A Tribute Written in Tears

The gedolei yisroel, including her uncles, Rav Aviezer Piltz and Rav Eliyahu Mann, spoke of her as a “great woman.”

From her hospital room during the final days of her life and from our conversations with the family at the shivah, we came away with an image of a young woman who somehow managed to climb to the greatest heights of chessed and ahavas haTorah, a woman who literally lived for others.

**************

This past week, a woman who lived her entire life for other people, who epitomized the concept of a giver and who took nothing in this world for herself, was taken from us at a tragically young age. Rebbetzin Yiska Pincus a”h was a person who could be moved to bitter tears by the suffering of another, whose heart was sensitive enough to pick up on the subtlest manifestations of other people’s pain, and who would move heaven and earth in order to lighten the burden borne by another person. We will never understand why such a pure, altruistic person had to suffer from such a painful disease or why she was taken from us so early in her life. As a young mother, she raised her husband’s orphaned siblings in her home. Now, she herself has left behind nine young, lost orphans of her own. It is simply unfathomable. But this is a mystery that will be explained to us only by Eliyahu Hanovi at techiyas hameisim.

When Yiska Pincus returned her pure soul to her Creator, it was a gradual process that followed a lengthy period of suffering. Last Wednesday night, at 2 o’clock in the morning, her breaths began growing slower and weaker. We said Shema Yisroel several times, followed by Aleinu and Nishmas. In addition to myself, her husband, her older children, her sisters, and the orphaned children of Rav Shimshon Pincus were all present in the room. If our pain had been dynamite, the entire city would have exploded.

Until she became ill, Yiska was known as Yisraela. After she contracted her illness, Rav Chaim Kanievsky instructed that her name be changed to Yiska. Now, she has returned to the World of Truth, having spent a mere 42 years on earth.

The funeral procession set out from the Shamgar funeral home on the morning after her petirah. She was eulogized there by Rav Dovid Cohen, Rav Aviezer Piltz, Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, Rav Yehuda Amit, Rav Yaakov Yisroel Pincus, and her eldest son, Reb Moshe. She was buried in the Segulah cemetery in Petach Tikvah alongside her father. At her graveside, additional hespeidim were delivered by Rav Eliyahu Mann, Rav Boruch Weisbeker, and her second son, Shmuel.

All of us – from Yerushalayim to New York and from Eretz Yisroel to America – have sadly grown accustomed to tragedies. We have seen many young people pass away in their primes, leaving behind countless orphans and widowed spouses. The gedolim tell us that this is the chevlei Moshiach. The Zohar states that just as a mother’s birth pangs become more frequent as the birth of the child approaches, so too, at the end of this golus, the troubles that beset Klal Yisroel will grow more intense and frequent. As our people’s suffering intensifies and the blood continues to flow, we can be confident that we are approaching the “birth” of our redemption.

Does anyone have any doubt that the end of this golus is near?

THE MOTTO OF A LIFETIME

I visited Rebbetzin Pincus in the hospital two days before she passed away. Her eyes were closed when I entered. She did not have the physical strength to open them. She was thin and pale. Her husband, Reb Eliyahu, and one of her sons, along with two of her sisters, were at her side, as always.

“How are you, Yiska?” I asked.

“Hodu laHashem ki tov ki le’olam chasdo,” she whispered in response. “Hashem is good. He is always kind.”

I could not believe my ears. The Angel of Death was hovering over her head, yet all she had to say were words of thanks to Hashem. Her son laughed. “You didn’t know that that was her motto?” he asked. “This posuk has been on her lips for as long as I can remember.”

Three days later, at the shivah, one of her daughters filled in the rest of the story: “When I was in eighth grade, I told my mother that I had a teacher who was always saying this posuk, ‘Hodo laHashem ki tov ki le’olam chasdo.’ Ima liked the idea, and she herself began using the posuk regularly. She never stopped. Shimshi [the rebbetzin’s youngest son, who is named after his grandfather, Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus] knew this posuk by heart before he even learned how to say Modeh Ani. Whenever he brought home a test from cheder with a good mark, our mother would kiss him and start saying, ‘Hodu laHashem,’ and he would shout the rest of the posuk.”

HER LOVE FOR THE TORAH

What the rebbetzin found so moving about Shimshi’s grades, of course, was the fact that they showed he had invested effort in his learning. The family relates that there was nothing that brought her joy as much as the knowledge that her sons were learning Torah and her daughters were following in the footsteps of the imahos.

“On my grandfather’s yahrtzeit, she would personally test all of her sons on the Mishnayos they had learned,” her son Shmulik recalled. “When she saw that they had learned the Mishnayos by heart, her joy knew no bounds. She literally cried tears of joy. When I wanted to give her a ‘gift,’” he added, “I would learn with Nochum or Shimshi. When she heard us learning, she was simply filled with vitality.”

One of the younger daughters added, “At all of the seudos on Shabbos, Ima would spend the meal running from the table to the kitchen and back to the table again, but as soon as someone started saying a vort, usually from the Ohr Hachaim, she would be glued to her seat.”

In general, Shabbos and Yom Tov were like Olam Haba for the rebbetzin. On these days, her eyes shone.

Her son, who is currently learning at the Chevron Yeshiva, relates, “At the end of every bein hazemanim, before I went back to the yeshiva for the new zeman, my mother would sit me down for a ‘chizuk talk.’ She would explain to me that the only source of joy in her life was the knowledge that we, her children, were sitting and immersing ourselves in the Torah. It was always difficult for me to waste time in yeshiva, because I knew that bittul Torah would cause my mother the greatest possible anguish.”

The rebbetzin’s eldest son, who is an avreich today in a kollel in Petach Tikvah, was also a bochur in the Chevron Yeshiva until two years ago. He shares with me, “She always literally begged us not to bring our cell phones into the bais medrash. She used to say, ‘It will take you away from your learning.’ And she was right! ‘Do me a favor,’ she would say to me, ‘and leave your cell phone in your room.’ Even when I was in shidduchim and I needed to be available, she was resolute in her demand. ‘I promise you that if you don’t bring your cell phone into the bais medrash, you’ll get engaged faster,’ she would say.”

One of her daughters adds, “Whenever she called Abba, she would always think ten times before placing the call. She worried that she might be interrupting his learning. If she called him and heard the sounds of people learning in the background when he answered, she would hang up right away. She did not consider anything to be worth causing bittul Torah.”

And this was true even during her final illness.

TRAGEDY STRIKES THE FAMILY

I will never forget those days before Pesach, 14 years ago, in the month of Nissan, 5761 (April 2001). In the middle of the night, someone pounded frantically on my door. I awoke with a start, frightened and confused. At the door stood one of my friends, a young avreich named Aryeh Kister, today a well-known attorney in Bnei Brak.

“Tzvika,” he stammered, trembling as he spoke, “they asked me to wake up Eliyahu and tell him that his parents have been severely injured. I can’t do it. Please come with me!”  â€œEliyahu,” our mutual good friend and my neighbor from then until today, was none other than Rav Eliyahu Pincus. At that time, he was a young avreich, only 30 years old. I dressed quickly and ran to his house with Aryeh. On the way, Aryeh revealed to me that he had only shared a portion of the truth. Eliyahu’s parents were not merely injured; they had been killed in a devastating car accident. “But we must tell him that they were injured. Perhaps, on the way, we will hint to him that the situation is even worse.”

My knees quivered as I carried out this dreadful mission. I waited in the car for Eliyahu to dress and join us. Eliyahu and I were preparing to travel to the home of his older brother, Rav Yisroel Yaakov, who later succeeded his father as the rov of the community in Ofakim. From there, the three of us were to make our way to Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva, where we were to identify the bodies and prepare for the levayos.

Eliyahu came out to the car, then suddenly realized that he had forgotten something and returned to the house. When he emerged, he was carrying a towel. I looked at him questioningly, and he said, “Tzvika, I don’t know what you know, but my heart tells me that they are not merely injured, but that much more than that has happened.” And so he brought a towel with him, because he didn’t want to touch his father’s body without immersing himself in a mikvah first. With his trademark brilliance, his mind was working at lightning speed.

As everyone knows, the entire world was shaken by the tragic death of Eliyahu’s parents, Rav Shimshon Dovid Pincus and his wife, Chaya, along with their daughter, Miriam. At the scene of the accident, three of their other children also lay injured at the side of the road: Ruchama Rochel (Rocha), Yosef Dov (Dovie), and Sholom. The doctors at Soroka advised Eliyahu to postpone the levayos of his parents and sisters.

“In all likelihood,” the director of the emergency room told him, “Rochel, the other girl who was injured, will pass away within the next two hours. Why should you have three levayos tonight and then another one tomorrow?”

Eliyahu, at the age of 30, had to make a decision of the sort that people in the previous generation were forced to make in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It was pure gehennom for him.

The life of Rebbetzin Yiska’s husband, Rav Eliyahu, is a story of incredibly greatness and spiritual power in its own right. It is a story that has not yet ended – but he is not the subject of this article. Rav Eliyahu is a person who would climb the tallest mountain and who would go to any length to ease the suffering of his wife or his sister. He is a talmid chochom who has delivered a daily shiur even under the most trying circumstances, a person who can be found at the Kosel Hamaarovi every day at 5 o’clock in the morning, a Torah scholar blessed with tremendous intelligence and analytical prowess. And he is a person whom Hashem has chosen – twice – to undergo some of the most difficult tests imaginable.

THE HEALING

Bechasdei Shomayim, Rocha survived. She was crippled, wounded and scarred, mourning the loss of both of her parents. But just as Hashem prepares the cure before the disease, He had arranged for a solution for her plight before it even came about. That solution came in the form of her brother, Rav Eliyahu, and his wife, Yiska.

Try to imagine this: A young woman, only 28 years old, with five small children of her own, is suddenly thrust into an emotional maelstrom and an impossible situation of the sort that can barely be imagined: Her three young siblings-in-law, who had survived the dreadful accident but were totally scarred, along with several others who had not been in the car that night, were still young and needed to be cared for. And now their parents were gone.

At that point, Rocha and her husband displayed an inner strength that defied description. She opened her home in Yerushalayim to her husband’s orphaned siblings, but even more importantly, she opened her heart to them. Every since that tragedy took place 14 years ago until her very last day in the world, she played the twin roles of mother and older sister for her in-laws’ orphaned children. To glean an inkling of what she meant to them, all one needed to do was to see Rav Shimshon’s sons – all of whom have gone on to become successful avreichim and fathers of children of their own – weeping bitterly over her petirah.

Even Rocha, the only remaining child who has not yet married and still lives in Rav Eliyahu’s home, burst into uncontrollable sobs when she heard the news. And this is a girl who has never cried once since her parents passed away.

THE UNANSWERABLE QUESTION

The levayah on Thursday morning at Shamgar was heartrending. Thousands of people, including some who had never met the nifteres or her family, came. Hundreds of the participants gathered to share in the family’s anguish. Many of them, deep down, were pondering the unspeakable question: How could it be that a woman who had raised orphaned children in her home, who had cared for them with such dedication and self-sacrifice, is suddenly torn from the world, leaving her own nine children orphaned?

The crowd burst into tears as the two youngest Pincus children, five and six years old respectively, recited Kaddish at the funeral, and a painful question hung unspoken over their heads: Doesn’t the Gemara say that the children of a tzaddik will not suffer from a tragedy that he worked to prevent? That is the message of the Gemara’s famous story about Nechunya, the digger of wells, whose daughter fell into a deep pit. When Rav Chanina ben Dosa was informed of the girl’s plight, he predicted that she would be saved and, ultimately, his prediction came true.

“Are you a prophet?” the people asked him.

“I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet,” was his response, “but I reasoned that if this tzaddik has worked hard on this matter [i.e., digging wells to provide water for the public], how could his children suffer from the same thing?”

Yet the Gemara continues: “Rav Acha says: Even so, she died of thirst, for the posuk states, ‘Around Him it is very stormy [nisarah],’ which teaches that Hashem is exacting to a hair’s breadth [saarah] with His pious ones.”

What a truly frightening thought.

The eldest son of the Pincus family, Rav Yisroel Yaakov, who serves today as the mara d’asra of the chareidi community of Ofakim, delivered a tearful hesped, in which he gave voice to the question in so many people’s hearts. “Every person has his own privacy, his own boundaries that he places between himself and other people,” he said. “Where can you find a person who gives of himself so freely for others? She was a living lesson for all of us. I remember that when her shidduch was made, my father said to his mechutan, Rav Nochum Braverman [who was involved in growing esrogim], ‘I received a perfectly mehudardike esrog from you, one without any black spots. Pure hiddur!’ We heard this comment at the time, but it was only after twenty years had passed, after we observed this esrog, that we understood the true meaning of ‘hiddur.’

“The esrog,” he continued, “is symbolic of the heart. She was a woman who was all heart, a woman whose essence was that of a pure giver.”

As hundreds of sobs echoed through the room, the brother-in-law of the nifteres cried out, “How could it be that her children have suffered the same fate as those for whom she cared? Oy! But it says in the Gemara that this happened! It is very difficult to understand, but it probably must be understood as we heard from Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl: Hashem declares, ‘Bikrovai akadeish.’ Hashem’s Name is sanctified through those closest to Him.

“In the order of things, it would seem that the people who give of themselves for others are the ones who should be protected. But here in the darkness and concealment of this world, there is a hanhagah, a Divine pattern of behavior, in which they suffer anyway. This is beyond human understanding and beyond all reason. But as the novi states, Hashem’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways. The human intellect cannot understand what has happened here, but we have faith that Hashem’s ways are just. We all feel that she was a korban tzibbur, a great woman who gave her entire life for others. She lived a life of chessed. She taught us what our duties are in the world.

“Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman recently wrote that every person must decide for himself in what areas he needs improvement. No one can tell someone else how to improve, but everyone knows what he must work on to improve within himself. We have seen the meaning of perfection. Now let us perfect ourselves, so that Hashem will not say, ‘I have struck your children in vain; you did not accept rebuke’ (Yirmiyahu 2:30). Let this great void that has opened in our lives not be in vain. Let us resolve to better ourselves, so that something good will come out of this tragedy.”

ALWAYS THINKING ABOUT OTHERS

Rebbetzin Yiska’s acts of chessed were simply unfathomable. Everyone spoke about her unyielding, unending acts of giving. However, her greatness lay not only in the fact that she performed so many acts of chessed, but also in the way she did them. She followed the example of Rochel Imeinu: The Torah relates that Leah complained to Rochel, “Isn’t it enough that you have taken my husband?” How could Leah have spoken to her sister in that way, when she had been able to marry Yaakov only because of Rochel’s largesse? Rochel, after all, had revealed to her the simanim, the secret signs, that Yaakov had given her to identify herself. Some answer that Rochel had performed that ultimate act of kindness for her sister without Leah even realizing that she was the recipient of such a massive chessed.

And this idea encapsulates the personality of Rebbetzin Yiska Pincus.

Yiska performed dozens, hundreds, and perhaps even thousands or tens of thousands of chassodim, large and small, with her family and outsiders alike over the 22 years of her marriage. And every act of chessed was performed in such a simple, natural way that the beneficiary never experienced the sense of discomfort that comes from being on the receiving end of kindness. She acted as if it was all so incredibly normal.

“She was always thinking about other people,” one of her family members tells me, “constantly and unconditionally. She thought about everyone. And she turned the act of ‘thinking about others’ into a veritable art. She vehemently resisted anyone who wished to thank her or compliment her for her kindness. It wasn’t that she ran away from honor or anything of the sort. She simply did not understand why people were thanking her. It was clear to her that a person has to take other people’s needs into consideration and think of ways to help them.

“If she heard that someone else was in pain, she was capable of crying as if she herself were experiencing that pain. She used to work to make things easier for others, even more than she worked to lighten her own suffering.

“And she was always the one to thank people. It was a great pleasure to visit Eliyahu and Yiska at home. Every guest felt that they were bringing joy to their hosts. They gave their guests the best possible feeling.” This family member, like all the others with whom we have spoken, suddenly falls silent as her throat is choked with tears.

“IS SOMEONE CRYING?”

Among the many acts of chessed that permeated the story of her life was the great care she took to avoid causing distress to others or, chas veshalom, insulting or demeaning them. While she was hospitalized with her final illness, suffering from excruciating pain and debilitating chemotherapy treatments, she was once visited by a dietitian who came to see her at the head nurse’s behest. The woman was not Jewish and her recommendations included foods that were not kosher. Yiska treated her with respect, but she asked the head nurse not to send the woman back to her. On Erev Yom Kippur, Yiska called the head nurse of the ward and asked for the dietitian’s telephone number. Fearing that she might have insulted the woman by declining her services, she wished to ask for her forgiveness.

In general, she experienced the greatest pain when someone else suffered because of her. During one of her hospitalizations, a nurse once found it very difficult to locate a vein in order to deliver an injection. Tears streamed from Yiska’s eyes – not over the many puncture marks in her arm, but rather over the embarrassment suffered by the flustered nurse. Yiska’s sister, who was in the room with her, ran out and burst into tears. Yiska, who was already sedated, asked the nurse, “Is someone crying?”

“No,” the nurse replied. “Your sister is davening.”

“Hodu laHashem ki tov ki l’olam chasdo!” Yiska said. “I was afraid that she was crying for me.”

Naturally, Yiska’s observance of the mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim also reached astonishing proportions. One of her greatest achievements in this respect took place during the final days of her life. At that time, she was unable to speak. She communicated only with movements of her hands or head. But then, one day, her children informed her that her mother was on the phone and wished to speak with her. At that moment, Yiska somehow experienced an infusion of renewed strength, and she spoke with her mother on the phone with the same energy she had displayed in her healthy days. At the end of the conversation, she dropped back onto her bed, utterly spent. But the most important thing to her was that her mother had not been distressed.

“SHE WAS A MALACH”

Her neighbors cannot stop weeping for her and telling stories about her life. She was a person of absolute integrity, they relate. She was never willing to borrow anything from her neighbors, fearing that she might forget to return it. Whenever her neighbors borrowed milk or eggs, she would stipulate that she was giving them the items as a gift, not on loan. Once, she noticed an unfamiliar book in her home and was told that it had been borrowed from the neighbors. From that point on, she seemed troubled and pressured – until the book was returned intact to its owners.

One neighbor relates, “Two years ago, I was about to give birth, and Yiska told me that if I needed to go to the hospital in the middle of the night, I should call her, regardless of the hour. In fact, I did have to go in the middle of the night, and she came to my home and watched my children until the morning. I had no idea that she was sick; she never told anyone about it.”

Rebbetzin Devorah Mendlowitz, the director of the community center in Romema where Yiska worked for many years, relates, “She was a malach. She lived entirely for other people. There was a certain couple she knew, both of whom were baalei teshuvah, and she never stopped worrying about them. People who were shattered and brokenhearted would become completely attached to her, and she knew how to encourage them. There is a destitute woman in the neighborhood to whom Yiska used to send fish every Friday. When she became ill, I offered her the opportunity to work from home, but she refused. I said to her, ‘I am the director of your workplace and I don’t want you to exert yourself.’ But she held her own. She refused to accept a salary without coming to work.”

A GREAT WOMAN

Last Thursday, Rebbetzin Yiska was buried in the Segulah cemetery in Petach Tikvah alongside her father, Rav Nochum Braverman zt”l, who was one of the first residents of Petach Tikvah and a member of the famed Braverman family. Her mother, may she live and be well, hails from the Piltz family; her brother is Rav Aviezer Piltz, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Tifrach. And if thousands of people came to the funeral in Yerushalayim, many more came from Bnei Brak to join it at this point. Her mother-in-law’s brother, Rav Eliyahu Mann, close confidant of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, delivered a hesped. Rav Eliyahu spoke at length about her many wonderful qualities. Additional hespeidim were delivered by Rav Boruch Weisbeker, rosh yeshiva of Bais Mattisyahu and a close family friend, as well as her son, Shmuel.

In Yerushalayim, she was eulogized by her eldest son, Moishy, a recently married avreich. “Ima never spoke lashon hara about anyone, not only because she didn’t want to say anything bad about anyone else, but because she never saw anything bad in other people!”  Indeed, anyone who knew the rebbetzin knew that they could not speak lashon hara in her presence. If she ever heard a derogatory comment about another person, she would cry out as if she had been bitten by a snake. Chazal tell us that lashon hara is akin to fire, and indeed, she would act as if she had been burned.

Her son, Shmuel, in his hesped, spoke about her pure faith and her tefillos, sharing a particularly chilling anecdote. “During the last days of her life, when she was hospitalized in the hematology ward at Shaarei Tzedek, she had barely any strength remaining. She did not even have the ability to open her eyes. Her brothers would come into her room from time to time to check whether she was sedated or unconscious; there was a very fine line between the two states. But I could tell right away if Ima was conscious, and whenever they checked with the equipment, they saw that I was right. How did I know? It was very simple: I would say a brachah on something, and if Ima was aware, she would answer amein. She did this in any situation, no matter what. If she did not say amein, I knew that she was unconscious.”