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The missed plane that crashed. The "amazing" incident that brought a couple together. The lost opportunity that ultimately ended in disaster... Are some people just lucky and others unlucky? Is there such a thing as "luck" at all?
Aryeh B. Taback has gathered an impressive collection of true stories showing that "coincidences" don't just happen: they are planned by a Director Who moves people and events from place to place on their personal stage of life. As people live out the series of events that make up their own lives, each plays a role in someone else's drama as well. It is an intricate play, artfully planned and directed with precision.
Some of these occurrences can only be described as hidden miracles! Individually, each of these carefully documented stories will entertain and inspire you. Taken together in this phenomenal collection, they form a powerful testimony to Hashgachah Pratis, the special attention paid by the Director of the universe to every detail of our lives.
FIRST EDITION First Impression
... April 2003
ISBN: 1-57819-734-1 (hardcover) 1-57819-735-X
This book is lovingly dedicated
of my mother and teacher
Chaya Esther a"h
Zev Yehoshuah n"y
Adele Taback a"h
Raised in a home steeped in Jewish values and
She was able to give so much life to others
She left this world for the next
T'hei Nishmaso Tzrurah B'tzror Hachaim
■ Author's Note
Hope and trepidation are two very diverse
emotions, yet both simultaneously fill my heart as I ready this work for
publication. The hope is a deep-seated one, a fervent desire that these
pages in some way succeed in transmitting to you, the reader, the
feelings and inspiration which I have experienced while preparing them.
The person I am now is vastly different from the person I was when I
started the process, and the world is a different place through the new
eyes I have found. Trepidation, too, grips my heart, for to tell a story
is to be entrusted with one of the most precious commodities, a
commodity ever so fragile, a commodity called "the truth." It is a
characteristic of the Divine, something that finite beings can only
approach through much toil and effort, and one which I have fought to
preserve throughout the creative stages of this work. Nevertheless, I
ask the forbearance of the many people who told me their stories, the
people who entrusted me with their very lives, for I am certain that
elements of the stories they lived through may seem unrelated to the
words which I have used to describe them. Notwithstanding this, I have
done everything in my power to bring to you, the reader, the details and
facts of each and every remarkable story in as real and honest a manner
as possible. With the exception of one or two stories, every account in
this collection was heard firsthand from the people who experienced
them. Great effort was expended in following up on the smallest of
details, to ensure that every facet of every story is accurate.
Nevertheless, I have taken the liberty of changing certain minor and
inconsequential details such as names and places in some of the stories
to protect the identities of the people concerned.
Kevin, friends like you hardly exist in today's world, and I am who I am today thanks to your friendship and support. Thanks boet.
Granny and Grampa, you are pillars of strength, and your positivity and optimism have allowed us to face the greatest challenges together. Heather, your courage and care have done so much for us, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping to captain our "big ship." Abba, your strength, counsel, and the example you have set for us have had a profound impact on my life, and I am eternally indebted to you for everything that you have done for me. Dani, Orit, Ora, Yehuda, Adina, and Sara you guys mean the world to me. Imma, your example will remain with me for as long as I live.
Tamar, thanks for having me.
And last but not least, my humble but heartfelt thanks go to The Director...
It is the type of script that stage directors dream about. A drama so unique, so unusual, that it will only run one time. A single showing, during which each of the thousands of actors will cross the stage but once, during which time they must act as if their entire world depends on this performance. There are no rehearsals, no second chances. This show is in real time. The actors in the cast have given this strange production a name of their own, a title of endearment. They call it life.
What makes this production so unique, so different from any other, is the fact that its roles are intertwined as if part of a complex tapestry. It is a play in which every character has an opportunity to be the hero, the star, or, conversely, the villain. Every actor who emerges onto the stage from the wings has a chance to play the lead role, every actor has the potential to receive a standing ovation when he or she returns to the real world backstage, behind those heavy curtains.
But we must realize a fascinating yet little-recognized truth. Observe for a moment that not only is he the protagonist, not only is she playing the lead role of this surreal production, but at the same time, they are mere "extras," the backdrop in yet another character's act, playing secondary roles in someone else's production. Every actor is simultaneously occupying center stage, face glowing under the spotlight, while at the same time but a prop in someone else's solo. This should fill our hearts with awe and fear of He Who choreographs this infinitely complex drama call Life, He Who ensures this seamless fusion of foreground and backdrop into one perfect reality.
For the most part, the Director has chosen to remain unseen, con-ding Himself from the view of His subjects. Never will a single or see Him directly. Notwithstanding this, an experienced eye, an eye that seeks Him with unswerving honesty, will see His handiwork and imprint at every turn. Open your eyes, small speck in this immense world, and you will see Him directing your every step.
This collection of stories represents infinitesimally short episodes in this monumental drama, through which simple and assuming people glimpsed the awesome power coordinating their lives. Let us absorb these stories, so that we too might learn see this Power. Then, let us pay homage to the Director.
■ A Brief Note on South Africa and its Jewish Community
The Republic of South Africa forms the lower jaw of the skull-shaped African continent. It is a vast country, covering over one milllion square kilometers - twice the size of France - and is surrounded by nearly three thousand kilometers of pristine coastline. To the east and south, the warm Indian Ocean forms her boundary, while to the west the icy South Atlantic laps her shores. Only to the north is South Africa bounded by neighbors: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland. It is a richly diverse land; from the towering Drakansberg mountain range in east, laced with icy alpine streams; to the dry and arid northwest, and the deserts of Kalahari and Karoo. In the northeast, the massive Kruger National Park, alone larger than the entire State of Israel, forms one of the most expansive wildlife refuges in the world. South Africa is a beautiful country, blessed with a mild delightful climate, and a relaxed, easygoing way of life.
The South African Jewish community is well organized, with a deep attachment to Jewish traditional values. The community goes back a long way, with persons of Jewish descent having found their way to the Cape from the earliest beginnings of white settlement. Records of Jewish settlers date as far back as the 18th century.
The main influx, however, began many years later. The discovery of diamonds and gold between 1867 and 1886, which was the beginning of South Africa's industrial development, attracted large numbers of immigrants from many parts of the world, among them many Jews. Some of these Jews were among the founders and developers of South Africa's rich diamond- and gold-mining industries. Their achievements gave them status and influence beyond their numbers. They were friends and confidants of national figures and some became civic leaders.
Of course, most of the Jews who came to South Africa, like most others who arrived, did not become mining magnates. In fact, a majority of the Jewish immigrants were fleeing religious oppression in Czarist Russia and were very poor. For many, the streets were not paved with gold but with poverty. The early immigrants were mainly artisans and small traders. From 1882 to 1912 some 40,000 Jews entered the country. In the next forty years another 25,000 arrived, mainly from Lithuania, Latvia, and England; 8,000 of them came as refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930's. After World War II, there began to be moderate influxes of Jews from Israel and Zimbabwe. Most South African Jews today were born in South Africa.
The census on October 10, 1996 showed the total South African population at just under 40 million. Today there are an estimated 85,000 Jews, compared to 120,000 in 1980. The majority live in the Johannesburg area, the other large metropolitan concentration being in Cape Town, with smaller communities in Durban and Pretoria. The cities of Port Elizabeth, East London, and Bloemfontein were once thriving Jewish centers, but have declined to a few hundred souls each, most of them elderly. Immigration has taken its toll on the Jewish population, with many qualified people seeking to escape the high-crime levels experienced in the country, especially in Johannesburg. Nevertheless, despite the specter of crime, there are many Jewish South Africans who remain committed to South Africa and the lifestyle they are able to lead there.
The Johannesburg Jewish community remains strong and cohesive, helped in the last twenty years by the fact that Jewish families have moved away from the city center, in favor of the more bucolic northern suburbs such as Sydenham, Dunkeld, Wendywood, Gallo Manor, and Glenhazel. Religious organizations are on par with those of any other country, with an effective Chevrah Kaddisha, Beis Din, and Hatzalah service in operation. The majority of Jewish children are still enrolled in Jewish day schools.
The South African Jewish community remains one of the Diaspora's crown jewels, and with Hashem's help will continue to thrive and grow until the coming of Mashiach, speedily in our days.
The Talmud (Megillah 3a) teaches that focusing on Divine control of the world, by reciting Shema Yisrael, can help avert harm.
In Nefesh HaChaim (3:12), R' Chaim of Volozhin states that a very effective way for a person to prevent others from harming him is to absolutely and completely concentrate on the fact that Hashem is the true C-d there is no force other than Him, and He gives everything else its power.
Let us meet a woman who did just that.
For days on end, heavy rains fell over the Natal highlands. It was as if someone had pulled a giant plug out of the sky, and the tons of water confined there had come tumbling down, intent on soaking the province to oblivion. Great torrents of water rushed down the hillsides, through towering forests, over narrow country roads, and through terrified little villages, sweeping tons of debris along with them in their headlong charge toward the sea. Rivers burst their banks, pulling down bridges and undermining roads. Giant trees floated majestically down the rivers like Spanish galleons amongst the flotsam and jetsam of hundreds of destroyed homes and farms. For a while it appeared as if the entire province would be washed inelegantly into the Indian Ocean.
After many days, the rains finally ceased. A shocked calm settled over the region as the inhabitants of Natal took stock of the damage and the farmers tallied their losses. The countryside seemed to gurgle with the sound of millions of gallons of water draining out of the soggy landscape. The rivers began to subside. It would be many days, if not weeks, however, before they returned to their normal levels.
The situation in Natal may have been bleak, but it was certainly not bleak enough to deter the Blackman family from making their biennial pilgrimage to the Drakansberg mountain range. Milton Blackman, a busy anesthesiologist practicing in Johannesburg, desperately needed a break from the stresses of the operating room; when the opportunity arose, not much would keep him and his wife Rhona from sharing their passion for the mountains with their young family. A few days after the rains subsided, they set out for the tranquil alpine resort of Injasuti in the central Drakansberg, threading their way through the valleys and over the high passes which crease the approach to South Africa's largest mountain range. As they neared their destination, the power of the floods became increasingly apparent to them. It was only when they found the bridge leading to the Injasuti resort lying shattered in the river it had once crossed, that they realized that their holiday plans were not completely waterproof. A hasty family discussion confirmed that no one was eager to turn back to Johannesburg, and they drove on in the hope of finding another retreat not obstructed by the flooded rivers. A short while later a sign indicated the route to a hotel called Dragon's Peak, and it was there that the Blackmans ended their wanderings and set about the always enjoyable task of relaxing and unwinding.
By the second day of their vacation the sun was once again shining brilliantly, almost as if to deny any involvement in the foul behavior of the preceding weeks. The glorious weather was all that was needed for the family to jump into their hiking boots, eager for some mountain air and the sound of scrunching underfoot. An early-morning ramble took them along the road out of the resort and over a small bridge which under normal circumstances crossed a narrow mountain stream. As a result of the flooding, however, the stream had swelled and had risen above the level of the bridge, forcing the group to wade through some six inches of water, much to the delight of the boys, Dovi, Yehoshua, and Gabi. The rest of their walk was uneventful, Milton's firm voice enough to keep his rambunctious brood on the straight and narrow. A couple of hours later they found themselves marching along the road back toward the resort. Once again they approached the submerged bridge, and again they proceeded to wade across it, boots in hand and feet enjoying the soothingly cool water.
Halfway across the bridge, Milton noticed that his eldest son, Dovi, had chosen to wade through the river itself on the upstream side of the bridge, instead of remaining on the road. A sharp reprimand from Milton brought the 11-year-old to his senses, and he moved toward the bridge to hoist himself up onto the road to join his family. By that time, Dovi was almost in the middle of the river and the top of the road reached to just below his chest height. He placed his hands onto the road and pushed downward in an attempt to lift himself onto the highway. Nothing happened. A look of concern flashed across his brow and it was quickly mirrored on the faces of his parents.
"Get on the bridge, Dovi," his mother blurted, half as an instruction and half out of fright.
"I can't, Ma; I'm stuck!" came the reply from the now panic-stricken boy.
Milton ran forward and began pulling the boy upward in the hope of dislodging him from whatever was pulling him down. Dovi would not budge.
Panic quickly turned to hysteria as the poor parents clung to their son, who was now slowly being pulled downward under the bridge.
It was only on a subsequent vacation that they discovered exactly what it was that had taken hold of their son. The road on which they stood had been built over a meandering mountain stream, which under normal circumstances would probably have been just a trickle of sparkling water. In order to allow the water to pass under the road, the road engineer had built it on a few large concrete pipes lying perpendicular to the direction of the road. On that fateful day, however, the trickle had swelled to a steady, silent torrent which rushed through the pipes under the road with remarkably strong pressure. Dovi's legs were being sucked into one of the concrete pipes.
The two parents dared not let their son go, and Dovi's younger brother Yehoshua was urgently dispatched to find help at the resort. As Milton clung to his son with his wife at his side, he looked into Dovi's eyes for what he was certain was the last time. Rhona began praying silently. Within minutes, Yehoshua was back with two men from the resort, one of whom immediately jumped into the water alongside the trapped boy. The man pulled and twisted as he attempted to free Dovi, but after a few minutes he climbed out of the water and apologized. "Can't be done," he declared morbidly. His colleague, dissatisfied with his friend's fateful prognosis, climbed down into the water to see what he could do. Moments later, he disappeared from view entirely, as if he had been but an apparition in the first place.
A lifetime passed. The man did not reappear. Either he was working on the trapped child under the water or else he too was now a victim of the powerful currents below. Rhona began praying aloud, trying to remember all the prayers she had been taught to invoke in times of dire need. Panic clenched her throat as she looked into her son's eyes.
Suddenly, she remembered a verse which she had learned years before, one which she had been told was a very powerful verse (Devarim - 4:35):
"Attah, hareisa lada'as ki Hashem Hu ha'Elokim, ein od milvado"
"You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is the G-d! There is none besides Him!"
As she finished the sentence, there was a commotion in the water and the heroic helper, together with the stricken boy, came shooting out of the water.
■ Living Proof
The Gemara in Shabbos (152b) relates an unusual story. Some laborers were digging in the property of the Sage Rav Nachman, when they came across the intact corpse of the Sage Rav Achai bar Yoshiah. The Gemara relates a dialogue which ensued between Rav Nachman and the corpse. (Maharal explains that this dialogue is in fact allegorical and refers to an inner dialogue which Rav Nachman had with himself as he contemplated the corpse.) At one point Rav Nachman said to the corpse, "Is it not written, 'And the dust shall return to the earth as it was'" (Koheles 12:7)? Clearly the Sage was puzzled by the fact that the body had not decomposed. Replied the corpse: He who taught you the book of Koheles apparently did not teach you the book of Mishlei for there (14:30) it states: "The rotting of bones is [caused by] envy" implying that whoever has envy in his heart during his lifetime, his bones will rot after his death, but whoever does not have envy in his heart while he is alive, his bones will not rot after his death."
The following story illustrates the benefits of not being envious of others and of being satisfied with one's lot. A person who is content will not be easily upset by others. I quote it as told to me by the person concerned.
My father, Yehudah Leib ben Binyamin Shap HaKohen, was born in Vilna on the 4th of Iyar in the year 1902. Not long after his arrival in the world, the situation in Europe began to deteriorate, and when he was 11 years old he and his father uprooted themselves from the place they called home and set sail for warmer and friendlier climes. Like many others who were fortunate enough to escape Europe before the upheavals began, Yehudah Leib and his father eventually found themselves washed up on the sunny shores of South Africa. Here they settled in the Eastern Cape province where my grandfather became a trader on a small, remote trading station called Ngwenya. At a very young age my father joined him in the business and quickly learned the rudiments of how to be a successful trader. When he married my mother a few years later, he bought a trading store in the nearby village, Debe Nek, where he worked for many years. In 1957, he sold the store and moved to Cape Town where they lived out the rest of their lives. He passed away on the 19th of Iyar in the year 1973, and was buried in Cape Town.
My father was a very gentle person who generally did not get angry. When the local black people would come to his shop to sell their wool or birdseed, he would be very particular about the weights with which he measured their produce. He would pay the right price but ensured that the scale was correct. Similarly, when selling them goods, he was just as particular, and would rather give the customer the benefit of a little more goods. Shortly after his passing, I received a beautiful letter from Dreyfus Fichla, a black teacher who lived in the town of Debe Nek during my father's time there. In painstaking English, he testified to my father's honesty and the respect that he had for all the people of Debe Nek:
I am quite sure you may not recognize or remember who I am. I will introduce myself as one of your father's best customers at Debe Nek. I was known to the late Mr. Louis Shap as early as 1920 and until he left Debe Nek. He was my intimate dealer. When he left he went [sic] to my home to shake hands and he would not be happy if he did not come to say good-bye before leaving Debe Nek...He was a very honest man and he honored friendship not with whites only but with black people in particular. He studied the needs of his customers and extended great sympathy to each and every customer. He was really an honest dealer, and very courteous indeed. He used to say, "Friendship is more than money." He used to say that he would rather lose money than lose friendships. He believed that if he can have no friends he was a poor man but if [he] has many friends he was a rich man!
When selling articles to a customer he would never sell what he knew was not quite genuine even if the customer thought it was good ... He never sued his customers - oh not once!
During the world war we used to gather in his lounge listening to the radio news about the war. That was the only European home where we could do such a thing...
How can we not mourn for such a friend and helper. I have never seen him angry and saying bad words to anyone.
My mother passed away nearly twenty years after my father. In a codicil to her last will and testament, she wrote that she wished to be buried in Israel. In deference to her wishes, my husband and I, together with my brothers, made plans to accompany her to Israel on her last earthly journey. On the Motz'aei Shabbos prior to our leaving Johannesburg, my rabbi and teacher, Rav Aharon Pfeuffer, z"tl, visited me to offer his condolences. In the course of our discussion, he asked me where my father was buried. When I told him that he had been buried in Cape Town nineteen years previously, the rabbi told me, "You are not obligated to do so, but it would be correct for you to move your father to Eretz Yisrael."
My mother was laid to rest in the Holy Land on the 26th of Cheshvan. While sitting shivah at my daughter's house in Jerusalem, I told my two brothers of the advice of Rabbi Pfeuffer. Both instantly agreed to the plan.
On my arrival back in South Africa, we set about making the necessary arrangements. Unfortunately however, the Chevrah Kaddisha in Cape Town could not give us an exact date for the dis-interment but said it would be before the following Pesach.
The week before Pesach they phoned to say that it was not possible to have it done before Pesach as they had six funerals that week, and promised to exhume my father's remains at some point after the festival. In the course of the phone call they also asked if we would mind "to have the remains placed in a child's coffin." I was aghast at the thought, and although we consented, I prayed silently, "Hashem, please don't let it be like that."
After Pesach we were told that my father had
been exhumed and that his remains would be flown to Israel. My daughter
and son-in-law flew to Israel to be present at the reburial. They
described how initially a respectful silence filled the air at the
graveside. Suddenly a noise rose from the members of the Chevrah
Kaddisha, and a voice exclaimed:
My daughter asked her husband to go and see what was going on. On his return to Johannesburg, I asked him what he had seen. He told me: "Mom, I have a weak stomach, but I thought they were finished, and when I looked they were changing his tachrichim [burial shrouds]. He looked like the picture on your wall."
I phoned Rav Pfeuffer immediately to tell him of the remarkable occurrence, that my father's remains had not disintegrated after nearly twenty years. He told me of the aforementioned Gemara in Maseches Shabbos which states that someone who is not envious and stingy will not be eaten by worms.
My father was reburied at Har Menuchos in Jerusalem on the 12th of Iyar.
I later spoke to Rabbi Yissachar Frand, telling him about this miracle with my father. I also told him that my father was a very honest man. Rabbi Frand turned to me and said, "I am not a chassid but I would like to show you something." He took a Chumash and read aloud the pasuk from Parashas Ki Seitzei : "Even shleimah vatzedek A perfect and honest weight shall you have, a perfect and honest measure shall you have, so that your days shall be lengthened on the land that Hashem, your God, gives you" (Devarim 25:15).
Our family was in Israel for my niece's wedding during that year, and we unveiled the two tombstones of my parents. Incredibly, the parashah of that week was Ki Seitzei.
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