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True sacrifice

I  thought I knew at least a little bit about mesiras nefesh. After all, I had followed my husband halfway around the world to Colombia, South America, to spread Torah and mitzvos in its Turkish Jewish community. As it turned out, however, I would actually learn the meaning of selfsacrifice for the sake of Heaven from a soft-spoken giyores I hardly knew. As Rebbetzin, it’s my job to at least recognize most people’s faces, and I knew that Saul Cohen wasn’t a member of our community. He was also Sephardic, but he belonged to the nearby insular and tight-knit Syrian Jewish community. To the casual observer, Saul Cohen looked like any other wellto-do businessman. The first time we met he was wearing an expensive custom-made suit and his manner was gracious and confident. But there was a look in his eyes that hinted at a sadness or tragedy beneath the surface that set him apart. The next time I ran into Saul Cohen was at a function in our synagogue four years later. I was delighted at the change in him, although somewhat mystified. His eyes, those “window to the soul,” clearly told me he was on the mend from whatever had been troubling him before. I soon understood that the change was related to the shy,  woman he introduced to me and my husband as his wife. They had a child, a little boy, and another one on the way.

Apparently, they had decided to leave their old community and come join ours. I didn’t ask any questions; we were more than happy to welcome them, although it did seem a little odd. They seemed to be on the cusp of a spiritual journey together as well; Saul started going to my husband’s shiurim, and Natalia began to attend mine. She was already keeping kosher and observing Shabbat, she told me, and was trying to encourage her husband to do the same. Natalia confided in me a few months after her second child was born—another boy— that she was Saul’s second wife. His first marriage had been a years-long descent into hell. He had unknowingly married a woman with an undiagnosed psychiatric disorder. The situation had been further complicated because her bizarre behavior was limited to the confines of her home; most outsiders had no idea that she wasn’t the rational, tranquil person she appeared to be on the outside. The first few months of their marriage were relatively smooth, but any semblance of normalcy came to an abrupt halt when Saul asked her to pass the salt shaker one evening at dinner. “Why do you want the salt?” she had asked. “The soup could use a tiny bit more,” he had said—and the next thing he knew he was wearing it when she picked up her bowl and flung it at him. The hot liquid burned his face and neck, but the pain was nothing compared to the look on his wife’s face. “She looked…insane,” he said. My husband and I had invited him and Natalia to Friday night dinner. Long after the kids were asleep we were still sitting at the table and talking. For the first time Saul was opening up to us about his past. I noticed that he kept looking at his wife, as if trying to draw the strength to go on.

Each time she would nod wordlessly at him, her eyes pools of empathy. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s just no other way to describe it. Her face was twisted, and her eyes burned through me more than the soup.” It was the beginning of the end. Life became a nightmare for Saul, who never knew how his wife would react to something he said. But even walking on eggshells and being hyper-aware of her needs and moods didn’t always help. There was never any warning before her outbursts; he could never predict what might set her off. Sometimes she would erupt in furious anger; other times she’d lock herself in her room for days on end until he feared for her safety. Neither could he figure out what he was he supposed to do: run after her and try to calm her down, or wait until the whole thing blew over and pretend it never happened? Her volatility was terrifying. One moment she would threaten to hurt herself if he left her; the next she was shrieking at him to get out of her life and leave her alone. As he was remembering what it was like to live with her, I caught a glimpse of the same anguish I had detected in his eyes during our first meeting. “I told her over and over again that there was nothing wrong with going for help, and that we would work through our problems together. But she insisted that she didn’t need any help—and that I was the crazy one! It got to a point where I began to doubt my own sanity.” “It wasn’t your fault,” my husband said quietly, sensing that Saul still needed reassurance that he wasn’t responsible for what happened to his marriage. “It certainly sounds like you did all you could.” Until one day, Saul’s wife went too far. After she deliberately spilled coffee all over his laptop when he arrived home later than expected from work, Saul issued an ultimatum: He would leave her unless she went to a therapist.

He had an entire list she could choose from. “You can’t,” she said. “You wouldn’t.” “I can, and I will,” Saul said. As expected, his wife became hysterical and begged him to stay. This time, however, he stood his ground. Unless she sought help, it was over. That’s when she told him that she was expecting. Her face was swollen and tearstreaked, but she knew that she had won.“It changed everything, of course,” Saul said. “I had been ready to pack my bags. A second later, I knew I was tied to her forever.” Her moods grew even more bizarre with the pregnancy. Saul found himself constantly trying to please her and calm her down. “Everyone jokes about the stereotypical pregnant woman who asks her husband to buy her ice cream at two o’clock in the morning. But with her it was every night, and it wasn’t funny. Sometimes she would demand a particular sandwich only available at a restaurant two hours away. I would run out and get it for her, only to have her toss it away after one bite, all the while laughing at me. I had nothing to say to her, no leverage. She was holding all the cards, and she knew it.” One day she called him in the middle of the workday. Her voice sounded strange, like a little girl’s. “Please come home,” she said. “Now.” Saul dropped everything and ran home. When he walked in he found her standing in the middle of the kitchen, pointing a large butcher knife. The maid was cowering in the corner and screaming. “I’m going to kill the baby and then myself,” she said in a peculiar, high-pitched voice. “And you can’t stop me.” “You don’t mean that,” Saul said, thinking on his feet. His breath quickened but his hands were steady as he reached out to take the knife from her. “If you really wanted to do that, you wouldn’t have called me.” “I called you because I want you to watch,” she said with bone-chilling calm. Saul called an ambulance but she dropped the knife before it arrived, trying to pretend that nothing had happened.

For the first time he did not go along with her games and insisted that she be taken to the psych ward for an evaluation. On the way there, he tried to talk to her in the back of the ambulance but it was like talking to a wall. She had shut herself off from the world completely. When he told the doctor at the hospital that she was expecting they did a sonogram to make sure that everything was okay. “And was everything okay?” I asked when he paused too long in his tale. He didn’t answer immediately. “No,” he finally said. “The baby wasn’t fine. Because there was no baby. There never had been one.” The doctors weren’t sure if she had faked the pregnancy or had really deluded herself into thinking she was pregnant. Either way, for Saul Cohen, the sham of their marriage was over. It took his wife a little longer to agree. The divorce proceedings were long and vicious. Her family, a very prominent one in his community, was out for blood. Saul put up a fight at first, but eventually decided that no cost was too great to get away from her. She ended up taking everything, while he limped away from the marriage with virtually nothing. If he imagined that he would finally be able to find happiness once he was free he was wrong. Ironically, his lowest point was after the divorce, when he reevaluated his life and found it empty and meaningless. He threw himself into his work, but found that he was rapidly falling into a depression. That’s when he met Natalia and married for the second time. “She saved me,” he told us. “There is no question about it. She raised me from the depths.” Saul loved all my husband’s beginner program, and with the encouragement of Natalia, the two gradually became more observant. He could hardly believe his good fortune at having been given a second chance at life. How I wish I could stop the story right here.

After all the trials and tribulations, the hero finds his princess and everyone lives happily ever after. But that’s not how real life always works. Indeed, G-d’s intentions are mysterious to us. One evening about a week after Saul finally opened up to us my husband came home after teaching a late night class. He asked me for a cup of tea, and when I handed him the mug he nearly dropped it. His hands were shaking. “What’s wrong?” I asked him, concerned. His father had not been doing well of late, and I knew he’d visited him earlier in the day. “Is it Papi?” “No, he’s fine,” my husband replied. He sat down in a chair and put his head in his hands. The tea was forgotten on the table. I sat in silence, waiting. Finally, he lifted up his head. He looked as if he had aged five years since that very morning. I felt a stab of fear. “Tell me what’s wrong.” “Do you know why Saul Cohen left his community?” I had wondered about it, of course. The Syrians were a very tight-knit community; it was odd that he had left. “I figured that his first wife’s family was making problems for him. He told us that they were very powerful.” “They did in the beginning, but they seemed content to leave him alone after bleeding him dry in the divorce. No, that’s not why he left.” “Then why did he leave?” “He left because of Natalia. The Syrians aren’t accepting of converts to Judaism.” “Natalia is a giyores?” “Yes.” “I didn’t know that! She never mentioned it!” I was a little surprised, but when I looked over and saw my husband’s anguished expression I grew puzzled. “But so what? I mean, we’re fine with geirim here in the Turkish community. You’ve even seen a few potential geirim through the process. Why do you look like you’ve seen a ghost?” My husband stared at me.

He suddenly looked haggard. “Just think about it,” he said. “Saul Cohen is married to a giyores. Saul Cohen.” They say that when someone is stabbed, the deeper the wound, the longer it takes to actually feel it. The enormity of what my husband had just said filtered down to me in stages until I realized what it actually meant.Oh, no. “My goodness,” was all I managed through suddenly dry lips. “Did you tell him? Did you tell him that they have to…” I couldn’t finish the sentence. I reached for my own cup of tea but only succeeded in sloshing hot liquid on the tablecloth. Saul divorce Natalia? Divorce the mother of his children, the sweet, gentle woman who turned his life around and led him to a path of Torah observance? My husband nodded heavily. “I explained the situation. But I don’t think he grasps what a big deal it is. How could he? He’s only a recent baal teshuvah. I told him that I would discuss it with every great posek I could think of. But…” “But what?” “But that’s the halachah, in black and white. A kohen cannot remain married to a giyores. He wasn’t allowed to marry her in the first place.” Sure enough, every single gadol my husband called over the next few days could do nothing but shake his head. Saul could not stay married to Natalia. My husband was forced, finally, to tell Saul the news. *** On the day Saul handed Natalia the papers from the beis din I thought of Avraham Avinu being willing to sacrifice his only son on the ultimate altar of faith. Later, Saul likened it to cutting off his own arm. Much later, he told us that he had only been able to do it with Natalia’s encouragement. *** This past Shabbos Parshas Emor, Saul made the hour-long hike to shul, as usual. He was present when my husband discussed the specifics of the kehunah, as explicated in the parshah. Halfway through his speech my husband’s eyes fell on Saul, sitting in the front row. His face was streaked with tears.    And so are mine as I recall Saul and Natalia’s mesiras nefesh.

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