Compassion in All the Right Places

רְפָאֵֽנוּ יְהֹוָה וְנֵרָפֵא הוֹשִׁיעֵֽנוּ וְנִוָּשֵֽׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵֽנוּ אָֽתָּה וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּוֹתֵֽינוּ

Heal us, Hashem, and we will be healed, support us and we will be saved You are our Praise. And, boost a total healing to all our affliction

כִּי אֵל מֶֽלֶךְ רוֹפֵא נֶאֱמָן וְרַחֲמָן אָֽתָּה: בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְהֹוָה רוֹפֵא חוֹלֵי עַמּוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל:

because You are the Almighty King, faithful and compassionate Healer. Blessed are You, Hashem, Healer of the sick of His nation Israel.

Compassion comes in all shapes and sizes, from places least expected.  In my father’s journey through his illness, we found sympathy from all creations big and small, many times with the benefactor never even recognizing the magnitude of the kindness.

There were people who davened and those who learned for my father’s merit, others who tended to Aba’s medical needs, some who ran errands and others who were the messengers of the All Compassionate One without ever knowing it. 

The days after my father’s diagnosis were some of the most difficult ones.  We were frozen and in a state of disbelief.  How could my vigorous father be dying?  I traveled to Cleveland to help devise a plan and my imagination kept formulating the scene in Heaven as the diagnosis sentencing took place on earth.  Was G-d in His posture of Judgement?  Or, was He in His Compassionate Stance? 

I arrived at snowy Severn Road in Cleveland Heights, not quite knowing what to say and what to do.  I could barely hug my parents.  My father was composed and my mother was desperately trying to stay calm.  We did not even know where to begin.  My mother relayed the kindness of their Gastroenterologist as he dealt the blow of the frightening diagnosis.  She described Dr. Eric Shapiro bowing his head and feeling their pain.  It was therapeutic to her that the man who had shared the terrible news was compassionate as she rewound the reel of those moments over and over again, always stressing Dr. Shapiro’s empathy.

We scheduled the biopsy, hoping for a miracle.  We encountered kindness as our dear friend, Dr. Gabe Levi, spoke to us and the pathologists at University Hospitals.  While the biopsy confirmed our worst fears, my phone rang, beeped and buzzed with calls and messages of support.  Within a few hours, we had the assistance of top oncologists, pathologists and radiologists.  In our sadness, we felt others cushioning our pain.

The night after the biopsy, I had a difficult time sleeping.  My childhood room had been converted into my father’s study.  How does a daughter rest in her father’s personal Beis Medrash (Torah study), with his Torah binders and tapes surrounding the bed?  To counter the brutally cold Cleveland night and still remain respectfully dressed inside my father’s Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) , I wore my daytime clothing with a warm pair of fuzzy pajamas underneath.

I couldn’t sleep.  I checked my phone for the messages coming in from Israel.  I read and responded to the texts and checked my calls from the day.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  On my list of calls, there was a call with the name “Hashem”.   I had been so sleep-deprived that I thought I was hallucinating.  I forced myself to put the phone away and fall asleep.

I fell asleep for a few hours.  I woke up after 3 AM.  I remembered the astonishing call list and rechecked.  The “Hashem” call was still there.

Now I was intrigued.  What was Hashem’s number?  I checked my contacts and Hashem was there.  His number was a single number One.  Of course!

I took a screen shot of the phone and posted it on my family’s WhatsApp, hoping someone could explain this.

A few hours later, Leah responded to my Whatsapp message.  Many years ago, she had attended a shiur (Torah lecture) and the Rav suggested that the attendees put Hashem on speed dial.  Leah had accepted the suggestion and programmed Hashem into her phone with a phone number of One.  The contacts were uploaded to the cloud and that was why Hashem had appeared on my phone. 

It made sense.  I must have dialed a single digit of One the day of the biopsy and then hung up.  The number One was paired with Hashem, so that was how it appeared on my call list. 

Plausible?  Yes.

Coincidental?  Certainly not.

I do not recall ever seeing Hashem on my phone in the many years since Leah had programmed it to the Heavenly iCloud. I took it as a compassionate hug from Above.

As we scrambled to figure out what to do with the short window of prognosis time, many had suggested that we call an expert from my parents’ community. Certain that this doctor would be gentle and kind, we were shocked by his brusque manner as he reminded us to be realistic with the weighty prognosis.  While we understood that doctors have different temperaments and styles, we hoped to find hope and empathy elsewhere.  And, we did.

As we sat down in my mother’s office to discuss a plan moving forward, G-d sent a furry creature to distract us.  The law office is a room with a circular desk and a round conference table with chairs amid an impressive jungle of plants tickling the walls and two-story ceiling.  Every time we would try to discuss a treatment plan during that trip, a chipmunk would jump out from one of the plants.  We would be distracted, and try to trap the chipmunk, but would be unsuccessful every time.  Once we would reconvene, the chipmunk would reappear. 

We called a pest specialist and he set traps to no avail.  He opened all the doors in the house and followed the chipmunk, feeling certain that the chipmunk had exited the house. 

But the chipmunk had been sent to distract us from our hopelessness and it was not ready to leave.  I couldn’t help but imagine the chaos in Heaven as we chased this chipmunk round and round the house for the next few days.  I felt like The Creator was telling us not to worry.  There was an order to His chaos. Perhaps, He was in his Merciful Posture.

We called a dear friend of the family, a top specialist at The Cleveland Clinic.  Dr. Rothner empathized with our sadness and calmly explained the options that were available. He guided us with kindness and expertise, encouraging us.  We saw Dr. Davendra Sohol at The Clinic.  Before speaking to us, this oncologist kept going back to the CT scan, hoping but unable to find even a glimmer of encouragement on the screen.  Finally, he bowed his head and spoke with the saddest voice.

He explained that Aba had “few months” but with treatment may live for “more months”. I asked him what he would do if this was his father.  Dr. Sohol answered, “either do nothing or do everything.” I asked my father what he would want and he confirmed that we should find the best treatment route.  He wanted to live to study Torah.  It was simple and that was his wish.

My sister-in-law, Rena, was privy to a new treatment, CPI-613 that was being sponsored by her boss.  It was developed in Israel by Raphael Pharmaceuticals and was showing promise for stage IV pancreatic cancer.   We marveled that a drug with this name had been developed for our 613 (number of Torah commandments) role-model    We mentioned CPI-613 to Drs. Sohol and Rothner who sympathetically agreed to do whatever they could to help us.   

We started planning.  The chipmunk kept emerging, reminding us of the order and kindness to the Heavenly chaos.  The exterminator came and was unsuccessful once again.  We discovered a suitable trial of CPI-613 in New Jersey and decided to take our journey there.  I watched my father pack for his final journey. A few personal items.  More than a few seforim.

I opened the front window where I thought I had seen the chipmunk.  I thought that I saw the chipmunk leave, but I couldn’t be sure.  I left it up to The Creator of ordered chaos. 

We were on our way.

Chaos and winter followed us from Cleveland to New Jersey.  The first few days and weeks were snowy and frigid.   We were greeted by a fox, a major sewage backup, a damaged heating system, a car accident and many other unusual events.  My brother, Moshe kept remarking “Let Hashem take it all out on Eitzim Ve’avanim(sticks and stones) as long as Aba is okay”.

Aba started a rigorous chemo regimen with the addition of the CPI-613 drug coursing through his veins.  Aba learned and taught Torah with his 11 AM Friday shiur moved to a phone connection between Teaneck, New Jersey and Cleveland, Ohio. My friends took upon themselves to say Modeh Ani with Kavana. My aunt, Tante Sari, split up Sefer Tehilim (Book of Psalms) and enlisted family members to recite the entire Sefer Tehilim every single day. We were trying to maintain order through the chaos and we were lifted by the outpouring of love and support by family, friends, talmidim (students), our communities and even perfect strangers. People I barely know would stop me and tell me that they were praying, learning or doing acts of chesed to keep my father alive.

My mother travelled to Cleveland once every few weeks to manage her court cases.  On the first trip, I dropped my mother off at Newark airport.  I ran back and forth between my car and the window to the ticket counter.  I was anxious for my mother to be properly escorted to her gate.  After a few minutes, one of the United counter agents came to the door and told me not to worry, that my mother would be safe.  As tears streamed down my face, she said, “I know.  I’ll be praying for your Dad and your family.”  What kindness from a total stranger!

And, those kindnesses continued.  My father insisted on being referred to as “Jerry” at Morristown Hospital.    The doctors and nurses marveled at the warm camaraderie between Rebbe and talmid. One of the receptionists once heard a talmid referring to him as Reb Yankel and then insisted on calling him Rabbi thereafter.

His talmidim visited and learned with him, some traveling from quite a distance.  They visited to share a few minutes of Bikur Cholim time and ended up with a lengthy chavrusa (one-on-one leraning) time, instead. They begged for Brochos (blessings) from Aba to which he replied, “I’m no Rebbe but I am a Cohen.  I’ll give you a birchas Cohen”

His chaveirim (friends) visited and learned with my father.  One of his dear chaveirim, Baruch (Burton) Morris would visit regularly from Harrisburg, PA, making the long drive with a driver.  He even brought some of the letters from the 1960’s that my father had written to him.  My father remarked, “who knew I could write English back then!” These visits brought great comfort to us and great delight to my father.

Elevators waited for me when I was in a hurry.  I remember one grueling Friday when I needed to pick up a CT scan and deliver it to New York City for review.  I had very little time to spare and a houseful of future Shabbos guests.  Just about every elevator and traffic light on that three-hour trip waited for me.  In my father’s merit, chaos was becoming orderly.

During the first few months of the COVID pandemic, we needed to find a private setting for Aba’s chemotherapy infusions, as COVID was gaining traction in Morristown Medical Center. My brother, Mordy contacted Dr. Azriel Hirschfeld, who took great pains to create a safe environment for Aba’s infusions.  Dr. Hirschfeld’s grandfather, Rabbi Naiman had been my father’s Rebbe in Chicago and had been first to suggest that my father attend Telshe Yeshiva. My father brought Dr. Hirschfeld a copy of his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov where he thanked Rabbi Naiman in the hakdama (introduction) for setting the trajectory of his life.

Another coincidence? Certainly not!

In the early days of COVID, I was terrified for my father.  He seemed to be in the most at-risk immune-compromised patient group.  I begged my father to move his learning from the Bnai Yeshurun Beis Medrash to our home.  He adamantly disagreed.  With trepidation, I drove him daily to the Beis Medrash with Purell and instructions to be careful.  A short few months later, without any COVID symptoms at all, my father test positive for antibodies to the dreaded COVID virus. Once again, The Heavenly Court was exacting judgement with compassion.

As I ventured out in those early days of COVID to pick up groceries and toiletries for my father, I was frightened.  Often, I would be called upon to divert to a side register or a secluded area to check out.  It was certainly G-d’s Compassion protecting me as I shopped for my father’s needs.  I would hear other shoppers protest “why her?”  The cashiers didn’t quite know why they chose me from the long lines of shoppers, but I knew why.

We were handed a diverse team of specialists collaborating on my father’s care.   They were confounded and delighted by the miraculous response to the chemo regimen. Dr. Allister would tell my father that he made them look good. We knew that He made them look good. Looking back, the Healer kept my father well for eighteen months after the CPI-613 regimen was terminated.  The doctors were astounded but The Healer was in His compassionate pose.

We were embraced by the tehillim, chesed and Torah that family members, friends, talmidim and people from all places and stages added to their busy schedules. Our darkest hours were illuminated by tehillim chats, new learning sedarim (set times), chesed initiatives and those who combined to recite the entire Sefer Tehillim (Book of Psalms) every day for two years. It brought light to dispel the night and it brought order to the chaos of disease.

I never saw my father’s acknowledgment and appreciation of kindness more than during the two years of his illness. My father would remark, “my talmidim really love me” and “I am so lucky to have so many people who really care about me.” The compassion of The Healer was evident and my father really felt the embrace. The Healer allowed my father to learn his beloved Torah day and night, almost to the last day of his life. And, to me that was compassion in the most important place.

I recognize that through the difficult Judgement, there was Mercy. With Mercy came real, palpable goodness. And, goodness streamed from this world and from the World Above. The empathy of friends, family and near strangers really can transform a dark era into a light-filled one. And, G-d in His infinite Wisdom and Mercy can contort Himself into a Judgement posture with Compassion. His emissaries may be people we know and messengers of all forms.   All we have to do is to look in all the right places.

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