Esther the Teacher
Submitted by Tziporah Jensen
“Mom, why don’t you try Partners in Torah? They’ll match you with someone for one-on-one mentoring in learning Judaism, at your beginner level,” suggested my daughter Yael in March 2020. By the time Esther from Partners in Torah connected with me, I was newly diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. The average length of survival was three years…
“I feel this is a wake-up call to shift my negative attitudes and behaviors,” I told Esther.
“Everything in life is a gift, a chance for growth. The Torah studies will help you in every area of life,” she replied.
I had little energy for study. So Esther gave me a simple first assignment: say the prayer “Asher Yatzer,” each time after I used the toilet. “Thank you, G-d, there are no blockages or ruptures in any of my organs of excretion. Blessed are you, who heals all flesh wondrously.” Since the chemo caused frequent use of the toilet, I was saying this prayer six or more times a day. It reduced my terror to be reminded that G-d was in charge, not cancer, and that much of my body was still working well.
After a month, Esther suggested: “Can you try saying Modeh Ani, the prayer upon arising? And Shema, the prayer before we go to bed…”
Esther explained the point of our many prayers was to keep ourselves in a state of gratitude to Hashem and to always remember everything comes from Hashem. We’d done this at the Veterans’ Hospital, where I’d worked with brain injury patients. Having them count all they were grateful for was the best way to help their injured brains shift out of anger or fear. Now Esther was helping me do that in the face of my own challenge.
Twice a week, we discussed the lessons contained in that week’s Torah portion. Torah had the answer to all questions, from the simple to complex. Was saying something negative about someone, even if it was the truth, a bad thing? How should I handle an intrusive neighbor? The more I learned, the more I realized I’d been engaging in thought, speech and behavior that secular society deemed okay or even admired, like witty sarcasm, but were spiritually depleting.
Esther introduced me to Guard Your Tongue, a book defining lashon hora and teaching how to avoid it. Every day I read another short lesson.
I asked: “Esther, I’m trying not to say anything negative. But what about when someone is verbally attacking me? Can’t I attack back?”
“You can never embarrass a person publicly, even if they’re engaged in bullying. Call them aside and appeal to their better nature. Don’t criticize them publicly,” she said.
Now I understood why I felt bad after reducing someone down to size with a clever quip. I’d reduced my own spiritual level, too.
I began listening to great podcasts Esther sent during daily walks. I set up a routine of Torah study and began keeping Shabbat fully. I threw out all the nonkosher items in my kitchen. My greatest fear had been spending the short time I had left in pandemic isolation. I began to view the combination of a pandemic and cancer as the crucible I needed to devote myself to learning the precious gift of Torah, my birthright.
Tziporah with daughter, Yael
“Mom, you sound like a different person!” said Yael over the phone from her college dorm. I’d made more personal progress in six months with Esther, than in a lifetime of attempts at self-improvement. Each day I took care of my body–chemo, healthy food, acupuncture, vitamins–but the center of my life was getting closer to G-d through study, prayer and mitzvot. Yael had been trying to become more observant for two years on her own. Now she had a kosher, Shabbat-observant home to return to from college and a parent interested in discussing Torah wisdom with her.
As my soul discarded poisonous thinking and behavior, my body did its own healing. The cancer retreated, the blood markers returning to normal. “This is wonderful!” said my doctor, “Let’s hope you can live a normal lifespan.”
But I was no longer as focused on the length of my life as its quality. Thanks to studying with Esther, I understood a good life was always long enough