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Days of no return: A teshuvah memory

What it means to live in a world without hope
Illustrative photo of a doctor and patient. (kzenon/istockphoto)
Illustrative photo of a doctor and patient. (kzenon/istockphoto)

I “learned” about teshuvah just as one learned the laws of Shabbat, from traditional code books and talmudic sources. I debated its philosophic cadence with friends in the same way we had sought to measure the legal weight of Shabbat within the Judaic enterprise. And we lived its rituals — especially during the High Holy days — just as we dutifully and joyously prepared and celebrated the weekly testimony to God’s creation of the universe. In short, as students of Torah coming from pious homes, teshuvah was no shocking or surprising occurrence. It was a normalized and expected holiday process that cast a spell over the entire year. But at one point in our mid-twenties, my friends and I encountered teshuvah in the most unanticipated (and even disguised) way, as it tore apart the life of a beloved friend with its savagely razor sharp claws, one late summer.

Yossi (names and details intentionally changed) was one of the chevrah who lived through that super hot summer in one of the few apartments on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights (Manhattan). We had all learned Torah together, either in Israel or from The Master of Talmud Study in the US, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. We were immersed in graduate work, studying for semikha examinations, dating and searching for our fated ones, playing a lot of late-night basketball in the park around the corner, and later-night discussions over cold beer, after returning to those high-ceilinged brownstone apartments.

Yossi Felder was preeminent in this very talented and aggressive group of young men. The lone child of Holocaust survivors, he was a driven student and an academic superstar. He had sharp elbows under the net, a sharper wit in debate, and a strong need to win. But for all that, he was only a more extreme example of the rest of us. He had a ready and genuine smile — that also attracted girls — and every Shabbat he could, he was back home with the folks in Brooklyn who had sacrificed greatly so that he would be one of the very few shomer Shabbat students at one of America’s most elite medical schools.

Yossi thrived there. He was conspicuous in those days by his choice to wear a kippah, and he was a brilliant performer. We made his medical rounds with him through his nightly stories of what he had seen (and could discuss). We loved him for his brilliance, his daily Talmud study (in medical school!), and his well-etched evocations of his daily experience. Yossi was in thrall with one mentor, a senior white-haired surgeon. “The Professor,” as Yossi always referred to him, was a gentleman: impeccably dressed, with a precise and sparing manner of speech, incisive understanding of the body, and amazing technique. He reigned over the oncology ward with full authority and an exceedingly dry wit. We concluded that Yossi had found a new rosh yeshiva in this WASP.

Disaster was as swift as Yossi’s mind and mouth. During rounds “The Professor” led his charges by the bed of one severely ill patient. They reviewed the patient’s history, surveying his charts and X-rays. Yossi summarized his analysis, adding — “He hasn’t a chance.” “The Professor” led his charges out of the room. In the corridor, he seized Yossi by the arm, took him aside, but within earshot of his colleagues, and spoke to him: “You casually pronounced a death sentence by that man’s sick bed. A person like you has no right to be a doctor. You are thrown out of this school. And don’t think that you can get in somewhere else — I still have enough influence to have you blackballed everywhere else. Get out!”

Somehow Yossi schlepped himself home. We found him sitting upright with a very pale face at the dining room table. We coaxed the story out of him — it came in dribs and drabs. But then, over the course of the next few days, he repeated it so often and in such a strangled voice that we thought we would go mad. We called his parents (“Yossalle doesn’t call before Shabbos?” his bewildered mother had asked) and made up an excuse. And we, being young men, strategized incessantly, but we could not come up with a plan. In those days, men such as “The Professor” were gods and we were mere mortals. We showed Yossi every compassion — making sure that he showered for Shabbat, and ate, putting him to bed that night and dragging him to shul in the morning — so that his near comatose state simply made him look like another overworked intern. Inwardly, we were angry with him. How could he do this to himself (and by extension to all of us who invested so much pride in his efforts)? Darkly, we pondered what he would say to his parents, and if they could survive the shame.

Monday morning, Yossi rose very early. He showered, put on his black Shabbat suit, and davened. To us, adjusting his tie and pale-faced, he looked like he was going to his own funeral. In fewer words, he said he was going to clean out his locker and apologize to “The Professor” on his last day.

When he came home that day after Mincha, Yossi was sitting at the dining room table. Still dressed in his black suit, he looked even whiter. This is what he told us:

After I cleaned out my locker, I went to see “The Professor.” His secretary, the scary one, did not appear surprised to see me. I sat in the wood-paneled outer office and she buzzed me in to “The Professor’s” room after a half an hour. I came in — my only time in his office — and he sat behind a neat and exquisite antique desk as you would expect. I tried to speak. He looked up from his papers and gave me that look. “Felder, I know why you are here. Of course, I am keeping you on as a medical student. You might become a good doctor yet. I just wanted you to know what it is to live without hope.” Then with a wave, he dismissed me. I hadn’t said a word.

The story struck us dumb. We felt euphoria and relief. But we knew that “The Professor” had spoken emes — truth. Teshuvah — the ability to change and to reconcile, to deal – is all based on hope.

Things got back to normal, but Yossi had changed — a little kinder and gentler even with all that drive. A year later — the last together in the apartment — we made the minyan on Yom Kippur at apartment 5G, in the home of a wonderful woman who was unable to get to shul. We forced Yossi to daven Neilah in his sweet voice. After breaking the fast in our apartment, Shmulik toasted Yossi’s performance over schnapps, and added with a scotch-induced twinkle, “We only took you because ‘The Professor’ was busy.”

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of Yashrut, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. Yashrut includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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