A cry is heard in Ramah — deep anguish and bitter weeping. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted — for her child is gone.” – Jeremiah 31:15
This cry has been reverberating in my ears, ever since the passing of 16-year-old, Shaina Welner, this past Shabbat morning, after a grueling battle with cancer. Shaina is the daughter of Rachel and Yaakov Welner, may they live and be well, a pioneering couple in our greater Jewish community in Phoenix, Arizona.
In the face of such an unfathomable tragedy, our minds flood with questions: How can G-d allow the passing of such a pure and innocent young girl? How can we find meaning in such a devastating calamity?
The answers to these and other questions elude us. After all, our finite minds cannot always comprehend the ways of our Infinite Creator. Yet, we must channel our pain into proactive action and glean valuable lessons from this heartrending tragedy. And so, here are five humble suggestions:
- Blessings Are In The Eyes Of The Beholder
This past Thursday, Shaina celebrated her 16th birthday.
In lieu of seeking personal gifts, Shaina launched a “Mitzvah4Shaina campaign” asking people worldwide to take upon themselves a good deed in the merit of her recovery. Within a few days, over 8000 good deeds were performed by hundreds of individuals in her honor. This campaign — which is still ongoing in her loving memory — provides a small glimpse into the shining soul of Shaina, her unconditional love and selflessness, her superhuman resilience and Divine grace, and her unwavering commitment to spreading goodness and kindness worldwide.
Shaina’s campaign also teaches us all an invaluable lesson: Blessings, not just beauty, are in the eyes of the beholder. And how we view life – and all of its fluctuations – is almost always our choice. For, here was a precious young woman, who had all the justifications to fall into the bottomless abyss of depression. After all, she was fighting the fight of her life, uncertain of her ultimate triumph. Yet, in spite of her own challenges, she made the conscious decision to prioritize others over herself, transforming her self-pity into empathy for those around her. Within the darkness, she spread light. In the depths of her pain, she spread joy.
If Shaina exhibited such strength in her actions, shouldn’t we strive to do the same?
- Life Is Too Precious To Waste It On Trivialities:
Here’s a question: If today was your last day on Earth, what would you do? Would you spend it with family, and tell them how much you love them? Would you try to fulfill any last wish?
As the sudden passing of Shaina so painfully demonstrates, this question is not as far-fetched as it sounds. We really have no control over the timing of our death. We will never be able to know when that fateful day will arrive. But we do have full control over our time, at this very moment. Thus, we ought to make the best of every breath we take, every moment we share, every relationship we have, and every opportunity we have.
Indeed, every day is filled with infinite treasures that will never return. Every moment is filled with opportunities that beg to be actualized. Every hour holds within it blessings that impatiently wait to be unleashed. Yet, too many times, we are shackled by the troubles of our past or the fears of our future that we become complacent, and forget that today may just be our last day.
So why waste it on trivialities and not heed the call of our soul, to serve, to smile, to love, to give, and to do a Mitzvah?
- We Are One
Numerous friends who were present at Shaina’s funeral yesterday expressed their amazement at the vast number of people in attendance, including many who did not even know Shaina and her family. Yet, they came, out of a deep sense of responsibility and unity.
This selfless kindness by these ‘anonymous’ Jews, reminded me of the holy words of the Tanya that teaches that the deeper we connect with our soul within, the more we will discover its unbreakable connecting with the collective Jewish soul of our Jewish people, where we are all one, akin to the limbs of a single body and instruments harmonizing in the same symphony.
Indeed, we are one. May we act as one people, always, with loving eyes, a caring heart, and a helping hand, not only during challenging moments but also during times of joy.
- We Can Be In Pain But We Cannot Become Our Pain
A few years ago, I remember asking Racheli Fraenkel (whose son, Naftali, was brutally kidnapped and murdered in Israel along with Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, in the summer of 2014) how she finds the courage to smile and live on.
Her courageous answer moved me deeply: “I feel pain,” she said, “but I don’t have to become my pain. I am in tears, but I don’t become my tears. And that’s why I smile.”
Racheli’s words serve as a poignant reminder, especially in times like these, that while tears and pain may fill our lives, we cannot allow them to define us. And we need not allow our suffering to shape our identity. Instead, we must find strength and resilience in embracing the full spectrum of life, allowing our smiles to bloom, and our kind hearts to act, even amid the most profound sorrow.
- “Choose Life So That You And Your Children May Live”
In 1948, just three years following the Holocaust, Chaim Weizmann, the first president of the State of Israel broadcasted a request to Jews worldwide: “After Hitler murdered a third of the Jewish nation, it is the foremost duty of every Jew to be a ‘third more’ Jewish. Please, I beg every Jew in the world, be a ‘third more’ Jewish. Triple your prayers, triple your good deeds, and make up for the third of our nation that was so brutally decimated.”
When we encounter death and other adversities, we are faced with two options: We can succumb to despair. Or, we can follow the advice of President Weizmann, and respond to death with even more life; to despair with even more hope; to darkness with even more light.
Judaism has always chosen the latter option. “Choose life,” Moses commanded us, in the name of G-d shortly before his passing, “so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
Similarly, after Shaina’s passing and the passing of our loved ones, we too must do everything in our power to increase, and “triple”, our deeds of goodness and holiness — from prayer to charity; from lighting Shabbat candles every Friday to doing a stranger a favor; from setting aside times to study Torah to lending a helping hand — to make up for the great vacuum that she has now left in our world.
I thus beg you to join me in “choosing life” and adding one or more Mitzvahs to Shaina’s “Mitzvah4Shaina campaign” here: https://onemitzvah.org/altashaina/cbt
Shaina’s memory will then undoubtedly be a blessing, that will live on and on, in our minds, in our hearts, and most importantly, in our actions, today, tomorrow, and forever. Amen.