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The nine days

“… Let all men seem greater than you in your eyes: If another is more wise or wealthy than yourself, you must show him respect. And if he is poor, and you are richer or wiser than he, consider that he may be more righteous than yourself: If he sins it is the result of error, while your transgression is deliberate….” — from Ramban’s Letter for the Ages

Aharon was a sweet 8-year-old boy with a quiet disposition and a belly that served as witness to his mother’s cooking. He lived in one of the poorer ultra-Orthodox sections of Jerusalem. He came to the emergency room for abdominal pain and was diagnosed with appendicitis. The family was not willing to consent to the operation until their rabbi gave his bracha. I rolled my eyes at these “simple” people who obviously didn’t understand anything but, after explaining that I would not wait more than a few hours, agreed to their conditions. We got the bracha and Aharon got his operation. It turns out his appendix had already ruptured and he would require a week’s hospitalization. The family obviously came from very modest means. They had many children and very little money but they were always happy and complied with all our requests. Aharon was a particularly sweet boy who barely talked. His shy disposition and plentiful “baby fat” reminded me of myself at his age. Maybe that’s why I liked him so much.

After more than a week of intravenous antibiotics Aharon was ready to go home. On the way out the door mom handed me her cell phone. Aharon’s father wanted to ask me something. I listened and asked him to repeat it. I had been in Israel six years and was quite unsure of my Hebrew.  If something sounded strange to me, my first assumption was that it was a language problem. After he repeated it, I understood.

Two months prior to his operation Aharon had been playing on the roof of his school when his brother fell to his death. At the tender age of 8, this poor, simple, boy saw something no one ever should. His father’s question was whether or not this psychological trauma could have caused his appendicitis.

It was a stupid question, but that wasn’t the point.

I felt like an idiot. All the harsh feelings I had for this “simple” family of very little means and even less education cut through me like a knife. All I could think about was the horror this family had to live with every day. All of a sudden, ensuring that they got the bracha from their rav before the operation didn’t seem so stupid. This is not the first time something like this has happened to me yet I still give way to my most basic and vulgar feelings when I meet people like this. You never know what is the real story behind anyone you might meet.

The program where I completed my surgical training was quite rigorous and demanding, both physically and emotionally. Its reputation was that of being malignant and I think it was justified. As first-year residents, we would make rounds with the chief, who would then generate a list of menial tasks to perform known as scut. One of these was ordering x-rays and making sure they got done. The hospital was not the most efficient so all x-rays were ordered “stat”. There were no excuses and anything less simply wasn’t tolerated.

Ordering an x-ray meant you put an order in the computer and then called and yelled at the secretary. If it wasn’t done within an hour or so you went down and yelled at the secretary in person; which made no sense since the secretary had nothing to do with performing the x-rays.  The surgery unit was on the 14th floor and the x-ray department was on the 2nd. With four very poorly running elevators, running up and down the stairs was the only exercise I got that year.

Whenever we yelled at the secretaries, most yelled back – quite correctly. One of the secretaries was a young black woman who never seemed to get upset or let our yelling get to her. I wasn’t sure she understood that these tests were important. Maybe she just understood that she wasn’t really in a position to do anything. It didn’t matter, I still yelled at her and complained that my tests weren’t being done.   There was no one else to yell at so she got it. The less upset she got, the more upset I became. It was an almost daily ritual.

A couple of years later, when I had advanced in my residency and was no longer the x-ray yeller, I happened to be on the second floor checking on a test. Everyone who worked there seemed down and upset. The day before the husband of that secretary, the one who never yelled, beat her to death in front of their small son and then cut her head off. I later learned that he had been beating her for quite some time. He once came to the hospital and had to be removed by security.

I can’t imagine what an absolute hell this woman’s life must have been. Most likely the eight hours she worked at the hospital was the only brief period of sanity she had in her daily life, the only time she could be at least a little relaxed. And yet, during those precious few hours she was getting yelled at by schmucks like me.

A basic tenet of Judaism, maybe the basic tenet, is personal growth. A Jew never stays the same, you are either growing or you are getting worse. Staying the same is no different from regressing. We are supposed to see the good in everyone. Our first instinct should be to think positively and to like someone we have just met. These two interactions happened more than 20 years apart. During the first, I was just a “regular” person with no religious compass. During the second, I had been wearing a kippa for almost 10 years, keeping kosher, keeping the Sabbath, and had spent the better part of a year in yeshiva, working on myself. I had married a religious woman and was raising three children in Israel to live a Jewish life. Yet deep down, the real me hadn’t changed at all.

About the Author
Marc Arkovitz is a pediatric surgeon practicing in Westchester, New York and an associate professor of surgery and pediatrics with more than 20 years experience working in both Israel and the US.
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