Reincarnation and the Holocaust

Finding an article about reincarnation in Scientific American is as unlikely as finding a recipe for pork chops in a kosher cookbook. How surprised I was, therefore, to read “Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We ‘Skeptics’ Really Just Cynics?” in Scientific American’s online issue of November 2, 2013.

Its author, Jesse Bering, a former professor of psychology, is a self-proclaimed skeptic. “If you’re anything like me, with eyes that roll over to the back of your head whenever you hear words like ‘reincarnation’ or ‘parapsychology’ …” he writes. And his article is a wrestling match between his own inveterate skepticism and his intellectual honesty in daring to examine the research done by the late Prof. Ian Stevenson, who held the Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia.

Prof. Stevenson meticulously studied the memories of previous lives of some 3,000 children. For example, a toddler in Sri Lanka heard her mother mention the distant town of Kataragama and proceeded to tell her mother that she had drowned there when her “dumb” brother pushed her into the river. She went on to mention 30 details of her previous home, family, and neighborhood. Prof. Stevenson went to Kataragama and found a family that perfectly fit the child’s description. Their two-year-old daughter had indeed drowned in the river while playing with her mentally challenged brother. Prof. Stevenson verified 27 of the 30 statements made by the child.

“I must say… many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means.”

After reading Stevenson’s research reports, Jesse Bering grudgingly admits: “I must say, when you actually read them firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means.”

Bering then declares: “Towards the end of her own storied life, the physicist Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf – whose groundbreaking theories on surface physics earned her the prestigious Heyn Medal from the German Society for Material Sciences, surmised that Stevenson’s work had established that ‘the statistical probability that reincarnation does in fact occur is so overwhelming … that cumulatively the evidence is not inferior to that for most if not all branches of science.’”

The Jewish View

We Jews certainly never learned about reincarnation in Hebrew School. But if we dig, we discover that there are hints to reincarnation in the Bible and early commentaries 1, while in Kabbalah, Judaism’s mystical tradition, overt references to reincarnation abound. The Zohar, the basic text of Jewish mysticism (attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 1st century sage) assumes gilgul neshamot [the recycling of souls] as a given, and the Ari, the greatest of all Kabbalists, whose 16th teachings are recorded in, Shaar HaGilgulim, traced the reincarnations of many Biblical figures. While some authorities, such as Saadia Gaon (10th century) denied reincarnation as a Jewish concept, from the 17th century onward, leading rabbis of normative Judaism, such as the Gaon of Vilna and the Chafetz Chaim2, referred to gilgul neshamot as a fact.

The Ramchal, the universally-admired 18th century scholar, explained in his classic The Way of God: “God arranged matters so that man’s chances of achieving ultimate salvation should be maximized. A single soul can be reincarnated a number of times in different bodies, and in this manner, it can rectify the damage done in previous incarnations. Similarly, it can also achieve perfection that was not attained in its previous incarnations.” [3:10]

Still, many Jews feel that believing in reincarnation is like believing in Santa Claus. It violates two taboos: It’s irrational and it smacks of other religions.

My Holocaust-Obsessed Childhood

Born in 1948 in suburban New Jersey to second-generation American parents with no family connection to the Holocaust, my own disbelief in reincarnation marred my growing-up years in two ways: It left me devoid of any logical explanation for my obsession with the Holocaust and my seething hatred of everything German. And it filled me with anger against God at the suffering of innocent Jews whose final chapter ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the pits of Babi Yar.

I well remember the day in third grade of Hebrew school, at the age of 11, when I realized that I was not “normal.” During recess I was sitting, legs dangling, on the desk of my favorite Hebrew school teacher, Mr. Feinstein. I told him how my father had just purchased a German camera, and of course I refused to let him take my picture with it. I myself refused to buy German products and never accepted a ride in a Volkswagen. Mr. Feinstein asked me if any members of my extended family had been killed in the Holocaust. “No,” I replied.

“Do your parents hate Germans?” he probed.

“I guess not. They never talk about the Holocaust,” I answered, clueless as to what he was getting at.

“Then why do you hate Germans so much?”

I stared at him as if he had asked me why I like chocolate milkshakes. “All Jewish kids hate Germans,” I replied, stating the obvious.

The bell announced the end of recess. My classmates filed in and took their seats, with me still sitting on the teacher’s desk. Mr. Feinstein threw out a question: “How many of you hate Germans?”

My hand shot up. Harry Davidov tentatively half-lifted his hand. No one else in the class moved.

Mr. Feinstein gazed at me without saying a word. I slithered down from his desk, feeling weird, estranged from my friends, a different species, an ugly duckling.

How could it be that my inner passions were not what all Jewish kids felt? Where did they come from? Who had given birth to them? I felt like I had just learned that I was adopted. My assumptions were false, the genealogy of my innermost passions shrouded in haze.

At the beginning of ninth grade, I had a dream that left me even more bewildered. Everyone in my ninth grade glass was required to select a language to study for the next three years. Our choices were: French, Spanish, German, and Latin. All my friends chose French or Spanish. I chose German. When my surprised friends asked me why, I replied with steely eyes, “’Know thine enemy.’ I want to read Mein Kempf in the original.”

At the end of my first week of German study, after two classes and a language lab repeating, “Guten tag, Freulein Hess,” I had a convoluted dream. I woke up in the middle of it, shaking. I and everyone else in the dream had been speaking fluent German.

Trying to understand myself without a concept of reincarnation was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.

Dreams and Phobias

The clues that hint at a reincarnated soul from the Holocaust are recurrent dreams, phobias, and déjà vu experiences, especially by people born in the first decade or so after the Holocaust. In the 1950s and 60s, books and movies about the Holocaust were virtually non-existent and therefore could not account for these vivid phenomena.

Jackie Warshall was born in Brooklyn in 1950 to American-born parents. When she was four years old, at night after her mother tucked her in and left her to go to sleep, little Jackie would stare into her pillow as if it were a TV set, and see a vision. She saw herself inside the back of a truck filled with women. Some of them were collapsing to the floor. Then she saw herself fly out of the truck. There, above the truck, she would feel a sense of liberation, and say, “I got out. I’m free now.”

Only decades later did she learn that the Nazis’ earliest experiment in mass murder was to pack people into a truck and pipe the carbon monoxide gas from the motor into the back of the truck.

Many years later, Jackie was teaching a fourth grade class in a Jewish day school in Connecticut. In the library, leafing through a Holocaust book for young readers, she found a watercolor sketch of women standing inside the back of a truck. “Standing in the library,” Jackie recounts, “I felt like a lightening bolt of recognition hit me.”


Anna B. was born in 1957 in St. Louis to a traditional Jewish family with no direct link to the Holocaust. When Anna was five years old, she began to have a recurring dream that she was being tortured in a laboratory setting. Her torturers were a doctor wearing a white coat and, incongruously, a man in a military uniform. She had this recurring dream until she was ten years old.

When she later learned about the Holocaust, Anna felt, “The Nazis were the people in my dream.” Starting in third grade, she became obsessed with the Holocaust, reading whatever Holocaust books and seeing whatever Holocaust movies were available at that time. At some point, she concluded that she had been experimented upon in Mengele’s infamous twin experiments.

Years later, Anna was invited for a Shabbos meal in New York City. When she arrived, an elderly gentleman who was a fellow guest opened the door for her. She looked at him quizzically. She knew him, but she couldn’t place from where. He also stared at her with a perplexed recognition. Finally, still standing at the doorway, he said, “I think I know you.” Anna replied, “I think I know you, too.” Neither of them, however, could figure out from where.

The connection between Anna and this man, many decades older than she, was so strong that the man’s wife started to get upset. The man and his wife had been guests in this home many times before. Over Shabbos lunch, however, the elderly man, a Holocaust survivor, revealed something that his hosts had never before heard: He had been a subject in the Mengele twin experiments.


I received the following correspondence from a Talmud scholar who detailed a recurrent nightmare he had as a child, six decades ago. He wrote: “I have never shared the following story with anyone, not even my parents, wife or closest friends.” At the end of his account, he added: “I wish to remain anonymous. Jerry Friedman was the first fictitious name that popped into my head.” So averse was he to being associated with a book about reincarnation that he even created a special Gmail account just to send me his story.

He described his recurring dream:

I was born in 1942 to American-born parents. As a young child I had a recurring nightmare. I was a child of about 7 years of age, lying on a well-worn wooden floor, my back propped up against a wall. The room was in my home, not my real home, but in my “nightmare home.” Somehow I knew that the home was in Europe, probably Poland … . The room was dimly lit and filled with choking smoke. I could see people on the floor who had been shot. They were my “nightmare” family.

There were several uniformed men standing in the room – the perpetrators of the slaughter. I spotted a black gun on the floor next to me and picked it up, still lying on the floor with my back propped against the wall. I held it tightly in my two hands and aimed it at the upper chest of one of the uniformed men who was standing above me. The officer – I just assumed he was an officer of some sort because of his cap – just mockingly smiled at me as if to convey that he knew I would not have the courage to pull the trigger. I looked to the right and left of the officer and noticed the other men and their armbands with the strange symbols, X’s with the ends broken back, like a pinwheel. [At that point in his childhood he was totally unfamiliar with the swastika.]

I looked back at the officer as he was slowly raising his gun towards me. I tried real hard to pull the trigger of my gun. I knew if I didn’t pull it, he would shoot me. I just stared at his eyes and his mocking grin growing wider and his gun raised, pointing to my head. I wanted so much to pull the trigger of the black gun. Then the dream ends.

Since early childhood, I have had an aversion to guns, especially black guns. I still get the chills when I see one.


Nechama Bornstein, a Jewish woman from Denmark, born in 1963, had a dream as an adult:

In the dream, I was walking with a group of people, through a darkened passage. At the end of this hallway, there was a wall, made of brown wooden planks. The ceiling was low. The wall to the left was set with white-painted bricks. … I knew that we were being taken to be punished. We had done something terrible, according to the Nazis. We were herded on, close together. … Then right before the end of the hallway, on the right, a door was slightly open. We were pushed through it and entered a fairly large room. It was lit, but I didn’t see any source of light. …

Years later, a traveling exhibition of children’s photos from Auschwitz was held in The Architect Academy in Copenhagen.

A small photograph on the wall caught my attention. … The small photograph wasn’t showing a face, but a low-ceiling hallway. My heart started pounding. I moved forward, every step seemed to take an eternity, unfolding in another time dimension. I knew this place. There it was – the wall made of wooden planks, then that of white-painted bricks. … I was so upset, I could hardly breathe. I reached the small photograph. This was where we had been walking [in the dream]. There was the door to the right.

A small sign beneath the photograph read: “Entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz.”

Perceiving God’s Love

Reincarnation turns the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the pits of Babi Yar into terrible chapter endings rather than the final conclusion of the soul’s story. Every great epic includes fearsome chapters where, for example, the heroine is abducted by the villain and subjected to torment. If that were the ending, the saga would indeed be dubbed a tragedy. But if there’s a subsequent chapter, where the villain is vanquished and the heroine – now wiser and kinder for her ordeal – is reunited with her family and goes on to live a salubrious, happy life, would you call that story a tragedy?

The most impactful words I ever heard came from the mouth of Batya Burd, widow of Gershon Burd, speaking at a recent event. After her husband drowned on his 40th birthday, Batya was left a 39-year-old widow with five children under the age of ten. Some people have been asking Batya how such a tragedy could have occurred to her. Batya offered “a potential scenario just to quench the ‘Why?’”

What if, she asked hypothetically, she had been a religious girl in the Holocaust, and had seen someone very dear to her die in front of her. And her reaction had been to deny God, abandon Jewish practice, and rail against God to as many people as would listen. As Batya postulates in her hypothetical scenario:

“What if I spoke out very strongly to people around me that there must be no God, that He must have abandoned us, and I brought others down with me.” What if she then died, and in “the World of Truth,” where the soul goes after death, she recognized her mistake and asked for a chance to rectify it. And God gave her another opportunity to “get it right and fix what I had spoiled before.”

And what if she was born again into this world, and had “a good life, and, again, God had someone very dear to me die in front of me, and this time I was going to be given ample opportunity to stay strong in my faith, and I was going to be given a platform to strengthen other people to stay strong, and in that way not only would I rectify what I had done before, but I would go even higher.

“What a good, loving, caring, compassionate God, to allow me the opportunity to rectify and perfect myself and the world around me.”

Reincarnation is a powerful lens through which God’s love and mercy can be perceived in the cataclysms of life.

I’m not asking you, dear reader, to start believing in reincarnation, only to be open-minded enough to examine the evidence. As Jesse Bering wrote in his Scientific American blog: “I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open. Well, at tad, anyway.”

Sara Yoheved Rigler is collecting more stories for a book on this subject. Readers who have reason to believe that they had an incarnation in the Holocaust are requested to fill out this survey with their email address: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PD8C3ZX

Of Angels And Poinsettias

My father did not believe in angels. He could not be bothered with spiritual notions or metaphysical concepts. But when he died, and I stood beside his sheet-covered body in the mortuary’s refrigerated room, I was overwhelmed by the sense that legions of angels were surrounding my father and escorting his soul to the next world. And I, his ardently spiritual daughter, stood there envying his place in the world to come.

According to Judaism, angels can be created by human beings. Every good thought, word, and deed gives birth to a positive force in the universe, which is called an angel. These angels are eternal. They hover around us throughout our life, and accompany us to our reward after our death. Conversely, every evil thought, word, and deed creates a bad angel, or demon. They also hover over us until, in the heavenly court, they become our accusers.

I could recognize the faces of many of the angels that filled that cold, white-tiled room in Bershler’s Funeral Parlor. One whole contingent was born on those rainy mornings when my father, driving to work, would pull over to the bus stops along the way and offer a ride to anyone going to Camden.

And over there was the angel of the black eye, which my father got when he accosted a big, black man he caught shoplifting in his drugstore. A policeman who happened in to the drugstore at that moment arrested the man, but my father refused to press charges. Instead, he offered his assailant a job in the store, so that he could earn money to pay for the items he had tried to steal.

He offered his assailant a job in the store, so that he could earn some money.

I recognized another angel, born at the end of a cold winter day, when I was catching a ride home from the drugstore with my father. My father daily delivered prescriptions to the homes of people who were too sick to come in for them. I was in a hurry to get home that day, but my father assured me he had only one delivery to make. He drove up to a dilapidated house in the ghetto which Camden, New Jersey, had become, and disappeared into the house. By the time he emerged fifteen minutes later, I was rabid.

“What took you so long?” I scolded him.

My father, who never explained himself, but who did not want to listen to my harangue, answered simply, “The house was ice cold. No wonder the woman is sick. So I tried to call the coal company to order her a load of coal, but their line was busy until a minute ago.”

Hovering close to my father’s body were the poinsettia angels. Christmas was a rare day off for my father, since the drugstore was open six days a week, and Sunday he invariably went in for a few hours to finish work from the previous week. But instead of relaxing on Christmas, when he, as a Jew, had nothing to do, my father would fill up the back of his station wagon with gift poinsettias. Most of these poinsettias he delivered to the poor black and Puerto Rican women who lived in the neighborhood of his store.

When my brother Joe was a teenager, he usually did the footwork of taking the poinsettias into the houses. Many of the women, without husbands and with a brood of children to tend to, told Joe that this poinsettia was the only thing of beauty they received all year long.

Among the regular poinsettia recipients was a woman suffering from M.S. (multiple sclerosis) who lived in a nursing home. Every year Joe would bring the poinsettia into her room, place it on the table, and mumble, “Merry Christmas,” while the paralyzed woman would follow him with her eyes, unable even to nod a thank you. Finally one Christmas, Joe asked the nurses at the nursing station who this woman was. They told him that she had been a wealthy daughter of a fine family, engaged to be married, when she contracted M.S. Her fiancé broke the engagement, her money was used up in doctor and care bills, and eventually even her family dropped all contact with her. In the course of a year, the nurses told Joe, the only card, letter, or gift this woman received was this poinsettia from my father.

After Joe went away to college, my father did all the poinsettia deliveries by himself. Overweight, with varicose veins from standing in the drugstore since 1925, stricken with the arthritis which made it increasingly painful for him to move his legs, my father delivered these poinsettias until he retired from the drugstore at the age of seventy-five.

One corner of the mortuary room was filled with library angels.

One corner of the mortuary room was filled with library angels. After my father retired, he volunteered for the local library to deliver books to shut-ins. Leaning on his cane and limping from his arthritis, he often had to climb flights of stairs to reach the desolate apartments of people, usually younger and sometimes less incapacitated than he, who had run out of reasons to get out of bed.

My father involved himself with the plight of each one. Did this man suffer from aching back pains? Then and there, without an appointment, my father took him to his own orthopedic doctor. Had this woman lost all sense that she counted for anything? My father arranged to pick her up on Election Day to take her to the polls, convincing her of the importance of her vote.

My father lived in a world without strangers. He could not stand in a supermarket line nor sit at a restaurant table without striking up a conversation with the person next to him. I was always terribly embarrassed by his utter disregard for personal space. Perhaps the young Irishman at the adjoining table would rather converse with his family than with this bald-headed Jew with whom he had nothing in common.

Invariably, however, my father found a point of connection. Either the Irishman had an uncle who was a pharmacist, or had an aunt who had graduated Camden High with my Aunt Mamie in 1929, or he used as his children’s pediatrician Dr. Hanson, my father’s old friend, or he had once summered in the same Poconos resort to which my father once took us. By the time the waitress brought our check or we reached the cashier in the supermarket line, the erstwhile strangers were always smiling as warmly as if they had found a long-lost uncle. Didn’t my father know that in the latter half of the 20th century, alienation was the pervasive mindset of society?

In fact, although my father lived all of his eighty-six years in that century, he was never a 20th century man. When I was a psychology major at Brandeis University, arguing with him once about some sociological issue, he stunned me by announcing that he did not believe in sociology or psychology. I was flabbergasted. Was sociology some nebulous religious system that one could choose to believe or not believe?

When, in the late 60s, fired up by my leftist political convictions, I inveighed against the oppression of the lower classes, citing statistics of starvation in affluent America, my father retorted angrily, “Ridiculous! If someone in Camden is hungry, all they need to do is come to me or to the minister in the church on Stevens Street.”

That there could be societal problems that could not be solved by a kind and generous neighbor was beyond my father’s comprehension. Now, more than thirty years later, I wonder whether he was right.

At Brandeis, I belonged to the radical leftist Students for a Democratic Society. I had taken my stand with minorities and oppressed Third World peasants against the bourgeoisie conservative establishment of America. Thus, I was mystified, on one of the occasional times I entered my father’s drugstore during my college years, to see a black teenage girl whispering to my father that she wanted to see him privately.

If I perceived him as the enemy, why didn’t she?

When I later asked him what she had wanted, he answered matter-of-factly (for it was apparently a routine occurrence) that she thought she had venereal disease and was asking him what to do. Why should a black teenager, in the age of the Black Panthers, be confiding in this middle-class, white, Republican, Jewish pharmacist? If I perceived him as the enemy, why didn’t she?

Another time, I came into the store with him one summer morning. Five or six matronly black women, who were sitting at the soda fountain, greeted my father with cat-calls and complaints: “We ain’t talkin’ to you no more, Mista Levinsky.”

“You’s in trouble in our book, Doc.”

I wondered how my father’s characteristic gruffness or fiery temper had hurt or insulted these women. He ignored them, and went directly back to the prescription counter. I, however, was concerned with their plight. I approached and asked them what my father had done to them.

One of them replied, “Yesterday afternoon he done told de ice cream man to give popsicles to all de kids on our block ‘n he would pay for ‘em. Us mamas had to spend all afternoon pickin’ up popsicle wrappers. No, we ain’t talkin’ to him no more.” And they all roared with laughter.

When, in the early 70s, race riots wracked America’s cities, Camden’s business district, too, was ravaged. Starting at one end of Broadway, the main street, rioters burned or looted virtually every store. They set fire to the jewelry store next to my father’s drugstore, razing it to the ground. Then it was the drugstore’s turn. According to an eye-witness, one of the rioters shouted, “Don’t touch that store. He’s our friend.” The angry mob bypassed my father’s store, going on to break the windows and pillage the shoe store next door. A chilling tribute to “Doc,” as they called my father: When the smoke cleared the next day, his drugstore was the only store on Broadway that had emerged completely unscathed.

My father was not a rich man, but he gave and lent money as if he had it. During the Six Day War, when the American Jewish community rallied to Israel’s emergency need, my father, with two children in expensive private colleges, found he had no money to give to Israel. He went to the bank and borrowed $4,000, which he donated to the Israel Emergency Fund. Later, when the local Jewish community was collecting money for a geriatric home, my father took out a second mortgage on his house in order to have a proper sum to contribute.

He went to the bank and borrowed $4,000, which he donated to the Israel Emergency Fund.

My father regularly lent money to any of the drugstore customers who asked him. Most of these loans were never repaid. When we were sitting shiva for my father, Carl, the Italian pharmacist who had bought the drugstore from him, told us how, when my father was transferring the store over to him, they came upon a one-inch-thick notebook, filled with entries. Carl asked what it was. My father replied that this was his record of outstanding loans. Carl asked how much it was worth. Tossing the book into the wastebasket, my father shrugged, “It’s priceless.”

Born to my grandmother just a year after his parents immigrated from Odessa in 1902, my father was barely 17 years younger than his mother. I remember seeing him in his 60s, a big, six-foot-tall man, his balding hair completely gray, waiting on his 80-year-old mother with filial solicitude. Many times I watched in awe as my father mutely accepted my grandmother’s petulant scoldings. My father paid for his mother’s two-bedroom apartment plus full-time help. When he finished his ten or twelve-hour workdays in the drugstore, almost daily he went to check on his mother and made sure she had everything she needed. My mother used to wait to serve our dinner until Dad came home after 7:00 PM.

My father also assumed responsibility for Nana, my mother’s mother. When my parents built their dream house in the suburbs, they included a room for Nana, who was stricken with Parkinson’s Disease. While my mother did the labor of dressing, bathing, and caring for her mother, my father took care of her expenses as a matter of course. At Nana’s funeral, the rabbi paid tribute to my father’s unstinting care of his mother-in-law. My mother, in tears throughout the funeral, said later that at that point she had felt like standing up and applauding.

My mother, in tears throughout the funeral, said later that she had felt like standing up and applauding.

When Carl bought the drugstore, his lawyer and my father’s lawyer drew up a purchase agreement. After it was signed, as Carl and his lawyer walked to his car, the lawyer said to Carl, “You just wasted your money.”

Carl gulped. The lawyer continued, “With that man, a handshake would have been sufficient.”

The day after my father died, his rabbi came to talk to the family in preparation for the funeral. Of course, he knew my father well, for Irving (Israel) Levinsky had been a pillar of the synagogue and had accompanied my mother to Shabbos services every week. Nevertheless, the rabbi asked the various family members gathered in the living room if there was anything special we wanted him to include in his eulogy.

An amazing scene of revelation unfolded. As each family member recounted the tales of my father’s acts of kindness that he or she had personally witnessed, the rest of us learned of it for the first time. My father never talked about anything he did, not even to my mother. A gruff man with a short temper and a big voice, his shortcomings were as obvious as his merits were hidden. We knew that he was generous and that he had helped many people, but not even those of us closest to him knew the extent of the money he had loaned, the jobs he had found, the individuals he had rescued.

My father did not believe in life after death, nor in the world to come. He expected no rewards for giving people rides in the rain or for finding jobs for the sons of his ghetto clientele. How amazed, then, he must have been to find himself ascending to the next world, escorted by legions of familiar angels. Standing meditating over his body in that chilly mortuary room, I found myself saying, “Surprise, Dad!”

But there was also a revelation for me in that angel-thronged room. I saw that deeds are what primarily count. Although I had been practicing Torah for five years, and I knew that Judaism is a religion less of faith than of action, of performing concrete mitzvot, I preferred to live in the ethereal realm of the mind and the spirit. Standing beside my father’s body, gazing at his luminous face, I was shocked to realize who he had become by virtue of his deeds alone.

My father’s road to heaven was paved with poinsettias and popsicle wrappers. And if there was a gap created by the faith he did not hold, or the mitzvot he never learned to do, I saw that it was spanned like an immense bridge by that book of loans he had tossed away.

I, who had spent my 42 years wrestling with profound concepts and lofty aspirations, had nothing in my entourage as significant as my father’s coal order for the sick lady. So, I could feel my father winking at me, his religious daughter, from his honored place in the next world, saying, “Surprise!”

The Chapter After

After World War II, the Ponevezher Rav, Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, used to visit Miami annually in order to raise funds for his yeshivah. Rabbi Berel Wein, who was a congregational rabbi in Miami during that period, relates this story:
One day the Ponevezher Rav called me and asked me to arrange a meeting in my home with all of the younger couples affiliated with my congregation. I told him that I would do so, but I cautioned him that I did not think that he would raise much money from them. He gently told me that he was not going to speak to them about donations at all.
At that meeting, which was very well attended, the Ponevezher Rav rose and said to them: “My beloved children, the souls of a million and a half Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust are floating in the air above us. Your task is to give those souls bodies to live in.”

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The Secret Life of Gershon Burd

We, the members of his community in the Old City of Jerusalem, thought we knew Gershon Burd. The men at the yeshiva where he worked full time and learned Torah full time thought they knew Gershon. Batya, his wife of ten years and the mother of his five children, thought she knew Gershon.

Only after Gershon drowned in the Mediterranean on his 40th birthday, October 4, did the truth, or tantalizing glimpses of the truth, start to emerge.

On the second day of the shiva, a woman Batya knew appeared in the Burd home. As Batya recounts: “She looked at me with this look and said, ‘I’m going to tell you something you don’t know. No one in the world knows this except me and your husband.’” The woman paused, as if reluctant to divulge her secret. “For nine years, I was the front for your husband’s tzedaka[charity] fund.”

Batya was dumbfounded, “What tzedaka fund?”

The woman continued: “Your husband came to me with money every month and a list of names. I would call the people and they would come to me to pick up the money. They never knew who it came from.”

The proprietor revealed to Batya that Gershon had been paying for the helium balloons.

And then there were the helium balloons. Everyone in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City knew that a certain stationery store gives a free helium balloon to every child on his or her birthday. Since most of the children here come from large, low-income families, a helium balloon is a real glee-producer. On Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, every child receives two free helium balloons. The Burd children were among those who relished this delightful prize.

No one knew who was sponsoring the free balloons. Paying a shiva call, the proprietor revealed to Batya that Gershon had been paying for the helium balloons. At the end of every month, he would slip into the store and surreptitiously pay for that month’s balloons.

100 Questions

Greg Burd was born in Odessa in 1973. Three years later his parents immigrated to Chicago. Proud but non-observant Jews, they were not equipped to give their only son and two daughters a Jewish education. Greg went to public school, played on his high school football team, became a lifeguard, and got a B.A. in business from the Indiana University.

Greg was 25 years old and working in his father’s insurance agency when his mother invited him to come with her to a Torah class at Rabbi Daniel Deutsch’s Chicago Torah Network. Greg loved the class, and made an appointment to speak to Rabbi Deutsch privately. He brought with him a list of one hundred questions.

Three months later, telling his parents, “I’m in preschool; I don’t know anything about Judaism,” Greg flew to Israel to learn Torah at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva. He returned to Chicago ten months later, but not for long. “I’m in kindergarten,” he told his parents. “I have to learn more.” He returned to Jerusalem. Every year his refrain was, “I’m in first grade. I have to learn more.” “I’m in second grade. I have to learn more.”

At the age of 30, Greg (now Gershon) married Batya Fefer, 28. She, too, came from a Russian family. Raised in Toronto, Batya was a lawyer working for Toronto’s top corporate tax firm when she decided that there had to be more to life. Her spiritual search took her to Nepal, where she climbed Mt. Annapurna, to India, where she met the Dalai Lama, and to a dozen other countries.

Back in Toronto, a friend told her about a free Birthright trip that would take her to Israel. Batya decided that that was a good way to get halfway back to India. Once in Israel, however, she started learning about Judaism at EYAHT, Aish HaTorah’s women’s division. She became observant, and in 2003 married Gershon Burd. They settled in the Old City.

Elaborate Ruses

Everyone considered Gershon a nice guy. One of his study partners recalled how Gershon would purposely choose a seat in the yeshiva across from the entrance so he could smile at people as they walked in. He was affable and gentle. In ten years of marriage, Batya heard her husband raise his voice only once—when he felt that someone was trying to rip off the yeshiva. But Gershon’s nice-guy persona was a mere front for his carefully hidden true identity.

Three years ago, Gershon approached Rabbi Nissim Tagger, the head of Yeshivas Bircas HaTorah, where Gershon was both learning and working as administrator. Gershon asked Rabbi Tagger to accept as a student a young man named David, whom Gershon intuited had tremendous potential. Rabbi Tagger had seen David, with his long, curled peyot and hippie-ish dress. “He doesn’t fit in at all with our Yeshivah,” Rabbi Tagger refused.

“He looks like that, but it’s not who he really is,” Gershon begged.

“Will he pay tuition?” Rabbi Tagger queried.

“No,” Gershon answered simply. “He has no money.”

“I have no scholarships available,” replied Rabbi Tagger.

The next day, Gershon returned to Rabbi Tagger and said, “David’s parents decided to pay for most of his tuition, and he’ll do odd jobs to pay for the rest.”

With misgivings, Rabbi Tagger decided to give David a two-week trial period.

Only after Gershon’s death did Rabbi Tagger find out that it was Gershon who paid David’s tuition.

Three years later, David is an accomplished Torah scholar at the yeshiva. Only after Gershon’s death did Rabbi Tagger find out that David’s parents had not paid a penny. It was Gershon who paid David’s tuition. “He lied to me straight to my face,” Rabbi Tagger says, holding back his tears.

The wife of one of the students of the yeshiva had not seen her parents back in America for several years. When she received news that her mother was ill, she wanted to fly back, but she didn’t have enough money for airfare. Hearing about it, Gershon told the woman about a credit card company that was offering a fantastic deal. If she signed up for the credit card and paid just $50, she would receive enough miles to get a free round-trip ticket. Gershon even showed her the promotion on his laptop, and offered to sign her up, explaining that he too would get miles for referring her.

The woman happily gave Gershon the information to sign her up, got her ticket, and flew to America to be with her mother. She never knew that Gershon had made up the whole promotion, even devising the graphic of the ad. Gershon himself paid for her ticket.

Once Gershon decided that a struggling family in the community really needed to take their children for a fun day at “Kef-Tzuba,” an attraction with giant blow-up trampolines, castles, etc. The family lacked the funds for such an outing, so Gershon got them a free coupon. They never knew that Gershon had paid for their admission and fabricated the professional-looking coupon.

Telling this tale, Batya laughs. “Gershon was a shyster. I only know what I know because I caught him on some things.”

When Gershon became aware of couples who were experiencing marital friction, he would surreptitiously pay for therapy sessions for them, with neither the couple nor the therapist aware of who was paying.

Nine years ago, Gershon got an idea. He created “Western Wall Prayers,” and put Batya in charge of it. This is a service where people all over the world can pay to have someone go to the Kotel and prayfor them for 40 consecutive days. Not only have hundreds of people had their prayers answered through this age-old custom, but also the money raised supports many families of Torah scholars in the Old City.

At the shiva, the Rosh Yeshiva disclosed that Gershon once came to him and asked if it was permissible according to Jewish law to give the “prayer agents” fake names to pray for. It was a low period for Western Wall Prayers, and Gershon was worried that the people supported could not afford to lose their regular checks. In order to maintain their dignity, he wanted to continue the funding from his own pocket by giving out fictitious names for which to pray.

Why did Gershon go to such lengths to hide his charitable acts? “He really believed,” explains Batya, “that if the giver gets something from his chesed [act of loving-kindness], it diminishes the chesed. So if someone knows what you did, it means you got something from it, recognition or whatever. The mitzvah is much more powerful if you get nothing … except in the Next World.”

The Real Mystery

The mystery, of course, is where did the money come from? The Burds were not well-to-do. They didn’t even own a car. They had no inherited wealth and Gershon’s salary as yeshiva administrator was sufficient to cover only the family’s living expenses. Sitting across from Batya at the shiva, I ask her, “Where did Gershon get the money?”

“I have no idea!” she exclaims. “I really don’t know. For years we had a crack in the sink that we couldn’t afford to repair. I have no idea where he got the money to do all this chesed that we’re hearing about now. No idea.”

Daniel Rostenne, Gershon’s best friend and study partner, solves this mystery. “Gershon spent next to nothing on himself,” he explains. “He bought his shoes used on EBay. Used shoes! He bought his suits used on EBay. He would brag to me, ‘Look at this suit. I got it for $10, plus $10 shipping!’ He got his laptop, a used MacBook Air that sells new for $1200, for just a few hundred dollars. He simply didn’t spend money on his personal needs.”

Gershon scrimped on his own needs, so he could be generous in satisfying the needs of others.

Gershon’s red carpet to the Next World is lined with helium balloons, fake coupons and an anonymous charity fund.

His final deal was an overnight getaway at Tel Aviv’s Sheraton Hotel for just him and Batya to celebrate his 40th birthday, paid for with credit card points. Gershon’s favorite recreation was swimming in the ocean. He and Batya deposited their things in their hotel room and went to the beach. Taking one look at the muddy water, Batya opted to sit on the shore. Gershon, an expert swimmer and trained lifeguard, plunged into the waves. Minutes later, a rock or large piece of debris struck him in the back of the neck. Knocked unconscious, he was under water for 15 minutes before Batya, desperately scanning the sea with her eyes, saw her husband’s body float up toward the beach.

A few hours before the funeral, Batya said to one of the yeshiva students: ‘There’s a plan, and what was supposed to happen, happened. Gershon is smiling now in his world. It’ll be hard for me and the children. But Gershon is shining.”

Gershon’s red carpet to the Next World is lined with helium balloons, fake coupons, fictional credit card promotions, an anonymous charity fund, undercover tuition payments, surreptitiously sponsored marriage counseling sessions, and how many other hidden acts of chesed that we will never know.

Hiddenness is a sacred value in Judaism. In fact, according to Jewish lore, the world is sustained in every generation by the merit of 36 hidden tzaddikim. Could a Russian-born former football player from Chicago be one of them?

Forgiving

The struggle and freedom of asking and giving forgiveness.

It was not a demonstration. The posters billed it as a Maleve Malka — a Saturday night music fest to escort out the Shabbos Queen, accompanied by my husband’s klezmer band and circle dancing. True, the location chosen was an abandoned cul-de-sac a block away from Orient House, the infamous P.L.O. headquarters in East Jerusalem. True, the point was to assert Jewish sovereignty in all of Jerusalem. True, the unveiling of the secret Oslo Accords eight months before had been followed by a series of massive demonstrations, which often deteriorated into hair-raising scenes of police brutality, complete with water hoses aimed at protesters’ eyes. But this was not a demonstration. No placards, no speeches. Rather, an air of family festivity, with children and elderly people aplenty. I was glad I had come to hear my husband play.

While the band waited on the makeshift stage for the generator to be delivered, the organizers set up loudspeakers on high poles around the perimeter of the crowd. People conversed easily with a squad of border policemen, the paramilitary force known as the heavies of the defense establishment, whom we assumed were there to keep the Jews and nearby Arabs peacefully separate.

Finally, the music started, a lilting Klezmer tune. In the center of the crowd, a large circle of men joined hands and began to dance.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, the border policemen charged into the crowd, swinging billy clubs and beating everyone in their path. Amidst horrified screams and cries, they reached the generator and unplugged it. The music stopped mid-note.

Several policemen jumped onto the stage, grabbing clarinets and guitars out of the hands of the musicians. Other troops started to pull down the loudspeakers. Standing near the stage, in shock and horror, I noticed an old man positioned directly under one of the loudspeakers. I shouted to warn him, but could not be heard over the din of shrieks and wails. I ran toward him, but was cut off by the charge of a giant horse, twice the size of any horse I had ever seen. Terrified, I retreated toward the stage, which by now was encircled by border policemen to prevent the musicians from escaping.

I was a veteran of anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in America in the sixties, but I had never in my life experienced such ruthless police tactics -— and without any justification! Unnerved, I started yelling at the police: “What are you doing? How can Jews act this way? You are Jews, but you’re worse than the American police!”

One tall, fortyish policeman with short, cropped hair hollered back at me: “You don’t belong here. You’re an American! Go back to America!”

He had pushed all my Zionist buttons. Irate, I slapped him across the face.

He gestured to the policeman next to him. Each grabbed one of my forearms and pulled me away. The one I had slapped dug his fingers into my arm so forcefully that even a month later five bruises on my right forearm would testify to his brutality. They dragged me some twenty meters to a paddy wagon, then threw me into it so roughly that they tore my skirt and cut a three-inch gash into my knee.

At the police station, a police officer asked me what had happened. I told him the whole story: how without warning the police had attacked the crowd, how they had endangered an elderly man, how I had been prevented from saving him by giant horses, how a border policeman had insulted me, how I had reacted, and how, instead of a civil, “You’re under arrest,” they had brutally manhandled me. After signing my deposition, I was sent home.

That was the last I heard of the matter for over two years. One day, a registered letter arrived for me. I had been charged with striking a policeman, and was summoned to appear in court.

I hired a lawyer, a balding, religious man. “In Israel,” he quietly informed me, “there is a mandatory prison sentence for striking a policeman.”

“What?” I answered, appalled. “I’m the one who was hurt. I still have the scar on my knee. Besides, he provoked me. He insulted me, told me to go back to America.”

“Nonetheless,” the lawyer answered calmly, “You confessed to striking a policeman. Why did you incriminate yourself?”

“What did you expect me to do?” I countered with righteous indignation. “Lie?”

“You could have kept silent.”

Silence? It never occurred to me (and rarely does)!

“The only way to keep you out of jail is for you to throw yourself on the mercy of the court. It’s a first offence. You have a pretty good chance of getting off, if you humbly admit you made a mistake and promise the court you won’t repeat it.”

It was a few weeks before Rosh Hashanah, and I had been studying the steps of teshuva(repentance):

  1. Admit the sin to God.
  2. Regret.
  3. Resolve not to repeat it.

The lawyer’s prescription sounded eerily similar.

But why should I do teshuva? I hadn’t done anything wrong! I was the aggrieved party! I mulled over the matter for a couple minutes. Then, protesting my innocence (after all, I had been sorely provoked), I told the lawyer I would do whatever he said. I didn’t want to go to jail.

When our meeting was over, I gathered up my things to leave. “You know,” the lawyer said parenthetically, more like a brother than a lawyer, “you were wrong.”

“But he insulted me!” I defended myself.

“If you’re walking down the street and someone comes up to you and insults you,” the lawyer said quietly, “do you have the right to slap him?”

I stared across the desk at the lawyer’s penetrating expression. It was the first time it occurred to me that perhaps I had done something wrong.

All the way home I weighed the matter. In three weeks it would be Rosh Hashanah, when every soul stands before God in judgment. I was accountable for my actions. If I had done something wrong, then I would have to do teshuva. But the three steps of confession, regret, and resolution for the future suffice only in sins against God. Sins against another person require two additional steps: asking forgiveness and (when applicable) making restitution. With horror it dawned on me: If it really was wrong to slap the border policeman, I would have to ask his forgiveness.

As soon as I got home, I telephoned my rebbetzin. “Of course,” she confirmed in a plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face tone, “hitting someone, except in self-defense, is prohibited by the Torah. Even if he did something wrong, it doesn’t give you license to do something wrong. Of course, you have to do teshuva for striking him.”

“Including asking his forgiveness?” I asked, aghast.

“Of course,” she replied. “You know God doesn’t grant forgiveness until the person you’ve wronged forgives you.”

Long after hanging up, I sat there holding the telephone. How was I even supposed to find the border policeman? I didn’t know his name. And if I did manage to find him and ask him for forgiveness, now, with the trial pending, he would certainly suspect that I was trying some extra-judicial trick to get him to reduce the charges against me. He would certainly hang up on me.

The next day, I called the lawyer. “Is there any way to find out the name of the border policeman I slapped?”

“Sure,” came the immediate response. “It’s right here on your charge sheet… Ronny Tuito.”

I gulped. That was too easy. “Well, how can I talk to him?”

“Just look up his number in the phone book,” was his sanguine reply.

It took me a week, but, with Rosh Hashanah swiftly approaching, one day I summoned my resolve and looked up “Tuito, Ronny” in the Jerusalem phone book. There were two listings under that name. Apprehensively, I dialed the first number. A man answered the phone.

“I…I’m looking for Ronny Tuito, the border policeman,” I stammered.

“That’s my cousin. 581-3796.”

Great, I thought. Now I have no excuse not to call. I dialed the number. To my great relief, an answering machine picked up. I hung up. What time of day would a border policeman be home anyway?

The next evening, I tried again. A man’s voice answered. “Is this Ronny Tuito?” I asked, nervously.

“Yes,” came the crisp Hebrew reply.

I took a deep breath and blurted out the speech I had rehearsed thirty times. “Two years ago at a Maleve Malka near Orient House, I slapped you. What I did was wrong, and I’m sorry. Since Rosh Hashanah is approaching, and I’m more afraid of the Heavenly Court than the earthly court, I’m calling to ask you for forgiveness.”

Only a moment elapsed before I heard his cursory response: “I forgive you.”

Relief hit me like an avalanche. Of course! This is a Jewish country. Even a non-religious border policeman understands the dynamics of asking and granting forgiveness before the High Holidays. I felt cleansed, as if a piece of gum which had stuck to my blouse was suddenly gone.

“Thank you,” I breathed. “And may you and your family be inscribed for a year of life, good health, and blessings.”

“Thank you. You and your family, too,” he said politely, and hung up.

Postscript: A month later I was sentenced to two months, suspended sentence on condition that I didn’t hit any more policemen for a three-year probation period. And I didn’t.

ASKING FORGIVENESS

It’s hard to ask forgiveness. Sometimes the mechanics are sticky: locating a person from our past, initiating the conversation in privacy, getting the offended person to listen to us.

Harder still are the inner dynamics: Examining actions we would rather forget; cutting through the rationalizations to admit that what we did was wrong, despite the provocations and extenuating circumstances; and humbling ourselves to ask for a gift (forgiveness is always a gift) from someone to whom we may have felt morally superior.

God promises us atonement on Yom Kippur. Atonement is a wondrous, miraculous reality that bleaches out even the most stubborn stains on our soul. Atonement reconciles us with God and our own highest selves. To procure atonement, all we have to do is teshuva, the sincere changing direction of our heart and actions. Asking forgiveness, one of the five steps of teshuva for a sin against another human being, is a relatively small price to pay for the soul-cleansing available to us on Yom Kippur.

And if the person we have hurt refuses to grant us forgiveness? The Torah requires that we humbly, sincerely ask for forgiveness three separate times. After that, the onus is on the one who refuses to forgive.

GRANTING FORGIVENESS

When asked for forgiveness, a Jew is enjoined to forgive. This can be the hardest act of all. After all, we may have been grievously hurt, in body, mind, or heart. To forgive is tantamount to executing a divine function. It leaves the offender off the hook (presuming he or she has done the other required steps of teshuva which would exonerate the offender before God).

A Jew is not required to forgive an offender who has not undertaken the steps of teshuvasuch as regret and concrete change. A recent article in the L.A. Times about the aunt of an abducted, molested child unilaterally forgiving the pedophile who raped her young niece is an anathema from the Jewish viewpoint. Forgiving unrepentant evil only encourages its continuance.

On the other hand, nothing more quickly procures divine forgiveness for our sins, both those we remember and those we don’t, than forgiving those who have sinned against us. The principle of mida k’neged mida means that we get what we give. When we stand before God on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur our most compelling defense is: “I have forgiven those who sinned against me. Please forgive me in turn.”

THE GATE OF FORGIVENESS

From the time she was three years old and until she reached puberty, Cindy was sexually molested by her uncle, with the knowledge of her alcoholic mother.

When Cindy grew up, she converted to Judaism. Eventually she married a man who was also a sexual abuser, and had two children with him. She would later say, “I married my mother in drag.”

The only contact Cindy had with her mother as an adult was the time her mother telephoned and asked for a meeting. Was she finally repentant? Cindy wondered on the way to the meeting. Did she finally regret all the damage she had done her daughter?

They met at a secluded place on the beachfront. Cindy’s mother withdrew some papers from a manila envelope and explained that she had applied for a job in the school system, but had been turned down because of the charge of child molestation on her record. Now she asked Cindy to officially deny the charges, to claim she had lied, so that her mother could get the job she sought.

Cindy threw the papers in her mother’s face and stormed away. She did not see nor speak to her mother for the next eleven years.

During that time, Cindy fled from her husband, taking her children with her. For a year they hid on a remote island in the South Pacific, a two-hour boat ride away from the nearest grocery store. Eventually they made their way to Israel.

After seven years of living underground under an assumed identity, Cindy was discovered. In the court case that followed, the Israeli judge found in her favor; she would not send Cindy nor her children back to America.

In the course of the court battle, Cindy’s husband came to Israel to testify against her. He was slapped with an injunction prohibiting him from leaving the country until he gave Cindy a get, a Jewish writ of divorce.

On a Monday afternoon two weeks ago, Cindy was notified by her lawyer that she would be receiving her get the next afternoon. Tuesday morning Cindy celebrated by telephoning her mother.

“You did not protect me as you should have,” Cindy cried into the telephone. “But you gave me life. And now, after all these years, I love my life. I have a beautiful family. I love my children. And today I’ll have my get. I’m grateful to God. And I’m grateful to you for giving me life. I forgive you for everything you did to me.”

Tearfully, she added: “You see things differently at forty than you do at twenty-five.”

Cindy’s mother sobbed back into the telephone: “You see things differently at sixty than you do at forty.”

They spoke for two hours. When they hung up, Cindy said: “I feel like I received a getfrom my mother on the same day I’m receiving a get from my husband. I feel freer than I ever have in my life.”

Every time we forgive, we open up the gates of forgiveness in the world. And we are the first ones to walk through.

Beyond Just Desserts: A Recipe of Thanksgiving

Seventy-five orphan girls in Calcutta taught me the real meaning of thanksgiving.

Although it was my second extended period helping out at this Calcutta orphanage, I still marveled at the standard of living of the girls. Growing up, I had had my own room; these girls didn’t even have their own beds. They slept on thin mattresses spread on the floor, two girls to a mattress, sharing a blanket and a mosquito net. During the day the mattresses were piled up in a corner, and the room was used for play and doing homework.

Their only private space amounted to a box the size of a large shoe box. In this box each girl kept all her worldly possessions: the one of her two cotton frocks she was not currently wearing, two pencils, and a copy book. About 25 of the girls owned a pair of sandals, which they trotted out on special occasions. About a dozen girls owned a pretty dress, a gift from an impoverished grandmother. That that was it. No other garments. No toothbrush. No crayons. Not one girl owned enough to fill her box. Yet they were the most cheerful and loving group of people I knew. I adored them.

The girls prevailed on me to teach them English. One day we were on the lesson in our book about opposites: tall-short, thin-fat, rich-poor. After explaining the words in simple English, I would have one girl stand in front of the class and ask, “Is Bhavani thin, fat, or medium?”

The girls would raise their hands, and the one I picked would answer: “Bhavanai is thin.”

The girls were smart and highly motivated. The lesson was proceeding well until I summoned Lakshmi to stand in front of the class. Pointing to the scrawny, barefoot girl in her plain white frock, I asked, “Is Lakshmi rich, poor, or medium?”

Two dozen hands flew up. I called on one girl. In loud and perfect English she answered: “Lakshmi is medium.”

Obviously she didn’t understand the words. Lakshmi, like all the girls, was abjectly destitute, a reality they all accepted with cheerful fortitude. I called on another girl. Eagerly, she replied, “Lakshmi is medium.”

I again explained the meaning of the words “rich” and “poor,” this time using their Bengali translations so there would be no further misunderstanding. Then I asked the whole class: “Is Lakshmi rich, poor, or medium?”

In joyful unison they all cried out: “Lakshmi is medium.”

I was confounded. By what mental gyrations did these girls consider Lakshmi – and by extension themselves – as anything other than poor?

After the class, I repaired to my room (my own private room) and tried to figure it out. After all, the girls knew that most children, even in poverty-stricken Calcutta, had more than they did. They attended school with “normal” girls – girls who had parents and shoes and pretty colored ribbons in their hair.

Carefully I analyzed what exactly they did have. I came up with a list of just four items: a rudimentary level of shelter, food, education, and friends. That was it.

But what about all they didn’t have? Not one of them had a dowry, without which prospects of marriage were slim. None of them owned a book or a toy. None of them had money to buy a treat or a trinket – ever. By what stretch of their imaginations – or their hearts – did they not define themselves as poor? The question simmered in my mind for a decade.

JUST DESSERTS

Ten years later I was learning Torah in Jerusalem. The Rabbi was explaining why the matriarch Leah named her fourth son Yehuda, a name derived from the word “to thank.” Since the moniker “Jew” derives from the name “Yehuda,” thanking is somehow integral to being Jewish.

But why did Leah wait until her fourth child to use this name? Wasn’t she more grateful for her first child than her fourth?

The Rabbi, citing classical commentators, explained that Jacob’s four wives knew prophetically that they would give birth to the twelve sons who would become the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. Since there were four wives, each one expected to give birth to three sons.

When Leah gave birth to her fourth son, she felt that she had received more than her fair share. So she named him Yehuda, saying, “This time I will thank God.”

This teaches us something essential about gratitude. Gratitude is a function not of how much we have, but rather of how much we have relative to how much we feel we deserve.

When you have worked hard at your job, you usually do not feel flooded with gratitude when you pick up your paycheck. Even a holiday bonus may come to be expected as your just desserts and not elicit a great surge of gratitude – unless it is a far bigger sum than you feel you deserve.

The opposite of gratitude is a feeling of entitlement. The attitude of “I deserve it” turns every gift into a paycheck.

RECOGNIZING GOOD

The Hebrew term for gratitude is “hakarat hatov,” which literally means, “recognizing the good.” The secret embedded in the Hebrew is that gratitude depends not on getting something good, but on recognizing the good that is already yours.

Thus, gratitude is totally a feat of consciousness. It requires a “back to basics” mentality, becoming cognizant of all the rudimentary things we usually take for granted. No matter how much we lack, no matter what difficult times we are passing through, every one of us can find a myriad of things to be grateful for.

If you’ve lost money in the stock market, but you still have your children, you can be grateful.

If you’ve lost your job, but you still have your health, you can be grateful.

If you can’t move your legs, but you can move your arms, you can be grateful.

THE OBJECT OF GRATITUDE

In addition to recognizing the good and experiencing what you have as a gift not a paycheck, gratitude requires one more ingredient.

There is a fallacy which prevents many people from experiencing true thankfulness. Some think that thankfulness, like love, is a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, the way you feel when you’ve downed the second dessert of your Thanksgiving dinner. That good feeling, however, is not thankfulness, but satiation. It becomes thankfulness only when you realize that Aunt Rose toiled to make that apple pie, and you direct your appreciation to her.

Both thankfulness and love must have an object. True gratitude implies that I am grateful to the giver of what I have received. Gratitude without an object is like one hand clapping.

From a Torah perspective, all human beings are creatures. Life – and every part of it from the tiny hairs inside our noses to our thousands of enzymes – is a gift from our Creator. We are entitled to nothing. We are grateful to God for everything.

A RECIPE FOR GRATITUDE

Here, then, are the 4 steps to gratitude:

  1. Recognize the good that you possess.
  2. Acknowledge that it is a gift, not something you deserve.
  3. Identify the source of the gift, whether God or a human being.
  4. Express your thanks.

The Pilgrims of the first Thanksgiving obviously traversed these four steps. They were grateful not for their high standard of living, but simply that they had survived their first winter in the New World. Deeply religious people, they felt gratitude to God. The first Thanksgiving feast was their way of expressing that gratitude to God.

According to Judaism, gratitude is the basis of everything: faith, joy, awe, and love of God. Only when we recognize how much God has given us and how little we deserve it, can we come to a place of faith and love.

Little wonder that a Jew is supposed to start every day with an expression of thankfulness for life itself, the recitation of the modeh ani. If you want to incorporate this small exercise into your life, here is how to do it:

Upon first waking up, as soon as you’ve turned off your alarm, while you’re still lying in bed, say these words: “Modeh ani lefanecha Melech chai v’kayom, shehechezarta bee neshmati b’chemla, rabba emunasecha.” In English, it’s: “Thankful am I before you, living and eternal King, that you have returned my soul within me with compassion, abundant is Your faithfulness.”

You’ll notice that this single sentence incorporates all the ingredients of gratitude. It expresses thanks for the most elemental gift of all, life itself, to the divine source of life. There is no better way to start one’s day.

Once we are washed up and dressed, a Jew continues to thank God for things which might otherwise go unnoticed. The 14 short “Morning Blessings” focus our consciousness, in gratitude, on such elemental capacities as the ability to see, to stretch our muscles, to stand erect, and to walk. These blessings can be found at the beginning of any siddur, Jewish prayer book, which are readily available in any Jewish bookstore.

Some of these blessings are easy to feel genuine gratitude for. We may be so oblivious to others of our “gifts,” however, that we must be jolted into appreciation.

I personally could not relate to one particular blessing until the morning after I had emergency abdominal surgery. I was lying in my hospital bed groaning in pain when the nurse told me to get up and walk a little. I thought she was insane. Only when her gentle persuasion gave way to insistence, did I force myself to sit up and gingerly get out of bed, wrenching with agony at every movement. Standing up, the most I could manage was a stooped shuffle across the room. The nurse kept saying, “Stand up straight,” but my abdomen hurt too much.

Then it was time for my morning prayers. Standing next to my bed like a hunched over nonagenarian, when I got to the blessing, “Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of universe, who straightens the bent over,” I almost cried. How had I never related to this blessing before? How had I so taken for granted the “simple” faculty of standing erect? Why did I have to lose this ability before I could appreciate it? It has been exactly 13 years since that morning, 4,745 days of standing up straight and thanking God for it every time I say that blessing.

Ethics of Our Fathers teaches us: “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his portion.”

My Indian orphans understood all this. Feeling that they deserved nothing, they experienced the little that they had as a pure gift. No wonder they couldn’t define themselves as poor.

They would have agreed with Jewish tradition that thanksgiving is too precious to be reserved for one day a year.