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Uncle Irv

Uncle Irv


Mysticism first attracted me to Chabad. I like contemplating the higher spheres, the altered realities, the complex cosmic worlds that meander downward on well-organized pathways to finally emerge in what we call material existence.

What a delight! From such vistas we can view the world and gain perspective, breadth of understanding and transcendental advantage over mundane existence!

That’s why on each Yom Kippur I have always been disappointed by the simple prayer of the kohen gadol (high priest) at the conclusion of his regal and mystical preparation to enter, finally, the Holy of Holies. After taking this life-threatening journey, during which the slightest mis-act or -thought could result in catastrophe, he says: “Send rain. Good crops. And don’t let the women miscarry or the cattle lose their young.”

What a letdown! Where are the glorious mystical heights? The transcendent spiritual utterances expected on the holiest day of the year, in the holiest place in the world? Is this the most there is to pray for? Is this the best he can come up with?

Sukkot this year fell on Friday. I came home in a bad mood, and sharp quips flew from my mouth until I succeeded in creating a menacing atmosphere in the kitchen. I affronted my wife with no other provocation than the poisonous anger that coursed independently through my body.

The next day I mentioned to my rabbi that I had been a real jerk the day before. He told me that the eve of a holy day such as Shabbat or a festival is a favorite time of the yetzer hara (the “evil inclination” residing within every person’s heart). “It likes nothing more than ruining a holy day,” he said. “You have to be very careful.”

Yet I knew that I had given my yetzer grist for the mill. And it wasn’t the first time. The yetzer had been only my ally in destruction, not the cause. The responsibility and blame was mine.

My Aunt Betty died last week. I was sad not to have seen her, nor to have gone to her funeral, nor to have shared the event with my sisters and uncles, especially her husband, my Uncle Irv.

After receiving word of her passing in an e‑mail from my sister, I called Uncle Irv.

We spoke for a while and then he said, “I didn’t want much. Just another five years with her would have been enough. Just another five years.”

My sister told me that during her eulogy the speaker had mentioned how my Uncle Irv and Aunt Betty were known for their daily bickering with each other. He said that because they bickered each day, they never had a big fight. Their marriage was never threatened.

“I was sure she wouldn’t go before me,” Uncle Irv said to me on the phone. “I was sure I’d go first, and she would have taken care of me.”

I could hear the loneliness and fear in his voice as he thought about his future, alone. I could hear him wonder who would be in the house by his side as he had been these past months at hers?

“She was such a packrat,” he said. “I don’t know what to do with all her stuff. But I guess I don’t have to think about that right now, do I?” he asked me.

“No,” I said. “Not right now,” and I promised myself to call Uncle Irv real soon, just so he wouldn’t feel so alone.

When you get chemotherapy at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Israel, you sit in a big room filled with people receiving the same treatment. You sit there for hours, as the medicine slowly drips into your veins.

The room is always too crowded. It would be better if there were fewer people there.

Even though there is nothing to do while you receive the treatment, most people, including me, do little to fill the time. There’s something in the atmosphere and experience that takes away the ability to concentrate or focus. One’s greatest desire is simply to not be there, to not be doing this, and to have it be over with as quickly as possible. Unable to choose any of the alternatives, we just drift away.

There are two groups of people in the room. Those who, like me, have their wives or husbands sitting by their side. And those who are alone.

Just as most people don’t read, most people don’t talk either. The patients get their medicine. Their spouses—for those who are in this lucky group—sit reading or knitting. Every once in a while the couples exchange a few words, or the companion will get up to get his or her spouse a glass of water or a cookie or to tell the nurse that this or that needs to be adjusted.

I rarely talk to my wife, either. I barely have my eyes open. I attempt to retreat to a deep, private and very quiet place within. But I know the second she gets up to go buy a newspaper. I despise even those few moments while I lie there by myself without her. My loneliness and fear, which I am able to hold at bay while she sits by my side, suddenly rise ferociously to the surface. And when she returns, I often feel guilty that I am not more entertaining, that I don’t at least talk to her every once in a while. And then I retreat again, self-absorbed, trying to deal with my nausea and discomfort.

When I do manage to open my eyes and look around, I feel bad for the people who are there by themselves. I can’t imagine it. They seem so sad to me, so alone. They sit, sick, receiving medicine that is making them feel even sicker, with no one to get them a pillow or adjust their covers or care whether they are thirsty or not.

This last time, especially after talking to my Uncle Irv, I lay on my bed, needle in my vein, and felt such love and gratitude for my lifelong companion sitting by my side. Tiny, gentle tears escaped the corners of my eyes as suddenly my heart was able to open, to hear and to believe that someone loved me and cared about me and was sitting by my side in my time of need. Just that fact seemed like such a miracle, such a blessing. Because I know myself enough to know that being loved isn’t something I earned and deserved. I am the same jerk who made my wife’s life miserable on Sukkot eve, yetzer hara or no yetzer hara. I did it that night. I had done it before. I might do it again (G‑d forbid). I knew it. And she knew it, too.

Yet there I was with my companion by my side, and I could not imagine anything greater in the entire universe, anything more important, more precious. And in spite of my love of mysticism and Chassidut, I knew that if I were now given the opportunity to enter the Holy of Holies, my requests would be simple: Please, G‑d, let her be there always as I grow old. Let me have my companion, my wife, throughout my life. Please, G‑d, keep the yetzer from my house and the anger from my heart. Let there be rain. Let the crops grow. Let no woman miscarry.

And let all young couples know the meaning of marriage and of life; of family and commitment; of the profound difference between one and two.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website
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Alan Schwartz Monroe NJ via September 28, 2017

Helen I lost my wife 3 weeks ago and this story resonates deeply with me I I was always by her side and though she was a woman of few words I knew she depended on me to guide her on our journey together .She made sure to tell everyone else how much I did for her and how I spoiled her For me she was my life's companion and there wAs nothing I would not do to make life easier for here I will miss her Reply

B P Billings Mi. via September 12, 2015

Not a Jew, I am the baalei Teshuvah, you do not know what you have till its gone! Toda Abba, for Your faithfulness, and for giving us all a way out! again Toda Abba, for everything. Shalom Reply

Patricia October 1, 2014

Very very moving Thank you for sharing this wonderful story, chabad, at this important time. I went through this experience once, with my spouse at home; partners were not allowed to enter the room due to high radiation levels. I tried to concentrate on reading - no luck. Very difficult time. I am going to remember this Yom Kippur to pray for a new mate and the maximizing of my life's energies in the service of G-d. Reply

Brigitte Youngworth south africa October 1, 2014

Just simplicity As I read Jay's words, the tears coursed down my cheeks. As he points out, the simplest of life's blessings are really the most profound and we need to be grateful for these every single day. I hope his wife and children are OK, I feel so sad for the loss of their husband and father. Reply

Kevin Larson Houston, Texas December 31, 2007

That was beautiful Funny, it seems to be that way in life. When you boil right down to what's very precious and most important... it's not a real complicated list of things. In fact, they're often some of the most basic and simple aspects of your life. Blessing for your wife and children. Protection for loved ones. Prosperity and protection for your people. God's love for you and your family. The real stuff that life is made of. Reply

Anonymous Tel-Aviv , Israel February 10, 2007

Uncle Irv. This is a great, well written story. It just so happens that I have an Uncle Irv and Aunt Betty. Reply

Rebekah Woodridge, Ny January 28, 2007

Thank You This article was written in deep thought and true learning. I know all couples inwhcih have to go through living with and loving eachother. May run into bumps in the road, sometime seeing anothers pain and loss helps us on our journey in our realationships that will bring understanding, love and light. Thank you for your article. Reply

Anonymous January 5, 2006

Beautiful Reply

Anonymous October 21, 2004

Just you & me It's so quiet, so peaceful where I am. It's past 2:00 AM. All the world is sleeping except you and me, or so it feels.

Thank you, Jay, for "Uncle Irv." After having read it (again), I said the very same prayer that you said at one time: "Please G-d, keep the yetzer from my house and the anger from my heart." Reply

Anonymous montevideo September 19, 2004

This article moved me very much.
Extremely important for all young couples,or almost couples, to read.

What a sensitive person and great writer Mr. Litvin was.

I feel lucky to connect to his thoughts through his writings.
Thank you


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