Yom Kippur is one crazy, complex, oft times, contradictory day.
Physical limitations & restrictions sending the supreme spiritual message:
Face what could be your end to embrace your new beginning…
Afflict your souls to uplift your spirits…
Deny life’s tangible pleasures to affirm the gifts you’ve been given….
The rabbis of old clearly understood the human psyche.
The other 364 days, we mostly take this gift of life for granted.
And though we may have moments of appreciation,
Our daily assumption is its all good—that is, until it isn’t.
The call comes, the diagnosis is delivered, the count climbs,
The numbers plummet, the disease suddenly worsens…
And day of Atonement attunement to life’s fragility
Becomes our daily operating mode…
We live at the border of hope & despair.
And sometimes, we can’t help but go there.
Little did I dream, however, that it would be because of one of my own kids.
When, on Susan’s 7th yahrzeit,
Aaron came home and mentioned his nephrologist appointment the previous day, I innocently asked, “And how was it?” Matter of factly,
Aaron reported: “Well, the doctor said I’m a candidate for transplant!”
“What?” I could not fathom how that could even be possible…!?
But diagnosed just 4 ½ years earlier, what was steadily about 40% kidney function sunk in 6 months to around 10%.
Shepherded by healthcare mastermind and major mensch,
LT leader/member Lee Perlman who directed us almost immediately
to his friends at Mt Sinai Hospital’s amazing Recanati-Miller Transplant Institute,
Discovering our family circle was not a fit,
With the unfailing help of LT leadership—current president Michael Nathan and two past presidents Stacey Chervin & Harri Taranto,
A letter was penned at the end of January asking the impossible…
And in a little less than two weeks, over 40 people had responded,
willing to be kidney donors…Unbelievable not alone for us,
but for the transplant institute. The outpouring was overwhelming.
And because the sheer volume of potential donors lining up was
Far beyond the customary handful of folks,
Knowing the screening process would take a couple of months,
Mt Sinai asked that, for the time being, we ask others to hold off…
To say we were flabbergasted would be an understatement.
Filled with gratitude, we were buoyed by newfound hope.
And still, the more I thought about it,
the harder it was for me to wrap my head around it…
Giving away a piece of yourself, literally, to save another’s life!
Someone you know, maybe…Perhaps from a family you admire or even love…or a person you’ve hardly met, or do not know at all.
The Talmudic masters teach:
“To save a single life is to save the world entire.”
NOTE: There are no qualifications…Not to save a single Jewish life,
Nor a person with whom you share a nationality or a neighborhood…
Not someone you’d consider a kindred spirit
or with whom you see eye to eye…
Which is why the continuation of the Talmud’s teaching is so powerful:
“This is taught to promote peace among peoples so that no one will say: My ancestors are greater than yours.”
No person, no single people takes priority due to status or social standing, influence or affluence. The same sacred insignia is stamped on us all.
For when it comes to this life we share, the Rabbis remind,
we are all in it together.
Because when someone you love is sick, physically weak or failing,
and the act of another can alter or alleviate their suffering,
putting together a family’s shattered reality,
you are saving their entire world.
BUT, I’ve got to be totally straight with you. Its YK after all.
Sending out the letter from LT to all our 800+ families,
Some even circulating it to area congregations, I started thinking:
If the shoe was on the other foot, what would you do?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a giving person. My time, attention—no problem, take it. Money, material possessions—whatever you need.
But a kidney?
This was an awful lot to ask, maybe more than I’d be brave enough to give.
Even w/o being a considerable candidate for my son, if I was,
could I summon what I saw as the heroic strength?…
It wasn’t a question of being Jewishly sanctioned…As long as the process of transplanting healthy human organs does not endanger the donor,
it is not alone OK but encouraged.
It is, in fact, among the singular sacred acts celebrated across the denominational spectrum,
as the great Modern Orthodox Rabbi Yitz Greenberg said:
“Organ donation is the highest mitzvah,
for giving life is the holiest form of respect for life.”
Saving another life—Piku’ach Nefesh, is a mitzvah for which any other,
From Shabbat to Kashrut to this very Day of Atonement can be violated.
It means the world because, in so doing, it saves the world…
There are over 100,000 people awaiting lifesaving transplants in our country today. Some have been waiting for years…Tragically, around 10% of people on the National Register die each year while waiting…
A New Yorker awaiting a new kidney dies every 18 hours.
So when Aaron registered the day before his surgery at Mt Sinai,
And the hospital registrar asked if he’d been waiting long,
He was almost embarrassed to say, “Just 4 months…”
“Whoa,” the registrar quipped. “You took the Express Lane.”
All my son could do was to give a grateful smile…
Of course, today’s metaphor is meant to remind us to feel much the same.
The Book of Life lies open as the Judge on High reviews the record
Of every human soul…a moment of AT-One-Ment, meant for looking inside,
Atoning for our misdeeds, reconciling ourselves before God,
Thus, gaining our inscription for life renewed.
Through fasting, prayer & repentance, denying the body to inspire the spirit,
“At One with the Holy One,” we save ourselves anew.
But maybe it’s not actually about saving ourselves.
What if all the physical denial of this day was meant to spark in us an appreciation of a body that, more or less works, day in—day out…?
And with faith beyond the physical, what if our inclusion in God’s Big Book
Was achieved not alone by turning inward—working on the state of our spirit,
But looking outward—responding to the state of our world.
What if our inscription was most assuredly sealed when we helped
another person’s name make God’s Book of Life list as well?…
Sara Blumstein Elkin is not a name I’d readily recognize.
OK, sounds Jewish, but not congregationally connected,
not one of my LT kids,
or Eisner teens from decades past.
Yes, I learned, a Jewish educator,
but with no intrinsic Sirk-link to make such a sacrifice,
to pay back a rabbi/his family.
This was simply, graciously, about paying it forward.
Sara, a person who gave blood regularly, always wanting to do what she could,
Who happened to see a Facebook post in early February and so,
As she put it: “I decided to throw my hat in the ring.”
A mother of three, mind you, along with husband Michael,
raising a Reform Jewish family up the road, busy enough to simply beg off.
With a life so full, I mean, why bother?
When I asked her that question, meeting in line the morning of Aaron’s surgery
Sara’s humble hearted, self-effacing response: “It seemed like a good idea.”
Second AM post-transplant, with Aaron resting comfortably,
Realizing Sara was on the same floor, I went to see her,
only to discover she’d been discharged.
So the next day, Sunday morning, getting her address, with a handwritten thank you note and the fruit basket I made in hand,
I stopped off at their home on my way to see Aaron at Mt Sinai.
Two of her three kids were out front. As I approached,
Sara popped out the front door, warning:
“Stay away from this one…” Her 10 year old reading, “He’s got Covid!”
“Oy,” I said. “And how are you!?”
“I feel totally fine…But how’s Aaron?…”
Sara’s immediate concern was for my son,
the one whose life she’d just selflessly saved.
After a few minutes, about to leave, I turned to her oldest,
still buried in his book. “You know, your Mom’s a superhero!”
Giving her a quick glance, then looking back at me, he questioned:
“She is!?” “Oh, in my book she definitely is!”
Sara, who wanted no part of this, smiled, thanked me for coming by,
And called out: “Please send Aaron my best.”
Getting into the car I couldn’t help but think, “She already had!”
On this magical, life-altering night, looking into the mirror of our lives,
Seeing who our best selves might be, it dawns on me:
Giving what we can—gifts that could sustain another,
We somehow save ourselves as well.
But that voice inside may be whispering: Without giving a kidney,
an actual piece of myself, what life-saving gift do I possibly have to give?
“Encanto”—Disney’s latest animated classic,
is the tale of the family Madrigal
Who, thanks to an inextinguishable candle given to Abuela Alma generation ago
Affords each new family member a transcendent gift
which comes to life as they come of age…
For all but one, that is. Mirabel, our main character,
Whose ceremonial gift, as she touched a doorknob emblazoned with her name
Did not open onto the life-power she would especially possess…
Of course [Spoiler Alert] Mirabel does have “magic” powers.
Not the superhuman strength or the ability to control the weather or make flowers bloom of her sisters…But one which materializes when it matters most.
For as the family and their magical home begin to fall apart, it is Mirabel alone who can put it back together…HOW?
So very ordinary on the outside, it is what’s inside her that’s magic.
For Mirabel is able to see life through the eyes of others.
Empathy enlarging her heart. Mirabel understands her Abuela’s harshness,
her parents’ paranoia, perceiving the cracks in their casita reflected
in the relationships within her family…
And as their beloved home crumbles,
the special powers each possess apparently gone,
the family unites, surmounting the brokenness by rebuilding—healing old wounds, fixing through forgiveness.
And with the Madrigal home rebuilt, led by the force of Mirabel’s love,
As the magic returns to all of the family, the final scene reveals a doorknob with Mirabel’s name aglow, ultimately recognizing her magic:
The ability to save another soul by not alone seeing them,
but extending such sincerity of heart, unconditional kindness
that it saves her as well…
The NY Times Modern Love column mid-July was entitled:
“Man with Incredible Beard Needs My Kidney.” [NYT, 7.17.22]
As Julia Brown Farley goes through the questioning that eventually led to her donating one of her kidneys to a man she did not know, relating her own life-search for deeper meaning, and the death of her Dad 20 years prior as primary motivators, Farley shares the surprising lesson:
“Giving a piece of oneself away brings so much in return. It brought me closer to my father…It helped me see how that loss irrefutably shaped who I am, how I carry him with me…If I were back in NYU Psych Class, we’d be discussing Victor Frankl’s theory: That its not the meaning of life in general…but the specific meaning we make at crucial moments that gives life its depth…I never would have guessed that donating an organ would bring so much meaning to my life; how removing something could help fill the void.”
We inscribe ourselves in that big Book of Life through the gifts we give.
Organ donation may be more doable than you think.
Service 1: Ask Sara Elkin. She’s right here, along with her beautiful family.
Gracious enough to be present even tonight to answer any questions she can… If you’re curious or have the slightest inkling, Sara’s glad to talk anytime.
Needless to say, the Sirkmans’ gratitude to her is to infinity & beyond….
Service 2: Ask Sara Elkin, to whom the Sirkmans’ gratitude is to infinity & beyond. She’s up the street in White Plains, and willing to talk to anyone to answer any questions she can…If you’re curious or have even the slightest inkling…Sara is gracious enough to help others give that gift as well.
Materials are available outside in the front lobby
And my friend, LT member-mensch Lee Perlman, whose connections are life- saving [and who just happens to be the Chair of Live-On NY.org]
is always available to help…
And even beyond your kidneys, Consider what’s in your kishkes,
the blessings deep inside meant for you to donate.
Repair a fractured friendship—be there for a lonely soul.
Feed folks who are hungry—mentor teens—counsel the jobless.
Hang out w/old folks—share your life-lessons to open youthful hearts.
See life’s cracks in all the broken people & places around you, knowing,
If you can revive the spirit of just one person,
To them, it’ll mean the world…
And the life you save by giving away a piece of yourself
may well be your own…
With the Holy One’s help this New Year…
So May it be! AMEN.