In honor of the upcoming Shloshim of Mrs. Chaia Mushka Stiefelmann, OBM, beloved Shlucha in S. Paulo, Brazil, and loving mother to four children, we present the English transcript of a lecture delivered by her husband, Rabbi Avraham Stiefelmann, in loving memory of his wife:
Good night, everybody. I did not imagine to be in front of such a large audience tonight. Firstly, I would like to thank my brother Ilan, who in the middle of the shivah had the wonderful idea of bringing this to a broader public, to thank all of you who have come to pay homage [to Chaia], the Hebraica club and R. David [Weitman].
I believe most of you have read the message I sent you through Whatsapp, maybe that also had an impact on many people, and I feel, drawing an analogy, not out of my own free will, like a sailor in a transatlantic cruise with thousands of people – whether I want it or not HaShem has put me in an extremely important position; whether I feel like talking or not is not the matter. All have their eyes set on where our ship [family] will be going to next. If me, Chaia, my parents, my brothers, my inlaws, if we demonstrate, as I believe we have, faith and trust during this moment, we will have an impact so that this ship may reach as soon as possible its destination, which is the coming of the Mashiach, soon may it be.
Besides, I believe my brother, R. Ilan, took some inspiration from the fact we are in a year of Hakhel, of union. In the age of the Temple, after the sabbatical year, there was a mitzvah of reuniting the entire Jewish people, men, women and children, and this mitzvah continues in a way until nowadays, that we try to unite Am Israel as much as possible, always focusing on our spiritual growth. Such an opportunity, if we may call it so, we cannot miss this moment of general inspiration so we may take this call to action, so that we may leave here, as Chaia would have wanted it, with something to take home.
I confess that normally, when I speak at the synagogue, I try to prepare a speech with a beginning, a middle and an end, sometimes raising my voice, sometimes lowering it. But today is not such a day; I believe it is something different. As I stand here, I beseech HaShem that he may guide me, and that the words I speak today truly come from my heart and reach yours.
The subject today, as previously stated by my brother, R. Ilan, is “The strength to move forward”. We have just gone through a very difficult week of shivah, and despite all the messages of faith, which I truly hope came from my heart, the pain is still very great. Not only missing her, but concerns about the future remain very real – the children, the family… And don’t think that I am somehow different than the rest of you, since a loss is a loss.
As I rabbi, I always told people in such situations what the books said – that G’d may provide you with solace, we will give you support etc. – but I never truly realized how important this was. But now more than ever I can talk with a little bit more sensibility, understanding and putting myself in other peoples’ shoes. While obviously the situation here is more shocking, given Chaia’s young age and our four children, I believe the pain of a loss is essentially the same for everyone; it has become clear to me that what I am going through, many people have already gone through. Maybe one could say the pain of the death of a loved after fifty years of living together is even greater. So, my heart goes out to all who have gone through such pain which, now, seems to me much realer.
If you ask me whether I sleep at night, I do; but I am not the only one in the family who’s been having trouble falling asleep. The strength to get back to work is not easy. But one thing i could say and that is that, together with all the pain and suffering, i have peace in my mind.
Let me tell you why; It’s as someone told me today that, when we study the Torah and its teachings sometimes to such depth that it becomes engraved on us and it really serves as a “safety belt”, to give us some form of tranquility and serenity in moments such as this one.
I told you in that Whatsapp message, the one that was send at 5:40 AM, that what has been giving me great strength are the most profound teachings of the Torah that is called Chassidus Chabad. I wanted to explore on some points which came to mind during the hard moments, and I believe it was them that gave me such strength, and undoubtedly it is continuing the study and the teaching of the Torah which will give us the strength. The truth is that i don’t know what the future holds, but I believe that, with the strength of HaShem, with the teachings of the Torah, we will be able to move forward.
*Something interesting that took place in Chaia’s two last days in this world, at one point I asked for people to leave the room, so we could be alone for a moment. And at that moment I took something that to Chaia was very precious: her cellphone. I say precious because she always used it in a positive way; as I entered it, I saw she was part of so many groups in Facebook, Whatsapp, etc.
Now i see how she had such an impact over so many people…
And as I entered in the groups, despite the fact that I knew the gravity of the situation, I asked there for everybody to keep saying tehilim. Privately, however, I contacted two or three friends of her whom I knew to be closer to Chaia and messaged them saying “If you want to come, now is the time; please don’t tell this to anybody else, but I thought you should know”. One of the friends got the message rather quickly, because not more than a year ago she herself had lost a very close relative at a young age. Via Whatsapp I told her that I had a message from Chaia to her. I said:
“Chaia told me that, after what happened to your family at the time we saw a very big wave of tehilim, of faith, of emunah, that you were truly a family of chassidim,who had faith; Chaia told me that people even danced in the hospital, with complete and absolute faith. And afterwards came the news that he passed away and it seemed like all the prayers were to no avail. And Chaia told me that, after that, you became somewhat distrustful of it all; So i told her – look, despite all this situation, we continue with complete faith, and I’d like to say that Chaia was always concerned about your development, and your capacity to get back on with your life. She was worried about you.”
She answered: “It is amazing how, at this very moment, you are still worried about others”. And she said: “You know, it has been a long time since I have not communicated well with G’d. But after Chaia got ill, I started doing tehilim, I started praying for her, and I can tell you that, in this interim, I fell very low, and now I am rising very high”.
Now, where does that strength come from? Let me share some thoughts with you.
In one of my shiurim, I once commented on a story from the famous rabbi and lecturer who I am very fond of, R. Jacobson. He was once on a radio interview, and the radio host was playing skeptic, and the topic was faith. The host was questioning the rabbi about his belief in G’d, and R. Jacobson said something which Chassidus states very clearly:
“Normally, the world looks upon a person of faith as someone who may see a holocaust in front of him and will remain stoic, as a stone, static, saying only that ‘everything that G’d does is for the greater good’, and that’s the end of it. A fanatic oblivious to everything around him. I am sorry, but that is not faith; perhaps that is ignorance. Faith is not a noun; it is a verb. A verb of rise and fall. Faith means knowing there are moments when you’ll have a faith crisis. When you ask yourself “Where is G’d?”, and you renew your strengths from it.
Let me ask you a question: you are here to play skeptic; does the Holocaust bother you? Does seeing a mother with four children die at a very young age bother you?”
“Of course it does”, the host replies.
“Why? If we live in a world which sprouted out of a Big Bang, out of complete randomness, why should this bother you? Man destroys man, that is the way things are. Disasters happen, why should it bother you? Why do you think there is some injustice in that? If it bothers you, than that’s a sign that, deep down inside, you also believe, you believe that there ought to be justice somewhere in this world”
From another rabbi i heard a similar point that, for many years, he had a questioning congregant, who claimed he was an unbeliever. Lo alenu, may it not befall on us, he lost a brother, his car ran over by a train. He would constantly go to the rabbi and say “I don’t understand it, I want you to explain it to me”, and the rabbi would remain silent. But the man kept insisting, so that one day the rabbi said:
“Let me explain to you what happened. There’s a law in physics which says that two bodies cannot occupy the same space; if your brother’s car moved at a red light and didn’t notice it, or the grid didn’t stop him, the train came and ran over him and he died”.
“Rabbi, you know that’s not what I came here to ask you. I want you to explain to me why it happened.”
“You’re not getting it. If two bodies can’t occupy the same space, and your brother and the train are heading towards the same direction, the train runs over your brother and your brother dies! What’s so hard to understand?? If you don’t believe that there is someone out there mastering over all this, then why do you need to have a why? The world camefrom homo sapiens, from the monkey, and boom, these things happen. Those are the laws of nature. Why does it bother you?
If it bothers you, then that’s the greatest sign that you have some faith left, that you believe, and your constant search for meaning is the greatest proof of your faith. And in Judaism, that’s what faith means.”
It is thoughts such as these that strengthen me. And I believe it will continue to strengthen me over the future. Knowing from the start that I will question it. Knowing that there may be moments when my four children will be crying, needing help, as they have over the last few days, when Mendel was asking “Where’s mommy?” over and over again. There is no saying how this breaks my heart. But we take a deep breath and say “Let’s move forward”.
Knowing from the start what faith means, and that you’ll have crises and fall is very strengthening.
Second thought. An important passage I learned. As every rabbi can testify, in any given shiur, there are always two questions which keep bouncing back: 1. Where was G’d in the Holocaust?; 2. How do the fact that G’d already knows the future and men’s free will bode together?. I am answering neither of these today, forget it. But we need to be prepared to have at least something to say in such a moment, so that we can move on with the shiur. There is a very beautiful thought regarding the Holocaust. That Moshe Rabenu, when he was a shepherd tending for his sheep, and saw the burning bush, unconsumed by the flames, and came to it saying “How fearsome is this place” and G’d tells him “Take off your shoes and know that you stand on sacred ground”. And one of the analogies drawn from this episode is that the burning bush represents the many tragic developments which have been “burning” Am Israel since the dawn of its history. Starting with Egypt, the many galuiot, until nowadays, in Israel, and all over the world. Much suffering. And when Moshe Rabenu asks G’d “What is this?”, G’d replies “This is a sacred ground.” – In other words: Did you ever asked me the mystery of creating life? So too i am not going to explain to the mystery of the opposite of life… This is a sacred place that belongs only to me.
Such deep insights comforts me.
I have no questions. From the beginning I never had any.
And one thing else that strengthens me – Chaia’s faith.
When I was sitting with Chaia at the sofa one night at home and she mentioned the gravity of her illness, the prognosis, five, seven years, of course I started crying upon hearing it, and she also started crying, and she told me, after some tears, “I am at peace. If Hashem wants to take me, I am at peace with that. What worries me is you and the children”. And so it was all the way.
Another example: when we were at the last exam, we spent some time praying and many people were praying, we already had a resonance, a confirmed diagnosis, and, hoping for a miracle, we were positive. Even before we had left the hospital friend who’s a doctor called me and said “I am sorry to tell you, but it’s still the same”. I turned to Chaia and told her. She answered a simple “ok” and afterwards she said “Don’t tell anybody. Keep on praying, just don’t tell people ‘It didn’t work’”. That was here concern.
Right before surgery, when we came into the room, Chaia even recorded a little video saying how lovely the hospital room was. And that’s how she went, so calm, until the very end. And that gives me tranquility. Her faith was engraved so simply, so clearly, that she thought “Why do I need to be sincerely suffering today?”.The pain is very great, but she also passed a sense of tranquility.
I wanted to comment on one last thing, which we felt in these two months, amidst so much faith, amidst this current of faith and prayer which has begun and hopefully it will continue. It reminded me of a beautiful insight of Parashat Chukat. It’s a passage which describes exactly tonight’s event and everything that has been happening. There is a Torah passage which describes the following:”A man will die in a tent…”; the Torah then proceeds to describe the laws of purity and impurity; according to the Torah, if you are, like me, a Cohen, you cannot walk into a closed venue where there is a dead body, because it would transmit impurity. And the Torah says “adam”, a person, a man; and our wise men interpret the word “adam” refers exclusively to Am Israel. This law of purification applies to Jews only; there is no such problem when we are talking about the body of a gentile.
In 1934, during the famous case of the Mendel Beilis blood libel, which caused worldwide commotion, R. Meir Shapira of Lublin, a famous wise man of that time, got involved, as did many of the great men of that time. He wrote an answer that needed to be couriered to court proving or disavowing the accusations against Beilis. The accusers claimed it to be certain that Beilis had murdered an Orthodox Christian boy to make matzot with his blood; they claimed the Torah itself sanctioned blood rituals. They said that, since the Torah says ‘adam’ only for Bnei Israel, it meant Jews considered only other Jews, not gentiles, to be human beings. This is an example of many another cases in the Torah that , if interpreted superficially, can lead people to discard it as mere “fanaticism”; however, given correct study and interpretation, one finds a much more humane and profound meaning.
Meir Shapira refuted the accusers:There are many words in Hebrew for “man”: adam, ish, enosh, gever. All of which had a respective plural: anashim, gvarim. Except for adam. Meaning that the people of Israel is one.
When the Gemarah says that only the jews are called Adam, it means that, when there is a Jewish man who is accused of blood libel or in our case, a woman with four children in Brazil suffering, the entire world is worried about her and crying for her and doing their utmost to revert it. Take a Russian in Russia and a Russian in Brazil, one will not even know about the suffering of the other, and if he does all he’ll do is say “How sad”; he will not care deeply. This union is what “adam” stands for. And this union is what gave us the strength. And I’d like to stress that my faith does not make me less flawed or my suffering any different than the rest of us. But I am absolutely sure that all the prayer and all of the energy everyone sent us was concentrated around our family at these moments and that helps us to have courage to continue.
I thank you from deep within my heart to all of you who came, who took part. But to thank you so that you can leave here happy is not enough. Chaia was a demanding person, and at this moment I’d like to make a call to action. A Facebook page was created, so that any small step in your spiritual growth you might take will be in Chaia’s memory. You may post your mitzvah in this page publicly or anonymously, via inbox. This shall be the legacy that, up there, will serve in her already great merit. I’d like to ask you, for the next two minutes, to maintain silence, so that everyone here may think about a mitzvah they’d like to fulfill and send it to this address: https://www.facebook.com/AMitzvahforChaia.
Once again, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart, may we leave this place enlightened, and may we soon arrive to the destination of our transatlantic ship, of all Bnei Israel, to the coming of Mashiach, bimhero beyamenu, Amen.
Rabino Avraham Stiefelmann