In shul last Shabbos, Rabbi A. discussed the importance of a Jewish day starting as darkness approaches and not when the light of day arrives. He talked about how we must search through the darkness in preparation to receive the light offered to us by G-d. He said it would not make any sense to start with the light from Hashem in the morning only to lose that light at the end of the day. Rabbi A.s words reflect perfectly my experiences starting in childhood, through Chaims passing, through psychotic mania, to the assault in college. In both a metaphorical and real way I was in the darkest place a human being could be; I was unconscious and alone in an ICU. What I could not have known as I awoke was that the brilliance of Hashems light would be shared with me and I would be empowered to take my first baby steps toward both the healing and nurturing of my Jewish soul.
As I woke up in the ICU, my first reaction was fury. I was supposed to be with Chaim and I wasnt. As I lay in my hospital bed surrounded by medical stuff, I tried to figure out what my next move should be. In the midst of cogitating, a man walked into my cube and introduced himself as the staff psychiatrist. I don't even remember his name. I'll call him Dr. X. He asked that same stupid question I had heard from countless physicians throughout my childhood, Tell me how this happened. I had gotten very expert at spinning and obfuscating the truth in order to protect myself from the very real consequences of admitting that truth. So, it was not difficult for me to spin a believable tale that would make this guy go away. I told him that I had been an idiot college student, and I added, you know the type. He laughed and nodded. I proceeded to give him an explanation, that in hindsight, he should have seen right through. He didnt. He simply admonished me to be a bit wiser and he added that I was too bright to be doing something this stupid. I told him I appreciated the compliment and promised I'd be more responsible in the future. He left satisfied.
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I told Dr. G. once that I've tried to imagine what would have happened to me if HE had been the psychiatrist that day instead of Dr. X. I know exactly what would have happened. He d have listened very politely to my tale and when I was done he'd have given me that clinical look he gets when he knows he's being manipulated. Hed have simply said, I've listened to you, now let me tell you what I think happened. I would have been sunk. Fortunately, from my perspective at the time, Dr. X was no Dr. G.
I was feeling pretty proud of myself having just scored a big win against Dr. X. I still didn't have a plan formulated, but at least I didn't have Dr. X or any of his colleagues to contend with. Little did I know that G-d had a very different interceder planned for me, Rabbi Menachem.
The afternoon after I scored my victory over Dr. X, I heard a voice from the other side of the curtain that divided my space from the ICU nurse's station. The voice, in a Russian sounding accent, had a gentle, almost lilting quality. He said to me, I'm Rabbi Menachem. I'm a chaplain. I understand you are Jewish, and I wanted to know if you needed anything. I couldn't figure out how he knew that I was Jewish. I hadn't told anyone since I was admitted unconscious. It had to be someone at the university, but whom? It was a mystery. From my side of the curtain I responded, No Rabbi, I'm fine. Then he said I have some time, would you like to just schmooze? Much to my shock, I found myself saying yes. I really wanted to see this Rabbi with such an amazing voice. So, he came around the curtain and made himself comfortable in the visitors chair across from my bed. He wore a black hat, a black coat, and he had a bushy white full beard. I couldn't guess his age. I had this weird idea that he was actually ageless. He smiled a smile at me that literally sucked all the rage and resentment I was feeling about waking up right out of me.
So we schmoozed. We talked about baseball. We talked about my plans for after college. We talked about college life and my experiences as a Jewish student. We talked about a special interest of his, forming Jewish organizations on college campuses where Jewish students of all types could gather and work together to perform mitzvahs. I had no idea what a mitzvah was and I was afraid to ask him and look stupid, so I said nothing. During a pause in our conversation, I looked over to get a better sense of him. Thats when I was completely caught off guard by the intensity yet tenderness in his eyes as he talked to me. I wondered if that look was meant for me or someone else. I really believed at that moment he cared uniquely and totally about me. As the pause wore on, in my quietest, almost little girl voice, I said to him:
G-d doesn't want me. He was quiet for a minute, and then in a voice that had to have come from Hashem, he answered, Tova, your soul is an actual piece of G-d. For G-d to not want you he would have to not want Himself. Does that even make sense to you? I replied in my tiny little girl voice, I don't have a soul. It was murdered. Again, he took a moment, but then he responded, Tova, your problem isn't that you have no soul. Your problem is that your exquisite Jewish soul has never been nurtured. I started to cry. Then I asked him, How do I nurture it? He responded instantly, One mitzvah at a time. At this moment I came clean to him, I don't know what a mitzvah is. He smiled at me and said the greatest sages have tried for thousands of years to put a definition to what a mitzvah is. The beauty, power, and G-dliness that comes when performing a mitzvah is difficult for even me, as a Rabbi, to put into words. My best explanation is that a mitzvah is an action commanded by Hashem that we as Jews perform in order to make light in the world for Him.
I told him I had never performed a mitzvah. He smiled that soul soothing smile again and said, Then I need to teach you. The first mitzvah I want you to start performing is lighting Shabbos candles and saying the blessing. I said to him, I don't know how. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and said Tova, if very little girls can light Shabbos candles and say the blessing, I brilliant young woman on her way to medical school can certainly manage. I laughed and he smiled at my laughter. He promised to get me Shabbos candles and a copy of the blessing for the next Shabbos. I told him I didn't think they would let me light candles in the ICU. In response he said, "Tova, by Shabbos you will be out of this ICU, I promise". I felt hopeful. He was true to his word; I was transferred to a regular floor Friday afternoon, just in time for Shabbos.
So began a 10 day period of time where I was a hungry student and Rabbi Menachem was my loving teacher.
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