Originally seen in <strong>May 2001 Vol. 82 No. 9 <a href="https://web.archive.org/web/20040626235427/http://www.hadassah.org:80/pageframe.asp?page=per_hadassah/archive/2001/may01/family.htm§ion=news&header=per_had&size=50">Hadassah Magazine</a></strong><br/><br/>
Even from the black depths of pain and despair, life can hand out valuable lessons in compassion, wisdom and love.
Last year, on a lonely rural section of Highway 17B in the Catskill Mountains, I nearly died. The highway’s only claim to fame is that it is on the way to Bethel, New York, the site of the original Woodstock festival. I was running errands in the early morning when a car coming in the opposite direction swerved into my lane at 45 miles per hour and hit me head-on. It was on that road where my life changed forever. It was on that road where I learned to deal with daily pain and set forth to reclaim my life from the broken glass and twisted metal that lay strewn over the blacktop. It was also on that road where I took much of the Jewish spiritual wisdom I had learned off the bookshelf and downloaded it into my life.
My life was at stake and that certainly included my spirit. If ever there was a time to find out what sustained my inner core, this was it. If the teachings I had learned meant anything, this was the time to lean deep into the reservoir of Jewish spiritual wisdom.
I vividly remember lying in the local hospital’s emergency room before being medevaced to Westchester Medical Center. I wasn’t a pretty picture. Firemen had pried me out of the car with the Jaws of Life. Dry blood lay over my face, teeth and lips. I was covered with dust and grit. A torn pants leg revealed a smeared mixture of blood and dirt oozing out of a deep gash in my knee. The impact had rammed my femur out of its socket. My pelvis was shattered into nine pieces. I had not yet received any painkillers and was suffering incredible, mind-bending pain. I prayed to pass out like the guys who got shot in the Westerns I used to watch as a kid. But this was not a movie. No such luck.
The local hospital wasn’t equipped to perform major trauma surgery and I remember thinking, “Oh, I’m Humpty Dumpty. They can’t put me back together again.”
Soon I was wheeled into a private room where a doctor would reposition my femur. I gritted my teeth and said, “Doc, isn’t the pain going to kill me? What if it doesn’t go right back in?” He simply said, “I have to get it back in. We can’t move you unless I do.”
Without warning, the doctor jumped on my gurney, grabbed my leg and shoved it toward my shattered pelvis. The pain slammed into me so hard that I let out a horrified scream. The femur didn’t go back in.
Crying and moaning, I whimpered, “I thought you’d give me painkillers before doing something like that.”
He looked at me in astonishment. “You haven’t been given any painkillers?”
They quickly shot me up with Valium and Demerol and repeated the procedure. This time my leg went back in with a loud pop. At that moment, I was still angry at the doctor’s insensitivity, but another part of me was grateful for his fearless skill in taking the first step toward putting me back together.
So i took his hand and said, “From my heart, I want you to know how grateful I am for your skill and courage. But don’t ever do that to another patient.”
He smiled warmly, a bit embarrassed, and apologized. Right there, in that emergency room, I decided no matter what struggles lay ahead, I would give thanks to every person who attended my broken body. I was going to honor every act of kindness with words from my heart.
In Judaism, honoring the good in others with gratitude is an exalted spiritual principle called hakarat hatov. Spiritual life includes encountering and dealing with fear and suffering. And yes, I had to face my fears. I had plenty of them. I had no idea if I would ever walk again.
Hakarat hatov helped me push past my fears by doing something righteous and good; I needed all the good I could get.
I remember being shoved awake in the recovery room after nearly eight hours of surgery. A doctor was right next to my face, asking me questions.
“Do you know where you are?”
“No,” I replied.
“Do you know you were in an accident?”
“No,” I answered.
“Do you know who you are?”
“No,” I said.
Then the doctor brought my wife close to my face.
“Do you know who this is?”
I looked back at him and said, “Of course, that’s my holy wife!”
Now this may sound melodramatic. So be it. It’s the truth.
Before I went under the knife, I told my wife how much I loved her and our kids. I also forgave her for any stone left unturned and asked her for forgiveness and also told her to tell our kids the same.
When we said good-bye, I did not know if I was going to survive. But from the moment I met her, I knew she was what the Talmud calls my zivug rishon, soulmate. If I was going to die, I wanted to affirm our love.
The Talmud hints that the love of soulmates is something that goes beyond personal identities. As I emerged from surgery I could not find myself, but our love was bigger than me. The sages got that right. And I experienced that truth at 3 A.M. in that fateful recovery room.
In the early weeks after surgery I was totally helpless and in excruciating pain. My stitched and stapled wound stretched 23 inches from the top of my hip down my thigh. At the bottom was a drainage hole dug out of my flesh, open and oozing. Nine three-inch screws had been drilled into my bones. The morphine drip kept me in a perpetual fog as I lay catheterized and unable to turn over. I could not sit up or wash myself without assistance. I needed someone to help me do everything. And the stream of someones who tended to me opened new meanings for the mitzva of bikur holim, visiting the sick.
These genuine, healing attendants lifted my spirit and cared for my wounded body. I found new friends on the hospital staff and saw some of them as angels. My total helplessness brought many moments of such spiritual vision.
The Talmud teaches that despair for something lost, without knowing for certain that an object is lost, is not despair. Since I did not feel a total loss, I took solace in that statement and was not about to succumb to despair. I took comfort in knowing that others facing great challenges down through the ages encouraged me to hold fast and not give up.
But I won’t kid you. I heard the voice of despair. It would whisper that it’s just too painful to go on, but I realized that I had a choice. Do I resist or surrender? I found it much easier to surrender to my pain and my struggle. Everything in every moment became my life, my new reality. I made up my mind that I would embrace the few things I was able to do as the fullness of my life. The more I lived in the moment, the less I worried and the less I cried.
Old teachings took on new meaning. I particularly savored a saying from two great sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Eleazer, who said, “Even if the sword is on your neck, do not stop yourself from praying for compassion and mercy.”
My body felt like a hundred swords were sticking into it. Every movement hurt. I needed plenty of mercy and a major hit of compassion. Calling on mercy and compassion was very comforting. In my prison of pain I did not feel alone.
There were times late at night when I found myself quietly marveling and chuckling at my predicament. For years I had given so much advice about these kinds of matters to so many, and now I was finding out if I could take my own advice. I found a lot of humor in that. A wonderful role reversal.
The postoperative rehab room was the first stop for the severely wounded. Some were amputees. Some appeared gutted and resewn together with scars that hands down beat my huge wound. There were head-trauma folks, crushed-limb people like me and some in casts. A lot of crying went on in that room.
I loved being in that room and talking with everyone. I had my wife bring copies of my book about my work with troubled kids to give away. I figured that if it says in Psalms that God built the world on love and mercy, then as bad as things were, nothing was going to stop me from caring for others.
This was my world and these wounded people were my new community. So I let all the love I could muster hang out in the hospital with all my new friends. I found out about everyone’s life. I held hands with those who cried. I handed out encouraging words. I took to heart what Reb Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev said, “Since a portion of God is in all things, and all things exist through God, it follows that one can serve God by means of all things at all times, no matter what one is doing.”
No matter where we find ourselves we have choices on how we walk our path in life. While I certainly would not have picked the road on which I traveled, throughout my hospital stay and beyond, I realized that I can choose to walk down any road with a measure of dignity. I also realized that whatever road we are on is a reflecting spiritual mirror of who we are. It just takes courage to take a look at ourselves.
Rabbi Yehudah Fine, author of Times Square Rabbi (Hazelden), is at work on a book about parenting teens, to be published next year by Parenting Press. He can be reached at yehudahfine.com.