Every year, on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Kislev, I go with my family to stand outside an apartment building in Jerusalem’s Old City. We gather there in silence and then we bless God for the miracles He did for us in that place. This is where, in 1981, a vicious gas fire engulfed me, my grandmother and my three children. This is where I rescued them, one by one, and almost lost my life in the process. This is where I started life over, singing a new song of thanksgiving.
During the first three days after the fire, I pleaded constantly for my life. I somehow sensed that if I survived that critical time I would live. The shock wore off and I began to feel the awful effect of the second and third degree burns that covered over 85% of my body. The pain was almost more than I could bear and I drew on all my courage to get through the days of torture and the sleepless nights of unbearable itching. At this time it became clear to me that the only two things worth living for were: to be a wife to my husband and a mother to my children. This was my goal — all other relationships, all other desires, faded away. After waging a desperate battle to stay alive, after summoning every ounce of strength to endure the daily ripping off of my bandages, after praying for the pain to cease and for my wounds to heal, I began to value life much more keenly than I ever did before. The story comes to my mind of the scholar who greeted those returning from the front. The real war is yet to be fought were his words to those victorious soldiers. I fought for my life, then, in my hospital bed, but to this day I know the battle is not over. Every day I wake up to a new battlefront, and my enemy is ready for me. The Yetzer Hara, the force of the ‘other side,’ is always at a state of high alert, working hard to keep me from seeing the goodness all around me, from recognizing the blessings I’ve been given. I must fight to keep that edge of appreciation; to rise above the mundane and value life, anew. I’ll never forget the time I was visiting my in-laws in New York. I looked out the window and saw a young man sitting next to a construction company’s truck. It was a clear day and the American flag was waving in the autumn breeze. It looked as if he had just taken a break from working in one of the neighboring buildings; a white gauze mask was draped around his neck. And what was he doing? Smoking a cigarette! A few minutes later he finished his smoke, fixed his mask over his mouth and nose, adjusted the bands for maximal protection, and disappeared back into the apartment building under construction.
Something about the scene struck me as odd. Then, suddenly, it dawned on me. Why take so much care to avoid breathing in cement dust if you’re going to poison your lungs with cigarette smoke? This was nothing but blindness, a lack of clarity caused by the powerful Yetzer Hara. The construction worker’s tobacco habit was so entrenched that he didn’t even see it. What was clear to me, as an outside observer, was totally hidden from him. We all have our own blind spots. If we choose to polish our glasses we can improve our vision, but if we do not make the effort, our lack of clarity will only increase. In this life, there is no such thing as standing still. If you’re not going forward, you’re going backwards; if you’re not getting closer to Hashem, you’re getting farther away. This is true in every aspect of our existence. Picture yourself on an escalator, but not as an adult who goes up the up staircase or down the down. Picture, rather, that you are a child again, and your friends are challenging you to run up the down escalator, each step disappearing before your feet. What a job it is! If you don’t keep leaping forward, with almost supernatural speed, you’ll never manage to get ahead. That’s the way it is for us in this world. We need to put out constant effort to continue being thankful for what we have, to renew our recognition of a loving G-d. We need to struggle mightily against the downward pull of routine and habit. I’m often told by those who read my book, Who By Fire, (Feldheim, 1995): “This can’t possibly be the true account of your ordeal. After all you went through, how can it be that there is not one ounce of bitterness in your whole story?” The answer is that just as a strong immune system makes it impossible for germs and viruses to gain a foothold, so, too, when your awareness of life’s blessings is constant, bitter feelings cannot find a place to settle in. A person is like an empty cup, just waiting to be filled. If you fill yourself with thanks and gratitude, if you fill yourself with appreciation for all the gifts you receive every single moment, then there will be no room left for bitterness or anger or sorrow or fear or jealousy or anything other negative emotions. I learned to appreciate the simple things in life. I learned to appreciate breathing, walking, and picking up my children. I learned to appreciate being able to thread a needle, scramble an egg or light Shabbos candles. I learned to value this life I’ve been granted — each precious moment of it. The challenge before all of us is to renew that feeling of wonder and awe every day of our lives.