This lovely Tuesday afternoon finds me seated in my spiritually favorite spot-- on the sofa in Tammy Karmel's living room. It also happens to be the Tuesday before the yom tov that has Jewish women across the world scrubbing every corner of their home in a desperate desire to fulfill their obligation toward Pesach in its entirety. For Tammy, whose hands and feet are held hostage by the ravaging disease of ALS, this Pesach is different than any other she once knew.
"There's no needles and no q-tips. This year, it's only soap and bleach," she says. "But we did have a waffle party here a few minutes ago." On the floor beside her recliner lie the remnants of what must have been a very delightful party. Outside, in the kitchen, her eighteen-year-old daughter is emptying the contents of her younger sister's school bag, doing her mother's former work with ease and joy. In the patio off the living room, Tammy's teenaged son is vacuum cleaning the carpet grass with a friend, and the two take chances riding around in Tammy's electric wheelchair. "Tammy," I say, taking in the scene, "I see the joy here. I know how real this is. But I've told so many people about you and your journey toward utter peace, and a lot of them replied with, 'How can this be?' I'm sure lots of readers who will be inspired by your Pesach feature will think so too. What do you want to say to them? How is it that you came to be who your are today?"
Tammy smiles a serene smile. "At this point," she says, "My clarity doesn't come from an intellectual place. It definitely used to. In fact, my dear friend Ruchela, who is instrumental in arranging my shiurim, always asks me, 'Why don't you teach the stuff you used to teach in your classes before you got this illness?' And I say to her, 'I only talk about what's on my heart.' Every shiur I deliver includes tidbits of what I experienced over the past few days because when I talk about these things, the challenges I face in the here and now and how I overcome them, it's coming from a real live place inside of me."
"Do you always feel that way-- that the happiness is so undiluted?"
"It's interesting that you ask because I found that in the past month, it definitely went down from 100% to 80%. It wasn't on that same peak, that high that made me feel that I'm the happiest person in the world. But I discussed in with my friend Toby over our vacation, and she really brought me back up to the place I was before."
"I'm happy that you took a break for a few days," I tell Tammy, who spent three days last week on the Netanya oceanfront with a friend who came to visit from London. "You got good color there!"
Tammy smiles. "It was wonderful-- just spending quality time with Toby, and enjoying Hashem's world. This very kind woman who attended my shiur offered us her vacation home and I relished every moment there. It was in the gorgeous lawn facing the sea where we talked about my unhappiness with my unhappiness."
"So what did she say that did it for you?" I ask.
"I knew the real reason for losing that high was not because it was hard for me to breathe or move. These were all excuses. I just wanted to unravel what had happened to make me lose it like that. So she asked me two questions that brought me back to the nekudas haemes."
"Do you remember them?"
Tammy thinks hard for a moment. Then, she looks up at me and says, "I think I got it. She asked me, 'What are you missing?' To which I answered: The high peak of undiluted joy, that total state of tranquility where nothing bothered me. And then she asked, 'What do you think took you away from this?' And I replied straight away. I knew exactly what the culprit was. It was what I call the Great Big Capital I."
Clearly in her element, Tammy launches into a talk about the two halves in every one of us. "We all have these two parts within: the nefesh elokus and the nefesh habahamis. At that point, I was seeing more of the cow part in me, the nefesh habahamis, which is what I'd call the ego. This is what removes me from Hashem. It's like a vacuum: either Him or I. The more I, the less Him. Whenever I'm in the feeling of I: I want, I need, I'm worried, I'm frustrated, there's no space left for Hashem. My battle is to make space for Him, which is what has happened since I got this illness. That's what's making me so happy."
"How did this illness change things for you in this respect?" I ask.
"All my life I've been working on making it all about Him. I would always ask Him, 'What do You want from me now?' I knew that a human being has the capacity to be huge, but only as long as the focus is on the nefesh elokus. Once the Big I takes over, we're miserable, because a yid's essence is elokus. We all essentially want to be as much elokus as we possibly can in our human flesh.
"When we distance ourselves from the ego, everything is suddenly perfect. And this is why this illness has brought me to a place of such joy. It made me realize that I could have zero pain and be in great company, but if the ice cream is sour," she says, looking in the direction of the waffle mess, "I could be miserable. On the other hand, everything could go wrong and I could be happy if I don't let the cow run the show."
"But isn't it inevitable to be in the I state sometimes?" I ask. "We aren't malachim after all."
"Of course," says Tammy, shaking her head. "Of course. But we mustn't concentrate on the cow. Don't go into a tizzy about him. Just let it pass. If we fall into the trap of 'Why I am not being a better mother?' or 'Why am I such an incompetent housewife?' we're letting him win. It's okay to accept it humbly. It's okay to say, 'I failed. I'm human. It'll pass.' That's when the elokus will take over, because we areelokus. The less we make this about I, the more it'll be about Him."
When Tammy came to this clarity in Netanya, her vacation was untainted by worries and pains. "This thought, it's either I or Him, gave me such peace. I slowly inched out of my ego. I didn't see a sweeping victory or a great future ahead for me. I saw it as a decision for the moment that keeps enriching my life moment by moment."
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