Saturday, May 8, 2021

Rebbetzin Esther Epstein a”h, Upon Her Shloshim

Rav Chaim Brim zt”l once recounted how the Brisker Rov zt”l was walking with some of his talmidim when they passed a group of children at play. The Brisker Rov stopped and asked those around him why they thought children are generally happy and laugh easily.

 

A few of the men walking with the Rov ventured to give voice to their thoughts. Perhaps it is because children lack a maturity which brings with it a more solemn outlook on life, one suggested. Perhaps it is because they have few responsibilities, proposed another.

 

The Rov shook his head, indicating his disagreement with these suggestions. Realizing that the Rov wanted to teach them something, the talmidim stopped and waited to see what he would say. Why, indeed, are children normally in a happy and carefree state of mind?

 

The answer, explained the Rov, is that children are happy because human beings arenaturally this way! If people would be born with all sorts of the varying temperaments we witness in adults – such as being stressed, worried, pessimistic, dispirited or melancholy – then we would witness these emotions in children in a similar measure that we do in adults. The fact that normal children from stable homes are overwhelmingly happy and carefree indicates that this is a person’s natural state.

 

As we grow older, the Brisker Rov explained, we complicate matters. We erect mechitzos, barriers, and we bury our natural state under layers of self-imposed encumbrances (such as jealousy, desire, greed and doubt). Children, who have not yet complicated their lives with external baggage, are in their natural, purer state.

 

By all accounts, Rebbetzin Esther Epstein was a living example of this insight. Anyone who knew her, met her or chanced to be in her company could testify to the inherent simchas hachayim which simply radiated from her like the warm and healing rays of the sun. Yet, her life was anything but easy. It was filled, rather, with overwhelming doses of trials and tribulations. She suffered losses early in her life, struggled to make ends meet, dealt with much heartache, and was physically unwell for many long years, suffering excruciating and debilitating pain.

 

So how did Rebbetzin Epstein always radiate happiness and good cheer?

 

Rebbetzin Epstein didn’t just ‘cope’ with hardship. Her inner, joyful essence overpowered the difficulties and pain, never allowing them to become a part of her, to define who she was or impact her outlook on life. The challenging aspects of her life were all too real and readily acknowledged – not ignored or minimized – yet they didn’t touch her core nor dampen in the least the zest she felt for living a wholesome Yiddishe life.

 

Often, we read or hear about many great men or women and we marvel in awe at attributes they possessed which seem way above our own abilities. Indeed, Hashem, in His wisdom, does bless certain individuals with above-average strengths, intelligence or talents. Others are born with average abilities, but they somehow remove themselves totally from society to live lives far removed from the rest of us.

 

What was unusual about Rebbetzin Epstein is that anyone who knew her – and those who knew her intimately, such as her closest family members, even more so – would never describe her as anything but completely down-to-earth, well-rounded and all-too-normal. She was just another Jewish wife and mother, with the same hopes, dreams, struggles and challenges as anyone else. She wasn’t born with supernatural strengths nor did she live a life removed from those around her. She was full of life and zest. There was nothing dried-out, austere or aloof about her. If anything, one was struck by her startling simplicity.

 

Yet, she was a great woman. She lived with a constant awareness of Hashem, with an unyielding commitment to Torah and Yiddishkeit and with an awe-inspiring acceptance of her lot. There was nothing simple about her single-minded goal to support her husband’s Torah learning, and later his Torah teaching, no matter how much of a burden this placed on her. The hours upon hours which she gave freely and happily of herself to advise, counsel, empathize with and physically help others, were far from normal.

 

And yet, she was so normal, so simple, so unpretentious. How did she do it?

 

If she was ‘one of us,’ and the life of constant and awe-inspiring Torah, chessed and simchas hachayim which she lived did not stem from supernatural abilities or from keeping herself far removed from the mundane concerns of the rest of us, how, then, did she do it? Perhaps, if she managed, somehow, to keep her life in sharper focus than the rest of us, we can learn something very applicable and very relevant to our lives from her.

 

Much has been said about the way Rebbetzin Epstein always managed to get along with the minimum and absolute necessities. Her home was furnished with nothing more than the basics, and even those items were rarely more than functional. After her mother, who lived downstairs from them, was niftar, they hired someone to expand their living space. The contractor expressed amazement to family members about how completely unconcerned the rebbetzin was with things which everyone else seems to get carried away with or to which we at least grant some attention. It was he who found himself practically begging her to allow him to install certain types of flooring, make certain upgrades, or do things in a more stylish manner.

 

The rebbetzin would have none of it.

 

She wanted the house to be as wide, roomy and airy as possible, a place which would lend itself to happiness, yishuv hada’as and good cheer. Things should be practical, sure. In good taste, of course. But stylish? Whatever for! Although money wasn’t the issue – they were doing the work anyway and the cost would be the same in any case – she simply had no use for anything that didn’t have a practical use or that wouldn’t contribute towards making her home a happier place to be in.

 

The family joke was that they built a ‘brand-new old house.’

 

The rebbetzin had one nice polyester chasunah gown, which she wore to her children’s weddings. The gown was appropriate and bakavodik, and she saw no reason to wear anything else. This one was perfectly nice and practical, so, over a period of many years, she wore this same polyester gown to her children’s weddings.

 

Usually, we view people who live in this manner as being p’rushim of a level we can admire, but doubt we can ever reach. Yet, Rebbetzin Epstein, for all her unwavering steadfastness, never came across as someone inherently much different than the rest of us. She seemed to be totally on our level. At the same time, the greatness which her actions bespoke is undeniable. How did she straddle these two seemingly contradictory worlds?

 

There are two ways we can go about living a life of simplicity and of sacrificing immediate pleasures for greater, long-term, goals. One way is to constantly deny oneself anything more than the basics. If logic dictates that we don’t absolutely need something, then, much as we may want that item, we control our desire and live without it. This way of living does require almost supernatural strengths and rigid control over our desires. After all, it is far from easy to be continually withholding from oneself that which we so desire. We must wonder whether this kind of p’rishus, of constantly denying ourselves that which we so intensely desire, will lead to inner calm, happiness and feelings of content.

 

Another way to go about living a life of simplicity and of complete dedication to our true objectives is not to deny oneself any excesses or distractions, but rather not to need them in the first place.

 

In Even Shleimah (3:1), the Vilna Gaon teaches that bitachon and histapkus, faith in Hashem and being satisfied with one’s lot,are not just ‘positive attributes.’ They are the basic traits from which flowall other praiseworthy middos. Histapkus does not mean ‘doing without.’ Histapkus means satisfaction. Being satisfied with little will not happen when one is constantly denying oneself excesses which deep down he powerfully desires. True histapkus means not needing, and thus having no desire for, that which one has not been given by Hashem.

 

Rebbetzin Epstein struck people as being so normal and on our level, because her pure, simple and Torah-inspired lifestyledid not stem from unnatural strengths, subliminal ideals or constant self-denial. Rather, it was her overriding pashtus, a simplicity born of an outstanding emunah peshutah, a pure and simple trust in Hashem, that led to her very greatness. Her pashtus hachayim was awe-inspiring, yet at the same time so utterly basic and uncomplicated. She didn’t need that which Hashem did not send her way or which served no purpose in a home devoted to Hashem and His Torah.

 

With her awesome simplicity, she recognized that extravagances and distractions would add nothing to her life, and she thus had no use for them to begin with.

 

As the Brisker Rov taught, one need not work on attaining true happiness. Rather, he should work to diminish the doubts, distractions and other baggage accumulated over the years. True happiness will then follow naturally – a greatness born of simplicity rather than sublimity. Histapkus is similarly elemental. It’s within the reach of each and every one of us. We need only to keep our outlook clear and unclouded and we can all be happy, contented and inspirational individuals much as Rebbetzin Epstein was.

 

When we erect barricades – in the forms of envy, competitiveness, greed, dissatisfaction or lack of trust with that which Hashem has given us, etc. – we become dissatisfied and look for all sorts of ‘things’ to fill the void. These self-erected barricades are what make histapkus seem so out of reach and its acquisition so difficult. Minus all this baggage, a contented life is quite within reach for us all.

 

Rebbetzin Epstein grew up in the same America as her friends and was as well-rounded, spirited and vivacious as any of them, if not more so. Yet, with the emunah peshutah she picked up in her parents’ home, she never allowed herself to lose track of Who is in charge and what He wants from her. Her mission in life remained clear and unclouded, and this allowed her to utilize her down-to-earth, warm and multi-faceted personality in consonance with the ratzon Hashem.

 

Her natural cheerfulness, good-humor and zest were used to build a warm and happy home where her husband and children would thrive, where visitors always felt welcomed, and where Torah and Yiddishkeit became alive and filled with ta’am. Empty kinds of ‘fun,’ which serve no purpose other than to distract or ‘kill’ time, had no value for her.

 

In the same way, all of her talents – and she had many – were put to use to help her accomplish that which she was here to accomplish, and she never lost sight of what that was. Her first and foremost job in this world was to support her husband and family in their Torah learning, and to make her home a warm haven for Torah and Yiddishkeit. Using her talents, her intuitiveness and her good cheer towards these ends filled her with satisfaction and contentment. She saw no reason to expend her talents in any other direction. A career, fame or fortune held no allure to her. She had no need for these ‘things’; her happiness and contentment came from a far more real and lasting direction.

 

When the rebbetzin first got married, her husband was not yet at that time a great rosh yeshiva in a way that marrying such an esteemed marbitz Torah made any sacrifice worthwhile. On the contrary, she first sacrificed so as to enable him to grow in Torah and later become a rosh yeshiva and marbitz Torah. She willingly moved to Lakewood, something which back then easily spelled loneliness, hardship, sacrifice and perhaps even scorn. It was far from a popular move, and people saw no future in it. Still, it was the right thing to do and she did it.

 

Her commitment to Torah learning was as boundless as the wellspring of pure emunah from which it flowed. She never saw herself as ‘sacrificing’ for Torah. On the contrary, nothing gave her greater pleasure than being able to support and have a cheilek in limud haTorah. She absolutely refused to allow her husband to worry about bringing in a parnassah. She wanted him to be free to learn with as few distractions as humanly possible, and if that made her job that much more difficult, she accepted that part of the deal gladly.

 

Even when a respectable position in harbotzas haTorah was first offered to her husband, she discouraged him from accepting it. She did so even though she knew that his accepting it would have eased the financial burden she was shouldering on her own, and even though the position was quite an esteemed one. She wanted her husband to be able to learn and grow yet more, becoming even greater in Torah, before accepting such positions.

 

Years later, when her husband became a rosh yeshiva and marbitz Torah, she didn’t see herself as any more special than any other Jewish wife and mother – only more fortunate – and she never took her position for granted. She continued trying to do her best to support, aid and assist her husband in his personal Torah learning as well as in his harbotzas haTorah. Anything that she could do to ease his burden she did, even when she herself was ill and suffering unbearable pain.

 

When things were hectic at home, rather than asking her husband to help her out, she sent him out so that he would be able to learn undisturbed.

 

She once told someone that during a time of a great personal tragedy, when she was a young kollel wife living in Lakewood, she would go and cry in a room where her husband would not hear her, so that he shouldn’t be worried about her and become distracted from his Torah learning.

 

When her mother asked her once whether she found it lonely with her husband out learning late at night, she responded that there was a room in their apartment from which she was able to hear a certain neighbor learning at home. If she ever felt lonely, she would go to that room, listen to the learning which was music to her ears, and she would feel totally at peace.

 

What’s most notable is that nobody would have called her a starry-eyed idealist with her head in the clouds. Her temperament and nature were no different than anyone else’s. It was her focus that was different. Limud haTorah simply excited her.

 

One of the old Kletzkerwiveswho lived in Lakewood at that time once remarked about the young Esther Epstein that “zee iz nisht kein Amerikaner.” This, despite the fact that Rebbetzin Epstein was a born and bred American and enjoyed such leisure activities as going to the park and playing games with her family. It was the rebbetzin’s focus – her wholehearted commitment to Torah and Yiddishkeit – that placed her on par with her European counterparts.

 

Towards the end of her life, when her health was in rapid decline, she was recuperating in a rehabilitation facility. The rebbetzin told her family how a certain respected rebbe had come there to visit and she had asked him for a bracha. The family reasonably assumed that she took the opportunity to request a bracha for a refuah, to be healthy once again and free of her constant agony. What the rebbetzin had asked for, though, was something entirely different. She asked for a bracha that her husband be able to continue learning and continue in his harbotzas haTorah.

 

Not only was this the bracha she requested, but her excitement at receiving that bracha was unbelievable, and it was all she spoke about to anyone who visited or called. She received a bracha for her husband’s learning! What more could she – an ill and suffering woman – ask for?

 

Her greatness was in this simplicity of focus, and that simplicity was her greatness.

 

Over many, many years, people flocked to her, confided in her, and looked to her for moral and physical support. She was very smart, very intuitive, with a shrewd understanding of human nature. She counseled many people in shalom bayis or other personal issues. She had no airs about her and everyone felt comfortable talking to her, thus enabling her to reach all types and relate to people on any level.

 

This was not a separate positive attribute which she possessed, but was rather a natural result of her pashtus as well. She didn’t help others because it was a noble thing to do or because, as a rosh yeshiva’s wife, it was expected of her. She did what she could do with whatever abilities Hashem gave her, because her focus was always on what she could give with that which Hashem gave her, never what she could get. Rav Yosef Rosenblum, who knew of her work in helping others, said of her, “Zee hut kein mohl nisht geret fin zich.” If she had an opportunity to help others, then she wanted to do so and was happy to do it.

 

This simple and pure concern was palpable, and people felt it and were forever touched by it.

 

One of the doctors who treated her over the course of her long illness related that every time he called or visited to treat her, she would ask about his wellbeing and that of his family. And it was more than a perfunctory, polite question. The rebbetzin was clearly waiting for answers; her interest was real.

 

There was a certain therapist who often visited the rebbetzin when she was bedridden. This therapist happened never to have mentioned anything about her own children during the course of their conversations. Thinking that perhaps the woman had not been blessed yet with children, the rebbetzin worried for her and tried to ascertain what indeed the woman’s situation was. Until she was able to find out, she made sure never to speak of her own children or grandchildren when this therapist was visiting. Eventually, when the rebbetzin found out that the therapist did indeed have children, she was overwhelmed with true joy.

 

When meshulachim would visit the home, the rebbetzin would offer them coffee or other amenities and she took an active interest in their wellbeing. All types of downtrodden people found their way to the Epstein home and the rebbetzin would listen to them for hours and do her best to be mechazek them. Nothing and no one was beneath her. The most respected rebbetzins, young kollel wives and the teenaged friends of her grandchildren all felt that she truly related to them and to their concerns. She knew which types and color lollypops each child wanted, but could just as easily discuss teenage issues with teenagers, child-rearing or homemaking issues with the young wives who were drawn to her company in summer camp, or serious life issues with the many who sought her advice.

 

Although Jews of all stripes and opinions equally saw in her a true friend, her open and welcoming attitude towards others never extended to accepting their deyos if those opinions were not in consonance with the Torah. Still, that never stopped her from being everybody’s best friend. Friendship and caring were one thing; Yiddishe hashkafah was something else. She wouldn’t yield in her hashkafos, but she wouldn’t stop being a friend either.

 

Visitors never felt uncomfortable coming even at unearthly hours or at hectic times, because they felt that her concern extended to them as it did to her own needs. Nobody was ‘bothering’ her any more than it would ‘bother’ her to attend to something which she herself personally needed. She gave hours of her time to her husband’s talmidim as well as to complete strangers, and she did it so naturally and unpretentiously that no one ever felt like they were intruding.

 

Because giving came so naturally to her, she never made a big deal of the myriad chassodim she may have been involved with at any given time. As a result, no one knows – and probably no one will ever know – the full extent of the thousands upon thousands of chassodim she took upon herself with little fanfare or acknowledgement.

 

She would visit elderly and infirm women and tend to whatever needed to be taken care of. Nothing was beneath her when it came to chesed. If she had to feed, bathe or wash someone, she did that too.

 

During the course of one by-the-way conversation, this writer learned about a girl whom RebbetzinEpstein, as a single girl still in camp, tutored for many hours, never taking a penny for her time and effort, and about a family with a sick son to whom the rebbetzin sent a sum of money every Friday for the expenses involved in traveling to doctors and hospitals. There were hundreds of similar situations over the years, where, with little fanfare but because she really cared, the rebbetzin performed her quiet chassodim to one and all.

 

During the course of her painful illness, Rebbetzin Epstein was usually able to distract herself from her pain and discomfort by asking about her children and grandchildren, inquiring about their well-being, and delighting in the latest antics of the little ones. Towards the very end, the rebbetzin’s physical pain and discomfort were so great that she was simply unable to take her mind off of them. The family tried to distract her by talking to her about this or that family member or grandchild, to no avail. The physical pain was simply too great.

 

During this crucial time, a terrible tragedy struck a family who had been very close to the Epsteins. When the rebbetzin was told about the tragic story, she was so overcome with concern for the family and with worry for how they were managing that, for the first time in a long while, she suddenly, physically, did not feel the terrible and very real agony which had been wracking her body. It was such an occurrence which stood as the most elegant testimony to the fact that the hundreds of hours and the hard-earned resources which she’d given over the course of her entire life were a result of nothing less than real, actual, concern for others.

 

One of her children celebrated the bar mitzvah of a son during that terribly trying time. It had been hoped and expected that she would be able to attend, but, in the end, despite everyone’s best hopes, the rebbetzin was unable to make it for the simcha. Understandably, the family was quite disappointed. How does one celebrate such a special milestone, while the matriarch of the family is too ill and bedridden to be there? One can only imagine how disappointed the rebbetzin herself must have been at having to miss such a unique celebration of nachas.

 

As it turns out, the rebbetzin was the one who refused to wallow in self pity, and she wouldn’t allow her situation to detract from the atmosphere of simcha which should prevail at such a time either. She spoke to the rest of the family and rallied their spirits, and she wasn’t satisfied until she was sure that everyone else would go and try to enjoy and forget about her own sorry situation.

 

It was never about herself. It was always about the other person or people.

 

Nor did doing so much for others cause the rebbetzin to think highly of herself and see herself as some great ‘baalas chesed.’ On the contrary, with her simplicity of faith, she felt that the more she did for others, the more it meant that she owed yet more. After all, if Hashem had, in His kindness, allowed her to be a giver rather than a taker, did she not owe even more to Hashem for that kindness?

 

The rebbetzin was wont to tell her family that “people would pay money to be in my situation.” This was despite the years of illness and suffering which she herself was undergoing. With her pure faith and histapkus, her focus was always on what she had, never on what she might have been missing.

 

Years ago, when she lost her hearing in one ear, she noted that some people would wish they could hear in at least one ear. More recently, when she was told that she would be confined to a wheelchair and would not be able to walk, she remarked similarly about how some people would wish they could be in a wheelchair. She was able to be this way because she sincerely appreciated whatever it was that Hashem gave her.

 

Whatever financial situation the Epsteins found themselves in, her constant refrain was that “we’re millionaires. Even if we don’t have the money, we’re wealthy in other things.” It was crystal clear that she meant this too. She was truly and consistently thankful for what she had, and that made her feel quite rich indeed.

 

A woman who visited her during the final and terribly painful weeks of her life mentioned how the rebbetzin had herself spoken to her a year ago regarding accepting whatever Hashem throws our way and seeing everything as being good. The rebbetzin grabbed her visitor’s hand and squeezed it tightly. “And I really, really mean it!” she said emphatically.

 

It wasn’t only during the previous year, before her suffering became so much greater, that the rebbetzin could speak of being happy with our lot. Even in midst of the worst of it, the rebbetzin was just as emphatic. Her convictions were real and they were the way she actually lived.

 

Rebbetzin Epstein imbued her home and family with these feelings of appreciation and histapkus. Her home was an oasis of happiness, good cheer and contentment towards which people felt drawn. Everybody wanted to visit and spend time there – the children, grandchildren, and even her grandchildren’s friends. To celebrate special occasions or just on a day off from school, friends of the rebbetzin’s grandchildren considered it a special treat to spend it in the warm, friendly and happy atmosphere of the completely unadorned and utterly modest Epstein home on 46th street in the company of the rebbetzin so many years their senior.

 

The ruach in the home was saturated with the same simplicity of faith and contentment which was her focus all her life. Her home was a chomah, a wall and barrier, keeping the winds of confusion, doubt, and meaningless glitter out. In their place, the simple joys and true simcha of a Torah-saturated lifestyle came to life.

 

In her home, the geshmak of Torah was so alive, no one would feel the slightest reason to look to the outside world for acceptance or validation. She had taste and knew how to appreciate nice things, but superficial things which existed solely because they were ‘in’ or because other people were ‘doing it’ came up empty and meaningless in the atmosphere of rich Yiddishkeit which permeated her home. Where there is real substance, empty fluff will simply melt into nothingness.

 

It is this legacy of greatness in Torah, in chesed, in faith and in histapkus which she left to her family, to the families of her husband’s talmidim and to the thousands whose lives she touched. It is a legacy of gadlus accomplished by a pashtus, of great heights reached by means of a simple faith and a pure focus very much within the reach of us all.

 

Tehei nishmasah tzerurah betzror hachayim.

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