On Thursday, February 25, 1988, my son underwent surgery for a brain tumor at M. D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. We noticed that Jed was limping a couple of weeks earlier. Six-year-old boys grow quickly and we figured that his shoes were too small. But the new ones didn’t help and then we saw that he wasn’t swinging his right arm the way he swung his left when he ran. The pediatrician squeezed us in at the end of the day on Wednesday the 17th. On the 18th the CT scan showed a tumor in his brain stem. We were in Houston the following Monday and by Thursday the 25th he was in surgery.
The Jewish world is, of course, very small. Maybe it’s even smaller for rabbis. Word made it from Austin to Houston very quickly that the rabbi’s son was having surgery at Anderson. On Friday the 26th, a representative of one of the Conservative congregations in Houston delivered Shabbat dinner to the hospital for my family – challot, wine and Kiddush cup included. In our whirlwind of terror, we were not alone.
Fast forward 23 years. The chaplain’s office from a local hospital calls me when there’s an unaffiliated Jew at the hospital who’s asking for a rabbi. This time the call came on Shabbat afternoon, February 26. A young Jewish man had been in an accident and his family wanted a rabbi. I visited him right after Shabbat and then again at the beginning of the week.
The family was involved in their congregation in another city: they told me how close they were to their rabbi; one of their friends who came to be with them was a past president of their local Federation.
By Wednesday, when it was clear that the young man and his family would be at the hospital for awhile, I knew what I had to do: I arranged for a Shabbat meal to be prepared in the Rodeph Sholom kitchen; I sent my mother on a mission to get challot and wine; and on Friday, March 4, I brought Shabbat dinner to the hospital for this family. Someone had done this for my family and I never forgot the power of that kindness during our ordeal. Now it was my turn to “repay” the mitzvah. It was only after-the-fact that it dawned on me that all this occurred so close to the anniversary of Jed’s surgery.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, talking about Jewish learning, said, “Two men who live in different places, or even in different generations, may still converse. For one may raise a question, and the other who is far away in time or in space may make a comment or ask a question that answers it. So they converse, but no one knows it save the Lord, who hears and records and brings together all the words of men, as it is written: They who serve the Lord speak to one another, and the Lord hears them and records their words in His book (Malachi 3:16).”
I extend this idea to Jewish behavior. One person can do a mitzvah without ever knowing what effect it will have on others. And years later, the recipient of the mitzvah, or perhaps another who saw it take place, will remember the power of the deed and do it for another. Only God sees and knows all these mitzvoth and ties them together to make the fabric of Jewish life.
Perhaps this family will have occasion to bring Shabbat dinner for another in need. I hope so. Only God knows.
Rabbi Marc Sack has been the rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom since 1995. Before coming to Tampa, he served congregations in Minneapolis and Austin. He was ordained from The Jewish Theological Seminary in 1982. He also received an MSW from Columbia that same year. Rabbi Sack is married to Leni and they have four children who live in Los Angeles, Ho Chi Minh City, Tel Aviv and Austin.
Photo credits: Jeffrey Lamont Brown. Copyright: JFNA-Licensed Full Usage Rights, June 30, 2010 – June 30, 2015