This Sunday, I underwent an elective surgical procedure to remove the metal
plate inserted into me during emergency surgery when I broke my femur over a
year ago in the final dash of the Jerusalem (Half) Marathon – which has not
diminished my enthusiastic support for Mayor Nir Barkat’s
Once again, Hadassah hospital’s angels and wizards saved me –
combining their profound sensitivity with cutting-edge skill. Once again, I was
stripped of my identifying marks, my clothing, my credentials, and just treated
skillfully, lovingly, respectfully, impressively, as yet another broken body and
yet another fellow human needing help.
Once again, I salute the global
network of Hadassah heroes, stretching from the generous donors I addressed most
recently on a humid August day in Florida, to my inspiring friends on the
National Board, to my first-rate surgical team, to the nurses, orderlies and
aides who make Hadassah what I call “the Walmart of Israel.” Just as Walmart is
the most integrated place in the American South, where blacks and whites shop
together, Hadassah is a model center of integration in Jerusalem, where Arabs
and Jews, religious and non-religious, heal together.
Within my first
hour I experienced what my mother used to call a “regular UN” with Israeli,
American, Russian, Arab and Filipino accents creating a harmonic medley of
healing. And I am dazzled by Ein Kerem’s sleek, modern, luxurious Davidson
Typically, there are quintessentially Israeli touches, starting
with choruses of the Sunday morning “shavua tov
” greetings, wishing a good week,
with many responders this week adding “shana tova
,” for a great year. The nurse
steadying me as the anesthesiologist applied the spinal – I refused general
anesthesia – was told by his supervisor, “you stay close to me today.” This
young, burly man, who was no kippa-wearer, replied, warmly, “I stay close
There was a ritualistic aspect to this elective
surgery, a familiar return to the strange procedures I followed before in what I
hope is the final act of my tragicomic “health kick” drama. I lost 30 pounds,
but was cut off by an SUV while bicycling and ended up with an undiagnosed
fracture below my hip. I continued running until the femur cracked.
endured emergency surgery with a metal plate inserted into my leg leading to
months of rehab. This Sunday, hoping to alleviate almost daily pain and an
occasional limp, I followed my super-surgeon’s advice to remove the metal
As I told the nurse who wheeled me into the operating room,
elective surgery is a peculiar form of insanity. We voluntarily subject
ourselves to great pain hoping to reduce it. The risk – whose rewards remain to
be seen – prompted me to think about the power of choice, and the challenge of
perpetually seeking improvement while knowing there are no guarantees and that
perfection is unattainable.
In our careers and relationships, we must
balance between being too consumed by ambition and too suffocated by
Wanting to perfect is healthy, but struggling so much that
no accomplishment feels acceptable becomes neurotic.
strikes me as similar to the repentance ritual Jews voluntarily impose on
themselves every new year.Tshuva
, repentance, comes from the word
“return,” and we return every year as sinners, hoping for redemption – even as
we must redeem ourselves actively. True repentance also requires great risk and
pain while seeking an unattainable perfection.
We scrutinize ourselves,
meaning our souls and our relationships and – if we do it right – we zero in on
problems, roll up our spiritual sleeves, and start working.
Humans do not
break habits easily. Relationships do not mend quickly. In this era of personal
indulgence and disposable relationships, being spiritually and personally lazy
is the popular path as most of those around us – and our celebrity role models –
dodge problems or abandon messes rather than rising to the challenge.
Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur we should say “no, it’s time to stop, scrutinize,
and reset if necessary” – even as many of our fellow Jews don’t bother or invest
more time in shopping for outfits or planning the meals than searching their
Soul-searching links self-criticism with self-discovery: by
tackling our weaknesses we can find our true selves – and be truer to ourselves.
Our sages built processes that start with fixing the misdeeds we did to one
another, then build to addressing the negative emotions behind them and finally
climax with a profound accounting between ourselves and our Creator.
Hassidic story recalls one sinner whose sins were so awful that Rabbi Elimelekh
of Lizhensk first told him to sell all he owned. The Rebbe then demanded an
accounting of every sin. The cumulative evil so overwhelmed the Rebbe he
insisted that the sinner had to be burned at the stake to be redeemed. The
sinner agreed. At the last minute, with the pyre smoldering, the Rebbe told the
sinner “open your mouth” and gave him sweet jam. He then welcomed the sinner
back to humanity – returning his money to live as a righteous
Hospitals reek of death but also sing of birth. Repentance too is a
form of spiritual death and rebirth – and comes, in the Jewish tradition, with
lots of singing. As the mini-fractures where the unwelcome screws in my femur
once were begin to mend, I wish all of us strength in healing our strained
relationships, our crippled dreams, our singed souls, our broken hearts. Let’s
take big risks in confronting our shortcomings, enduring the pain involved in
reconciling with those we have hurt, and compelling ourselves to change. And
let’s then benefit, as I hope to, from the lessened pain and greater quality of
life that emerges from this suffering- by-choice, this risking-to-stretch, this
hurting-to-heal.The writer is professor of history at McGill University
and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest
book, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was recently
published by Oxford University Press.
Watch the new Moynihan’s Moment