On being tethered

Rabbi Eliezer said: “Repent one day before your death.” So his disciples asked him: “Does a person know which day he will die?” Rabbi Eliezer responded: “Certainly, then, a person should repent today, for perhaps tomorrow he will die — so that all his days he is repenting.” (Talmud, Shabbat153a) 

A few months ago I became terribly ill.  I thought nothing of it as it seemed to be related to a nasty cold that was circulating in our area. I bought the usual over the counter medications. Nothing helped. I’m 74 so I attributed this to being a senior requiring more time to regain my health. Yet, I became weaker by the day.  My lungs were so infected I had trouble breathing.  I went to the doctor.  He gave me a breathing procedure in his office.  It helped a bit.  He seemed to feel that, as I had deduced, I was but one of many brought down by a severe cold.

It became worse.  A man who in the not too distant past, could easily consume 2 lbs., of spaghetti at one sitting, now had trouble getting myself to eat even a small amount of food.  I spoke with the doctor.  He ordered me to go to the emergency room.  The bottom line, the infection in my lungs had wreaked havoc with my entire system. It was determined that I had suffered congestive heart failure.  Perhaps even worse, as a diabetic with kidneys already not working to capacity, it was found that now they were only working at 5% capacity.  Result — I was required to go on dialysis. I now receive dialysis treatment three days a week — four hours each day and have begun the difficult process of seeking a kidney transplant.

Rabbi Eliezer’s suggestion that we see each day as the day prior to our death is one I have always found terribly difficult to achieve.  In my many years in the rabbinate I have found few who can muster the mental and emotional fortitude to live a life with this axiom as its main guiding light.  And while I fully understand that integrating this concept into ones daily thought process would not only deal with Teshuva as Rabbi Eliezer states, it can as well motivate the individual to achievement in all areas of life, again, for me this essential life defining value seemed ever beyond my grasp.

As we all know dialysis is a miracle of science which forestalls the death of the patient. But it is not a cure. I have been told the life expectancy for those tethered to the dialysis machine in the United States is about 10 years. Of course there are those who exceed this number but there are those as well who fall far short of it. And so as I enter the clinic with my blanket and pillow for yet another treatment, I look around and wonder who of my tethered co-patients will be there for the last time.

As for Rabbi Eliezer’s dictum – Yes I have become much more introspective about my life.  It seems I am constantly reviewing it seeking to learn what achievements are left for me to accomplish.  I have just published my first book about the history of my former Chicago congregation,”A History of a Chicago Synagogue – Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation” and am working on my second – “Pulpit Premonstrations – An Orthodox Rabbi Considers Contemporary Issues” More than that, I have begun to review my own religious life as well as my relationships with family and acquaintances.   Have I attained the goal set by Rabbi Eliezer? Not quite..  I do accept my mortality on an intellectual level but have yet to embrace it emotionally which I suspect is a monumental task.  I can only hope to achieve this goal set by our great Sage.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.