Tragedies just strengthened rabbi's faith in Master of World

By Doreen Wachmann

RABBI Yehoshua Hoffman took it for granted that he would follow in his father's footstep, combining an adventurous life of physical risk-taking with Torah study.

That was until a serious road accident rendered him a quadriplegic at the age of 22 and he had to rethink his whole life.

Rabbi Hoffman - whose father, Rabbi Henoch Dov Hoffman, was featured in last week's Jewish Telegraph - said: "I had always been an adventurer, even a thrill seeker.

"When I graduated from high school I had a plan. I would study in yeshiva in Israel for a year and then I would join the IDF.

"But after I began learning in Yeshivas Torah Ohr in Jerusalem, it became clear to me that I didn't want to go to the army.

"I wanted to be learning Torah, to get married and have a family."

But a life of sitting and learning did not mean a sedentary one for Yehoshua.

He said: "I grew up camping and hiking with my family. I hoped to figure out a way of earning a living by returning to America every summer and running some kind of outdoor wilderness experience.

"I started to realise that goal as I worked in a camp in New York for several summers. I taught Torah and guided wilderness trips.

"I felt my dream was evolving into reality. I liked working with kids, running trips and teaching Torah.

"My brother Ari and I even talked about starting our own wilderness programme in Colorado."

Then tragedy struck in August, 2007. Yehoshua was driving a 15-passenger van packed with 10 teenage boys, two camp counsellors, cameras and gear.

The van was pulling a trailer loaded with six canoes and a kayak on the way from New York to Maine.

But it was involved in an accident resulting in a 15-year-old boy dying from his injuries.

Yehoshua's neck was broken and his spinal cords were severely injured.

But he miraculously survived and spent three months in hospital.

He recalled: "It slowly became evident that I had lost the function of most of my body. I felt like I had gone from 100 to zero. I thought I had lost my future.

"My rabbi assured me that there is more to life than walking. I still had my mind so I returned to learning Torah at Yeshivas Toras Chayim.

"For the first time I spoke to a big group, 100 kids, maybe more. I thought, 'This is what you want from me, God, to learn, to teach, to listen, to talk, to encourage with words and by example'."

And even more miraculously the quadriplegic was able to marry and father children.

The miracle of his marriage came about courtesy of his mother-in-law Aliza Bulow, who had been sitting next to Yehoshua's mother at a wedding the night before the accident.

Horrified by the news, Aliza followed the website which had been set up to record Yehoshua's progress as thousands of people all over the world said tehillim for him.

She responded to an appeal for someone to stay with him in hospital over a Shabbat while his parents took a respite break.

Impressed by Yehoshua's persistence in wanting to daven and learn Torah as well as to make the most of his limited physical abilities, Aliza offered to teach him a memory technique which would help him to access his previous learned texts until he was strong enough to hold a book.

The more Aliza got to know Yehoshua, the more she became impressed by his spiritual qualities - just the ones she was seeking in a marriage partner for her eldest daughter Elisheva.

Eventually Yehoshua was discharged from hospital and was able to be wheeled to dates with his future wife.

He recalled: "I will never forget my wedding day. I felt the clouds open and the sun shine through. It was then that I felt the message that the Master of the World hadn't lost my file."

Yehoshua was married in his wheelchair, with which he danced and broke the glass under the chuppah.

But tragedy had not left Yehoshua and his family. His wife Elisheva gave birth to twin girls five weeks early. The tiny babies were rushed to intensive care.

One of them, Rivka Chaya, was suffering from the rare condition of chylothorax, leakage of lymph fluid around the lungs. She died three weeks later and Elisheva returned from hospital with just one baby, Ahuva Nava.

Yehoshua recalled: "We went straight from the hospital to the cemetery and buried her in the dark of night. It was hard.

"It was really hard, to cry so much, to ask so much, to plead and be answered, but not in the way we wanted."

Yehoshua's rabbi had explained to him that when a soul comes into the world for less than 30 days, there is no mourning because the soul has just gone from one level of Gan Eden to the next.

Yehoshua said: "We felt privileged to have been part of Rivka Chaya's journey for whatever her soul came to do."

The loss of Rivka Chaya made Yehoshua and his wife appreciate Ahuva Nava all the more.

He said: "My wife said she never thought a child could bring so much simcha. The day we took our healthy daughter home from the hospital, I felt the clouds open once again.

"I appreciate being able to be present in life, to take advantage of the opportunities that God has to offer me in life and to know that all of life's experiences are worth being present for.

"Even in trying times, there is so much to be grateful for and learn from. I understand that the Master of the World has given me a tool.

"My real journey is not my hearse, but my chariot. I often think about how I can best use my chariot to make the world a better place for my family, the Jewish people and God. This is my life's adventure."

Yehoshua, who draws lessons from his experiences through his Torah on Wheels programme, is currently studying for a PhD in psychology.

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph