A noted psychiatrist was once consulted by a Holocaust survivor who had lost his entire family, a wife and six children, in the death camps. Some years after the liberation, he married a woman who, as it turned out, could not have any children. Heartbroken, he confided in the psychiatrist that since he had no survivors and no one to say Kaddish for him after his demise, he really had no desire to go on living. The psychiatrist suggested he consider that after 120 years, he would be reunited with his martyred wife and children.
The survivor, with tears streaming down his face, responded that he did not think this would happen since his wife and children had died al kiddush Hashem. We are taught that people who lose their lives because they are Jews are holy and pure, and therefore merit the most exalted places in Paradise. Given that he had survived, however, and would undoubtedly be compromised by the inescapable pollutants of life, the survivor felt he would not deserve such a lofty level in Heaven. As such, he lamented, their paths would never cross. With great wisdom, the psychiatrist pointed out that no suffering goes unnoticed. He assured the tortured soul before him that the excruciating suffering of his many losses was of equal significance, and that living al kiddush Hashem,infusing his life with joy and purpose in the wake of a tragedy of such magnitude, was perhaps even more meritorious.
The psychiatrist helped the client to see that his fears were unfounded and reassured him that he would rejoin his family in eternity. On another occasion, the psychiatrist was consulted by a widower who could not get past the death of his wife even with the passage of time. He could not make sense of his life and was unable to invest his lonely, anguished existence with any purpose. In the course of therapy with the psychiatrist, he maintained several times that he should have gone before her. Insightfully, the psychiatrist helped him see that her predeceasing him actually served a great purpose; it spared her the agony of being alone and heartbroken without him.
This realization struck the man like a thunderbolt and served as a balm for his broken heart. He was comforted by this new perspective and was able to begin healing. Rebecca, a troubled middle-aged woman, approached me to discuss a painful family situation. Her husband, Mark, had been diagnosed with progressive kidney disease and was in desperate need of a transplant. The doctors pointed out that the best bet would be a family member who was a good match. Her husband had a sister, Shirley, but unfortunately they had been estranged for years—during a family feud many years earlier they had taken opposite sides, and the chasm had grown deeper over time. Despite the passage of many years and many attempts at reconciliation, both remained intransigent.
When she learned of her brother’s dire situation, however, Shirley emailed Rebecca, informing her that she had undergone testing and had been found to be a perfect match for Mark. Moreover, she was eager and ready to donate a kidney to her brother. When Rebecca told Mark, he initially said that there was no way he would allow his nemesis to save his life. Eventually, however, Shirley’s persistent pleas softened his resistance, and a dialogue opened up between them. They came to realize that their rift had developed because they had allowed separate realities to take root in their minds, poisoning their ability to appreciate the possibility of variant conclusions.
When they were finally able to listen to each other, to talk civilly and share their views, they were ultimately able to bridge the gap. Rebecca commented that it was very sad that it had taken her husband’s health crisis to bring about this change. However, with great gratitude and with G-d’s help, not only would her husband survive but a long-lost relationship would be salvaged. Unquestionably, our perceptions create our realities. We tend to become so entrenched in one way of seeing things that all other roads appear to be dead ends. Invariably, we get trapped. It is tragic that the inability to respect others’ thinking causes the greatest damage in close relationships.
When family members dig in their heels and insist on the truth of their own opinions, strife and heartache ensue, tearing loved ones apart. The two people who consulted the psychiatrist were confined by the narrowness of their personal prisms. They saw their situations through the lens of personal bias and needed a fresh outlook. Being inflexibly invested in our own thinking keeps us confined in that narrow space, obscuring the light. Opening ourselves up to other perceptions not only broadens our horizons but fills us with a sense of humility.
The High Holy Days are an especially propitious time to look at our lives and our relationships, and to identify the unnecessary barriers that stand between us. It is an especially good time to create a space for reflection and to consider perspectives that are different from our own. We will find that with objective scrutiny, views that seemed untenable to us might turn out to be equally valid, providing a bridge to others that offers enrichment to all. In the merit of doing this work, Hashem will certainly reward us all with a happy and healthy New Year, replete with the blessings of nachas, prosperity and the fulfillment of our inspired prayers.