“A himmel geshrai” is a Yiddish phrase that, loosely translated, means “a tragedy of such catastrophic proportions that the heavens themselves cry out.” Sadly, every one of the letters on family breakdowns I’ve featured these past several weeks can be summed up as “a himmel geshrai.”
As Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach and we appeal to Hashem for a blessed New Year, we also prepare for the awesome moment when we will all stand before Almighty G-d. Just as we carefully prepare for special occasions, making certain our appearance is “just right,” so we must ready ourselves for the most awesome day in our calendar year – when our destiny is decided.
On that day G-d will search our souls and make decisions affecting the lives of each and every one of us – “who shall live and who shall die; who shall be at ease and who shall suffer; who shall be elevated and who shall be demoted; who shall be enriched and who shall be impoverished; who by fire, who by water, and so on.”
Who would not tremble on such a day? Who would dare stand in front of G-d, the Great Judge, in soiled, putrid garments? Surely no sane man would want to appear repugnant in His sight, and yet that is exactly what so many of us are doing.
There is nothing so repugnant to our Father than to see animosity, jealousy, and hatred fragmenting His children. When a Jewish home becomes an inferno, with no love to unite family members, that household banishes itself from the presence of G-d. It is a catastrophe of himmel geshrai proportions.
The most recent letter I featured exemplified a new low in this abominable state of affairs – a mother engaging attorneys to prosecute her own son, even to the point of placing him behind bars. And all for financial gain.
Pagan men killed their own children to feed the idols they worshipped. Thousands of years have passed and the idols are still very much with us, albeit identified by different names. In place of Ba’al and other such creations, the new idol is the golden calf of money, and it is on this altar that modern man sacrifices his family.
Images of our giants appear in my mind’s eye. I hear the voice of David, king of Israel, when his son Avshalom fomented an uprising against him. It would have been easy and natural for David to command his troops to do away with this despicable, rebellious son, but instead David chose to abdicate his throne and leave Jerusalem. Avshalom, however, was not satisfied. He feared his father might return to the holy city and reclaim his kingdom, so he unrelentingly pursued him and schemed to kill him.
When the news reached David that Avshalom, galloping on his horse in pursuit of his father, had caught his long hair in the branch of a tree and been killed, David cried out in anguish, “Avshalom b’ni, Avshalom b’ni – Avshalom, my son, Avshalom, my son; would that I had died instead of you!”
But David didn’t stop there. He repeated seven times the words “Avshalom b’ni, Avshalom b’ni.” With tears he beseeched G-d to remove his son from the throes of Gehennom and elevate him to the Seventh Heaven – the highest place in the abode above.
David’s example is not an isolated one. Rather, it is symptomatic of Jewish parents who have always been prepared to sacrifice for their children even when deeply wounded or hurt. There is a well-known Yiddish adage that goes, “One mother can care for ten children, but ten children cannot care for one mother.”
Jewish parents have been unwavering in their commitment and love, and in our secular, liberated society are caricatured for their unwavering devotion. When Philip Roth’s notorious novel Portnoy’s Complaint – in which he mockingly satirized the “neurotic” Jewish mother who forever obsesses about her children and hovers over them – was published decades ago, I wrote an article in which I emphasized that we are proud of the so-called neurotic Jewish mother. It was she who gave birth to and nurtured the giants of every generation – prophets and sages, righteous men and holy women, scientists and physicians, mathematicians and musicians, artists and authors.