Torat HaAmitzot–By Ahavya Deutsch

3500 years ago, Batya, the daughter of Pharaoh, went down to the river to take a bath, and saved the Jewish people. Going about her daily life, she looked down and saw an infant abandoned in the river. No fool, she must have known this was a Hebrew baby. We are not told that she was a radical, an activist who rebelled against her father’s policies. But when she looked at the child, she did not see politics or religion. She simply saw a life that she could save. And in drawing Moses from the water, she saved us all.

My friend BJ Yudelson was aptly named for Batya. BJ experienced both great joy and great suffering in her 76 years. But she never looked away. As we go through life, and experience suffering, many of us close up in fear. Become smaller, reach out for fewer friendships. Because life is scary, and out of our control. BJ was impressive in her ability to feel pain, fear, and to suffer because she loved so much, without letting it define her. Her suffering made her laughter sweeter – not hollow. And her joy made her sorrow all the more poignant.

She and I became friends because she had cancer. I knew her a little before that, I would see her in synagogue, we had eaten meals at each other’s houses, but nothing deeper. I saw her at a party and when I asked her how she was, she said ‘my cancer is back.’ In my typically eloquent fashion, my response was, “Shit.”
‘Shit,’ she agreed.

That morning I asked her if she would like a chevruta to learn on Shabbat mornings, and she agreed. Two others quickly joined, and we soon had a regular group at her house Shabbat mornings.

It was such a privilege to see Torah through her eyes. The anger she felt at Yosef for not telling his father he was safe. The loving eyes with which she saw Our father Isaac, for the genuine affection he showed his wife. She understood the Torah through the lens of her life experience. These were not characters in stories going through the inevitable motions to draw a narrative to its logical conclusion, but rather complex, emotional, people serving God through times of peace and times of conflict. As she herself had done.

Shabbat Parshat Sh’mot, one of our group observed that the parsha included six Amitzot, six brave women, who save the Jewish people. Shifrah and Puah, the midwives who refuse to murder Hebrew boys at birth, Yocheved, who conceives and gives birth to Moses in a climate of fear and hopelessness, Miriam, who watches over infant Moses when he is placed in the river to avoid execution, Batya who draws him from the water and safeguards his life, and Tzipporah, who marries him and gives him a life outside of Egypt. All of these women behave with compassion in the face of a terrifying political climate, or simply reach out to a stranger. This quality, the bravery of compassion, seemed to define my friend BJ, and the name stuck. Amitza, I would call her. Amitzot I would call our group of chevrutot.

I will not try to sum up the experience of becoming her friend. She defies description. Like everything in life, she is deeper and more complex than I could capture in words, and I know my experience of her was only a small part of who she was.

Her Torah was the Torah of chesed. Her bravery was the bravery of compassion. I can only say that I will miss her.

Fourth essay in the series Four Women’s Essays on Rosh Hashanah and on Friendships