A Quick Way to Heal the World

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In memory of Lesley Bryant/Gina Nicoli/Leo White/Gerald Lewis

I have had to spend considerable time over the past few years with members who had taken ill and were being treated in hospital. Since I joined Central Synagogue, I have taken it upon myself to try to help our senior members.

I have had my ups and my downs. The ups are that they were were kind, funny, loving, and humble despite their pain, and I know they were grateful for my visits and the help that I gave them, gave me the strength to carry on. The down is when I lost them to the Divine.

I am no stranger to visiting hospitals and patients. Yet, this latest experience of visiting the hospital a number of times every day taught me a lesson, viscerally and emotionally, that I had only, until then, thought about intellectually.

The fact is, a hospital is the great equaliser in our society. It is the place where the barriers of political belief, religious observance, faiths, and societies disappear. I find myself among Christians, Muslims, Hindus.  People in the hospital’s lifts and waiting rooms are suddenly courteous, quiet, sympathetic and comforting to one another. The Muslim standing next to me murmurs that he hopes that all the sick in the hospital become well and I return the blessing to him and the Hindu lady coming out from chemotherapy that I have never seen before somehow knew that I am a Cohen and asked me to bless her so that she can get well — I am sadly confident that we would not utter one word to another if we met each other on the street in the midst of our usual mundane daily comings and goings.

But in the hospital, with its reminder of our mortality and our ultimate powerlessness, everyone there is pretty much in the same boat — human, frightened, hopeful and tolerant of the human condition. If only this feeling and emotion would not evaporate as it does when leaving the hospital!  Outside people are already honking their horns, weaving in and out of traffic in order to arrive a nanosecond earlier at the next light, and in sadness I realise that life in our society has returned to “normal.”

The Talmud sees illness as not necessarily a completely negative state. It causes contemplation and self-examination — not only of the person who is afflicted but also for all those who are connected with that person, who come to visit and who call to inquire regarding the person’s condition.

The human being needs to be brought up short every so often in order to be reminded how fragile and temporary life is. We pray on the High Holy Days that we be cleansed from our sins and we commit ourselves to the service of the Divine and men, but that this reminder of our mission and purpose need not be caused by illnesses or pain. We are bidden to try and raise ourselves to this level of behaviour — to achieve the great equaliser without having to resort to hospital visits. Truly pious people are able to accomplish this monumental achievement, yet it is difficult to maintain such an exalted state. The human condition is such, that after a while one becomes hardened to what one sees in many visits to the hospital. The great lesson begins to fade from our consciousness. And yet, the atmosphere between people in the hospital is different, better, more humane than on our roads, streets, radio waves and in our political discussions.

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