7 Tishrei 5781 / Friday, September 25, 2020 | Torah Reading: Ha'azinu
 
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Praying for a Friend    

Praying for a Friend



The intellect often lacks advice for weathering tribulations. Crises are when many people turn to Rebbe Nachman's teachings, for they see results that defy nature completely...

 



When hisbodedus (intense personal prayer) leads to wondrous change, you are inspired to shout it from the rooftops. This article is my rooftop.

 

Childhood friends are an indelible part of your soul. Judith inhabits a special part, as one of the most understanding people you ever met. A natural listener, she would reflect back the thoughts you shared with a special sympathy. Her amazing people skills rendered her degree in social work a mere formality.

 

My reunion with Judith was on a sunny spring day in 2007. We walked around the block with arms around each other as if we were ten year olds planning mischief again. It’s just that this time, Judith had cancer.

 

I had last seen her a decade ago before my Aliyah – she brought me a gift and wished me good luck on a journey she could never share. When we leave the secular world and enter traditional observance, we wave goodbye to those we wish would come along. It is harder leaving non-Jewish friends; little can they be part of our rich new life, hope is scant that we would ever sing Shabbos zemiros together.

 

And here we were reunited, but in darker circumstances.

 

“The doctors say I have,” her voice shook, “four to six months,” now it broke, “and then a horrible death.” Her uppermost worry was her two children. Her husband, she was sure, could remarry. Already she was letting him go…but she was still protecting her parents from the full truth of the diagnosis – an effort at control in an out of control situation.

 

I’d been learning Breslev Chassidus, studying during shalosh seudos with Breslev women. Surely some of my knowledge could help. I tried coaxing her into belief in G-d and His tests, into prayer. I hoped if she changed she could get well.

 

Judith listened as she always did, said sure I could pray for her, but as for her doing the same? “How would prayer work exactly, is it a change of attitude that heals?” She needed solid answers. “I realize now that science has been my religion.” Again, we could not share the same journey.

 

I see now that I was distancing myself from her pain by telling her what to do. I was also caught in an old habit absorbed from my liberal upbringing – impress others with your knowledge, debate endlessly – just that now, the subject was religion. Of course I meant well, but is that what I had learned of late in my newly adopted community of Breslev women?

 

Perhaps it was the intensity of reuniting with a childhood friend, opening doors to the back of one’s mind, as well as her dark prognosis, that inspired me to pour out a deep prayer like I’d never done before, the very next morning.

 

“Rise, cry out at night, at the beginning of the watches, pour out your heart like water before G-d…” Lamentations 2:19 .

 

I had the quiet roads to myself and an hour and a half drive to New Hampshire. The bottom of my soul welled up within me and I cried out, “G-d! Judith asked me to pray for her! (Later, when I told this to Rabbanit Kirshbaum, a leading Breslev teacher in Israel, she was jubilant. “A sign of the coming of the Moshiach is when the nations ask us to pray for them!” The other Breslev women standing there were ecstatic).

 

“…(the nations will say) ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that G-d is with you.’” Zechariah 8:22-23

 

Rebbe Nachman of Breslev osb"m instructed that in dealing with adversaries, we must enumerate their good points, surely with a friend in need you can do so! I summoned every good point that I could muster. “She supported my observance all those years ago, saying, ‘You can refuse non-kosher food if you want, just like vegetarians refuse meat,’ See G-d? She has a portion in my mitzvos!”

 

The Beis Yosef holds that any non-Jew who is kind to a Jew has a portion in the World to Come.

 

In giving her credit, I was paring down my sense of accomplishment; now, I was a smaller part of a greater whole.

 

“Her parents!” I continued telling G-d what He already knows but what I needed to say, “are honest community leaders, kind and giving…” At this sensitive time I had gently pried, and asked Judith’s mother, by the way, why did Judith and her sisters have Biblical names? “I wanted my girls to have honorable names”, her mother said. No maternal Jewish background though that they are aware of. “…we must rescue any non-Jew who worships G-d, such as a Christian or a Moslem.”

 

I repeated myself when I ran out of ideas. “Just like she supported my observance, she has a portion in my praying now!” I was transforming even now, in this car on a country road, “Reward her for that!”

 

“It is very good to pour out one’s thoughts before G-d, like a child pleading before its parent…. express (your) thoughts before G-d with a contrite heart. Contrition is in no way related to sadness and depression….Depression is like anger and rage, like a complaint against G-d because He is not fulfilling one’s wishes. Contrition, on the other hand, is the feeling that a child has when it pleads to its parent.”

 

I pleaded, prayed, grew.

 

Grew. The difference I felt between this outpouring and the formal prayers or even informal spontaneous prayers is in all the insights that came tumbling out of space, falling into my lap, enriching and adding to deeper dialogue with the Creator. I say dialogue because it felt like a two way street, that I was getting something back, windows were opening into my mind - dusty, cobweb-covered doors flinging open, revealing new internal vistas.

 

“When a person meditates, he is helped by G-d. He can then express his thoughts before G-d just as a person speaks to a friend. One must accustom himself to converse with G-d just as he would with his teacher or friend.”

 

The biggest insight was - Judith loves me, but that does not mean she will follow me. This was like a lightning bolt! It questioned the liberal assumptions in which I was raised: debate, convince others as a mark of accomplishment, and when you get religion, debate that too.

 

Now the focus was on me, not what she needed to change. I was no longer behind a secure fence, giving pointers and advice to a friend in trouble. I saw a road ahead of me too. If I would walk that road, would it ease hers too?

 

The Bostonner Rebbe ztz”l advised that when praying for a non-Jew, to use her entire first name, without mentioning the mother’s name as is customary when praying for a fellow Jew.

 

Three events followed that I want to tell you.

 

Five weeks later:


Dear Becky,


Please keep at it. I haven't told this to many people, but my cancer seemed to start responding to treatment the DAY AFTER we met. I felt a boost in energy and a reduction in pain between June 18th and July 23rd. I had a great month. We went to Martha’s Vineyard, we went on bike rides, we swam in the ocean, we went to a violin institute for a weekend in Vermont and camped. It seemed that the cancer was at bay and I couldn't help but marvel that it all started the day after we met. I should've told you this before and I wish I had. (I've told other people this).


I wanted to tell you this in case you thought or felt there was any connection between our talk, your prayers, my short term gains, etc.

 

That “DAY AFTER” dawned with my passionate outpouring of prayer on sleepy country roads. I was stunned.

 

The second remarkable instance: back in Israel, sleep evaded me. I went to bed repeating over and over “ana HaShem refa na la” and again reciting Judith’s good points.

 

“The main time that King David would meditate was at night, under his bedcovers….Happy is one who can follow this practice, since it is the highest of all…”

 

I received this email the next day:

 

Last night I had a dream about you, me, and a third woman--an unknown female presence. I was lying down with my head in your lap, you were sitting on the ground draped in scarves and beautiful, colorful fabric, stroking my hair and weeping with a smile--your jubilant smile--on your face. But you were rocking me and weeping and smiling all at once. The "third presence" was a young woman whose form and face were unseeable to me in the dream. But she was standing next to the two of us, in contact with us, maybe embracing us, from a higher vantage point. I knew she was someone who spoke Hebrew, yet she was American, and I knew that she could be a bridge between us, and that is how I thought of her. Like, "It is good she is here, because she knows both cultures, and can speak Hebrew." (As if you speak only Hebrew). So there were three levels for the three women--me lying down, you sitting, and her standing. When I woke up I wondered if she were an apparition of G-d.

 

I was deeply shaken.

 

Autumn

 

My second visit to the States in five years, I was brought back to Boston and found myself sitting across from Judith at Ruth’s Kosher Kitchen. Seven months had passed. Seven - not four to six. Judith looked well, though the prognosis was still not good. “Well Becky,” she said, smiling down at her salad, “whatever works.” We smiled together, childhood friends relaxing in a restaurant.

 

Winter

 

The third remarkable instance, I focused on the cells themselves, pleading with G-d to drive them out. I received this email within a week:

 

Dearest Becky,


I must tell you this before I leave for New York--latest scans show dramatic shrinkage!! Your prayers and efforts ARE working!! Some tumors in the lymph nodes have apparently "melted away." Multiple liver tumors have been reduced to a few, the largest was 9.6 cm in August and is now 1.9 cm. This is hard and fast evidence that something is working, and that there IS hope for me yet. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!!!!!! Must go but had to let you know before another moment passed. Thank you for your latest email with the details of your hard, internal work. I, too, am trying to face what is most difficult to face. More later.

 

By now, I was overwhelmed. These were not the only times I prayed for Judith, but these were the times when there seemed to be extraordinary correspondence between my prayers and her response.

 

I pondered with more than a little regret all the silly arguments I’d had with family and friends about religion, for religion. They never amounted to much; rarely does a debate turn someone’s head around. Surely, Jewish tradition is replete with debating out of love and for the sake of heaven in the interpretation of halacha. Hillel and Shammai, heads of two opposing schools of thought, would leave the house of study arm in arm. But how easy is it to fall into a battle of egos. Now I was sharply confronted: set aside the debates; turn energy to the mind opening process of deep personal prayer.

 

At times I slid back into preaching, encouraging her to deeper belief, desiring an epiphany from her for my efforts. My fourteen year old daughter gently rebuked me, "just wish her a recovery, and she'll figure it out."

 

I recited the psalm that corresponded with her age, psalm 41, which holds both hope and despair, balancing a conundrum, and ending with a the inspiring, “Blessed be the L-rd G-d of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting, Amen and Amen.” “(Find yourself) in the Psalms….the main thing is to say each psalm for (your)self.” The outcome - still hidden. Being the last in the first book of psalms, there is a certain finality to it, closure.

 

I took upon different meditations – one an exhausting day long forgiveness exercise – together with my job and caring for my family. Among my many utterances that day I said suddenly, “Dad, I forgive you for dying.” Astonished at myself, I figured even statements like that surely could help my friend, said with the purest intentions.

 

Summer

 

Maybe it was summer’s scorching heat. The month of Av in Israel finds you waking in sweat, waiting for relief. My siddur was sandpaper in my hands, prayers were rote, mouth dry, tongue numb. I was in a desert and could not or did not try hard enough to get out.

 

“You must really force yourself to concentrate on your prayers…. I disagree with the people who say one should not try to force it….Even if you sometimes cannot pray at all, the effort you put into forcing yourself to pray is also very precious to G-d.…You should pray with all your heart. You must feel the words of your prayers in every bone.”

 

I wish I could say that she made it, that I prayed her into a long life, and as a bonus, that she took upon belief in G-d, and even more, the seven laws of Noah, but the story does not end that way. We got an mail from her parents, her liver is failing, she is in crisis – shook myself out of that scorched stupor – my husband and sons were running out the door on a trip to Jerusalem, “pray for Judith!” “Okay we’ll go to the Kotel!” Called her parents, they’d relay the message but - Judith was only semi-conscious by then. Maybe knowing that prayers were being said finally gave her spirit the courage to release itself from bondage, and return home.

 

Did my prayers work when she experienced temporary healing and closeness to the Creator? Did my lack of ability to pray before she passed away coincide with a decree that finally had to be carried out? I cannot presume to imply that prayers are like magic wands, waving whatever we want into being. But it may have been a small sign from above, that prayer is so potent that G-d frees our hearts at times and we see immediate effects and perhaps G-d prevents us from praying at times precisely to show us its power, and that He, ultimately, is in control.  

 

Must we be shaken to the core before we storm the gates of Heaven – can we not intensely supplicate in good times too?


 

Addendum

 

Judith Carey Schlesinger grew up in Brookline Massachusetts, attended its public schools and Wesleyan University. Her parents, Laura and Bill, are models of kindness and social service in the Brookline community. She is survived by her husband and two children, parents and three sisters, and countless friends and acquaintances that cherished her loving nature.
 

Footnotes


1. Outpouring of the Soul Reb Alter of Teplik, Translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Breslov Research Institute c1980 pg ix


2. Handbook of Jewish Thought Volume II, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Moznaim Publishing Corporation c 1992 pg 376


3. Azamra Breslov Research Institute. C. 1984


4. HaRav Moshe Shternbuch, "Is It A Mitzvah to Attend the Funeral of a Non-Jew?"


5. Handbook of Jewish Thought Volume II, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Moznaim Publishing Corporation c 1992 pg 36


6. Outpouring of the Soul Reb Alter of Teplik, Translated by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. Breslov Research Institute c1980 pg 35 – 37


7. Ibid, pg 26


8. Ibid, pg 38


9. Ibid, pg 34


10. Advice Translated by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum. Breslov Research Institute. C. 1983 Pg 289 – 295





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  4 Talkbacks for this article    See all talkbacks  
  1.
  would be glad to be in touch
Becky9/12/2018 6:54:53 AM
     
 
  2.
  unforgettable
Mirel Rochel5/9/2017 2:32:32 AM
     
 
  3.
  Beautiful story - Thank you (only subject)
Lori6/1/2016 10:30:02 PM
     
 
  4.
  Powerful and Beautiful
David Fink6/1/2016 12:27:00 PM
     
 

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