I’m one of those of annoying people whose house is usually neat and tidy. It’s not my fault – I grew up in a home like that. But, over the years, I’ve noticed a down-side to a neat and tidy home. This kind of home often comes with a homeowner who is a little more… exacting… demanding… even critical of others. A less showcase home and you’ll probably notice that the homeowner is the more easy-going type. Which brings me to my critical eye and the battle I’ve been fighting to close it. Now, thanks to Rebbetzin Henny Machlis, a”h, I’m on a winning streak. And that is because, in the words of reader Ruthie Herbst, “it is not possible to remain the same person you were before you read the book.”
Who was Rebbetzin Henny Machlis?
In her book Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup: The story of Rebbetzin Henny Machlis (ArtScroll 2016), Sara Yocheved Rigler uses meticulous research, detailed anecdotes and personal stories to bring to life the Brooklyn-born girl who became a Jerusalem legend. Who, exactly, was Henny Machlis and how did she do it? Henny was probably best known for her legendary chessed. Within a few years of marrying and moving from Brooklyn to Jerusalem in 1979, the Machlises were hosting 20-30 guests at every Shabbos meal. The numbers grew until 100-150 guests were crowding into Maalot Dafna, block 137, apartment 26, for Shabbos meals every week of the year, except for the week of Pesach. And if that wasn’t enough, Henny would sometimes wake up between 2-4 a.m. to serve an entire Shabbos meal to one particular woman who didn’t like crowds. And she even opened her home so that people on house arrest would have a base.
But Henny did even more than host – she loved and encouraged people so that they began to believe in themselves. “She was a visionary,” says her husband Rabbi Mordechai Machlis. “She looked beyond what was immediately visible. She looked at problematic people, and she would see what they could be, the next step.”
Henny was more than chessed. She loved Torah and always shared a Torah thought at the Shabbos meals. She was also someone who loved to daven and who knew how to daven. It wasn’t unheard of for her to stay up reciting Tehillim throughout the night on behalf of a woman who had gone into labor, or someone who was experiencing shalom bayis issues. And the result? Often the miracles were obvious. So how do you capture the essence of a larger-than-life person?
A Reader-Friendly Format
By using a reader-friendly format. Throughout the book, contributors’ experiences are told in their own words so that, instead of reading a report, we get a real-life glimpse of what Henny meant to others. Her husband, her children, her students, and the many other people whose lives she touched share their impressions.
Another innovation: Interspersed throughout the book are Henny’s Torah teachings. And while we learn tremendously from what she taught her family and students, what struck me the most was that through these Torah thoughts, we learn about what was important to Henny. Henny was a person who was always working on herself…whether it was making more of an effort to be thankful for the gifts that Hashem gave her or working on giving the right gifts to others. Amazingly, despite all that she had achieved, Henny didn’t see herself as a finished product… she was always striving for more.
Culling from these Torah thoughts, and from Henny’s life experiences, Sara Yocheved Rigler presents us with practical suggestions on how to raise our own bar. From the suggestion to write down and review our spiritual goals to the suggestion to ask Hashem for everything we want, no matter how small or how big – we come away with practical suggestions on how we can change ourselves.
Which brings us to the reason why some people may be reticent about reading this type of biography. Quite honestly, seeing the heights another person can reach automatically makes us question ourselves. But don’t worry… Henny’s tremendous love and acceptance of people comes through clearly in this book. So much so that we come away with the conviction that we can grow at our own pace and become who we are meant to be. Not another Henny Machlis (which would be impossible anyway). “The amazing tolerance Henny Machlis had towards people and the incredible compassion she showed very difficult people makes me think that perhaps I could be a little more tolerant, compassionate and forgiving of difficult people in my life,” writes reader Fruma M.
Other enjoyable components in the book are the In Her Footsteps anecdotes which show how Henny affected the lives of those around her. In preparation for this article, author Sara Yocheved Rigler shared how writing this book changed her: “It is no exaggeration to say that every day I do something that I would not have done without Henny’s blazing example. For example, this morning, I was anxious to get to my desk to answer pressing emails. The phone rang. It was Adi, a terror victim I had helped 14 years ago. Adi was 15 years old when a suicide bomber blew himself up at Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, killing and maiming many teenagers who were eating ice cream there. Adi was badly wounded in her legs and face. For several years, I kept in touch with her, helping in various ways, but I have had no contact with her for the last 7 years, since she married. (She’s had two children, but the residual damage of the terror attack on her legs has left her partially crippled.) When she called this morning I was conflicted between wanting to catch up on the last 7 years of her life and feeling that I didn’t have time for this chatty visit. A voice in my head kept saying, ‘Henny would take the time to visit with people who came to her. Henny had so much to do, but she always made time for people…’ That voice quelled my inner qualms, and I gave Adi a half hour of undivided attention – because that’s what Henny would have done.”
I would like to add my own In Her Footsteps stories. As I read the book, I was changed in so many ways. Following Henny’s footsteps, I no longer wake up in the morning wondering how I’m going to make it through the day on the amount of sleep I got. Instead, I ask Hashem to give me the strength I need to accomplish the things I need to do. And when it comes to the eating habits of my children, I worry less about how the child who won’t touch a fruit or vegetable will get the vitamins she needs and how the child who won’t touch chicken or fish will get adequate protein. Instead, I ask Hashem to put all the body-building elements that they need into the food that they do eat.
And what about the critical eye that I mentioned at the beginning? It’s closing. Recently, wandering through the maze of corridors in a hotel in Jerusalem, I finally asked a cleaning lady for directions to the shul. The elderly Russian lady left her cleaning and walked me there. I didn’t just say thank you. I told her how kind she was and what a good feeling her gesture gave me. Then I shook her hand. Next time, I plan to move one step further and give a total stranger a quick hug. Why? Because through reading about how Henny saw the charm and beauty in everyone she met, I’m able to work towards changing how I see the people I meet. And it goes further. According to Rabbi Machlis, one of Henny’s favorite teachings comes from the Zohar. It says that in the same way we will be held accountable for any negative words we utter, we will also be held accountable for any good words that we could have said, but didn’t say. For me, it’s getting easier and easier to utter those kind words.
Sadly, Henny passed away after fighting an illness on Erev Shabbos, October 16, 2015. One reader, quoting Brachos 18a-b, says Tzaddikim are called alive in their death. Henny lives on in the consciousness of those who knew her and read about her. Her teachings still light up our lives. Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup is a book about change.
When I finished reading it, I felt that I had just read a mussar sefer tailored for our times. Then I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. “Henny has shown us how we can think and act every day to become greater servants of Hashem,” Chaya Malka Abramson, director of the Chaya Malka Burn Foundation, told me. “It is like a hands on Messilat Yesharim,” shared another reader. “The yeshivas are thinking of holding a mussar seder based on this book,” said book dealer Michael Rose with a smile as he handed me my copy. So go ahead… read the book. It’ll change you.