Birthday Gematria

Wikimedia Commons, D Sharon Pruitt. (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Creative_Commons_Birthday_Cake_and_Candles_(4825652728).jpg)

Four years to the day after “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” something happened in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, that did not make international news, and rightly so.  I was born to no fanfare and immediately shipped out to Bethesda Naval Hospital, the closest neonatal ICU in those days, the only place a sluggish, post-term baby who didn’t seem interested in breathing could go to get his act together.

Forty-seven years later, at least I’ve got the hang of breathing.  Since I’m celebrating that birthday by moving the blog I’ve been keeping these last 2 years into this brand new space, you all can judge whether I’ve gotten the hang of anything beyond that.  Keep reading and let me know how I’m doing.

Birthdays and Rosh Hashanah always get me playing with gematria, the use of the numerical values of the Hebrew letters to derive extra meaning from words – like my post from a few months back on the Hebrew word hed, echo.  So imagine my consternation when I realized that forty-seven is equivalent to the letters mem, forty, and zayin, seven.

Mem-zayin is the first two letters in mazal, luck, something I’d love as a birthday present.  Go ahead and send me some.  Unfortunately, the last letter is missing – lamed, thirty, which means if I want an inherently lucky birthday I need to wait until I turn seventy-seven.  While I certainly plan to make it there, I’m going to be needing that luck a lot sooner.

So I tried reversing the letters, which sometimes yields a better result (there’s a lot of wish fulfillment involved in gematria).  No luck: I got zayin-mem, which if you pronounce them together just so make the word… “Zum.”  Zoom.

Seriously?  The gematria for my birthday is “Zoom?”  For the past four months I have converted every work and leisure activity to this medium, even the performance of most of the mitzvot.  Praying in a minyan, rejoicing with a bride and groom, healing the sick (15 or 20 times a day), burying the dead (virtual tahara with our Chevra Kadisha), and comforting the mourner.  Now the numbers are telling me I should expect another year doing more of the same?

I called my website, and the previous iteration of this blog, “Healers Who Listen.”  It’s based on the idea that medicine, and all the healing professions, should start from the Torah principle that human beings are created in God’s image, and that the first step to recognizing that image is listening.  Unfortunately, my first step in about half of my visits these days is holding up a sign that says, “Tap Join Audio” and has a hand-drawn replica of the headphones-with-arrow icon from the Zoom phone app – because I can’t even hear the person, let alone listen to them, until they connect to the audio.

Zayin-mem is also the two-letter root for the words that mean “hum” and “buzz.”  I moved home offices a couple months ago when it became clear that neither my wife nor I would be going physically back to work for a while.  Just in time for summer, I set up in a room perched directly above the hum of our air conditioning compressor (which is struggling mightily in 90 degree heat) and the hum of the bathroom fan next door that my children never turn off.  The ever-proliferating number of devices (dedicated Zoom tablet from work, work laptop, personal laptop, phone, wireless headphones) create a constant buzz of internal fans and notifications (that I never turn off).

And of course, when I moved from old office to new, my eight-year-old popped up behind me and said, “Abba, did you remember to bring your ‘Join Audio’ sign?”

So you can excuse me if I’m already looking ahead to next year’s birthday for better gematria luck (sorry, not luck, we already established I have to wait until 2050 for that).  Forty-eight is mem-chet – or if you reverse it, chet-memCham, hot.  Well, no surprise there; I’m born in July.  But there’s more to it now.

Cham is how I feel wearing the full personal protective equipment I now need when I do have an in-person medical visit with someone, armored like the bird-masked medieval physicians making death-bed visits to plague victims.  It’s how I felt wearing an N-95 mask and face shield while directing traffic in a parking lot the first time I helped out with our walk-up COVID 19 testing operation.

But in a different sense, it’s how I used to feel when I would walk into the hospital early in the morning to see a newborn baby in the nursery.  Cham not in the sense of dripping sweat, but in the sense of warmth, comfort, like my morning coffee or chai.

I live about six blocks from the Tree of Life building; I knew three of those killed and one of the survivors very well (my remembrances of them are here, the pieces entitled “Three Healers Who Listen”).  Those moments in the nursery were my therapy after the shooting, a few precious minutes lingering and cradling a warm baby I had already pronounced healthy, surrounded by smiling parents, dim fluorescent lights, and mindless TV.  They were the time I felt most whole.  Now going to the hospital, or sitting in the same room with a live adult patient, feels like walking through a minefield.

Yesterday, though, I noticed something interesting.  I had a face-to-face visit with someone, the only one of the day and a “dry run” for opening up to a couple days a week of “old school” in-person medical care next week.  I had decided that my laptop would not come in the room with me, so it doesn’t turn into super-vector for germs, with all its tiny little crevices and the temptation to go back and forth from patient to keyboard to keep track of information.  It was just me, my mask and face shield, and a young man who had waited for the opportunity to have me actually examine him.

I was warm, all right – but I was also all there.  No transmission lag, no freezing picture or pixelated audio, no fumbling with the camera angle to aim it at the part of the body that needed to be examined.  It was the most comfortable conversation I’ve had with a patient in months.  And later in the afternoon, in the nursery, I barely even noticed the mask and gown while I was, at arm’s length, holding the beautiful newborn I went to visit.

The hidden thread in my writing the last two years has been finding a way through the crisis, continuing to hope and seek comfort even when it seems impossible.  The world has never been free of crisis – some of us are just finding ourselves in its midst for the first time, instead of comfortably above the fray.  Yesterday was a down payment on next year’s birthday present, on a way out of the year of Zoom.

I guess you could say I’m getting warmer.

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients.
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