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Aliza Sperling
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It takes a village of strangers to save a life

On Yom Kippur, I trust that God will be as kind to us as the bone-marrow donors and the car service drivers who drive them are to those in need
Moed. (courtesy)
Moed. (courtesy)

There is nothing like accompanying a loved one to donate bone marrow right before Rosh Hashanah.

Last week, I had the best Elul experience of my life. My son, Moed, a college junior, was found to be a bone marrow match a few months ago for a young child with cancer. He was originally supposed to donate at the beginning of the summer, and then at the end of the summer, but the baby wasn’t ready yet. Finally the baby was ready — and so my son donated bone marrow on the Monday before Rosh Hashanah, on September 11th.

Moed was cool and composed the entire time, but I wasn’t. We used to live in Washington, DC and we live in New York now, so I traveled to DC to be with him at Georgetown Hospital. When I went to shul the morning of the procedure, I remembered being pregnant with Moed in DC and having his bris at the same shul. And of course I remembered September 11th there: the panic and wild rumors; sending my post-call husband, a pediatric resident, to George Washington University Hospital to help with the wounded… and of course there were no wounded; and being stuck in traffic and listening to the radio as everyone tried to get out of the city at the same time.

Moed’s name comes from Psalms 102:14, where G-d is asked to have mercy on us, even if we don’t deserve it, at the appointed time (“moed”), and was our prayer that G-d would show us grace after the terrors of Sept 11th and the Second Intifada. The thought that now, 22 years after that fateful day, Moed would (hopefully!) give someone life, was enormous.

A car service picked us up to take us to the hospital, and everyone there was extraordinary. They brought him quickly to his room, thanked him, ran some tests, and then brought him in for the procedure under general anesthesia. Thirty minutes later he was out, and by 5 p.m. that day, we were out of the hospital and being taken back to the hotel by the same car service. Moed’s back was stiff, and he was tired, but he was quietly pleased and happy to watch a football game and eat. And while he was eating his schnitzel sandwich, his bone marrow was being brought to another hospital so a little baby could have a chance at life.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I could stop focusing on Moed’s procedure and appreciate what we had seen. I remembered that Moed was not the only bone marrow donor that day at Georgetown — there was another tzaddik (righteous person) who was in the bed next to him that morning, also donating bone marrow.

I remembered that the nurse told me that Georgetown Hospital does multiple bone marrow donations every day. But it really hit home when I noticed that our car service driver, Joe, seemed to know that Moed had donated marrow. I asked him whether he drives bone marrow donors a lot. Joe told me that every day he drives people who are donating bone marrow. He picks them up from the airport or train — he’d even picked up someone coming in from Argentina! — and brings them to the hospital, to the hotel, and back to their transportation home. And Joe said that most of the donors are young people like Moed, whose bone marrow seems to have the most chance of success.

Ever since that moment when Joe revealed to me what he and other drivers for his car service do every day, I have not been able to stop thinking about him. Before that Monday, I had no idea that there was this extraordinary parade, day in and day out, of people just like Moed who come to the hospital and undergo pain and inconvenience to save the life of a stranger. But Joe sees this every day, witnessing a constant procession of chesed, lovingkindness. What a lucky person he is, to see this selflessness and giving, every single day.

Many people have commented to me about what a great merit it was for Moed to donate marrow right before Rosh Hashanah. There is nothing like standing before G-d and saying that you just did your best to save someone else’s life.

But this experience also prepared me for Yom Kippur in a way that I have never experienced before. I felt like I got a front row seat to see an aspect of the world that I don’t usually see: the doctors, nurses, car service drivers, and donors — not to mention the people who established and donated to Gift of Life and other registries — who give of themselves just so that someone else will recover and lead a healthy life. Moed and many other donors do not know the identity of their recipients. And yet they miss work or school, and endure a painful procedure, just to give someone they don’t know another chance at life.

On Yom Kippur, we call out the 13 Attributes of G-d, including “rachum v’chanun.” G-d is compassionate and gracious, and gives us matnot chinam, blessings and gifts even when we don’t deserve them. I began to understand these attributes when I became a mother, and found my reservoirs of love and caring open in a way that I could not before begin to contemplate. Experiencing this feeling led me to feel, viscerally, that G-d could love me in the same way that I love my children.

But I love my children because they are my children. Last Monday, I witnessed another force in the world — the force of chanun, graciousness, of willingly and happily giving to someone else even when the bonds of relationship that normally forge those ties are absent. Bearing witness to an act of matnat chinam, given freely to a stranger so that they can live, made me feel deep in my bones that G-d, the Source of All, can — and will — appear in our lives as rachum v’chanun, compassionate and gracious.

As my teacher, Rabbi Herzl Hefter, has taught, the Shlah Hakodosh (Isaiah Horovitz HaLevi) writes that the verse “While I am in my flesh I will see G-d” (Job 19:26) teaches that שמצלם ודמות אדם נודע ונתגלה מציאות השם, we can know and uncover G-d through our own form and image. I can appreciate and understand G-d through my own body and experiences.

Last Monday, through the privilege of seeing a young man undergo pain to give life to a stranger, and appreciating the vast network of others who quietly arrive in DC, get into Joe’s car, and save a life, I began to experience G-d’s chanunim as real and not just abstract. And as I stand on Yom Kippur, reciting the 13 Attributes over and over, I will call out to this G-d who is Chanun, to similarly give all of us new opportunities and chances at health and a good life, with the same lovingkindness as the bone marrow (and other organ) donors in our midst.

About the Author
Aliza Sperling teaches Talmud and directs the Halakha in Action program at Yeshivat Maharat. She is the Director of Education at SVIVAH, an inclusive and open women’s learning community. She serves as a Hartman research fellow and a Wexner faculty member. She received her ordination from Yeshivat Maharat and a JD from NYU Law School. Aliza lives with her family in Riverdale, NY.
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