books of death, in the plural? Isn’t there one book for those who will merit life and one book for those who won’t?
The Chuster Rav looked out at those skeletal Jews, the broken souls who had gathered with him to daven, and said, “I’ll tell you why: Because there is not one way to live and one way to die. You can live with freedom and prosperity, or you can live in a camp like this being tortured, beaten, and forced to work. You can die at an old age in your bed, or you can die in the gas chamber. You can be buried in a Jewish cemetery, or you can be burnt in the crematorium.
“Let us say Kol Nidrei,” he told them, “and daven that we not only merit life, but that we merit a real life, a life outside of this camp, and that if we must die, that we merit a dignified death and a proper Jewish burial.”
With that he began to sing Kol Nidrei, and all of those gathered were crying, sobbing.
The window of the barrack was open, my wife’s grandfather related, and an SS officer heard the cries. He came in and started screaming, “What are you crying about? You have no reason to cry. I will give you a reason to cry!” He shouted for the windows to be closed, but in the meantime my wife’s grandfather jumped out the window, anticipating what was to come. He later heard that the SS had beaten those inside, some of them to death.
The Chuster Rav’s question was actually asked earlier, by the Alshich Hakadosh (parshas Emor) and others, but the answer was likely never as powerful as it was that night.
Unlike the Chuster Rav and millions of other Jewish martyrs and survivors throughout history, most of us have known only freedom, opportunity, and prosperity. We have the great luxury and brachah of not having to think of the books of life and books of death in that way. What, then, do the multiple books of life mean to us?
There are multiple books of life and death, for us as well, because there is more than one way we can choose to live. Will we see the blessings in our lives, or the hardships? Will we be grateful for what we have, or resentful and bitter for what is missing? Into which book of life will we inscribe ourselves?
Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz lies in bed, unable to move anything but his eyes. Yet Yitzi’s ALS doesn’t prevent him from using his eyes to type a devar Torah that he publishes online each week. Last year, at this time, he wrote:
It is now over 5 years since Hashem gifted me with ALS. But this week we celebrated a milestone: it is 3 years since I had a tracheostomy. It was the day after Rosh Hashanah. I had been using a machine called a bipap to help me breathe, but still I seemed to be fading. My wife, Dina, took me to the hospital, where I was diagnosed with pneumonia, and my oxygen level was dangerously low.
At that point I was given the choice to have the tracheostomy and live, or not and put an end to the suffering and difficulties. Legally and halachically it was my choice, with Dina’s support, I chose to live. The simple fact is, that if I would not have had it then, I wouldn’t be here today and possibly wouldn’t have lived through the week…
After having the tracheostomy, I lost the use of my right hand, and with that went my ability to communicate. Before that I would type on an iPhone for communication and writing blog posts. For those 9 days in the hospital, I couldn’t communicate, and I just let go and put my trust in Hashem, and my wife made sure I was taken care of.
I am blessed to live at a time when there are technologies that keep me alive, such as the ventilator that breathes for me, and the incredible computer that reads my eye movements, so I can communicate. While life is full of difficulties, pain, and suffering, there is so much to be grateful for. While I understand the hardships, I choose to focus on the positive parts of my life, and that keeps me going. There is my wife, my children, family, friends, and you. I have the opportunity to learn and teach Torah. There is the hope that in the future a cure will be found, or perhaps a miracle will occur even sooner.
Each of us has so much good in our lives; even within the suffering and difficulties there is so much good to be found. Focus on the positive in your life now, see all the love that is around you. There is so much you can do, and so much more you can give.
Hashem decides if we live or die, but we decide how we will live, and even, to an extent, how we will die. Will you inscribe yourself in Reb Yitzi’s book of life? Will you see the good in your life, even within the suffering? Or will you inscribe yourself in the book of negativity, of bitterness, of being dead while alive?
For ten days, from the bottom of our hearts we will plead zachreinu l’chayim, Melech chafetz bachayim, v’chasveinu b’sefer hachayim, l’maancha Elokim chayim. The Maggid of Mezritch explains that we aren’t simply asking for a pulse and the ability to breathe. We are asking Hashem to make us truly alive, to help us know why we are here, and to imbue our lives with simchas hachayim, the joy of life that comes from understanding our mission, pursuing the opportunities we have, and recognizing the brachah that surrounds us.
We can’t change our circumstances; we can’t change the people in our lives and how they behave; we can’t change the natural events that impact us and our health. The only thing we can change is how we process and react to what happens to us. We can be like Reb Yitzi and choose a life filled with living, or we can concede our happiness and our health to others and be as good as dead, even while alive.
Money is one form of wealth, but there so many other forms: good health, happiness, shalom bayis, nachas and more. “Some people are so poor,” the saying goes. “All they have is money.” Money can solve a lot of problems, but the ones that it can’t help are problems none of us would ever want. If our happiness is defined by what we don’t have, by what we crave, then we will never be happy because there is always something more to acquire. However, if our happiness is the result of being grateful for what we have, we can decide to be happy, because we always have something.
Elul, we know, is an acronym for Ani l’Dodi v’Dodi li, I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me, which reflects our effort to connect to Hashem during this month. Elul is also an acronym for Ish l’rei’eihu u’matanos l’evyonim, which represents the interpersonal responsibilities that are so critical at this time. Much less familiar is an acronym that alludes to our relationship with ourselves as we prepare for the Yamim Noraim. Rav Elimelech Biderman suggests that the letters of “Elul” stand for leibedig un veiter leibedig — Be filled with life and vigor and further filled with life and vigor.
Throughout this time of the year, we repeat the words, “Al tashlicheinu l’eis ziknah, kichlos kocheinu al taazveinu,” which are normally translated as: Do not cast us away in old age; when our strength gives out, do not forsake us. But if that is the case, we should say b’eis ziknah, in old age. Why do we say l’eis ziknah, to old age?
Rav Eliezer Waldenburg, author of Tzitz Eliezer, offers a magnificent explanation. Young people are filled with energy and vitality. They have their whole life ahead of them to grow, mature, develop, and change. Older people, however, are set in their ways, fixed in their behavior, and unlikely to change. We ask Hashem, Al tashlicheinu l’eis ziknah — don’t cast me away or give up on me as if I can’t change, as if I am old and set in my ways. Don’t forsake me when I don’t believe I have the strength to change. Help me recognize, Hashem, whether I am young or old, healthy or infirm, that I have the capacity to choose life, that I can yet change, that I am not stuck in my ways.
The possibilities, the potential, the opportunities are great. We don’t have one book, we have many. There is the book of our complacency, apathy, excuses, and regret, and there is the book of possibility, no matter what age or stage of life we are at. There is the book of misery and bitterness, or the book of Reb Yitzi, of feeling blessed and grateful, even when paralyzed in every muscle of your body but your eyes.
At this time of the year, the books of life and the books of death are opened. In which one will you inscribe yourself?
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 726. Rabbi Efrem Goldberg is the senior rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue, a rapidly growing shul of over 850 families in Boca Raton, Florida. You can read and listen to more of his divrei Torah at www.rabbiefremgoldberg.org.
Oops! We could not locate your form.