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September 27, 2013: Holiday of “Joy”

Almost all Jewish holidays involve a religious commandment to do something unique. So we eat matzah on Passover. We eat and sleep in special outdoor “booths” on Sukkot. We don’t eat or drink on Yom Kippur. You can go right down the list and every time there is a Jewish holiday, there is something that we are commanded to do (or not do.)

Simchat Torah is different. The commandment of the day is that you are supposed to be happy. You are supposed to feel joy. Dance, eat, drink, rejoice. Sing Hallel and stay up late with friends.

Two weeks ago, I chucked the very notion of feeling happy on Simchat Torah. We had a rough Rosh Hashanah and a painful Yom Kippur. In the middle of the night on Yom Kippur, things were looking very bleak indeed. I looked out the window at 3:00 AM at the darkness with the Neve Daniel fog rolling by. It was completely silent outside. While the world slept, I felt a terrifying sense of being on the edge of a bottomless chasm.

The next day, I went to shul for the end of the service, “Neilah.” It is Yom Kippur’s final, short service and the name refers to the closing of the gates of heaven. It is the final chance to plead for life for the year. I had just gone twenty-four hours without food, drink, or sleep. I have never felt more exhausted. I wasn’t into the red, I was in the black. I was a zombie.

And we still had two more weeks of holidays to go. “Chag Sameach” (Have a Happy Holiday”) people would say to me. Yeah, right.

Not a chance. You go have a Chag Sameach. I have to go home and stare at the clock.

But a few days later, something unexpected happened.

It started with something simple. Max and I were watching a football game and suddenly Stella walked downstairs and joined us on the couch as if this was something she always did. She even commented on the game (like she knew who was even playing!) Max and I looked at each other with a “What the heck is mom doing” shrug. She stayed for a awhile and then went and found the girls and hung out with them.

Every day leading up to Simchat Torah, she got a little bit stronger. She made it to the Sukkah for dinner with friends. After that her strength would only be for a few hours in the afternoon, and then back to bed, but for those hours things were almost normal. The night of Simchat Torah, we had friends over and Stella actually was able to stay awake longer than me.

On Simchat Torah, I suggested that we go over to the shul for the kiddish. It was a beautiful, sunny Neve Daniel day. Even though the shul is just down the street, she wasn’t keen on going at first. She hadn’t left the house in weeks. But I pointed out that the Mazkirut had built us this beautiful wheelchair ramp that she had never used. I said it would be really rude of her never to use it. They might even be — gasp — offended. So she agreed and we set off into the sunshine. (Do I know my wife or what.)

We got there at the end of the kiddish when many women were milling about. The reception could not have been bigger if I had the biggest rock star on the planet with me. And all the positive energy and love that was showered on her, she reflected right back. It was amazing to be there. Since I could not take a picture, if you weren’t there let me paint one for you.

Stella sits in a wheelchair. Her legs and arms are extremely thin, matchbook thin. The cancer has done a job on her. BUT — she does not have the pallor of a sick person. She does not have a sad, beaten look on her face. Despite everything, she had a bright smile a mile wide on when she saw friends. Her eyes weren’t downcast as you might expect from a person so sick. They positively sparkled. She was so happy to be able to see people that she was glowing. Can you see it?

As dark and terrifying as Yom Kippur had been, Simchat Torah was the opposite.

How do you follow a religious commandment to be happy? Easy, just be around Stella.

Am I exaggerating? Maybe. But I hope some of the people who were there comment and tell us how you felt seeing her. Because from my perspective, it was nothing short of amazing.

And so we continue our fight. We have again surpassed anything the doctors have guessed. Stella had such a good time that she wants to try and come again on Shabbat tomorrow. Don’t get the wrong idea, it’s easy to do. These are precious moments in what are difficult days. Sometimes we both feel physically, mentally, and emotionally drained.

But maybe that’s what makes them so special.

At the end of the day, being around a nice house, a nice car, or a nice anything won’t make you feel anywhere near as happy as being around a nice friend.

So the holiday may be over, but we still wish everyone a “Chag Sameach” no matter what day it is.

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