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The Path to Greatness

by Sara Yoheved Rigler

One morning in 1950, 26-year-old Chaya Sara, following her usual routine, rose early in the morning and milked the cows. She had no idea that that day would prove to be the most momentous day of her life.

Late in the morning, a neighbor approached, pulling a redheaded 2-year-old boy behind her. She asked Chaya Sara to do her a favor. She was taking care of this mentally handicapped child, the son of her cousin, who had divorced his wife shortly after their brain-damaged baby was born. Now she had to do an errand in town, and couldn't take the child with her, because he was too unruly. He was so unruly, she told Chaya Sara, that she often had to tie him to the bed. Would Chaya Sara watch the boy for the afternoon?

Chaya Sara gladly agreed to care for the child, whose name was Avramele. When the neighbor returned several hours later, she found Avramele clinging to Chaya Sara's skirt, crying, and refusing to leave her. The neighbor, tantalized by the prospect of ridding herself of this unwanted burden, gazed at Chaya Sara and remarked: "Living with you would be Gan Eden (paradise) for him."

Chaya Sara looked at the frightened, clinging child, then looked back again at the neighbor who had been tying him to the bed. She made her decision. She agreed to take the child.

She would care for him, day in and day out, for the next 55 years, until her death. It was the most significant decision of her life.

Looking back on the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer, it seems like she made many choices that were even more difficult. She undertook the care of many children who were much more debilitated than Avramele, children who were both physically and mentally handicapped, who needed to be spoon fed and lifted from bed to chair, incontinent adult "children," even violent children who sometimes attacked her physically.

Compared to the children who would come later, Avramele was easy. While mentally impaired, he was physically healthy. He even helped Chaya Sara. He often took out the garbage and would hang laundry on the line. He would go on the bus with Chaya Sara to do the grocery shopping in Afula, and would help her carry home the heavy baskets of food and produce. Avramele grew up to be a placid, unobtrusive personality, who would stand off to the side and observe, rocking from side to side, occasionally muttering short sentences, his long red peyos swaying.

If, however, we watch the film of her life starting not from whom she subsequently became, but rather in its proper sequence, the 26-year-old housewife, farmer, and Holocaust survivor who stood facing her neighbor could easily have chosen to say, "I'm sorry, but no." After all, she had been married barely four years. She still intended -- and certainly hoped -- to give birth to her own children. She had no idea how this mentally defective toddler would develop and what impact his constant presence would exert on the family she hoped to raise.

Had she asked for a few hours to consider her decision, had she calculated the pros and cons, Chaya Sara could have come up with several compelling reasons to decline to take Avramele:

  • Raising a retarded child is an onerous job with little emotional fulfillment. The satisfaction of watching a child advance from milestone to milestone and eventually to marriage would never accrue from this child. This was precisely the reason his own parents had given him away. Why volunteer to undertake such a thankless task she had not been assigned? Financially, she and her husband could not afford the extra expense this child would entail...

  • Raising a normal child requires approximately 20 years' investment of energy and resources until he can stand on his own. A child like Avramele would never achieve independence. Saying "yes" was a lifetime commitment that would never be discharged. In fact, even on the last day of her life, Rebbetzin Chaya Sara had to admonish the 57-year-old Avramele to behave nicely and not be "chutzpadik." Unlike today, when schools for special needs children care for them for a good portion of the day, in 1950 there was no facility nor support system to share Chaya Sara's 24-hour-a-day job. Taking responsibility for Avramele would never allow for vacations, days off, nor retirement.

If the young Chaya Sara did make any such calculations, she did it instantly, and immediately made her decision: She welcomed Avramele. Decades later, she explained to me why: "He needed someone who could be like a mother to him, without any sense of estrangement." Notice that her reasoning had only to do with his needs, not her own.

This was the fundamental choice she made on that day in 1950: to put the needs of another -- a complete stranger -- above her own needs. All of the subsequent choices she made in her life were simply variations -- albeit more complex -- on this theme.

Chaya Sara the wonder-worker was born in Europe in 1924, but Chaya Sara the holy woman was born in Israel in 1950, on the day she chose to adopt a frightened retarded child who needed a mother.


When we think of making choices, we envision a fork in the road. The traveler on life's journey can choose to walk east or west. If he later changes his mind, he can simply turn around and backtrack, or even cut a path between one road and the other. In reality, our life's journey proceeds not along a road, but along a railroad track. Once a person has boarded the train going west, it will inexorably take him in that direction. That is what Pirkei Avos means when it asserts: "One mitzvah leads to another; one sin leads to another." Once a person is on a train, turning around or changing directions is difficult -- and unlikely.

When the young Chaya Sara Kramer chose to adopt a mentally deficient 2-year-old, she boarded a train called "Selfless Giving." That train took her up a steep mountain toward spiritual greatness. We can only wonder whether she would ever have been handed the greater challenges she later faced had she not chosen selfless giving that day in 1950.

Most of us, as we stand on the train platform of choice, choose to board the train that looks sleekest and most comfortable, without even bothering to check on its destination. Chaya Sara chose to board a dilapidated train that promised a bumpy, sooty ride; its destination was spiritual greatness. She was, in fact, not self-conscious enough to notice the train's destination. She boarded only because she heard the cries of a little child issuing from within.

The polarity between giving and taking is the essential choice that confronts all of us, many times a day. God's fundamental attribute is that He is a Giver. We emulate God whenever we choose to give without thinking, "What's in it for me?"

We don't have to undertake a 24/7 commitment that goes on for the rest of our lives, but we could choose to be givers by: contributing more to charity than we can easily afford; giving our time to listen to and empathize with people with whom we don't naturally resonate; volunteering for a good cause; helping our child/spouse/friend even when it feels like a one-way street; and not making our continued giving contingent on receiving acknowledgment and gratitude. Any of the above choices means boarding the train heading toward higher and higher levels of selfless giving.

Reprinted with permission from InnerNet.org.


 


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