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A Himmel Geshrai


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

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.

Yes, it was because of that “neurotic Jewish mother” that Jewish sons and daughters made a difference in the world and brought blessings to all of mankind.

Today we have difficulty relating to this. The new, liberated Jewish mother is encouraged to live for herself, to make her own needs her priority. She pursues her own career, goes to the gym, and happily and proudly allows her children to fend for themselves. (I am very much aware that this does not hold true for all our mothers. Baruch Hashem, we have many devoted Yiddishe Mammas, but this value system is, nevertheless, symptomatic of our culture.)

I remember a legendary allegory from my Hungarian childhood. It was about a young man who fell in love with a beautiful maiden. She, however, wanted no part of him unless he would cut out his mother’s heart and bring it to her. Summarily, the young man followed her bidding and proceeded to do that which she requested.

Holding his mother’s heart in the palm of his hand, he ran to his love as quickly as he could. While the heart was still beating in his hands it suddenly began to speak: “My son,” it pleaded, “please be careful. Don’t run so fast. You might fall and hurt yourself!”

To be sure, it’s a Hungarian allegory. But like all allegories, it begs for reflection – a mother, no matter how hurt, no matter how injured, never gives up on her children. Our generation would probably have difficulty relating to this and might even be revolted by the message of the story. Nevertheless, the tale stands. No matter how hurt, a mother will always care for her children.

From King David thousands of years ago to the Jewish mother of our enlightened 21st century who is prepared to sacrifice her son on the altar of the golden calf. How far we have come. A himmel geshrai.

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