What follows is an excerpt from a talk my mother gave, “Responding to Suffering,” in the wake of the loss of my brother, Aryeh Wise z”l, whose first yahrtzeit is today, Thursday, the 9th of Ellul. My mother is an esteemed mechneches in the Toronto community: she was English principal of Bnos Bais Yakov and is currently teaching at Tiferes Bais Yakov. She is also a PhD in English literature candidate at York University.
Our thirty-three-year-old son Aryeh, (z”l) died suddenly on the 9th of Elul. Aryeh was our bechor and his life was a revealed miracle. Though born full-term and perfectly healthy, at three days Aryeh came down with a high fever due to a virus that attacked his liver and brain. The EEG revealed he was down to only brain stem function-that means you can breath and sneeze, but not much else. I had just become a mother and I couldn’t imagine that this beautiful, healthy baby that I had carried for nine months and nursed for three days was actually going to die. But the doctors consistently quashed our optimism: they told us there was no hope-brains and livers don’t regenerate. If Aryeh survived, he’d be so brain-damaged that he would never even sit up. “You’d never want such a child. He would be a burden on you and society forever. Therefore, we strongly advise you to place a ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ sign on his bassinet.”
But the weeks passed and Aryeh did not die. He was moved out of intensive care. He seemed to be a little more alert and responsive. I spent my days at the hospital holding my little boy who looked like a yellow banana due to his liver failure. We were reconciled to his death, but by then, we had achieved, with the help of a wise and compassionate nurse, a clearer sense of where our duty lay: no matter how short his life was destined to be, it was our job simply to love and comfort him-this is what every child deserves. So we were with him and we settled in to that horrible, antiseptic-smelling and tragedy-riven parallel universe known as “The Hospital.” One morning, the doctors were doing their rounds and one of them suddenly announced, “We think you can take your baby home.” I was flabbergasted. All I could answer was, “I’m sorry, is he taking up too much space here? Do you want him to die at home instead?”
They smiled tolerantly at my ignorance and said that they thought he might live after all-though he was going to require a lot of follow up, a special diet, physio, weekly visits to the brain and liver clinics, and they thought he was blind. How did I respond to this bleak prognosis? Child that I was, I remember being thrilled: I was a mother again! Okay, so my kid was a little busted, but he was coming home! As it turned out, Aryeh was the healthiest child in a family that eventually grew to seven children-though he did wear glasses, his beautiful eyes were just fine. He never got sick, had perfect teeth and an iron constitution. He used to ride his bike in the winter to school, without a coat-and he never caught a cold. We never did receive any medical explanation for Aryeh’s recovery. Though we were not observant at the time, we understood that a miracle had happened: one that we attributed to G-d alone. I always wondered why we merited this miracle. Did Heaven weep witnessing our youthful tears? Was it because of my husband’s grandparents and uncles and aunts who had died al Kiddush Hashem in the Holocaust? Or was it because through this miracle, we’d go on to lead Torah lives? We’ll never know. But if there was an original decree that our son should die as an infant, for whatever reason, it was rescinded and Aryeh was granted an unexpected and wonderful 33 years. Years that he spent loving Hashem’s mitzvot and bringing simcha to so many people around him. Aryeh always adored children, and, he was zoche to marry his beloved basherte, Zissi, and have three beautiful children of his own. He was also privileged to finish shas shortly before he died-a truly heroic accomplishment for someone who had struggled a great deal academically. For the price that Aryeh did pay for his life was that all that early trauma to the brain left him with challenging learning disabilities. There is no question in my mind that if Aryeh had died as a week-old baby, it would have been easier for us to get over it. Losing him as an adult was much harder; he worked with my husband and lived around the corner. Our lives were happily intertwined. So, much harder, but also far better: my son left a legacy of good deeds and wonderful children. He transformed us through his miraculous recovery; a crucial catalyst to our becoming observant Jews by his second birthday.
I mentioned before that Aryeh, z”l, had learning disabilities. School was a struggle for him, particularly when it came to the abstract complexities of Gemara. As we all know, within our world it is very hard for a frum boy to “make it” in yeshiva if he can’t learn. Since his death, I have come to see it this so differently: my son’s diligence in waking up at the crack of dawn to go to Dirshu every day was the more amazing accomplishment because of his struggles. During shiva, the men who came to be menachem avel from Dirshu were genuinely surprised to hear of Aryeh’s challenges: they just knew him as the guy who showed up early and asked really good questions in shiur. The people at work saw him as the guy who was never without a sefer. It was precisely Aryeh’s challenges that made his accomplishments so much more remarkable. I now see that his neshama had a particular trajectory in this world and his learning disabilities were among the tools that finally enabled him to achieve greatness. A week before he died, I offered to make him a party to celebrate his completion of shas. He shrugged it off and said, “Mom, I’m starting the cycle again, and NEXT time, I’m going to attend the big siyum hashas in Yerushalayim.” I told him, “You got it, sweetie. In seven years, we’ll all celebrate together.” I pray that our words prove to be prophetic.
Talk given by: Sherri Wise
I decided to honor my brother’s memory by creating a Daf Yomi project. “Real Clear Daf/Daf Berurah” (www.realcleardaf.com) is an online Daf Yomi audio shiur that can be played or downloaded at one’s convenience. In addition, I invite listeners to ask questions by using the site’s discussion forum, or by calling me at RCD’s toll-free number. This project has two goals: to make serious gemara learning accessible enough to be a part of daily life, and to create an online learning community. Promoting both learning and interpersonal connections is the most fitting way for me to honor Aryeh’s memory, for that is what defined him: unwavering consistency in his service of Hashem and unconditional love for his fellow Jew. If you’ve become resigned that learning is just not something you’re up to-let Aryeh’s life make you reconsider: if Aryeh, with so many challenges impeding him, achieved such greatness in learning: why can’t you?
May Aryeh Aaron ben Chanina Emmanuel‘s noble neshama be a meilitz yosher for all of Klal Yisroel.