This past Shabbat, I ran into my friend Yemima walking down the street with Yosef Chai, her year-old son whom we have all been praying for so much over the last year. This Shabbat, Yemima, who is the person I know most likely to be mistaken for a movie star, looked pale, thin and worn by grief and worry. When I asked her how Yosef Chai was, she shot me her classic ironic smile and said, "Now you know better than to ask a question like that on Shabbat."
I see that my connection with this holy little boy taught me a great dealAnd then, only two days later, I was taking my daughter to nursery school when I noticed a small black-bordered death notice. When I saw the name "Yosef Chai Mizrachi," I gasped. Hallel asked me what happened, and I could not speak, my throat swollen with held-back tears.
Even though I only saw him a handful of times over the course of his thirteen-month life, I felt a real closeness with Yosef Chai, and looking back, I see that my connection with this holy little boy taught me a great deal. After months of praying for him, day after day along with my own children, Hadas, Hallel, Maayan…Yosef Chai, I would often long to see him, almost like a physical urge to see this beautiful little boy, so cute and cuddly. It took Yemima's pointing out to make me notice the blue feet and nose and fingertips that the medical residents would make a special trip to see in real life and not only in their textbooks accompanied by an unpronounceable name.
I can't exactly express what was so special about Yosef Chai. Maybe it was that Yosef Chai was a boy who seemed totally magical. A child who doctors said would never regain consciousness after a heart attack six months ago, was laughing and playing with his adoring siblings at home a month later. Anyway, who ever heard of a child born with only two heart chambers who actually lived? And not only lived, but lived with such vigor and joy for life?
Yosef Chai never once ate a piece of solid food, he spent his life on a strict diet of mother's milk, sustained by liquid love. And this is how I remember him. Just as G‑d rides on the praises of the Jewish people, so too was Yosef Chai sustained solely by Yemima's milk and the constant prayers of the hundreds of people who prayed every day for his wellbeing. I remember Yosef Chai glowing despite his blueness. His life defied reason, medical realities, and despair; he was a little boy who was the physical embodiment of faith and impossible hope.
A few months ago this past spring, I went to visit Yemima, and she told me that she was taking Yosef Chai to the hospital to do the second operation in a series to repair his heart. Twice they had set a date for this operation, and both times Yemima and her husband had asked everyone they knew to pray, and then, right before the operation, there was a disaster. Once Yosef Chai even had a heart attack (isn't a heart attack something that you are supposed to have when you are seventy, and not seven months?)
His life defied reason, medical realities, and despairSo, as I left that day, Yemima told me that because of the previous failed attempts, this time they had not told a soul they were doing the operation, which was a dangerous one for Yosef Chai. She said, "You are the only person I am telling. When you light candles this Friday night, know that it's all on you." I assumed she was joking, but she repeated this phrase, "Only you." I looked closely at her face, and saw she wasn't smiling when she said it.
I've prayed for sick people in the past, and I know just how terribly flaky I can be about it. What, as though my prayers actually make a difference? Why would G‑d care one little bit about what I have to say? As though there aren't another thousand people also praying for him? But that Friday night, I stood for a whole twenty minutes by my candles, praying for Yosef Chai, crying and crying to G‑d to have mercy on him, to have pity on his mother and father and sisters and brothers who love him so much.
And as I stood there, I imagined the impossible. I imagined that one day I would dance at Yosef Chai's wedding, and I would say to Yemima, "Who would have thought twenty years ago that we would be standing here today?" and she would wipe away a tear and nod as we remembered for one brief moment the despair that we had worked ourselves up into so foolishly many years before.
After that Shabbat, I spoke with a few women, and it turned out that a bunch of us had actually known about the operation, and had prayed for Yosef Chai when we lit Shabbat candles. But what a lesson! I have never prayed like that in my whole life, really believing that everything depended on me, really believing that G‑d was listening solely to me. And ever since that Friday night, prayer feels different. It's not a dramatic or revolutionary shift, but something clicked that night, like a dislocated elbow snapped back into place, or as though I'd been doing needlepoint for years wearing big bulky gloves, and then one day I took them off and realized that I could do the work better if I stripped my hands bare and got to work. Even though it is a bit scarier that way since you can get pricked by the needle and bleed.
And now I walk around my neighborhood, and I see the broken women remembering the hours they spent praying for Yosef Chai, or the women who spent days searching the internet for information to save him, or corresponding on Yemima's behalf with doctors in America and Germany, looking for some sort of solution. And now, the end of hope, the train to salvation derailed. Since I heard of his passing, I still find myself thinking from time to time, "Maybe they could still do a heart transplant." And then I remember with a terrible jolt that we've passed over the line from very, very sick and dying...to dead.
"When you light candles this Friday night, know that it's all on you."Yemima was supposed to take Yosef Chai to a diagnostic procedure to look inside his heart a week before he died. The specialist had told her that there was a good chance that Yosef Chai would not survive the procedure, which meant that she and her husband found themselves in an impossible situation; Yosef Chai couldn't survive without the procedure, and he probably wouldn't survive with it either. So she told me that she had pushed off the appointment by a few weeks, and said, "I am supposed to take him tomorrow to this hospital where they are sure that he is going to die on the operating table, but I said to my husband, I don't agree! Anee lo Maskeema! If I can have one more day or one more month with him, then I choose a month!"
And Yemima was right. She and her family had exactly one more week with him, a week in which she held Yosef Chai, and prayed for him, and knew more intensely than any other mother on the planet that the baby she held was a total gift from G‑d. A total miracle.
The last time I saw Yosef Chai was the day before he left this world. Yemima joked, "It used to be that people looked at me, and now all they look at are Yosef Chai's blue feet." Yosef Chai looked so adorable, so alive, despite his encroaching blueness, that I couldn't imagine that the doctors were actually right, that just over twenty-four hours later his two-chambered heart would simply stop beating as his mother held him in the hospital ICU, and in one moment he looked upwards towards the One who was calling him home, and his soul left his sick little body.
And, isn't it supposed to be that when you believe in the eternity of the soul, death is not as sad. Right? But there is no way around the longing, the longing for Yosef Chai, the longing for a baby to nurse and push around in a baby carriage and hold and love.
May G‑d send comfort to this broken and mourning family, to our Rebbetzin Yemima and her husband Rabbi Chaim Mizrachi and their whole family. May G‑d comfort them in the midst of all of the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Amen.