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The Committed Life
Principles of Good Living From Our Timeless Past
Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis
Torah true Jewish values of faith, truth, kindness and love permeate the pages of this book.
"This is one of the most touching and inspiring books I've ever read." Dr. Laura Schlessinger, author of The Ten Commandments
"In an age where most of us have forgotten what's truly important, The Committed Life instills a renewed passion to reconnect to the values that really matter. This book affected me deeply and I highly recommend it to people of all faiths." John Gray, Ph.D., author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus
"Each of us wants to drink deeply and absorb the inspired wisdom of all times and to use it to live a rich, rewarding, and meaningful life. The Committed Life gives you a path to make your life enchanted and purposeful." Mark Victor Hansen, coauthor, #1 New York Times bestselling Chicken Soup for the Soul series
"Jungreis.. .quotes from the Torah and the Talmud, but her message is universal." Booklist
"A love story between a remarkably articulate, generous, fiercely loving, Jewishly engaged woman and her tradition, her family, her children, her people, and, perhaps most of all her husband. Jewish Voice
A Cliff Street Book from Harper Perennial
THE COMMITTED LIFE. Copyright © 1998 by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis.
Dedicated in loving memory to my husband,
Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis.
May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.
The Hebrew name Meshulem means "complete"and that
name personified everything that my husband was.
Throughout this book you will find the name of G-d hyphenated. This is based upon the teaching of the Third Commandment: "Thou shall not take the name of thy G-d in vain."
A long life is not good enough, but a good life is long enough.
My husband was a paradigm of commitment in public as in private life, in war as in peace, in health as in illness, in life as in death. His dedication never faltered. In forty years of marriage I never heard him utter an unkind word, raise his voice, or lose his temper. He was a true reflection of his name, Meshulem, which in Hebrew means "complete," and indeed, he was a complete man.
The Mishna teaches that there are things in life that have no prescribed measure, things to which we must commit ourselves with a full heart, without reservation, without holding back. They include gifts for the poor and offerings to G-d, acts of loving-kindness, and study of the Torah, all of which make for a committed life.
Unfortunately, this threefold formula eludes most people because we live in a world in which our priorities have become skewed. We indulge in excess where we should be disciplined (materialism and physical pleasure), and we stint where we should be openhanded. We fail to recognize our responsibilities to the poor, our obligation to be generous and kind, and our imperative to study the Torah, and because of that, we do not understand the challenges of a committed life.
My husband understood. He lived by these precepts. He gave of himself above and beyond. To him, each and every person was holy. He reached out to one and all with generosity and love.
Every Friday, before the Sabbath, he would empty my freezer and take little gifts of cake and challah to the widows and widowers and those in need. You might, of course, wonder how it can be that people were in need of challah and cake in a Long Island community. Thank G-d, such abject poverty was rare, but there are many forms of need. My husband heard the silent cries of lonely, broken hearts, and he responded to them. When he visited hospitals, it wasn't just a matter of discharging his rabbinic duties, and the story of little Yaffa is a case in point.
Yaffa, a kindergartner, fell from the monkey bars in her school playground. She was rushed to the hospital and needed major surgery. Every morning, before going to services, my husband would visit at her bedside, tell her stories to cheer her up, and then would call her parents to let them know that all was well. And this very same kindness was extended not only to Yaffa but to all those who were sick and hurting.
As for all rabbis, the High Holidays were an especially taxing season for my husband. He would return from synagogue exhausted, but he didn't permit himself to rest until he had visited every sick congregant so that they might hear the sound of the shofar. Remarkably, despite the overwhelming holiday turnout, he always knew who was missing from the services.
There are some people who extend kindness and consideration to strangers but for some reason fail to understand that acts of kindness must be offered to the members of one's family as well. My husband was the perfect father and grandfather. When the children were babies and would awaken in the middle of the night, he would say to me, "The reason why babies cry at night is so that their fathers should get up and learn Torah." With that, he would pick up the baby, put him or her in the carriage, and with one hand rock the baby back to sleep while with the other he turned the pages of the Talmud.
He was there to tell them stories and to show them how to draw and paint. He taught them the word of G-d, showed them the wonders of nature and made them marvel at the beautiful world that G-d created. When they started school, he was right there with them so that he might ease their way on that first traumatic day.
He would take the children to a pond near our house to feed the ducks. Years later, he did the same for our grandchildren. On the day of my husband's funeral, something incredible happened—the ducks crossed the road and stood at attention as the large procession, which included the Nassau County Police, passed. The police department came out in full force since my husband was their beloved chaplain. This was a sight that I had never seen in my thirty-two years of residence in the community.
My husband's pockets were always well stocked with candy so that whenever and wherever he met children, he would have something to offer them. He had infinite patience with every child, whether his own or those of a stranger. During the shiva period after his passing (the seven days of mourning for the passing of a spouse or blood relative), a little girl whose father was disabled cried to me, "The Rabbi helped me with my homework every night. Who will help me now?"
When I close my eyes, I see him with a baby on his big broad shoulders, but truth be told, he didn't only carry babies, he carried all of us, for such is the power of a man who lives a committed life. Even now I can hear his powerful yet gentle voice saying, "Worry? Negative thoughts? You have to banish them from your mind. Put a smile on your face even if there is no reason to smile, and G-d will give you every reason to smile."
He had this wonderful ability to make people smile. He always knew what to say to lift someone's spirits. When people called, he made them feel that theirs was the most important call of the day. It was only during his hospitalization that we discovered that a poor retarded person called our home every night, and my husband had always found the time and the patience to talk to her.
During the last days of his illness at Memorial Sloan Kettering, he told me that I should continue to raise the children with love. I in turn told him that blessed be G-d, we had already done that—to which, in his profound wisdom, he replied, "The job never ends. We are never finished raising children."
My husband was not only the perfect parent and grandparent, he was also the perfect husband. He was my third cousin, descended from the same rabbinic dynasty, and carried the same family name. He was my best friend, my partner in life, my inspiration, and my rabbi. I emphasize this because the true test of commitment to Torah values can be judged not by the way we relate to the world but by the way we interact with the closest members of our family. As strange as this may sound, sometimes it's easier to be loving and considerate of humanity than to extend that same kindness to the members of our own family.
When the idea of establishing Hineni first came to mind, he not only encouraged me but spurred me on. And so it was with all my undertakings. Whether it was my Madison Square Garden rally, writing a weekly column for The Jewish Press, my first book, or appearing on radio and TV, he was always there to support, help, and inspire. If I had difficult days when I felt discouraged and overwhelmed, he would cheer me on. "Of course you will do it," he would say, his voice full of reassurance and warmth.
I will never forget the day my husband was diagnosed with cancer. He went for a routine checkup. He felt strong and was in good health, except for some indigestion and stomach pain. After giving him a battery of tests, which all proved negative, the doctor ordered an MRI. The thought of cancer was so far from our minds that I went to teach my usual Thursday Bible class, never imagining that there might be a problem, so he was all alone when the doctor broke the news that he had a tumor in the colon that looked malignant. Not for a second did my husband lose his composure or his faith. As a matter of fact, it was he who comforted the doctor, thanking him for his many kindnesses and telling him that everything was in the hands of G-d.
My husband did not call me with the devastating news. Straight from the physician's office, he headed for the Hebrew School of our synagogue to speak to the children, and from there he went to visit our grandchildren, where he told them stories from the Torah and reviewed intricate passages from the Talmud with our older grandson. He never let on that there was a problem. It was the doctor who informed me.
When G-d calls, it is often sudden and completely without warning. In an instant, our lives changed. I don't know how I got through my classes that day. I could hardly breathe. Between sessions, I sat on the phone trying to set up appointments for the morning. As it happened, the surgeon, who is a dear friend, was in Japan for a conference, but fortunately he was scheduled to return to New York that night, and an appointment was set for early the next morning at New York University Hospital. The doctor didn't have to say much. His eyes said it all. When he insisted that we immediately check in for surgery, our worst fears were confirmed. Since my husband wanted to spend the Sabbath with his family and his congregation, he asked the doctor if he could check in on Saturday night. The doctor agreed but ordered my husband to refrain from eating.
I called all our children and they came for Shabbos. On Shabbos we are not permitted to be sad, so we tried to pretend that all was well. It is a tradition for fathers to bless their children every Shabbos night. When my husband stood to bless our children and grandchildren, the silence in the room was louder than any cry. We didn't trust ourselves to look at one another. Our son Osher made kiddush (a prayer of sanctification over wine), and for a moment his voice broke. He swallowed hard, and our eyes filled with tears, but that was the only concession we would make to my husband's illness. Quietly we whispered to one another stories of people we knew who had had cancer and made it. With G-d's help it will be alright, we told ourselves.
Without partaking of food, my husband sat with us at the table, singing the songs of Sabbath and expounding on the Torah. After dinner he went to the bookcase, removed a voluminous Talmud, and called our grandson to come and study.
Shabbos morning in the synagogue, my husband greeted everyone with his usual effervescent warmth. None of the congregants even suspected that their rabbi might be ill. Normally his sermons would last for fifteen to twenty minutes, but this Shabbos he spoke for almost an hour, pouring out his heart, asking the people to live by G-d's commandments. Following the services, there is always a social hour where people make kiddush and have light refreshments. It was then that my husband mentioned in passing, taking care not to alarm anyone, that he would have to enter the hospital for a few days.
Throughout the long painful weeks that followed, my husband's spirits never faltered. From his hospital bed he continued to teach the word of G-d with love to all those who came to visit him. He blessed them all, and the gentle smile on his face never faded.
As I was walking through the corridors of NYU, a man approached me. 'Aren't you Rebbetzin Jungreis?" he asked.
"Yes, I am," I said.
"By any chance, are you are related to Rabbi Meshulem Jungreis? He was in the same concentration camp as my father."
"He's my husband."
"Oh," he said excitedly, "I can't begin to tell you the stories I heard about the Rabbi. My father told me that he was a pillar of strength in the camp. He kept everyone going with his recitation of passages from the Talmud, and even under those most trying circumstances, I was told he never ate non-kosher."
It occurred to me that my husband might feel uplifted by these stories from the past, so I invited the man to visit. My husband was delighted to meet him, but in keeping with his total humility, he would not permit him to utter any words of praise. My husband was a brilliant Talmudic scholar, who at the age of eighteen received rabbinic ordination, but there was nothing in his manner to suggest that.
From NYU, the illness took us to Sloan Kettering for the placement of a shunt for chemo. The procedure was supposed to be minor, and he was to return home the following day, but it turned out tragically. My husband never left Sloan Kettering. Throughout those last six weeks of his life, his pain was excruciating. Yet when the doctors asked, "Rabbi, what is your level of pain on a scale of one to ten?" he would reply, "Zero."
We, the members of his family, never left his bedside, but he insisted that I continue to teach Torah, so my days would commence and end at Sloan Kettering, but I would run off to my classes in the late afternoon. I remember one Thursday afternoon... . My husband had dozed off, as had I, sitting in my chair. Suddenly I awoke with a start. It was late. Quickly I grabbed my coat and asked the private duty nurse if she could return the following day, at which time I would pay her. Suddenly my husband opened his eyes and quoted the passage from the Torah, "The day workers must be paid on the selfsame day" (Leviticus). So I sat down and wrote a check.
When my husband learned that there was someone on the floor who had undergone major surgery and had a very large family to support, he told me to go to the wife and give her tzedukah (charity). Even under those harrowing circumstances, he never missed a beat. His commitment transcended his sickbed.
Whoever visited him left strengthened and enriched. To all of them he imparted Torah and blessing, and as a result, the countless young people from Hineni who came to visit him became more than ever committed to Torah. Among them was a young man named David, who had become part of our family a year earlier. He uncovered the path to Judaism quite by accident. One Sunday afternoon, while watching the football game, he surfed through the channels at halftime and discovered my Torah study program. He did not switch back to the game but stayed with me to the end of the show.
This was a new experience for David. He had never studied Torah in depth. As a young boy he had attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed, but that educational experience is superficial at best. It terminates before it starts, turns children off, and most damaging of all, it does not teach the word of G-d. David decided to check me out. The following week, he came to Hineni and never left. David and my husband became very close. "At long last, I have found my rabbi," he would say, "a rabbi I can respect and love." Every Sabbath, David would accompany my husband home from synagogue, glean from his wisdom, and bask in his loving-kindness. David now had a dream, a hope that when he married, his rabbi, my husband, would perform the ceremony.
For the longest time, things did not go too well for him in this direction. "It's not easy to find that someone special, that right girl," he would confide in us. Then one day at Hineni, I introduced him to a lovely young woman by the name of Caroline. From the moment they met, they both knew that they had found their soul mates and soon set a date for a wedding. Of course, my husband, their rabbi, would perform the ceremony, and of course, he would be out of the hospital by that time.
As the days passed, it became obvious that Davids dream would never be realized. The cancer was taking its toll. Days and nights merged into unbearable nightmares. As the wedding day approached and my husband's condition deteriorated, it became difficult for him even to breathe on his own, but throughout, his mind remained alert. He asked our oldest son, Rabbi Yisroel, to perform the ceremony.
On the day of the wedding, the doctors informed us that the angel of death was already in the room, and there was no telling when he would strike. Our entire family, down to the youngest grandchild, was on constant alert. No one wanted to leave his bedside. It was difficult for Yisroel to tear himself away. "What if something happens while I am at the wedding?" he asked, his voice choking with tears.
You can imagine Yisroel's feelings as he performed that ceremony, and you can imagine how the bride and groom felt, they who so adored their rabbi. To be without him on this, the most important day in their lives, and worse, to know that their beloved mentor was at death's door, was more than they could bear.
A week earlier, when my husband discussed the wedding ceremony, he told Yisroel that he must rejoice with the bride and groom, that he must not allow his personal pain to mar the celebration, and that the wedding must not be delayed. He even wrote a message in his own hand to be read under the marriage canopy. And now, remembering his father's words, Yisroel conducted the most beautiful ceremony. When it was over, he danced with the groom, organized a minyan (a quorum for prayer), and only then did he allow himself to call the hospital. His voice breaking with tears, he asked, "How is Abba?" We told him that his father was waiting for him. He rushed back to the hospital for another glimpse of that holy man, to kiss his hand, to exchange a few words, to utter a prayer, to receive yet one more blessing.
And then, a strange sight appeared in the corridor of Sloan Kettering. Caroline in her beautiful white gown and David in his tuxedo walked down the corridor to their rabbi's bedside. They had left their wedding and come for a final blessing in their magnificent attire. My husband opened his eyes, gathered all his strength, smiled lovingly, and whispered, "Mazel Tov, my children."
During the early hours of that morning, my husbands pure soul left this earth. We, his family, his children and grandchildren were all there. He blessed us all, and as he did so, he called each and every child and grandchild by name. Among the many blessings he whispered were the immortal words with which Jacob the patriarch blessed his children when he was on his deathbed: "Hamalach Ha goel..." (May the angel who protected me and redeemed me from all evil throughout my life bless and protect you, my children, and may my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac be forever recalled through you.) (Genesis 48:16). This blessing has been set to a beautiful melody, and as he whispered the words, our little grandchildren softly sang the words back to him.
Throughout his lifetime, my husband lived imparting blessing, and he died imparting blessing. He lived in dignity, and he died in dignity. His life was one of commitment to others, and this commitment stayed with him to the very end. He died the way he lived, "giving above and beyond the prescribed measure."
This ability always to think of others, even on one's deathbed, is the legacy that he left behind for all of us. That legacy will forever endure, for it is a legacy to a committed life that is more powerful than death. His name shall surely live on, not just in his children and grandchildren but in the thousands upon thousands of people whom he touched.
Several months after his death, while going through his papers with a heavy heart, I found a note inscribed in his beautiful handwriting. It read: "A long life is not good enough, but a good life is long enough."
|First chapter from
The Committed Life - Principles for Good Living From Our Timeless Past
by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis
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