After leading services for over forty years on the bimah, this year I sat with the congregation during the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe/High Holidays), at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel. It was a different perspective and spiritual experience. Here are some of my thoughts as I look back on the recent Holy Days.
This year I was honored with the third Aliyah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading for that day contains the Akedat Yitzak, the binding of Isaac, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, his son. In the portion for my Aliyah, we read that when Abraham is to about to take his son’s life “A messenger of the Lord called to him from heaven [and says] do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.” A young boy is saved right before he may have died at the hands of his father by a divine messenger.
Just a little over a year ago my doctors administered chemotherapy as part of my bone marrow transplant, killing off all of my own bone marrow and leaving me literally close to death, with no immune system and no way to produce my own blood. Then I was saved with the infusion of the bone marrow from my son, Gabe. This year when I completed the blessings after the Aliyah was read, I turned to the gomel blessing, a special blessing, and let me quote from the Machzor Lev Shalem, “This b’rakhah is recited by one who has recovered from a serious illness or survived a life-threatening crisis.” It thanks God who “bestows goodness on us despite our imperfections and who has treated me so favorably.” The congregation responds, “May the One who has shown such favor to you continue to bestow all that is good upon you.” Reading those words made me quite emotional as I thought of all the goodness that I received during the past year, from my family, my medical team, and all the prayers said on my behalf.
When I returned to my seat, my son, Gabe—Gabriel—asked me which angel stopped the hand of Abraham. He mentioned that the Bible in an earlier passage tells of three angels who visit Abraham. While they have no names in the Torah they are called Michael, Raphael and Gabriel in Rabbinic commentaries. Was Gabriel the angel that saved a life in the reading we had just heard? I started to look that up after the holiday. I was home without all of the books I left in the synagogue but, with the help of my friend and colleague Rabbi Lee Paskind, I learned that some Jewish sources give that angel a name. It is Michael in one commentary and Metatron in another. No matter. For me, there is only one name for that lifesaving angel and it is Gabriel, my son and the donor for my bone marrow transplant.
This year I also thought of the first time I led High Holiday services when I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was in my next to last year before I was ordained. I did not go to a small congregation or lead an overflow service, as did many of my classmates. I chose to lead services at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital. It was a sobering experience to be with so many patients battling cancer. I recall an abbreviated service in a room where the patients came in wheel chairs, praying with them and blowing the shofar for them. There were many who I visited in their rooms, and the family members I tried to comfort. Then a year ago I was in Mt. Sinai Hospital during my last year as a pulpit Rabbi, a patient in an isolation room for those with blood cancer. The beginning and end of my professional life were book ended by cancer wards. It is a reminder to me, as is the liturgy of these Holy Days that we live with vulnerability and unpredictability. The prayer Unetanah Tokef, proclaims in memorable words that we don’t know who will live and who will die each year. Yet there is some cause for hope because, as the prayer reminds us, the quality of our life, no matter what its length, is within our power to live with meaning. Specifically the prayer says that we should live with t’shuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah, with a turning toward our better selves, with a regular connection to the Divine, and with acts of kindness. Between those Holy days that I spent on two cancer wards, one as student Rabbi and one as patient, I hope that I have been equal to the task of living a life with those values
I want to end with one other Holiday experience. A year ago on Yom Kippur at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, I was in bed recovering from the transplant when the Delirium Team came into my room. I understand that there is a need to assess a patient’s mental state. Chemo brain is real, as well as all the other disorienting effects of a long hospital stay. However I hope that at some point they rename that group, for “Delirium” is just not the right word. During some of their visits earlier in my hospital stay I had not done well with their questions. I barely knew the date and for some reason when I was asked which hospital I was in, I twice responded, “NYU.” This time, however, I knew I was in Mt. Sinai and when they asked me the date, I replied, “the tenth of Tishri 5779.” Sometimes we really know where we are and what the date is, and for me it was also a step on my return to health, a path I continue to be on as I look forward to celebrating many Holy Days in the future with my family and community.