David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world

On the blessing of a natural death

The war is now the context for everything, even the passing of a 99-year-old woman 5,600 miles away.

Myra Lovett Breakstone, 1924-2023. A lifetime of bringing light to the world. (Courtesy of the family)

Mom died last night, just four months shy of her 100th birthday. She passed peacefully and gracefully in a Connecticut hospital cared for by an exceptionally attentive medical staff, surrounded by her four children and other loving family members. But mingled with my personal sorrow was the tormenting heartbreak I felt for the victims of October 7th and the ensuing war. The barbaric savagery they were forced to endure stood in such harsh contrast to the natural death my mother was privileged to experience after 99 wonderful years. I felt blessed. I know she did as well.

Nothing is to be taken for granted any more. Certainly not life. Nor death – at least not the way it is supposed to come. The grief we all feel for those whose lives were brutally cut short suddenly intensified. The empathy we all share for the children, spouses, fiancés, friends, and parents of the victims at once became more profound.  The anxiety we have all felt during the last three months over the fate of our hostages deepened even more. The anguish we share for the survivors of the massacre immediately became greater. The distress we harbor over the pain of the wounded was accentuated. The concern we all have for the hundreds of thousands who have been uprooted, whose homes and livelihoods have been lost, and who have been called on to do battle leaving their families behind became greater. Even the sympathy for the innocents suffering in Gaza was heightened.

Countless lives have been shattered over the past three months, yet my mother was favored, allowed after a century in this world to pass serenely into the next. How random fortune is. It might have been otherwise. My mother, who had made Aliyah 40 years ago and was a long-time resident of Kibbutz Tzora, might just as easily have been a member of Kibbutz Be’eri and butchered in her home or taken hostage.

Thankfully, she knew nothing of that carnage, yet her concern for Israel and the sort of society we are fashioning here remained uppermost in her mind. Even when plagued by rapidly advancing dementia she continued to inspire with lessons for our time.  Just several days before she died, while visiting her in the memory care unit we had moved her to only weeks before, I was to discover that she fancied herself the prime minister of Israel. “I don’t really want the job,” she told me, “but Israeli men don’t really like listening to women so I think I have to stay on as an example.” She then went on to improvise a 22-minute motivational speech, asking me to take notes as I recorded it, so that I could polish it for her upcoming address to the nation. A brief excerpt. Her thoughts, not mine, word for word. An echo, no doubt, of the hundreds of presentations she had made decades earlier as president of her chapter of Hadassah.

“This is indeed a new day. We have a country now, and marvelous things can come from this. We have the ability to make all our dreams come true. Male and female have sat together trying to visualize a wonderful country. We’ll hear from everyone what the goals should be. We must learn to compromise. We’re going to work toward that future and make it an example, to live peacefully. There are no excuses, this is our time and no one can stop us. We’ll go to shul and thank God, but not only God, our own people who have struggled and sacrificed so that we have it. What we have longed for and suffered for has been worthwhile and it gladdens our hearts to see what we always wanted. We know how to achieve it, ready to do anything we must to make our future safe, not like the past years when we were shuttled around from place to place.”

I held her hands tightly in mine, feeling ashamed that those we have just lost and those we have failed, those we abandoned and those we betrayed, had been left in the hands of those without the wisdom and fervor of even this 99-year=old woman, detached from reality but grounded in morality. “So when are we going to deliver it?’ she asked. “I’ll figure it out,” I told her. I suppose I just have.

Her love of Israel and her concern for its safety were in part a consequence of her coming of age during the Holocaust. It would have broken her heart to know our people had just suffered the single most horrific day since then, that the scourge of antisemitism has resurfaced, and, worst of all, that so many of our own young people are uncomfortable with the very idea of a Jewish state, estranged from Israel, and even demonstrating against it. “It seems as if all over America, Jewish leaders have looked around to find that it is no longer ‘in’ to be Jewish, that many of our children have become alienated from Israel. Yet if we lose the next generation, what will become of Zion?” she asked in a piece she published back in 1969, only two years after the Six Day War. She’d have been crushed to discover that her question would be just as pertinent today, and that the closing lines of her article would comprise as important a charge to the people of Israel today as they did more than 50 years ago: “This is the time for greatness; the greatness of spirit, and heart and mind.”

With my mother’s passing, came the need for tahara – the ritual purification of the body before sending the deceased on its final journey. It would have been important for me for this to be performed under any circumstances, but so very much more so in the dark, dark shadow of October 7th and the unspeakable desecration of the martyrs of that day – violated, burned, maimed and defiled. To be able to arrange for this final tribute to the body and the soul became a blessing, not a religious duty to be dispatched with ceremonial indifference but a privilege enacted in the name of all those who had been denied the honor.

With her last, tranquil breath, then, my mother taught me to cherish the miracle of life and encouraged me to redouble my efforts – as insignificant as they might be – to bring peace, harmony, and sanity to the world. May her memory be for a blessing, as we were blessed with her natural death, as we were blessed by her life.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is presently engaged in establishing the Yitzhak Navon Center for a Shared Society. He previously served as deputy chair of the Jewish Agency executive and the World Zionist Organization and was the conceptual architect and founding director of the Herzl Museum and Educational center in Jerusalem.