Mrs. Betsy Spijer, Batya bat Benjamin a”h
“Thou dost guide me with Thy counsel
And afterward Thou will receive me to glory”
There are moments in life when one is confronted with hashgacha pratit, (divine intervention), which strikes as a thunder bolt from heaven. These are instances when one was clearly sent from Above to be in exactly the right place at the right time and in the right spiritual condition. Such moments leaves one speechless, standing in awe for the Divine stage which could not have been better orchestrated.
This befell me several weeks ago. To be exact: On Rosh Chodesh Nisan, March 20, at exactly six o’clock in the late afternoon in The Hague in Holland.
Here is the story: I had decided to visit Holland, to see my dear brother and to take care of several matters after my mothers passing some three months earlier. Due to certain circumstances which necessitated changing my travel plans several times, I could not fly from Israel to Amsterdam earlier than March 18. Once I arrived, I immediately proceeded to deliver two lectures in the framework of the Jewish Identity Day organized by the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
As usual, soon after my arrival, I telephoned one of our closest friends, Mrs. Betsy Spijer who was 82 years old and whom my wife and I have known for several decades. She and her husband, Aaron Spijer z.l., although not related to us, had become part of our inner family and for many years they celebrated Pesach with us in our home in Israel. Sadly Aaron Spijer z.l. had died three years ago. It was he who encouraged me to start the David Cardozo Academy and helped me to publish many of my books. The couple had no children and in fact no family at all except a cousin in the USA. Aaron had been an only child and Betsy’s siblings had all been killed in the Holocaust. Since her few old friends had passed away, my wife, myself, and a mutual physician friend were the only ones currently in weekly contact with Betsy. She lived completely on her own, far removed and secluded from the rest of the world, in a large mansion in the outskirts of The Hague.
Aaron and Betsy were two deeply religious people and in fact Betsy was, as far as I remember, one of only three or four women in The Hague who actually wore a peah-sheitel (wig) as religious women do. Over the years our relationship had become so close that it was as if we had adopted them and they us.
When Aaron was still alive and after he had retired from his successful business, he devoted most of his time to learning and studying the Torah and Talmud. Our email correspondence, sometimes daily, concentrated on parshat hashavua (the weekly Torah portion) and matters of Jewish philosophy and the Jewish world in general.
Whenever I was in Holland after my mother had moved into the Jewish old age home in Amsterdam, I always stayed with the Spijers. Every morning Aaron and I used to learn daf hayomi (one page of Talmud) before I left for Amsterdam to see my dear mother. These were precious moments.
When I phoned Betsy on this most recent visit to ask when I could come to see her, she told me that she had just spent a night in hospital since she had breathing problems. She could no longer walk and was confined to a wheel chair but now had to actually rest in bed. She said not to come then but to phone the following day to see whether she felt well enough to get dressed in her usual royal manner and considered by her to be appropriate for my visit.
The next day Betsy again told me not to come but to wait one more day since she was still not able to leave her bed. I was worried but, since she spoke in an optimistic tone assuring me that she would no doubt be better the next day, I decided to postpone my visit to her for one more day. However, our mutual friend, the physician, then phoned me saying that he was worried about Betsy and that I should consider coming regardless of what she said. He felt it would help her and added that nobody knows what the next day would bring.
When I arrived, Betsy insisted on first putting on her peah-sheitel (wig) before seeing me. But, despite her attempt to normalize her appearance for my sake, I was deeply disturbed. She was a mere shell of her former self and I immediately saw that her condition was much worse than she had indicated. However Betsy recognized me at once, we spoke for a short while and she told me that she felt fine but weak. In the mean time our friend, the physician, had also come to visit and so, somehow, the three of us continued the conversation. Neither of us thought that the end was near.
After a while I told Betsy that I had to go to Amsterdam but that I would return the next day and we said goodbye to each other. Then, as I was leaving, one of the nurses who looked after her prevailed upon me to stay a little longer since she was concerned about Betsy’s condition. I agreed to do so and proceeded to show my physician friend the appropriate prayers to say should something happen after I left, even though I still felt there was little reason to believe that it be so fast.
However my subconscious self told me not leave at all. There was a divine dimension to all this and I felt part of a dream in which I had no say and in which I just had to listen. A mysterious feeling took hold of me which said that I was meant to be here. Suddenly, within minutes, and totally unexpected, the nurse informed us that she thought that the moment had come. Together with our mutual friend, we entered her bed room and immediately commenced the appropriate prayers. The nurses were deeply moved – they had looked after Betsy for nearly four years – so I translated all the prayers into Dutch so that they could understand them. They were calmed by this and became part of this moment of divine grace. Whilst saying Shema Yisrael, Hear Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One, slowly, as if she was kissed by the divine Presence, our dear friend passed away. We recited the blessing of Dayan HaEmet (1) and covered her face. The clock ticked exactly six. I had acted in complete tranquility as if I was part of a larger script.
As if possessed by a higher spirit I stood in complete awe. A whirlwind of thoughts came to my mind. For years I had worried that one day Betsy would die without anybody being with her, or only surrounded by, no doubt caring yet non-Jews. After all they would not know what to say or do at this most crucial hour in a Jewess life.
Had the Lord of the Universe sent me there at that specific time, causing me to change my plans several times before actually coming to Holland, in order to deal with the many issues related to my mother?
Had her husband, Aaron, pleaded with the Creator not to allow his dear wife to die in this Godforsaken home far away from any other Jew and asked Him to make sure that I would be there? One thing was clear, I had been sent!
The feeling which I experienced at this hour cannot be translated in the confinements of the human language. It belongs to another world.
But this was not all. I had the great merit, together with our physician friend, to watch over her throughout the night. We arranged for her tahara (2) and her burial. With a lot of effort we were able to bring a minyan (ten Jewish men) together so that I could say the appropriate prayers while we laid her to rest next to her dear husband Aaron in the Jewish Cemetery of The Hague-Wassenaar. This was just the way Betsy had always wished it to be yet she was well aware that the chances that it would actually happen were virtually nil.
There was no-one to sit shiva (3), there was no seudat havra’ah, the meal of condolence (4) and a great emptiness entered my heart. All what I could do was recite Kaddish (prayer for the deceased) and say some words about this extra-ordinary tragic personality before we buried her. I once again felt orphaned after I had lost my mother just a few months earlier and my father more than 30 years ago.
After the burial we returned to the Spijer’s home which, for so many years, had been a home with a deep Jewish spirit. Now its neshama was gone. We entered a strange house we did not know. It symbolized the end of a family which once stood at Mount Sinai and had come to an abrupt end due to what had happened in the Holocaust thousands of years later. It was this tragedy that deprived her of children and family.
My thoughts went back to the moment Betsy’s neshama (soul) was taken to Heaven. What were her thoughts? Did she realize that much more was dying than she alone? I am ignorant of the essentials. What did she believe at the hour of her fading away, already moving towards the place where the dead are no longer tormented as she was in the days of the Holocaust, and consequently the years that followed that horrific time? We will never know.
I again heard the impact of the earth hitting her coffin which resounded with a harshness that made me realize that this meant there was now no more Family Spijer. The finality of these moments took hold of me as I attempted to say Yizkor, the prayer for the dead, and tried to relate, not to her body that lay in the ground, but to her soul that was now with its God.
The French philosopher Pascal once wrote that we human beings are like reeds, thinking reeds, feeling reeds, minds to know, eyes to see, ears to listen, hearts to stir with pity and to dream of justice and of a perfected world. But in the end only God is our nechala (inheritance).
I wondered again: When a child is born, parents, relatives, friends are all happy and wish each other mazal tov. But perhaps when someone is born in our world there is weeping and mourning in the other world from where this soul had just come and perhaps, now that Betsy Spijer had died, a great mazal tov sounded in the other world that her soul had left 82 years ago and was now returning. Who knows the truth? Perhaps her tragedy would in fact become a great simcha when she would meet all those who stood with her since the days of Mount Sinai?
I realize that Betsy’s destination could have been Auschwitz or Treblinka, like her brothers and other family members. She was lucky to have been one of those plucked from this fire, to survive and to be able to die in her own bed, but I am also aware that she never had a moment of inner tranquility once she and her husband knew that they were the last Jews in a family called Spijer.
I have taken upon myself to keep their memory alive in any way I can, and I think of my dear mother who was a close friend of Betsy, who was also privileged to die in her own bed but left behind children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Knowing my mother, I am sure that she will tell Betsy Spijer that she will share this merit with her. After all, her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren were also partially Betsy’s too.
But what about me? After all, this moment of divine intervention transformed my life – a subtle moment of great magnitude. But have I already violated this moment in my moments of weakness? May God not allow it to fade away in oblivion.
Once Susia prayed to God:
Lord, I love You so much, but I do not fear You enough.
Lord, I love You so much but I do not fear You enough.
Let me stand in awe of You as one of Your angels.
Who are penetrated by Your awe filled name
And God heard his prayer and His name penetrated the hidden heart of Susia, as it comes to pass with the angels.
But at that Susia crawled under the bed like a little dog and animal fear shook him until he howled:
Lord, let me love You like Susia again.
And God heard him this time also. (1)
May Betsy Spijer’s memory be a blessing.
(1) This is the blessing said by those who are with someone after he/she has left this world. It means Blessed is God, the truthful Judge.
(2) Tahara: Jewish law requires that the body of the deceased is completely washed and purified and dressed in a plain white dress. This ceremony is one of the most dignified rituals in all of Jewish law. The body is covered while washed and total silence prevails as this takes place. All the members of the Chevra Kadisha (the holy community who are appointed to prepare the body for its ascension to Heaven) know exactly what to do and after the covered body is entered into the coffin, some earth of the land of Israel is sprinkled over it ensuring that all Jews are somehow buried in the Holy land . Special prayers are recited whilst the coffin is closed. Like myself, Mrs. Spijer had been a member of the Chevra Kadisha for many years where men attend to men and women attend to women.
(3) Shiva: After the burial, the closest family, i.e. parents, spouse, children and siblings, will sit on low chairs for a week and be visited and comforted by their community, relatives and friends. The purpose is to repent and recount stories of the great deeds by the deceased so as to inspire us.
(4) Seudat Havraa is the meal served by friends straight after the burial. It is only eaten by those who have an obligation to mourn. Special prayers are then said at the end of the meal.
(5) In Time and Eternity, A Jewish Reader, edited by Nachum N. Glatzer, NY: Shocken Books , 1946, quoted by Erich Fromm, Man for himself, Rinehart,, NY, Toronto, 1947, p.8.