On Simple Men, Simple Faith, and Simpler Times
A tribute to the impact of Divine Providence on our lives
As I'm still wrapping up the Abortion substack article that has been taking most of my time over the last three weeks, I decided to do something a bit different today (and a bit more personal) but hopefully relatable.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of when I saved my grandfather's life, alav hashalom. Twice within the span of a month or so, in fact. This, therefore, makes this year the 10th anniversary of when HK" BH turned maybe the darkest time in my life into some of my most cherished memories.
Don't wait with bated breath; the events themselves were not quite dramatic. It's the lessons it gave me that were.
My Grand Father
Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of living in Erets Yisrael. In fact, this dream includes some of my earliest memories. As a child, I vividly remember sitting in my favorite alcove in his living room, on my favorite couch, next to his piano, hidden from view, with a book in my lap and devouring stories about David HaMelech.
I remember watching the snow fall through the windows facing that couch, dreaming of a Judean desert I'd never seen, of treks in the Samarian hills I'd never been to. I couldn't wait to grow up, pack up everything, and leave the dreary Northeast winters for sunny Mediterranean beaches. To leave a place I happened to exist in so I could finally go home.
Most of the year, that's how I felt about home, too. I couldn't wait for the year to end so I could go 'up north' for the summer and spend most of my days at my grandfather's. The fields and forests, rivers and berry patches; his house was to me like a city of refuge, giving me a much-needed break from my daily routine.
My grandfather was a simple man of simple faith. He was also a strong man of strong faith. He was a living example of quiet dignity and mettle, showcasing the value of hard work. To speak little and do much. I'm still trying to live up to his example, and I doubt I ever will.
For most of my youth, I grew up without much of a father, but the truth is that thanks to him, I also had the best father I could have had in those circumstances. He truly embodied to me what being a man was supposed to be about.
And that's why, the summer I turned 13, I felt like I became a real man not because of a bar mitsvah but rather because of what happened after an afternoon of hard yard work. I followed my grandfather to the cellar and, after finishing putting all the tools back in their place and washing our hands, he secreted a bottle of mashke he hid from my grandmother (who knew full well it was there), took out two small cups, served me a small shot, cut it with water and told me 'Don't tell your grandmother.' I coughed at the bitter taste, but I really savored that moment and can still taste it today.
I spent long afternoons sitting on the front porch with him, listening to his stories or jokes or simply reveling in quietness. He wasn't a man of many words or many outward expressions of emotions, but a handshake or a look conveyed all that needed to be said. He was of a different generation; silent, pensive, and attached to tradition & routine.
No matter what, he had to be up at around 5:30 am every single day. No such thing as a day lying in bed. No such thing as a day doing nothing. Every moment had to be used to the fullest. If he was like that at 85, I could only imagine what he was like at 35.
Travels and Travails
From my late teens to early 20s, I traveled a lot. I saw him less and less as a result. By then, my mind had already been settled: time to move to Israel, which is what I did. I canceled my lease, enrolled in another Yeshiva in Israel, sold or got rid of whatever furniture and non-essentials I owned, gave away books and sefarim to friends and synagogues, and that was it. All of my belongings packed in a single suitcase, the rest in a few boxes to ship once I got a place of my own. I was leaving and never looking back. Or coming back.
Once I landed there, I knew I could never leave the country again. My lips touched the ground, and that was it. I was home and could never depart the land I'd always dreamed of. If my family wanted to see me, they'd have to visit. How could I bring myself to part from the land I longed to inhabit for over 20 years once I was finally there?
That's where the Divine Providence started to kick in. Arriving in yeshiva, my initial instinct was to make Aliyah right away with nefesh b'nefesh. Discussing with someone, he convinced me not to do it right away. 'You're in yeshiva, you have no expenses, if you get your Aliyah benefits now, you're going to spend them all as a bachur and, when you finish yeshiva, you won't have anything left! Just learn until you get engaged/decide to get a job and then apply to make Aliyah!' So I turned over my passport to the yeshiva administration and decided to apply for Aliyah when it made more financial sense.
Fast forward two years later, and I've decided to switch yeshivot. I'm done with dorms; I'm applying to get an apartment with a couple of friends. I get my passport back and… I don't have a visa. It turns out I fell into a bureaucratic crack, and someone forgot to file one for me. I've now been living illegally in Israel for two years.
Not such a big deal, I can apply for Aliyah, but there's going to be red tape. In the meantime, however, I can't get a job, can't get an apartment, etc. One fated morning, which would turn out to be the very last morning I spent living in Israel, I received a message to come and talk to the yeshiva administration. I was completely unaware of what would eventually transpire; I'd just been blissfully looking at apartment listings that morning.
When I woke up, I was never leaving the land of Israel for the rest of my life. By noon, I was told that since I wasn't attending anymore and switching to another yeshiva, I had to vacate my room for new students coming that very day. By midnight, I was on a plane back to America, having exhausted all my options on short notice.
From waking up thinking I would spend the rest of my life in Jerusalem to being on a plane out of the country within 18 hours. That was the lowest point in my life, then. It might still be. Let's just say I emptied quite a few mini-bottles on the flight back.
Turning Darkness Into Light
I had managed to escape America once, and I was going to do it again. My mother's house being in the midst of renovations, I temporarily anchored up at my grandfather's house, who had since been diagnosed with the machala.
Immediately after arrival, I followed Nefesh b'Nefesh's recommendation to go back "home" and apply for Aliyah from there. I embarked on the nightmarish and dystopian process called "Dealing with Israeli bureaucracy." Over the span of six months, they managed to lose my file twice, and I had to send everything back. Instead of a process that was supposed to take two to four months at most, it stretched into a year-long back and forth until I temporarily gave up out of frustration. But I digress.
My grandfather hadn't just been diagnosed with the machala but with sundowning as well. He was entirely lucid the entire day; however, as soon as we neared nightfall, a switch would go off, and he would enter into a period of dementia that would last all night. Then, he would return to normal when the sun got up.
Being severely jetlagged (and depressed, honestly. Who wants to deal with snow if they don't have to?), I spent most of those initial January nights downstairs, either learning or wasting time until the early morning. A few weeks in, learning Gemara in the very early morning, I heard my grandfather coming downstairs. He was always an early riser, but since his diagnosis had been getting up around 6:00. Even at his peak, 4:30 would have been fairly too early for him to get up on a regular Sunday morning.
Coming down the stairs in his robe and slippers, I saw him directly go towards the pantry, pick up his house keys and walk towards the front door. I got up and asked him what was going on, at which point he told me he was going for a walk. At 4:30 am, in January, with the temperature at least -20, on one of the coldest mornings of the year.
I stepped in front of him and tried to take the keys back. I was met with anger and a threat to hit me, but I wouldn't let go. Eventually, he relented; I got the keys and went back upstairs with a promise we'd go out later. When he woke back up, he had no recollection of coming down, or if he did, pretended he didn't. I pretended all the same. Either way, I didn't feel the need to either remind him or describe to him how angry he'd been or the things he said. Not him, his sickness, but still.
I just made sure from that point on to sleep downstairs or to make sure there were no keys for him to go out with when he went to bed, and that if he were to get up, I'd be able to hear him. Thankfully, it never happened again.
I do not doubt that if he had stepped out, that would have been the end of him. If I had stayed in Israel, I would have received a heartbreaking phone call. Instead, I had been there in the right place, at the right time, and prevented what could have happened.
That was the first time since coming back that I suspected I wasn't being punished or found not worthy, and there was more to me being back outside of the land that an expired visa and ministry snafu.
Thanks to a wonderful Israeli bureaucracy worth its own depiction by Goscinny, I ended up spending far longer at my grandfather's house than initially planned. What was supposed to be a two or three months stopover at most turned out to last more than eight months.
Do Think Twice, It’s Alright
A couple of weeks after the first incident, I noticed that my grandfather's sundowning was now happening during the day, as well as other behaviors that I'm not going to mention, which made me believe something was wrong. Over the next few days, I discussed the situation with my mother and uncle a few times, only to be rebuffed every time with, 'This is normal, you've only been here for a few months, we've been dealing with it for over a year now, you're making a big deal out of it.'
I was not placated by their brush-off and could not stop the gnawing feeling that there was something very wrong and very different going on. It all coalesced when, at around 3 am, I phoned both of them and told them to come over immediately without explanation.
For the last half hour, my grandfather had been standing in his room, trying to open a door in a wall that didn't exist. I told them that there was no way I was letting them go back home now; something had to be done. They agreed to call the hospital, an ambulance came, and my grandfather was admitted to the ER.
It turns out that his bladder had stopped functioning correctly, and as a result, a UTI was poisoning him and causing delirium. The doctor said he was a few hours away from sepsis shock and death.
That was the second time I saved his life.
Obviously, there is nothing heroic or out of the ordinary in what I did. It's clear that HK"BH repaid my grandfather for all his love and care while I was growing up by plucking me out of where I thought I wanted to be and putting me where I needed to be.
HK"BH also allowed me to spend the final months of his life with my grandfather and make some of my best memories with him. Some funny, some less pleasant, but I was privileged to spend months of time taking care of him, playing cards with him, talking with him until sundown came, and starting over the next day. I don't know if that last part was more for me or more for him, but being his first grandson, we always had a special connection.
Eventually, he grew too sick for me to stick around and needed a full-time nurse, so I packed my bags and moved away again. Soon before Yom Kippur, I got the dreaded call. He had fallen into a coma, and he was about to pass. There was simply no way for me to make it there. The same way G-d had decided I had to come back, the same G-d had decreed that it would happen on Yom Kippur when it would be impossible for me to drive before candle lighting.
I went to shul with my heart full and my eyes clear. My grandfather had lived a great life, and until his very last days, he was still hopeful, saying he would be walking out of the palliative care room he was in, singing and never losing his smile. I thanked G-d for giving me such a grandfather, such a father, really. I thanked him for finally ending his suffering. I knew there was a lot, even if he never complained.
After Yom Kippur, I spoke to my mother, who told me how it happened. Soon after candlelight, she walked into his room and told him I wouldn't make it. Everyone else had already come and said their goodbye, even though he had been in a coma by this point. When he heard that I wasn't coming, his face relaxed, and the monitor flatlined. He'd been holding on for me to come.
And now, every Erev Yom Kippur, close to candle lighting, I reflect back on how lucky I am to have had him in my life and how great G-d is for making sure I left a land I never wanted to leave so I could be by his side when it mattered the most.
May his memory be for a blessing.