Dear Rabbi Bryski:
For the past several years you have been the thread that has kept me connected to Judaism. Not that I want to put any pressure on you, but rather I wanted to thank you, because this connection has helped me through a most difficult time in my life.
I wanted to share this story with you, if for no other reason, than to let you know that your teachings reached inside me and lifted me up giving me the strength to deal with life’s unexpected curve balls (as a Yankee fan, I know you know what I mean). My mother became very ill a few months ago and for a while it was touch and go.
Here’s my story:
Every year I look forward to listening to your sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I also look forward to getting a copy of the Course offerings at the Academy to see what courses you are teaching in the coming semester. Over the years I’ve heard you tell many moving stories about how all of our lives are all connected and that events in life are not random but are part of a plan, Ha’Shems plan, and happen for a reason. Each and every story you’ve told has always moved me and always brought me closer to Judaism. The story that stands out the most is one that you’ve told several times both as part of a Yom Kippur sermon and in your lecture series.
It’s the story of the women who had a dream that she was going to meet G-d the next day. She woke up in the morning and was so excited that she began running around frantically getting ready for her big meeting.
The story continues with her getting interrupted 3 times during the day by people knocking on her door in need of help, only to be turned away by the women who explains that she is too busy to help them because she had to get ready for her meeting with G-d.
The day passes and there is no meeting. The woman dies that night and when she gets to heaven and meets Ha’Shem she says to him – “ I prepared frantically all day for our meeting and you never showed, what happened?” Ha’Shem’s response was – “what are you talking about, I came to visit you 3 times and you ignored me each and every time, I guess you didn’t recognize me”. Such a simple story with such a powerful message.
My mother has been in poor health for the past 10 years, a heavy smoker all of her life combined with a very profound distrust for doctors for most of her life, ever since she blamed them for her mother’s death back in 1969, 2 weeks before my Bar-Mitzvah. Think of her as a 79 year old car that has never had an oil change or been to a mechanic for routine maintenance. Because of the 3000 mile distance between us (California to Florida) I don’t get to see her or my father very often (something I regret very much as I get older). Having recently joined the ranks of the unemployed I found myself expanding my job search to include Florida, with the thought that it was time for me to be closer to family. As luck would have it, I received a call from a company asking to meet with me for a job.
My flight was booked for an early Sunday morning flight that would get me in to Florida before sunset so my 82 year old father, who has night blindness, could pick me up at the airport (the argument for me taking a taxi is one I have lost repeatedly over the years and have learned to just accept the fact that Dad liked to pick me up). The flight was not a direct flight; I had a 2 hour layover in Atlanta. As soon as the wheels touched ground my first reaction was to turn on my cell phone so I could call my wife and let her know that the first leg of the trip was uneventful. Before I could start tapping on the speed dial for home the voicemail message icon popped up on my screen. Because it was still very early morning in CA I knew this couldn’t be good news and my heart sank as I retrieved the message.
It was my wife. The message was the one I always feared given my mother’s deteriorating health and knew it would come one day soon- “Dad called and wanted me to let you know that Mom is in the hospital, she collapsed and was rushed to the Emergency Room. He didn’t give me any other details and said he would fill you in when you get to Florida.”
I fell back into my seat, my heart was racing, the tears started to roll down my face. The call that for the past 10 yrs I always dreaded getting finally came. At that moment there were only two things that came to mind. The first was I needed help from above and I stared up at the ceiling of the plane as the words of the She’mah slowly rolled of my lips. The second thing that came to mind was that this trip wasn’t just random, there was a reason for this trip, I was supposed to be in Florida at this time.
Seeing my Mom in the ICU was very difficult for me. She was semi comatose, very pale and very thin. She was hooked up to more gadgets and gizmos that beeped and buzzed continuously. I wasn’t sure if she recognized me or even knew if I was there, but I kept talking to her hoping that she would come around even if for a minute. I would ask her over and over again – Mom how ya feelin? How ya feelin? waiting for her to show some sign of coherence. Then without hesitation, she slowly clasped her hands on her chest and said – “I want to die”
My heart sank into my stomach. The tears filled my eyes and did all I could to grab her hands and tell her that the Doctor’s said you’re not sick enough to die. The Guy upstairs isn’t ready for you yet and you have 6 grandchildren who are expecting you to dance at their weddings. So forget about leaving!
I would sink into the chair at her bedside where I would hold vigil every day with my Dad. If you listened closely you could hear me reciting the She’mah over and over again asking for his help and guidance. The vision of you on the Bemah at the closing of Yom Kippur reciting the Shema with the congregation and then with a clenched fist rotating around and around as you got the congregation to sing together and connect to the moment, gave me the strength and courage to believe help would come.
This went on for almost 3 weeks, every day schlepping back and forth to the ICU with my Dad; making sure he was ok, taking all of his medication; talking with Doctor’s to find out the latest on my mother’s condition and their game plan for treatment. But every day, I would sit by her bedside and recite the She’mah, and relive those closing moments of Yom Kippur. It gave me strength and it gave me hope.
This grueling routine went on day after day for weeks and I could see the toll it was taking on my Father. It was Friday, noon. My younger brother, my dad and I decided to go for lunch around the corner from hospital at a local deli situated in one of Southern Florida’s gazillion strip malls.
That’s when it happened –
As I was exiting the strip mall, standing under the Marquis, I noticed an elderly man. The only reason I noticed him was because he was wearing a beige jacket and matching baseball cap in 98 degree (with 98% humidity) weather. He looked like George Burns in the movie Oh G-d! The only thing missing was the cigar. I wondered how long he was standing out there in the sweltering heat. As I approached the exit the old man raised his hand waving at our car. I slowed down and opened the window to see what he wanted.
“Farshtaist Yiddish?” he asked.
I said no, and his broken English he said that he missed his bus, the next one doesn’t come for an hour and asked if we could give him a lift to the hospital to see his wife who was a patient.
He got in the back seat with my brother and they began talking. He said he didn’t know how much longer he could stand out in the heat and thanked us for stopping to give him a lift. He went on to say that his wife has been in the hospital for several weeks and he goes every day to visit her.
“We’ve been married for almost 65 years” he said. “We are from Poland and I never missed a day being with my wife in all these years”. My brother said “it’s our pleasure to be able to help you, our mother is in the hospital too and we are going back to be with her, She’s from Poland too, a small town called Kriluv”. The old man smiled and said, “ I know Kriluv, it not too far from my home town ( I can’t recall the name of his home town).
As I was listening to this conversation all I could see was you on the Bemah telling that story of the woman who was supposed to meet G-d and couldn’t be bothered with the people that came to her for help.
At that moment I couldn’t help but think to myself – Can this be? Can this be the angel sent to help? Has he really heard my cries for help?
I pulled up to the entrance to hospital to let the man off. We wished him well and a Refuah Shlamah for his wife. He shook all of our hands and as he got out of the car he turned to us and said in his thick Yiddish accent – “thank you for the ride, it was a mitzvah and Don’t worry -everything will be OK.”
A chill ran through my body and tears started to roll down face. I couldn’t believe what just happened.
A week later my mother was released from ICU to another facility where she spent 4 months in rehab. She just came home last week. The Doctor’s were amazed at her turnaround and how dramatic her recovery was. Take their amazement and multiply it by 1000 and you get the sense of how amazed my father, brothers and I were with her recovery.
That’s my story. Again, thank you for being my thread. I want to wish you and your family a very Happy and Healthy Shana Tova. I am looking forward to seeing you at the Hyatt again this year.
Kindest Personal Regards,