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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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The Image Of My Father


Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis

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I have had much experience in bikur cholim – visiting the sick. Even at the age of six I would accompany my saintly father on his rounds to slave labor camps where young Jewish men were incarcerated by the Hungarians prior to the Nazi occupation.

The place where I was born and where my father was the chief Orthodox rabbi was located on the banks of the Tisza River. It was called Szeged (not to be mistaken for Szigit), the second largest city in Hungary. It was from Szeged that Jewish boys were shipped off to Yugoslavia and forced into torturous labor.

Every week my father would visit them and try to smuggle medication, letters, messages – and, most significantly, a concoction the Jewish physicians in our community invented under my father’s guidance. This concoction was designed to simulate an illness that appeared to be infectious but in reality was totally benign. The symptoms induced by this potion were sufficiently frightening to prevent the Hungarian Gestapo from shipping the boys to the slave mines.

As the Nazi occupation became more imminent my father’s visits became more hazardous. The Hungarian Zsandars took control of the camp; if they were to catch my father smuggling medication or anything else it would have meant certain death.

What to do? My parents came up with an idea. My mother, the great tzaddekes of blessed memory, sewed the formula into the lining of my coat. I would accompany my father, and when no one looked I slipped the medication to the boys.

Because I was a little girl, no one bothered to search me, and that was how I was initiated into the meaning of bikur cholim. My parents outlined to me the mission and the purpose very clearly: Whether the one you visit is in bondage or lying in a hospital bed, your mission is to help.

Many years have passed since those nightmarish days, but my parents’ example is permanently etched in my heart. So I make a concerted effort to do my bikur cholim even if it’s 2 a.m. after a long night of teaching Torah classes at Hineni and meeting with numerous people for private consultations. I try to bear in mind my parents’ teachings – save lives, give a kind word, comfort your fellow man, touch a life, and bring hope and strength to a sick one lying in a hospital bed as well as family members who stand vigil trembling and praying at their bedside.

Since the middle of Pesach, as I explained in my previous two columns, I have found myself in a different position – a position that, baruch Hashem, I had never been forced to endure. Outside of joyous experiences such as giving birth, G-d had never tried me with the test of being confined to a hospital bed. So now it was I who was dependent on nurses’ kindness. It was I who was waiting for a doctor. It was I who had to ring the bell and summon someone for help with the most elementary things, such as getting off the bed and even just sitting up.

Every moment was a challenge. I wondered how I would have the strength to get through all of this and then I remembered the berachah my father gave me so many years ago: “Mine kind, zolst eemer kenen geyben un zolst keinmol nisht haften beyten” – “My child, may G-d grant you the privilege of always being able to give and never having to ask.” And now here I was, having to ask assistance for the most basic human needs.

The Patriarch Yosef found himself enveloped in darkness, and what kept him going was d’yukno shel aviv – the image of his father. In my own darkness, I, too, clung to the image of my father. I recalled the months when he was a prisoner of his hospital bed. He would greet whoever came to see him – nurse, doctor, housekeeper – with a smile and would thank them profusely. He asked about their welfare and blessed them from his heart.

My path was clear. Now it was my turn to bless all those who came to my door – whether it was to inquire about my condition or to give me an injection or to take me for an X-ray. I thanked them from my heart and blessed each one of them with the words that from time immemorial have been the symbols of our people.

Not once, but many times, I would notice a shocked reaction. One of the nurses actually said, “In all my years of working in hospitals, no one ever blessed me; no one ever inquired about my family or my life.”

My father imparted this wisdom to me that he learned from his father, who had learned it from his father, going all the way back to our Patriarchs whose mission was to give blessings to all mankind.

I do not think any of the staff members at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego had ever met an observant Jew. My father’s voice whispered to me, “My child, my precious light, wherever you are and whatever you do, never forget you represent the Torah, and the way people will see you and judge you is how they will see and judge our people.”

So on every occasion and with every encounter I spoke to people of our Torah and the wisdom of our people that was granted us at Sinai. And soon we had Torah classes – discussions and explanations. Teaching became part of my daily life at Scripps Memorial and suddenly the days were not so heavy. The hours went by quickly. I smiled for the sake of others and smiles came right back to me.

Hashem should grant that you, my dear friends, will never find yourselves in a hospital or in any other difficult circumstance. But if, G-d forbid, your destiny decrees that you have to pass this test, then rise to the challenge. Put a smile on your face and share your Torah wisdom. Remember the passage that is written so clearly and yet is so easily forgotten: “For this is your knowledge and your wisdom in the sight of the nations.”

I now prepare for my journey home and I look forward to returning to my family. Staff members come to say goodbye, and as they do their eyes are moist with tears. They tell me things like, “You touched us all, you brought the light of G-d into our lives.”

This light is the heritage of our people, bequeathed to us at Sinai. Every one of us can kindle it and light up the world. That is our mission and our purpose. Wherever we go, wherever our destiny takes us, this light is our torch.

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