I watch her in awe - the way a sports fan might watch a great athlete - but the thing that this woman has mastered is herself. Every time I've been a guest in this friend's home over the last fifteen years, I am blown away by what a person looks like when she truly embodies Torah values. My recent visit was no different.
To say that this woman is "giving" would be an understatement. I don't know half of what she does - she's much too modest to talk about it - but from what I do know, she took a disable child into her home and has cared for this boy like he is one of her own. She has eight of her own kids, including a child with special needs, who has given her many challenges along the way, and yet she constantly builds this child up and makes her feel like a million bucks. She also informally counsels other mothers with special needs kids to help them stay positive and strong.
This woman's children are sweet and cute, but they are like regular kids - they fight, they ignore her from time to time. During one visit, her special needs child got into a container of shoe polish and spread it all over the kitchen. And how did she respond? She (and her husband) laughed! I've never seen her lose her cool. Not even once. She obviously naturally has a calm disposition. She must have been raised with no yelling, I assured myself. But she recently mentioned that she used scream as a kid and spent time working on it.
She constantly has guests in her home during the weekdays, Shabbos, and holidays. Her front door is never locked. From widows to orphans, to people who are just beginning their Jewish journey to those who have become disenchanted with the observant Jewish world and want to leave it - she welcomes them and countless others in.
When you're a guest in her home, you're treated like a king. She sits you down with a drink and a plate of food when you arrive and doesn't allow you to help serve or clear (I have to argue with her to allow me to contribute somewhat now that I'm an old friend). On Shabbos morning, with your coffee, you get to indulge in a selection of homemade pastries she has prepared, separate from the other desserts she serves after the meals, and on your way out, she sends you with goodies, like her delicious homemade challah, so she can continue to give even once you've left. Every time we've stayed at her house, I get a phone call afterwards where she thanks me for coming and tells me how proud she is of what my husband and I have accomplished with our family and how inspired she is by my Jewish outreach.
She and her husband are not from the same Orthodox community my family is from. They're part of a much more right wing and insular world. She comes from a Satmer family - her husband wears a streimel (a fur hat) - yet she loves us and accepts us for who we are and believes that our path as observant Jews is just as valid as hers is. She is a lover of all Jews and all good people. I commented to her that non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews generally have a negative association with the Orthodox - especially the "ultra-Orthodox," and she told me that she's never had that experience. I had to explain to her that it's because she personally breaks down the negative stereotypes with every new person she meets.
And she's been calling me to say "good Shabbos" every week for the last fifteen years. I don't know how many people are on her "good Shabbos" list. I can only imagine. But any time between Wednesday night when Shabbos begins to "descend" until right before Shabbos itself, I have gotten a quick call from her to wish me a "guten (good) Shabbos," and she tells me that I should be "gebentched" (blessed). I do feel blessed when she calls.
She is the most positive person I have ever met, but it's not because she has had a perfect life or that she is out of touch with reality. She is not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination - she wants her husband learning Torah for as long as he can - so they live on only her modest income - but she is content with what she has. She had infertility troubles for years when all she wanted was to start a family, and although, thank God, since she started being able to have kids she's been blessed with eight (seven of them healthy) - she's also lost many pregnancies in her second and even third trimesters. And her pregnancies are hard - full of nausea, heartburn, and serious back pain. She's mentioned these things in passing, but you'd never see it on her face. Any mention of a difficulty or how she doesn't sleep much always comes with a "Baruch Hashem" (thank God)!
On our most recent visit, I had a feeling she was pregnant again. When we had last visited, she had had my family (of six) over for a three day stay a month after her eighth child was born, along with numerous other guests! This woman is from a very large family and would love to have more children, so when I got the hint the next one was on the way, I was truly happy for her.
But when we got there, and she greeted us in her regular, warm way and was busy getting things ready for the holiday as usual, one thing seemed to be missing - no visible signs of a pregnancy. Maybe she's carrying really small this time, I thought to myself. But then the news came - she had lost the baby at five months - only days earlier.
I told her I was so sorry - I asked her what the recovery is like after such a loss, and she matter-of-factly told me that it was the same thing as being postpartum - both physically and emotionally. She mentioned along the way that they had to fill out a death certificate. I couldn't believe she hadn't canceled on us!
I was waiting the whole visit for her to seem extra tired or extra moody or somehow "postpartum," but nothing. At one point she asked me not to have my son eat in a certain room, which was a VERY reasonable request for anyone to have in any circumstance, but after the fact, she decided that it was her hormones that caused her to be particular like that and she apologized profusely, even as I assured her that I was not the least bit offended, nor did I think her request the least bit uncalled for.
As I watched my friend during our stay, I realized there was a lesson about Sukkot embodied in her being. There are many answers given as to why we sit in a sukkah, but in my friend, I discovered a new one. Some people look so strong and powerful - the people who seem to have it "have it all." But in reality, they're just like those "fortified" homes we leave during Sukkot. Because just like those homes, whether by hurricane, earthquake, foreclosure, or some other disaster, often these people crumble when faced with hardship. The facade of perfection and stability only exists as long as it goes unchallenged.
Then there are the people like my friend, whose lives look far from ideal, like a shaky hut, vulnerable to the elements. But because their happiness comes not from the things that they have, but rather from the way they emulate and trust in the Almighty - like the sukkahs of old, which were protected by the ananei hakavod (Clouds of Glory) - they become indestructible.