Reflections on my Journey
3rd in a series of 10 Tevya Talks
Time is such a strange phenomenon, Although measured mathematically, our personal experience of time is anything but precise. And so my heart struggles when my brain tells me that 17 years have passed since Yoni was so cruelly ripped out of my life— the maths and the emotions just don’t see eye to eye on this. Sometimes 17 years feel like seventy, and I can be overwhelmed by the feeling that Yoni has slipped so far away, seen only faintly as if from a great distance. And yet there are also wonderful moments of clarity when I can be suffused with his essence, and the fear that he might be lost to me forever disappears.
When I look at my daughter Yael, and at my 14 grandchildren, I realise just how much he has missed. Yoni knew Yael as a little 9-year old who never went anywhere without a book stuck to the end of her nose, and her teddy wedged under her arm. Sometimes I wonder if he would recognise the smart young lady of 26 who has long overtaken him and is the person with whom I now discuss all my ideas for the Foundation.
He doesn’t know that he is an uncle to 14 nieces and nephews including a Yoni, a Yonatan, a Jona and a Natan, he’s never heard of a man called Trump, never mind Obama, he doesn’t know about iPhones or iPads or Facebook.
So much has changed in the world during these past 17 years, that he ought to belong almost to a different era, and yet somehow he still remains so much a part of my life and this world, and I know that’s because his message, what he stood for, the values he lived his life by, remains so relevant to this day and through the YJF he is kept alive in the hearts and minds of so many.
To date well over 2000 girls and boys have completed their ‘Yoni Jesner Award’. It is amazing to think that none of these young people were even born until after Yoni had left this world, and yet they talk about him as if they know him.
And I have this feeling, that in completing their hours of volunteering, in getting involved in making a difference to other people’s lives instead of doing what most young people do these days-staying on their screens for hours on end- in making the choice to think about what they can give instead of always focusing on what they can get- I have this feeling that in doing this, a little part of Yoni’s incredible energy, of his force for good, enters them and becomes a part of them, and lives on.
How unpredictable, how strange, how utterly mad life is. There was a time when my place on a day like today would most definitely have been among the audience. But then Yoni was killed and everything changed.
Suddenly I was catapulted into a new realm of existence, into a different world and I can never get back to the old one......
He had boarded that tel Aviv bus full of life, fun and enthusiasm for what lay ahead, for his second year at Gush EtzionYeshiva in Israel, for his studies in medicine the following year, to the whisper of a possible friendship with a certain young lady——he had so much to look forward to —— but he never got to finish his journey. In the blink of an eye all his hopes and dreams and plans, together with his young life, were cruelly ended forever, and I found myself in the middle of a nightmare.
So, now I have a story to tell. It is the story of a terrible loss, but, if in the telling I can inspire you and fill you with a sense of the goodness, the humanity that was Yoni, if I can inspire you to care more and do more with your life, then for me Yoni still lives, because doing and caring is what Yoni was all about.
The years pass by, inexorably, and I have learned to live my life and to move on, but I have also learned that moving on doesn’t mean leaving Yoni behind; it means carrying his memory and all that I have learned and still learn from him, along with me.
Preparing to speak is never easy, each time I think this is going to be the time that nothing comes to mind, and yet each time I find that a new awareness opens up for me, it’s almost as if Yoni comes and stands behind my right shoulder and teaches me something that I had not realised or thought about before. As I said earlier, I learn so much from him.
And so it was earlier this week that I came across a booklet that Bnei Akiva and Tribe had teamed up to write together a few months ago at Shavuot time.
It was written for the youth on the theme of Resilience, based on the story of Ruth, and how her resilience saw her through the terribly difficult challenges she faced. I was very touched to see that it was dedicated to Yoni and that it used his aphorisms as a tool to help young people today build their resilience and find ways to deal with their day to day challenges. For example:
For those who feel overwhelmed with too much homework, they quoted Yoni’s aphorism
“When you feel that you’ve got too much to do, make a list – there’s nothing like organisation to bring you back down to earth.”
For those who are having a difficult time with friends they quoted:
“Is it the situation that needs changing or is it you?”
And for those who tend to be impatient or judgemental they quoted:
“Time reveals depths that we never knew existed.”
I felt that here he was, 17 years on, sending me a message through this wonderful booklet to stay strong, to keep finding the strength I never thought I had, to keep going.Yes, ‘Time certainly reveals and continues to reveal depths I never knew existed.’
There is so much that Yoni still teaches us and I was so touched to see how his legacy still inspires others and remains so relevant today.
But the most touching thing in the booklet is a quote from an Israeli lady called Miriam Peretz who is indeed an incredible example of resilience.
Miriam Peretz (b. 1954) is an Israeli educator. Her son Uriel was killed in the IDF in 1998, and shortly after her husband passed away. In 2010, her second son Eliraz was killed in the IDF as well. In 2018, Miriam received the Israel Prize for “strengthening the Jewish-Israeli spirit.”At the ceremony, she said:
I have a heart that was broken three times with terrible announcements: The loss of my eldest son Uriel in battle in Lebanon, the death of my husband Eliezer due to a broken heart, and the loss of my second son in battle in Gaza.
With that heart I came to my nation and in simple words, in the language of a broken heart, I spoke of this land and its
legacy, of choosing goodness, of happiness, to life, of responsibility, of social Tinvolvement. And out of that heart which
faith in this country and this nation, out of the great depth of pain flowed springs of love.
When the heart is full of love, it can withstand great challenges. I turned my .]ניגון[ into a new melody ]יגון[ grief
These words express so beautifully what is in my heart, this is what I try to do, this is what brings meaning and purpose into my life.
I know that there will hardly be a person here who has not faced great difficulties in life of one kind or another, so this is the challenge for all of us—-can we take our grief, our loss, our illness, our great difficulty whatever it may be and turn it inside out, can we make it lead us to do better things with our life than we ever did before, can we make it a of devotion beats with vehicle for bringing good into the world, can we somehow find the strength we never knew we had.
Miriam Peretz chose ‘devotion to life, to responsibility, and social involvement’. I try so hard to learn from her and Yoni’s example.
Last year Lord Sacks gave a 4 part series on Radio 4 about our society today. In it he spoke about the great mistake people make in searching for happiness. His message was that it is by shouldering our responsibility both within and outwith our community, by getting involved and helping to make a difference to other people’s lives, it’s by helping to bring more good into the world that we find meaning, and that it is in living a meaningful life that the true happiness lies. This is what really sustains us when the chips are down, this is what builds inner resources of strength, this is what builds resilience.
Rabbi Hackenbroch spoke about this exactly in his blog about the life of Sarah. Her life was full of disappointments and challenges— being childless for 90 years of her life, her husband Avraham having a son with her maid to name just two. But she lived a life full of meaning, and she left a legacy that has reached down through all the generations to us today. He quoted Einstein who said ‘Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.’
And somehow, amazingly, it seems to work, because whatever we give comes back to us. The more love and care we give, the more we receive.
Apart from experiencing it in my own life, I hear time and time again from the 12 year old children who do their Yoni Jesner Community Award, how great they feel after doing something to help someone else.
So can we learn to play a new melody?— can we think in terms of ‘what can I give?, how can I help?’ instead of waiting for what the world owes us? Because the reality is that life isn’t fair, we as often as not don’t get what we should —be it financial success in return for hard work, respect and consideration as parents and grandparents, easy relationships, good health, peace of mind—there are so many difficulties and disappointments in life, the list of what we don’t get is huge.
So let us try and do what Miriam Peretz did, let us choose a life of giving, because it is NOT in all the things we have, or whether things are going well for us, but it’s in the things we do for others that true meaning is found.
This is what Viktor Frankel meant when he said ‘The door to happiness opens outwards”, we find it when we give of ourselves.
In doing so we discover strengths we never knew we had, we feel a very special sense of satisfaction, and ultimately we will find that ever- elusive thing we call happiness.
I will finish with one of Yoni’s aphorisms:
A person who is only concerned with himself will wake up one morning and question his worth. A person who gives his time and effort to others will know his worth when he sees the fruits of his labours.