Whenever I prepare my High Holyday sermons encouraging the members of my beloved congregation to do more mitzvot, holy commandments, in the coming year, I always recall a humbling incident from years ago;
It was the Friday afternoon before Simchat Torah. Like many of my colleagues in the rabbinate and cantorate, I was exhausted. Selichot, Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot-these are spiritually joyful and uplifting holydays, but for those of us who serve the Jewish people, emotionally and physically draining. The final challenge, Simchat Torah approached-festive and fun, but endlessly complicated with a special dinner, Consecration of our newest religious school students, and an exuberant worship service complete with klezmer and dancing. I was looking forward to the blessed approach of Heshvan-the month with no holidays other than the promise of Shabbat rest.
The phone rang at 3:30, I was packing up to go home for a brief shower before coming back to the synagogue. The woman on the other end of the line sounded sad and desperate. “Rabbi, she said, thank goodness I reached you. We don’t live near here, in fact we live far away, but my daughter has undergone surgery at the hospital near your temple for Crohn’s Disease-her fourth surgery in four months. Please, can you arrange for challah and juice to be brought to our room? We never miss Shabbat and I don’t want to leave her”. I was tired and cranky and selfish enough to think to myself-“She is not a member, they don’t live here-and besides, I’ve got enough to do.” I did try calling the local JCC-they provide a “Shabbat kit”-but they had already closed. I called the woman, apologized for not being able to help, and assured her that the next time she was in this predicament, we would of course be of assistance.
I hung up and stared at the phone. I looked at my watch. No time, I said, no time. They are not members. I am so tired. I have so much to do. I left the shul and drove to the supermarket, bought a challah and sparkling grape juice and went to the hospital. I gingerly knocked on their door and entered. Seated in a wheelchair was a girl of bat mitzvah age, looking nauseated and uncomfortable. She was intubated and bandaged. Her mother and grandparents were standing around her. They looked up. “I’m the rabbi you called,” I said, “I just couldn’t let you sit here in my community without a proper shabbas. I apologize for not coming by right away.” The mother thanked me with wet eyes, and the grandparents nodded their thanks. I looked at the girl. “I wish you well, a complete recovery.” I touched her hand. She nodded, looking drawn and pale. I knelt in front of her. “I also want to wish you Shabbat shalom.” The girl nodded again.
I left the hospital grounds, feeling more awake and alive than I had in days. The sheer joy in performing a simple mitzvah, had reinvigorated my whole being. No one in my congregation would know-indeed, the woman and her daughter were not even affiliated Jews. I had preached to hundreds of people over the last few weeks, but that simple mitzvah in the hospital seemed more vital, more meaningful than anything I had accomplished on the pulpit. That night, I danced with the Torah with particular joy. Even rabbis need to do mitzvot.