Reining in the Destroyer by C. Saphir
This article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.
It started, of course, over money. Not a lot of money — the whole fight was over $100,000, maybe $200,000, and by the time the 22-year-long court battle ended, the lawyers had eaten up practically every cent.
The court battle may have been over, but the fight was going strong, even though there was no longer any money at stake and the original fight was all but forgotten.
When I tell the story of how the fight started, it sounds almost silly. My mother’s youngest sister Shula, whose husband Elliot was a struggling real estate agent, shared a two-family house with my widowed grandfather, Opa. Opa wrote in his will that his “estate,” which consisted of not much more than his house, was to be divided equally among his five children.
To everyone’s surprise, after my grandfather’s passing, a second will surfaced in which Opa had written that Shula was to receive a larger portion of the estate than the other children since she had taken care of him in his old age.
When my mother’s oldest brother Max learned of the existence of this will, he was livid. “We all know that Papa wasn’t in his right mind the last year of his life when he wrote the second will!” he fumed. Already during the shivah, he refused to say a word to Shula, and she responded by ordering her children not to speak to Uncle Max.
“The will is legally binding,” she claimed. “If Max doesn’t like it, let him try to fight it in court.”
Fight it in court he did, after ostensibly receiving some sort of heter from his rav.
My mother’s other two siblings, Uncle Lipa and Aunt Gertie, aligned themselves in opposite camps, with Lipa arguing that Shula deserved more money since she had been so devoted to Opa, and Gertie maintaining that Shula had lived in the house rent-free all the years and therefore owed it to Opa to take care of him without expecting a greater share of the inheritance. Looking back, it seems obvious that both arguments had merit, and a compromise was therefore in order. But the possibility of compromise was never considered.
At first, my mother avoided taking sides, telling both Max and Shula that she was satisfied with whatever portion of the inheritance she’d get. Max, however, insisted that my mother support him openly. “You know what Papa wanted,” he told her. “You can’t just stand by and watch his real will being ignored in favor of a worthless piece of paper he was forced to write when he had one foot in the grave!”
My mother couldn’t withstand Max’s pressure, especially since he had looked after her when the two arrived in America as refugees during the war while Opa and Oma were stranded in England along with the younger children. Reluctantly, my mother proclaimed her allegiance to Max.
So began the battle of the wills, with each side claiming to be carrying out Opa’s true wishes. The tragic irony was that Opa a”h had loathed machlokes of any sort, and prior to Opa’s passing, my mother’s family had been a loving, close-knit clan. Now, the Weiss family was sharply divided, with Max’s supporters pitted against Shula’s supporters. There was no middle ground, no option of remaining neutral.
Since my family was officially on Max’s team, Auntie Shula, Uncle Lipa, and their families refused to have anything to do with us. If we passed one of those cousins on the street, they would look straight ahead, as if we didn’t exist. My mother instructed us to say hello when we met them, but we rarely did.
Several years after the fight started, when I was a young man of about 25, I decided — naively — that it was time to make peace in the family. I had recently married, and it pained me to no end that half of my mother’s family had not shown up or even been invited to the wedding.
The court proceedings between Shula and Max had stalled due to some technicalities, and I resolved that it was high time to put this ridiculous feud to rest. I approached Rabbi Appelbaum, the rav of the shul where Opa had davened, and told him that I would like to make peace between the warring factions.
Rabbi Appelbaum smiled sadly. “You’re wasting your time, Yossi,” he said, shaking his head. “There is no way to bring shalom to your family. If you are looking for ways to inflict needless pain upon yourself, I can suggest some easier ways to accomplish that.”
Not one to be easily deterred, I spent an entire year running from one relative to another, trying to reconcile each angry aunt, uncle, and cousin with the particular individuals against whom he or she nursed a grudge. During this process, I kept meticulous notes, and at one point I even created a spreadsheet of who said what about whom and what each one wanted to see happen. By that time, however, the issue was no longer the will or the inheritance, but rather the layers upon layers of resentment and opposition that had fomented since Opa’s death. What complicated matters even further was that most of my relatives categorically denied the existence of any machlokes, claiming that they harbored no hard feelings toward the others — even as their mouths continued to spew venom at the opposition.
“I have nothing against so-and-so,” one cousin told me very seriously. “But you should really tell your wife to stop shopping in his store. Everyone knows he’s a crook.”
Other cousins made it very clear that they considered my peacemaking attempts annoying and meddlesome and causing unwarranted pain to their parents. Realizing that I was becoming persona non grata, I finally gave up. Rabbi Appelbaum was right after all, I told myself sadly. There really is no way.
A while later, the tzaros started. Uncle Lipa, who was in perfect health, died of a sudden heart attack at age 61. Within a couple of years, Aunt Gertie passed away as well, succumbing to a rare but virulent strain of the flu when she was just shy of her 60th birthday. Shortly afterward, my mother contracted lung cancer — although neither she nor anyone in our family smoked — and she died a few months later, at the age of 64.
Before long, the only siblings of my mother’s left alive were Max and Shula, the principal combatants — but don’t think they were spared the destroyer’s ax. The tzaros were simply dispersed among their spouses, children, and grandchildren. The number of deaths, divorces, older singles, and off-the-derech kids in those two families was staggering; the neighborhood gossips would cluck their tongues as they contemplated the bad mazel that haunted these families. “You’d think they had a curse hanging over them,” one astute yenta commented.
The court battle over Opa’s estate ended three years ago, with no apparent victor, but the machlokes continued unabated.
About a year ago, Shula’s 48-year-old daughter Chana was involved in a major car accident. She emerged with only minor cuts and bruises, but was badly shaken. Less than a week later, her 42-year-old brother Barry contracted meningitis, and fell into a coma. “He’s done,” the doctors pronounced. “There’s nothing that can be done for him.”
The day Barry was admitted to the hospital, his children circulated an e-mail asking the extended family to say Tehillim for him. I replied to that group e-mail by writing, “You’re wasting your time. The only thing that can save your father is if everyone in this family lays down their arms.”
My inbox quickly swelled with responses from across my family that ranged from the indignant to the downright nasty. “After what so-and-so did to me, there can never be peace,” one cousin wrote. “Who do you think you are to mix into our business?” another demanded.
“Enough is enough,” I wrote back. “Barry isn’t sick from meningitis — he’s sick from machlokes, the same sickness that killed so many others in our family.”
After consulting with daas Torah, I drafted a shtar mechilah and sent a copy to every one of my 33 cousins. The shtar read as follows:
We agree to be mochel with a complete mechilah all those who ultimately undersign this document for any past grievances done to us, including, but not limited to, lashon hara, embarrassment, false accusations, revenge, false suspicion, hurtful words, apathy, and emotional pain. In exchange, we ask those that undersign to please grant us full mechilah as well, in order that we are all forgiven for our sins both in This World and the Next.
We declare that we deeply regret the personal wrongdoings and family separation that has transpired over the past 20 years, whether or not we were directly or indirectly the cause. We genuinely want to make an effort to mend relationships to the best of our abilities.
We offer our assurances that we will make a conscious effort to eradicate feelings of animosity, hatred, and resentment from our hearts and from this day forward we will refrain to the best of our abilities from speaking or accepting lashon hara about any of the undersigned.
As a declaration of shalom we are agreeing to make a strong effort to invite all of the undersigned to our future simchahs and to greet them respectfully when encountering them in the street, at a simchah, or anywhere else.
Over the next few days, I spoke with every one of my cousins and convinced them to sign. “Barry’s going to die if you don’t sign,” I warned the more intransigent ones.
“Don’t talk like that, Yossi!” they admonished me. “You’re opening a mouth to the Satan!”
“The Satan already has all the ammunition he needs against this family,” I retorted.
My cousins had all the reasons in the world not to sign. “There never was a machlokes to begin with,” one of them claimed, “so signing this document is admitting to a falsehood.”
“I can’t sign because it is a violation of kibbud av,” argued another.
“Revealing who does and who does not sign constitutes lashon hara, and I want no part of it,” insisted a third.
My favorite argument was, “What you’re doing amounts to extortion, and true peace can’t come about in such a fashion.”
At first, Shula ordered her children not to sign my shtar mechilah, so I took a morning off work and paid a special visit to her. “Auntie Shula,” I said, “forgive me for speaking this way, but you have a daughter who was just in a car accident and a son who’s in a coma. How much more do you need before you make up with Max and the rest of the family?”
“That has nothing to do with anything,” she insisted hotly.
Upon the advice of my rav, I focused my efforts after that on making peace between the cousins. After much cajoling and lobbying, I managed to get every one of my cousins to sign the shtar mechilah.
When the shtar bore all 33 signatures, Barry’s daughter Etty brought it into her father’s hospital room and read it aloud at his bedside. “This is all being done as a zchus for you to have a refuah shleimah,” she told her unconscious father.
As she was reading the agreement, a doctor ran into the room. “What’s going on in here?” he asked. “The monitors outside show that your father’s brain activity just started to normalize.”
To the amazement of the medical staff, Barry’s condition improved steadily from that moment, and he subsequently emerged from his coma and recovered.
This is no fairy tale, I assure you.
I never dreamed it would happen, but after Barry returned home from the hospital, Shula decided to visit Max — after not speaking to him for 25 years — and ask him for mechilah. Astonishingly, he forgave her!
The shtar mechilah between the cousins was signed about a year ago, and I am happy to report that in the past year, every branch of our family has seen yeshuos. A bunch of older single girls have gotten engaged, and a couple that was childless for 13 years is now expecting a baby.
When I tell this story, it seems so clear that all the tzaros in the family were linked to the machlokes over Opa’s will and that the subsequent yeshuos were linked to the termination of that machlokes, but considering that the events I’ve just described took place over a span of 25 years, the causal relationship could easily have been missed or denied. Thankfully, the correlation between the shtar mechilah and the incredible yeshuos that we have been witnessing one after another has not been lost upon my family.
I thought long and hard about whether to share my family’s story, and what made me decide to go ahead and tell the story in this forum was the hope that my story will bring hope to other people who have seen similar splits in their own families and have despaired of ever bringing shalom between their warring relatives.
I have instructed my children to bury me after 120 with a copy of the shtar mechilah, because I consider it one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. In the past, I used to shed tears when I thought about the pain that our family’s machlokes must have brought upon the neshamos of my Opa and Oma. To have survived the Holocaust and then toiled to build a family, only to have that family senselessly torn apart — what a tragedy!
To me, the most frightening part of the story is that the aunts and uncle who died prematurely were not the ones most intensely involved in the machlokes. When my sister once commented that my mother had died of machlokes, not of lung cancer, my brother observed that there were others who were far more involved in the fight, and yet they were fine. “So how can you blame her death on machlokes?” he asked pointedly.
But the truth is that it doesn’t make a difference how involved any particular person was. Machlokes is like a fire, and fire burns everything in its path — good or bad, right or wrong, innocent or guilty. Once the destroyer is let loose, the only way to reign him in is by erecting a fire wall of peace and forgiveness, as the pasuk says, “Hasam gevuleich shalom.”