William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Discerning side effects: In memory of Stuart Schoffman

Side effects are everywhere. Medication labels cram them into fine print. Nightly News drug ads rifle through them before signing off. They can emigrate into our bodies as unintended consequences of helpful therapies.

Symptoms work the same way. For example, pain in your leg is actually a sign of back trouble. The pressure in one place pops out elsewhere. Similarly, when a splinter causes an infection, your body’s response to the foreign object becomes more of an irritant than the object itself was. It’s important to realize that most of our problems aren’t stand alone issues.

Early this past Sunday, I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of a good friend Stuart Schoffman. My regular travels to Jerusalem over the past fifteen years faithfully included our visits from which I learned so much. The world valued Stuart as a connoisseur of culture and literature who possessed rare fluency in rabbinics and the classics and for his capacity to put his finger on the pulse of a story which made him such a gifted translator for Israel’s most brilliant novelists. I could always rely on Stuart to be thinking five steps ahead about the undesigned consequences of policies and practices. He was an adroit observer of side effects, particularly able to recognize when they had moved front and center, when understudies and supporting actors had taken on lead roles.

Some years ago, the subject line of an email I received from him was side effects. He had written on metaphors for Jewish healing, From Heaven to Hypochondria. At the heart of the article, he drew upon a rabbinic notion that ‘descending enables rising’ (yerida l’tzorech aliyah) which appears in the Talmud in a story about climbing a ladder (Makkot 7b). So Abraham and Sarah descend to Egypt in order to ascend back to covenanted land (Gen. 12). Centuries later, the Jewish People will make a similar Exodus and journey. But what Stuart was really talking about was how we manage to act decisively in history when we know full well that side effects of such actions will fester. The certainty that we’ll stumble on a ladder’s rungs, shouldn’t stop us from ascending one sure-footed step at a time.

This week’s portion of Torah situates a ladder, busy with angels ascending and descending, at the center of Jacob’s dream of spiritual discovery. Jacob’s wakeful response is to offer a tepid, conditional vow (Gen. 28:20-22). Yet perhaps even a young Jacob, with a lot of learning still to do, resists the impulse toward overconfidence. Building his family in Laban’s hyper-transactional terrain won’t be simple. Side effects will abound.

One of the things I can hear Stuart gently whispering, as I imagine him at the gateway to heaven described atop Jacob’s Ladder, is that sometimes side effects can also be positive and even bestow blessings. Even as we lost Stuart too soon, may his memory bless as plentifully as did his good and gentle life.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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