“I will remove from you
your heart of stone
and will give to you
a heart of flesh”
The following anecdotes are just too hilarious, and providential, to be kept to myself. They’re totally unexpected spoonfuls of sugar for making the prophet’s medicine – finally! – go down.
They also offer a balance to the cynical blog post of A Hasidic Woman in Israel, entitled “The Cold Crown of Corona,” which was featured in The Times of Israel, April 30th – precisely during the week in which these stories took place. The thesis of her article is that the word Corona, in Hebrew, alludes to the kor, spiritual coldness, which this period has ushered into the lives of many strictly Orthodox Jews, known as hareidim. “This is what the coronavirus has done. It has injected coldness into the entire (hareidi) system” by the way it has taken them away from the communal prayers around which their lives revolve.
Furthermore, she claims, the disproportionate toll this pandemic has taken on the hareidi community has caused them to question their faith in the power of a Torah based life style to protect them. “Where are the plague-stopping miracles that we heard so much about in previous generations? Ah, that was in the pre-camera age, people say, or even whisper, and the words seep into the cold hearts.”
Her final claim is that this pandemic has aroused a certain envious chill within the common hareidi heart towards the communication devices which the more modern members of society have been using to inform themselves about the pandemic, in contrast to a significant lack of them amongst the hareidim, due to the warnings of their mentors about the severe spiritual dangers lurking behind a cavalier usage of those devices.
Well. I beg to differ.
There’s a huge difference between anxiety and the kind of spiritual dumbing down that she is implying. As someone coming from a secular American background while having been part of various Israeli hareidi communities for over thirty years, and presently lives in the town of Betar which has officially become one of the most infected hot spots in Israel, I have experienced many examples of how this period has creatively fired up the hareidi spirit in ways that others could only hope to emulate. Whether in the way they manage their amazing, thrice daily trans-synagogue porch prayers, the constant food charity campaigns for those stuck at home, or the musical joy they march through the streets to virtually every neighborhood once a lockdown settles in, the hareidi community in my view, has become exemplary Corona crisis managers.
Still, none of those examples quite compare to the “hareidi inspiration” I gained while undergoing a heart surgery in the depths of secular Israel at the height of the Corona crisis, as these stories bear witness.
I had just been shaved, chest to ankle. It felt cool to be thrust back into infanthood. A born-again moment. After the initial novelty, however, a shudder snaked down my spine. Who was I kidding. I was scaaared! I mean, here I was, someone who’s been pretty much in top health for six decades, about to undergo a major operation. And during a viral pandemic, no less, where hospitals are notorious hotbeds for spreading disease. To be exact, my breast bone was about to be spliced, my heart stopped, and one of its valves snipped out and replaced with a similar piece from a … cow!
Wouldn’t such a foreign body within my heart make me especially vulnerable to the virus?? It certainly made me feel that I was about to become a different creature!
Seriously now, while the stats were very low for anyone in this hospital to get the virus, and for this operation to go south, it did happen. Including death.
So I prayed. Privately, of course. And meant it!
Finally, the big moment came. I was rolled into the pre-operating hall of this high-class Israeli hospital. There were giant, saucer shaped lights beaming everywhere from above, and numerous cubicles with curtains occupying the space below. From my initial perspective, supine on the rolling bed, the saucers were calling the shots. But soon I noticed dozens of nurses and various medical specialists milling around and sliding those curtains back and forth as if we pre-operatives were taking turns to audition for the Wizard of Oz! Every few minutes another character whipped open the curtain, burst into my space and rattled through a litany of questions. My name, national identity number, father’s name, medical history, etc., etc. Then one nurse, with a definite Russian accent coloring her Hebrew, entered. She took my blood pressure, went through the list and then added a new one.
Do I know exactly what my operation is?
I looked up at her, quizzically. Doesn’t SHE know?
“We need to know if you know,” she flatly informs me.
“Ok. I see,” I respond, in my American Hebrew, lamenting that I can’t keep up the English I had been using with all the others. I mean, even after decades in Israel, when it comes to such stressful events, and medical terminology, using Mama Lashon is extremely comforting.
“Nu,” she urged.
“Ok … so we’re replacing my … um, er … mastem aortee,” I stumble in attempt to say Aortic Valve, which should technically be shestom avee ha’orkim, or as I had heard it said by cardiologists, mastem ortali.
“What??” she shoots back, as if I’m telling her about a brand-new type of surgery. I repeat, trying to enunciate more exactly. Maaaastem Aaaooooroti.”
She bursts out in a moment of laughter.
“What did I say???”
“Try again,” she titters.
“Mastem … aROTI,” I now spit out. She explodes!!! Uncontrollable laughter. Tears and convulsive chuckles for a few good minutes. I couldn’t help but join in. It was, no pun intended, infectious.
“So what’s so funny?,” I finally ask.
She works hard to keep a straight face and explains. “You just told me, very clearly, that they’re replacing your EROTIC valve!”
Not the kind of joke a hareidi man wants to hear. But I couldn’t help but see it as a blessed opportunity for finding the lighter side of my ordeal. And a bridge between very different cultures. I respectively thanked her, as she walked away with a spring in her step.
Five days after the operation. My body was still not my own. As one doctor put it, I had just been through a “controlled car wreck.” The good news was that the operation seemed totally successful and thus I was expected to be feeling significantly better in a few more days. I just needed to rest a lot, be careful not to pick myself up this way nor stretch that way, keep myself from coughing attacks and other sharp respiratory movements, keep a watch on my heart rate and call a nurse if it races, and of course ask for pain killers when appropriate.
Thank G~d, one of my married sons was able to stay with me that weekend. Corona restrictions made visiting a problem, but in my case, since I was recovering well, staying in a single room (since the ward was underpopulated, due to the fear of many to be operated on during Corona), and was one of the few Sabbath observers on the ward, they let him slip in. I was particularly happy that he could be there at night, when the nurses were few, so that he could call them when needed, instead of me violating that holy time by pressing the electronic call button.
So Shabbos enters, as we call the Sabbath with great affection. We share lovely prayers and a luscious meal (brought to us by the local hassidic community), and manage some special singing and learning. Soon it was time for bed. I was exhausted.
My electronically malleable bed was already set up at the best angle for helping me sleep. I was nevertheless wary that it might be a long night, since I couldn’t readjust it. So I ask for a sleeping pill. Though I often use sleeping aids, I haven’t used them since the surgery as I figured that all the drugs with which they’ve saturated me were enough. Lo and behold, my body was more than willing to sleep at every opportunity.
Still, this night felt different.
A few hours later, while fast asleep, I started becoming conscious of a very weird dream. That sleeping pill, within the cocktail of the other medicines, must’ve messed with my mind. In the meantime, all I know is that my dream was super vivid. I could see all the details and perceive many fine emotional nuances. It was the first World War; I’m in a trench, stuck and vulnerable with a few other comrades, with battle smoke all around us. There are grey hills in the background, brown mud and dust in the foreground. Suddenly, out of the murky horizon, I discern a Chinese soldier running towards the trench. He’s lunging at us while carrying something menacing.
Next thing I know, within the dream, I’m waking up, trying to tell someone about it – with a joke.
“What do you do if you’re in a war trench during a Corona pandemic and a Chinese soldier comes running at you?” (Apparently my overloaded psyche was working out, in the midst of a pain attack, the allegations against the Chinese government which I had been hearing for days on that ubiquitous machine on the wall opposite my bed, which my community standards would normally have me avoid but in this situation I just couldn’t resist).
I can’t recall the punch line. But it was ridiculously funny. Totally stupid, but because of that, extremely comical. In my semi-sleepy state, I started to crack up. Literally! Oy, it HURT! My breast bone was far too fragile to take such a laughing attack. So I tried to stop myself by fully waking up. Whoa. I’m NOT in a trench nor telling people a related joke! Then I reflect: How absurd to be a religious heart patient on Shabbos, torturing himself with stupid dream jokes and not being able to call a nurse to help him passed it. But that only made me laugh again!
Suddenly, I’m imagining my oldest sister, who is known throughout the family as being a very funny character, loving to laugh, hard and loud, at absurd life predicaments. She’s sitting next to me, in the hospital, watching how I’m telling myself this stupid joke which is making me comically convulse, with real pain. She begins to totally lose it with her own laughter, and together we torture me even MORE! So I struggle to swallow my laughter. But my chest keeps heaving, in pain. My eyes are literally tearing from the struggle, as I’ve now completely woken up at 3:00 a.m., with a giant smile on my face and both arms wrapped protectively around my chest.
I moan, with chuckles.
Finally, I call out to my son. “Please get the nurse,” I titter. “What’s wrong … and what’s so funny?”, he asks, in half slumber. “Just GET her,” I order him, in desperation. He jumps up and out to the nurse’s stall. A very nice male nurse comes swiftly in, checks my blood pressure and notes that it’s super high. He gives me a major pain reliever. After about a half hour I calm down, with tears of hilarity still streaming down my face while my son, who’s now heard the whole story, struggles to contain his own laughter.
Gradually I begin to realize that all this is another gift for helping me not take my ordeal too seriously, including my spiritually trying exposure to television. I mean, really – here I am, in a comfortable bed, in a private room with one of my beloved children, recovering from a successful life-saving operation by non-religious doctors with the help of devoted non-religious nurses … and I’m gonna let that overdose on “non-religious news” make me regret this time?
This one’s a bit trickier. It leads us back to A Hasidic Woman.
It happened between that Shabbos and the operation. A very kind, young hareidi man, who had been helping his mother in a nearby room, had just helped me wrap my t’fillin. You know, those big black religious boxes with leather straps which the Torah tells Jewish men to bind upon their arms and heads, and is the custom to do so during morning prayers. They contain crucial passages about faith and devotion. So after securing them on me, the young man leaves and I soon gingerly stand up to do the main, Shmona-Esrei silent standing prayer. I don’t have energy for much more. As I’m coming out of it, backing off three steps and bowing, I notice out of my left eye a doctor from the ward pausing at the door. He’s about to check in on me but has waited til I finish my prayers.
Strangely, he’s staring at my t’fillin, as if I’m from Mars! I mean, even though we’re in the midst of very secular Tel Aviv, we’re still in Israel, where EVERYone knows religious Jews who do this. This doctor was nevertheless different. He just kept staring, with a mixture of awe and curiosity and what I soon figured out was some sort of major anxiety.
I smile at him, serenely, still basking in the glow of my prayers.
“What are you doing?,” he asks, in a heavy, Russian Hebrew.
“Davening,” I say, using the Yiddish for prayer, presuming that he knows this word from his Yiddish speaking cultural background, from which many Russian Jews come. He apparently did. But then clarified: “No, I mean those,” he says, pointing at the t’fillin. “How can one possibly pray while wearing those?”
Ah. He must be a recent immigrant from an extremely secularized part of the former Soviet Union. But for sure he’s a Jew. He totally looks like one, and his name tag carries a very Jewish last name.
“Would you like to try,” I ask back. “Honestly, I’d be glad to lend them to you.”
“No, no,” he apologizes. “I really don’t have any idea how to do any of that,” he confesses, while still staring.
“Now listen,” I say, compassionately, as I sat down to gather my strength. “It is absolutely no problem for me to help you put these on. And to tell you the truth, it would be a great kindness from you to let me help you with this. I mean, I feel so totally useless in my life right now. It would give me great meaning to help a fellow Jew in this state. And you know what – it would continue the kindness of the young Jew who helped me put them on myself. That’s right, I’m wearing these because of the kindness of another.”
He hesitates, looking straight into my eyes. He finally mutters, “well, if you insist. But are you sure you have the strength?”
“Yes. Here, just a sec, let me stand up and I’ll get this off of me and onto you.” I still hurt all over, and was quite weak, but this experience amazingly reinvigorated me.
So he stretches out his arm, as if I’m checking his blood. “Look at this,” I say, light heartedly. “Now I get to be the doctor!” He smiles. “You know,” I continue, with utmost seriousness, “this is what being Jewish is all about. We help each other. We’re like different limbs on the same body. Areivim zeh l’zeh, the sages tell us. This word means we should bear witness, be sweetly helpful, and be intimately sensitive to one another. It’s a powerful word with all these meanings.”
He liked that very much. I suggested he say only one, very brief, classic prayer – the Shma, being that it refers to the fundamental Jewish belief in one G-d and His Commandment of t’fillin. This anxious Jewish doctor nodded immediately, recalling this prayer from somewhere in his past, which he tells me now was in the Ukraine. “Interesting. That was where my father’s family came from,” I share. He nods again, as if that doesn’t surprise him. Then, after completing the first line, he totally stumbles in reading the rest of the paragraph. I was astounded. Here he was, obviously a very well-educated man, including enough Hebrew to become a registered doctor in Israel and work on the open-heart surgery ward, and he can’t pronounce properly one paragraph of classic Hebrew! Nevertheless, we plod through it, forming an amazing bond.
“Thank you VERY much,” he says as we conclude. Then adds, in the spirit of Areivim, “you have no idea what I’ve been going through lately. No idea how much of a vacuum I feel in my life. I needed this.”
“You are very welcome,” I reply. “And I’d be extremely happy to do it again. Just come by.”
He bows, slightly, with intense gratitude in his eyes, and then asks some basic questions about my health. As he leaves, I’m not sure whether I’ll see him again.
But two days later, on the eve of Shabbos, right after my son came, he returns. It was perfect timing, since I had asked my son to ask in his community if anyone is interested in donating a pair of t’fillin for this very worthy cause. He had, and had just handed them to me, with about a half hour left before Shabbos comes in and we wouldn’t be able to touch them (the Commandment of Shabbos replaces that of t’fillin, and then some).
“Dr. K., Shalom-Shalom,” I lilt. “Please meet my son. He’s brought something for you.”
He’s immediately overwhelmed. “Oh no, no, I can’t,” he sputters, with tears forming in his eyes. “It’s totally our pleasure,” I insist. “It comes from someone in our community who LOVES to help fellow Jews.”
“No, no,” he continues. “I cannot accept such a gift. I must pay for it.”
“It’s really not necessary. But if it will make you feel better, you can give money back to the community, which they’ll use for helping someone else.”
We eventually decide on a fair amount. I urge my son to hurry with him to his office to help wrap his new t’fillin while I finish my Shabbos preparations. Dr. K. – who now tells me to call him Alex – thanks me effusively for suggesting he do it in private, since he’s embarrassed that one of his colleagues might see him doing something religious.
My son soon returns and tells me that mission’s accomplished. Then he adds, somberly, that the good doctor has shared with him that he’s been contemplating suicide! We’re both startled. I encourage my son to see this as a gift. We might not have any words to help this anguished Jew, but just aiding his ability to embrace a mitzvah, religious act, is going to do its thing. We must believe that. We can’t solve his problems, but we can encourage his embracing of the One who can.
By my last day, still in a certain amount of pain but nothing debilitating, I see Alex, one last time. I was shuffling through the ward to collect my discharge papers when we spot each other, with tremendous affection. “Here, let me help you complete things,” this very special doctor generously offers as he leads me to the next station. As I finish and he accompanies me to the elevator, encouraging me to use his arm for support, he confides what exactly was the emotional devastation going on in his life.
“My dog died yesterday,” he says. With a totally straight face.
My breath stopped.
“He had been dying over the last week and I had been praying for his health. But G-d did not answer!” he continues, with genuine anguish. “Why. WHY? What does He have against this poor creature? What does He have against ME, a simple man who’s pet is his only friend!!”
I felt heart-broken, and really wanted to show sympathy. But I just couldn’t. How ABSURD, I found myself thinking. This guy is a doctor in a major hospital, working in an open-heart surgery ward where undoubtedly he’s helping save human lives, and what is crushing him, to the extent of contemplating suicide, is the death of his DOG??
This is classic secular craziness!
I nevertheless fought away those thoughts, since I really wanted to connect with Alex, reminding myself that not only is he a precious Jew raised with virtually no Jewish education, but most likely he was indoctrinated for the opposite. So I gather up all my gumption and inquire, gently: “Your life in the former Soviet Union must’ve been very hard. If I may ask, do you have a family?”
He went on to tell me about a very difficult divorce, with his only child staying behind with his ex, and a brother who recently died, and parents who never-ever uttered a word to him about the value of being Jewish, which he’s now beginning to resent. He did have religious grandparents.
I begin berating myself. How COULD I, for even a moment, allow myself to belittle this man’s pain. It was obviously the tip of an iceberg. WHAT a lesson. I must have merited it due to that operation. In the words of the prophet, I had some sort of heart “stone” or cold, hardened emotion that needed excising. It was to be replaced by a heart of flesh. So much so – I’ve got a part of an ANIMAL inside me now! Alive and mischievous. Definitely something which should enhance my capacity to sympathize with the tragedy of losing another animal!!
Or at least help me appreciate his mooood!
Com’on, you gotta admit. All this comedic relief is a great way for staring down the heavy bugaboos along the secular-Orthodox divide. Indeed, these stories have tickled something so deep within me in the way they’ve broke down barriers that normally keep us holed up within our own worlds that I’m convinced they’re meant to shine light on the nearing Redemption for ALL of us. The fact that my surgeon’s last name is Raanani, which is Hebrew for Refresher, only seals the deal. And get this: On the third day after the operation, as I was lying alone on my bed trying to ride out the pain, “secular” Dr. Refresher pops in and says, through his mask, with his eyes a’glow: “Don’t worry, my friend. It’s like a bris (circumcision). The third day is the hardest!!”
We both laughed, heartily. Thank G~d, that one was containable. But after that amazing week of recovery, I contemplated: Could all this be a coincidence? As it’s written (Deut. 10: 12-16):
And now, Israel,
what does the L~rd your G~d ask of you
but to revere … love … and serve …
with all your heart …
and circumcise the sheath
of your heart
A physical bris is defined by the revelation of the “crown” of that limb, irrespective of any arousal. So too, a spiritual bris is all about revealing the Corona, which of course means crown, i.e. the Alm-ghty’s royal presence, despite our lack of aroused faith. Whether we’re struggling with suicidal thoughts, questions about where to pray or how to get properly informed, or even squirming with the age-old dilemma about WHY bad things happen to good people (yes, they also happen to those who live fully Torah observant lives) – the Corona is omnipresent. In the air, behind the curtains, over and under every little facade we try to erect around our lives to make us feel securely independent and respectively in no need to really relate to those living according to very different value systems. Ah – but the Corona’s there, prodding us to do better. We simply need to stay clean within our personal space, vigilantly respectful of the others’, and always ready to cross the bridge between the two when good will beckons.
“The King will answer to all who call out to Him,” the psalmist reminds us (20:10). I now know this includes all who find ways to get past the cold sheaths of misguided envy, on one hand, and judgmental insularity, on the other.
Please daven for Alex ben Rivka.
In or out of synagogue.
With ALL your heart.