An Excerpt from my book. So far this story has been published in the Algemeiner Journal. May there be more in the future…
Even as a teenager, Yocheved seemed special, perhaps gifted. One especially appealing quality was her extra dose of spiritual beauty which shone most brightly in her acts of charity. There are so many examples, but one will have to do. One time, Yocheved’s high school
class was directed to write a story about “The Most Special Jewish Woman I Know”. She wrote about a delightful, handicapped, wheelchair-bound Jewish woman named Rose whom she visited and helped every week in her poor apartment in the most dangerous part of the Bronx. The essay was so outstanding that the teacher submitted it to a competition where it won the $500 first prize. What did Yocheved do with the award? She gave it to Rose, of course.
Yocheved was just sixteen when a spark of yearning began to stir deep inside. Her creative and probing mind sought what was important and meaningful in life. On her own she asked, read, questioned and sought until she concluded a fully observant Orthodox Jewish life was her destiny. Despite the challenges of living in a non-religious community and the real possibility of losing her friends, she proudly marched to the beat of her own inner drum with great determination.
Shortly after beginning her personal journey, she was introduced by our rabbi to my son, David Yecheskel. He suggested the match because he felt it would be a good one, and they were the only two observant teens that age in the area. They only met once, but it was enough for them to know that they were destined for each other. David was home from seminary at the time and shortly returning to Israel for six more months of study. Although they were both just 17 at the time, they made known their intention to get married when he returned.
I already loved Yocheved, but I was overwhelmed with confusion. Probably 90% of everyone and anyone we knew opposed the marriage. “They’re so young,” I kept hearing. I needed an unbiased opinion. I needed special advice.
The Rebbe, the leader of the Chabad Lubavitch Chasidim, is generally understood to be an exceptionally righteous person whose personal perfection produces an awareness which transcends the apparent boundaries of existence. Hundreds of letters and faxes would arrive daily for the Rebbe, seeking his wise and sagely insight into life’s complex and challenging trials and concerns.
I poured my heart out on paper and mailed a letter. The Rebbe’s answer was surprising in its lack of equivocation. “They should get married,” he wrote, “and they should move to Israel.” And he added, “Anyone who tries to stop this [match] should take it on their own responsibility!” Intuitively I knew it all along, but I needed someone I trusted in my corner. It was decided: I would help them. With my permission and help, the couple planned to be married secretly. For weeks I shopped for a dress and household items, but the flurry of activity could hardly be kept secret. Little by little the word got out. The rest of the family came around and consented on the condition that they not move to Israel and that David first get a job for six months. Reluctantly, David and Yocheved agreed. At least they could be married out in the open.
The wedding was a powerful experience and inspirational to all. Many in our family and community were delighted and stirred to see the beautiful, familiar rituals. Yocheved’s joy made a deep impression on many people â€” could it be that this young girl sensed something about the beauty of living a Jewish life that they, so much older and wiser, had somehow missed?
They were our frequent Shabbat guests. Yocheved would light the Shabbat candles and sometimes remain standing in place for over an hour, singing and praying. I’d usually slip out of the room â€” somehow it felt as though I was intruding on her intense dialogue with G-d.
G-d places tests and obstacles in our path so that we overcome them and thereby bring to the fore our inner, latent strengths and talents. He had His tests for Yocheved. The first was becoming observant. The second was to marry her soul mate despite the opposition. The third was to prove much more difficult. Although the couple expected to start a family right away, months and months passed without a pregnancy.
It certainly was not for lack of petition. Yocheved seemed to storm the heavens with her fervent prayers. “G-d must certainly give in pretty soon,” I remember thinking. “How could He possibly say no to such a heartrending appeal?” Her persistence was staggering, and after two long years the couple was blessed with a beautiful baby girl, Yael Sarah.
But the final test was yet to come. Two years after Yael’s birth, Yocheved was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. The doctors looked solemn â€” it had already spread to her lungs and abdomen. “Two to three months to live,” I heard them say. Yocheved refused to accept a no hope, no cure judgment. “You’re not G-d! No one but G-d can tell me when I will die!” she countered, and took action accordingly.
Everyone pitched in â€” I cooked macrobiotic food, we took her to every kind of specialist, and my son took her to Israel to pray at the Western Wall and to visit holy men for advice. She felt wonderful while in Israel.
Yocheved followed the ancient Jewish custom of adding a second name to garner additional spiritual strength, choosing Ruchamah or “merciful”. And the prayers came pouring in from everywhere. People who hadn’t prayed in years and were moved by the story started saying prayers and reading Psalms â€” many of them complete strangers. As news of her illness spread, letters arrived from around the world. Many people, old and young, resolved to start doing Mitzvahs in her merit. In her former school, a four hour “Gossip-Free Period” was established when no detrimental speech about others was permitted. A young man who hadn’t put on tefillin since his Bar Mitzvah six years before told me, “I wanted to pray for Ruchamah Yocheved, but how could I do that when I wasn’t even putting on tefillin? Now I daven every morning, and ask G-d to let her live!” We received a call from the dean of a yeshiva in Israel, who said that extra learning was being done for Yocheved’s benefit. On Purim, a group of our friends went to my daughter-in-law in the hospital. A joyous celebration erupted complete with singing and joy. The entire hospital floor joined our happy celebration and delicious meal.
By now, Yocheved was on chemotherapy and becoming thin and weak, but her dazzling smile and warm welcome never faded. She actually comforted the people who came to visit.
I remember one day, after an excruciatingly painful procedure, Yocheved was wheeled back to her room in such pain she could hardly breathe. She whispered for me to find her “special” little prayer book, together with the list of needy people she was praying for every day. She never missed a day of prayers and was always asking for more names. One day she saw that the Jewish lady next to her in the hospital was receiving visits from a clergyman representing a religion that was foreign to Judaism. “Why are you doing this?” Yocheved pleaded, begging her not to see him anymore. “What is the difference?” responded the unfortunate lady. “If you promise me you will never see him anymore, I will give you something very special,” Yocheved answered. “My lucky prayer book.” And she listened.
On Yom Kippur 1993, almost a full year after she had been given two to three months to live, Yocheved fasted all night and day. In a superhuman display of courage, she prayed the entire service standing up without taking any of the painkillers that kept her functioning. I was there, I saw it all. It was in my home.
One week later, on Simchat Torah, our beloved Yocheved slipped peacefully into a coma. To the very end she believed that she would be saved. My son was at her side. The doctor told him to prepare for the end which could come any minute â€” the cancer had reached her heart. But for two weeks our Yocheved fought on, not wanting to leave her husband and daughter. We kept a vigil by her bedside, talking to her, praying, even eating and sleeping there, never leaving her alone. One day, her eyes fluttered and her lips moved. Her parents,husband, teacher, rabbi, Benjamin and I were all there. A half-hour later, in perfect peace, she returned her pure soul to her Maker.
Yocheved’s life may have been short in its 25 years, but it was filled with good deeds and inspiration. Her doctor, who had been a totally non-observant Jew, came to understand that it had been Yocheved’s soul which kept her body functioning. He was constantly filled with wonderment. Many others who had been distant in their relationship to G-d, now began to keep mitzvahs. So many people told me how inspired they were by Yocheved’s complete and uncompromising love for G-d despite her trials. “Always appreciate what you have,” she was fond of saying. She asked me to share it as her message.
But she was only physically gone. Soon after her passing, she appeared in a dream to my youngest daughter, Daniella Miriam, who enjoyed an especially close with Yocheved.
“You must come and see my new apartment!” Yocheved said to Daniella.
“But Yocheved, you can’t stay there! We are waiting for you down here!”
“You just can’t understand why it has to be this way,” Yocheved smiled gently. “To me, it is so clear now.”
That was Yocheved. Always deeply concerned for others’ feelings, even reaching out from Heaven to console her loved ones and assuage their sense of loss.
Perhaps the greatest miracle is little Yael Sarah who celebrated her fourth birthday the week before her mother passed. As we lit the candles that Shabbat night, she called out all on her own, “Please, Hashem, please send Moshiach now, so my Mommy can come down and I can hug and kiss her!”