When our family first learned the severity of the infectious disease that was aggressively ravaging my mother, she was already unconscious and en route to massive surgery. The doctors gave her a 5% chance of survival.

We were haunted for weeks with the question of how she would react upon awakening to this nightmare. From head to toe, in both mind and body, literally every part of her would forever be altered. How frightening her body looked; how unimaginable it was to consider the numerous surgeries and painful procedures that lay ahead! Would anyone want to wake up to this? Would she be happy if she survived?

We were haunted for weeks with the question of how she would react upon awakening to this nightmareTo our joy, when she awoke she expressed gratitude and appreciation, with smiles that lit up her face, to those who had cared for her. Later on, she verbalized her thankfulness and gratitude to everyone. There was no question that, despite the hardships, she was so happy to be alive.

Well, after that initial great hurdle, daily living was unbearable for her. She lived with constant raw pain and terrible anxiety, with no relief in sight; in fact the pain and agony only intensified. I was often reminded of Job, and thought of the verses where Job prayed at night for the mornings, and then in the mornings for the evenings, having no respite in either. Forget the shock of a whole new transformed life: endurance was so much more difficult. We wondered what she thought now. Did she have a sense of anger, bitterness, at her situation? Was she still really happy she was alive? How? We finally got up the nerve to ask her. She answered so simply: no, she wasn’t angry, and of course she was happy to live—incredulous at our question!

The last stage was when my mother was in a vegetative state, the most elusive form of living. No one really knows what type of awareness is present, or what is being experienced. My mother was susceptible to numerous infections and complications, necessitating many transfers to the hospital for additional procedures. At every juncture, the doctors were pessimistic, almost certain her body (already frail and immune to every antibiotic, etc.) would not be able to resist these serious infections. However, to their amazement, she pulled through time and again. The doctors and nurses began referring to her as the Miracle Woman, so taken by her history of withstanding so many battles one after another. It struck me how tenacious her grip on life was, how unwilling she was to surrender against all odds.

While she was conscious, we understood how she valued life. But without any tangible form of communication, the same message came through, as she miraculously outlived all expectations. My mother demonstrated for me how significant it is just being alive and present here in this world: the value of life here.

Life is eternal and the person’s soul lives onOften, when someone passes away after difficult times, the expression “May she rest in peace” has a comforting ring. We’re relieved the person we love isn’t suffering, and is at last free of torment. In addition, as Jews we know that life is eternal and the person’s soul lives on. We would imagine that, as the soul is free of all physical constraints and tribulations of its past, now enjoying its enhanced spiritual state, it is in ecstasy, longing to go higher and higher in levels of spiritual revelation. Surely, the soul wishes to distance itself to get as far away as possible from any earthly connection down here, where spirituality is less perceived and truth so obscured.

In fact, at this time the soul is rewarded with paradise and spiritual bliss for all its lifetime achievements in the physical realm, fully appreciating the spiritual ramifications of all its deeds. Each year on the anniversary of its passing, its yahrtzeit, the soul is uplifted and achieves an even higher spiritual awareness. It would seem that the soul’s most burning desire and ultimate goal is this awesome spiritual experience in the afterlife. (Even while we are living in this world, the knowledge of this great spiritual paradise serves as a motivating factor for people to serve G‑d; it helps them restrain temptations and extend themselves, considering their sacrifice so minimal in return for what awaits them in the next world.) Heaven must be the most meaningful place for a soul, where it truly is at peace.

However, Chassidic philosophy dismisses this assumption that a soul would desire to divorce itself from this world, preferring to bask in spiritual revelations. It explains that once the soul leaves this world and sees the truth behind all of existence, it becomes crystal clear that all of everything was created for the sake of this world. The whole universe in all its magnificence and glory was created and prepared for us. The spotlight shines here; we are center stage.

The spotlight shines here; we are center stageThis physical world is where G‑d desires to dwell, to be known, discovered and sensed by His creations. Every good deed, every mitzvah performed in this world, generates such pleasure to G‑d, causing such commotion and celebration on high. No spiritual revelation can compare with the opportunity to actively fulfill G‑d’s desire, which can be achieved only in this physical world with all its accompanying challenges. The afterlife brings this great awareness to the soul, and it really senses what it has achieved; however, this plants in the soul the most fervent wish to regain that ability to perform a mitzvah. More than anything, the soul ardently desires to reconnect to this world, to be a part of what transpires here, to have a connection to the commandments observed here.

This perspective underscores the importance of our relationship with the person who has passed away. It teaches us how much the soul wishes to stay connected with us, and how much it is invested in our wellbeing. From the world of truth, the soul sees everything, understands the intensity of our struggles, knows our challenges and realizes the value of our successes. The soul serves as our constant advocate, channeling blessings to assist us in every way.

The soul yearns for us to perform our mitzvah, because through our relationship it has a connection to a mitzvah in this world. When we name a child, or an edifice where Torah and good deeds will occur, after the deceased, we are connecting that soul with all the deeds performed by that child or in that building. When we dedicate a prayer, a donation to charity or any positive action to that soul, we have given the soul the greatest gift, and enhanced our relationship in the most meaningful manner possible.

She never stopped giving her all, truly devoted to enabling other Jews to learn and experience JudaismThe day of a yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the soul’s passing, is a day to really reflect on our relationship with the person who is deceased. We think about their uniqueness, what they accomplished and strove to do with their gifts and talents, and how their efforts can continue through us. Our deeds, dedicated or inspired by them, enable them to take part in our every success. The soul has this special situation now, in which it connects to the mitzvot in this world and perceives the spiritual effects of those mitzvot on high. Each time a soul connects to a mitzvah we perform, it experiences another potent spiritual elevation. In return, the soul uses its higher standing to send us more powerful blessings and energies, to help us advance in our individual service to G‑d.

This makes the day of the yahrtzeit an especially auspicious opportunity. Each year on the day of passing, the soul ascends to a significantly higher plane. The soul channels blessings to us, and anticipates with an even greater desire the urge to connect with us. Our reflections and introspection help us focus and reinvigorate our efforts, with this greater awareness of how meaningful and purposeful our every commandment is to our Creator. Every minute we are alive and connected to this physical world, we have such tremendous opportunity in fulfilling our G‑dly purpose.

I think of my mother’s life. She was completely dedicated to educating Jews about Judaism. When she was very young, she organized children’s groups on Shabbat, to offer them a fun-filled and impactful Jewish experience. Soon after she got married, she moved to Buffalo as a Chabad emissary for a lifetime of outreach activities within the community and on the university campus.

She learned what needed to be done in every situation, quickly mastering the necessary skills, and didn’t settle for anything but the best. She opened a Jewish nursery, kindergarten and elementary school, carefully selecting the finest curricula, and was not only the principal, but a hands-on mentor for the teaching staff. She managed the Chabad centers that hosted hundreds of students throughout the year for Shabbat and holiday meals, services, classes and programs. She organized the community holiday programs and dinners, constantly seeking creative, fun, enjoyable and new ideas to incorporate into every activity. It is beyond the scope of this essay to enumerate the many projects and roles she played. Suffice it to say, in her healthy years she never stopped giving her all, truly devoted to enabling other Jews to learn and experience Judaism.

During my mother’s illness, she tried as best she could to continue and contribute like she was accustomed to, but she was severely limited. Her days and years were filled with mitzvot until her life changed so dramatically. In the final stage of her life, as she lay in a vegetative state, there was no longer anything she could “do.” However, after devoting herself so completely to bringing the awareness of G‑d to so many, G‑d enabled her, despite her physical state, to carry on.

She became the Miracle Woman.

Without movement or communication, her very being brought divine consciousness to those around her. Doctors, nurses and staff were all familiar with the prognoses for people with her condition, and made every effort to “prepare” us. At every turn, we were told it would be over, and to call all the family together. Each recovery surprised the medical staff; it seemed impossible for someone as compromised as she was to be able to live on. After a while, no one could deny it: her survival was a miracle.

After a while, no one could deny it: her survival was a miracleA soul in this world is compared to a lit candle. Its mere presence allows a measure of light into this world. Life is really a miracle. The marvelous functioning of such complexity, with precision on an ongoing basis, numbs us to the magnitude of what we are experiencing. We process repetitive miracles as “natural.” Every once in a while we experience something that seems so extraordinary, such an unusual phenomenon, that it forces us to acknowledge G‑d’s presence, and we call that sign of G‑d’s presence a miracle. Towards the end of my mother’s life, her candle not only radiated light, but also made it possible for others to perceive that aura as coming from Above.

My mother demonstrated a fierce determination to live, to be in this world, with every ounce of strength that she could muster. Today, especially on her yahrtzeit, we have the opportunity to fulfill her wish, connecting her to us down here through the mitzvot we do that are dedicated and inspired by her.

May we merit achieving G‑d’s desire of making this world the place where His presence is known, ushering in the final redemption, when we will be reunited with all of our loved ones.

This essay is dedicated to my dear mother, Rebbetzin Tzivia Miriam Gurary, of blessed memory, on the occasion of the sixth yahrtzeit, on the 12th of Iyar.