These are the things that are limitless, of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world, while the principal remains in the world to come … visiting the sick.
— Rabbi Yochanan as cited in Shabbat 127
Back in September, I was a very healthy guy, never having anything more than a cold. That changed back in October, when I was hospitalized for almost a week with brain hemorrhaging. I was released after doctors thought the bleeding had stopped and I was on my way to recovery. Things didn’t go according to plan, though. After being released, I wound up in the emergency room three times over the following three weeks with related complications, and ultimately ended up in the operating room having urgent brain surgery when my brain had an even larger bleed than the first time around. Quite literally, I needed this like I needed a hole in my head.
It’s amazing how much can change so quickly. Physically, I went from biking, hiking and playing softball to being fairly immobile for a while. The changes weren’t just physical though. Before it all started, I had many social realities. I was a husband, a son, a brother, a Jew, a rabbi, a (very bad) athlete, occasional movie-goer, book-reader, you name it. Once I ended up in the hospital though, all of those things seemed to change and I became “the patient.” Socially, I was always treated as someone who was sick and needed to be taken care of. Regular old conversations were few and far between. Mentally, my cognitive abilities were quite stressed with even basic tasks like counting coins. Fortunately, this is mostly behind me now.
That’s my story demonstrating how life can and does change. Other people have their stories too. For some, their stories reflect life changes that were just as significant or more so, and happened just as quickly. For others, the changes came slower but have just as profound an effect on their lives. Some changes are ones of growth, others are changes of decay, and others are just changes. There is one thing that binds us all together though, everything always changes. The wise King Solomon is said to have taught gam zeh ya’avor, this too shall pass — whatever it is.
People sometimes ask me now, what got me through it? The answer is, I didn’t always feel like I was getting through it OK. Sometimes, I felt like life was getting through me, not the other way around. But if there was anything, it was being part of something larger than myself and not having to go through anything by myself. That meant a lot of things. It meant having a loving and supportive family. And something that was overpowering for both my wife, Jodi, and I, was how much the Jewish community rallied to us. We received phone calls, visits, cards, meals, rides and more. The care and concern shown to us meant the world, and at times there was never enough. Each time that someone expressed care, we felt a bit renewed. So how did I get through it all? I don’t always know, but I know I didn’t have to get through it alone.
There are two ways to learn Torah. One is to study what our sages taught and one is to experience life. Ideally, they work together and from each, the lesson is the same. Bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, is a mitzvah that has eternal value.
Jason Holtz is assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El.