Reading a torah scroll.
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
As a son of Holocaust survivors, since a very young age I have understood the power of the human soul to overcome adversity. Over the years I have read stories of other people who have survived genocides like the one in Rwanda, or more recently, people who have seen terror while fleeing war-torn countries such as Syria.
Religious scholars of all faiths for thousands of years have contemplated why good people in the world have had to endure tragedy, hardship and sorrow. Unfortunately, humans are not privy to those answers while we live in this world. However, one thing I am sure of is that every person has the inner strength to overcome the obstacles in their lives. Some people have trouble tapping into that force within us. In my lifetime, though, I have witnessed people accomplish the impossible when they set their minds to it. One such person is a rabbi I am privileged to know, Rabbi Avrohom Dovid Weisz, who is living with ALS.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (sometimes known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) is a debilitating progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing people to lose the ability to control their muscles. The most well-known person in recent years with the disease was Stephen Hawking.
Rabbi Weisz has overcome the enormity of the challenges ALS has presented to him, and has enlightened me on the power of the human spirit.
First, I must provide some background on my relationship with Rabbi Weisz. Approximately 22 years ago, to revive the level of Jewish scholarship that existed prior to the Holocaust, I devised a rigorous educational program that students can study in schools, in groups or independently.
I worked with Judaic scholars to develop rigorous tests that serve as critical learning milestones to assist with mastering the material. This program is called Dirshu, and Rabbi Weisz has proven against all odds to be one of the most outstanding students who has studied with this program.
Rabbi Weisz is confined to a wheelchair. He is paralyzed and can only communicate through eye movements. Nevertheless, he is one of the most dedicated Dirshu students, always choosing to learn more. To witness him studying is to see a miracle in action. Rabbi Weisz studies with my organization’s Torah program. This course – which is incredibly challenging for everyone who studies the program – is much more so for a person with the severe physical restraints of Rabbi Weisz.
ONE OF our tests consists of 22 questions, which can take Rabbi Weisz 14 to 18 hours to answer. He “writes” his answers by looking and blinking at the letters of his keyboard, because some of the only muscles he can control are the ones that move his eyes.
Once, already 14 hours into a test, Rabbi Weisz’s computer crashed, and his answers were deleted. But he didn’t give up. Instead, he went back to retake the entire exam, still managing to submit it before the deadline.
When Rabbi Weisz first reached out to Dirshu, asking for copies of the exams through his email, and we learned of his ALS and paralysis, we were astounded that he wanted to study with us. Rabbi Weisz has since taught us to never judge others by the obstacles placed in front of them.
I am in awe of Rabbi Weisz’s dedication to God and his education as a way of enriching his own spirit. According to his wife, Ruchie, his devotion to Dirshu and his motivation to keep learning has made a huge difference in his life. Research shows that people with ALS generally do not live more than five years after they begin experiencing symptoms. But Rabbi Weisz has been living with his symptoms for more than 14 years. Ruchie Weisz truly believes her husband is still alive because he has aspirations to continue learning with Dirshu. His drive and purpose keep him fighting.
I have heard many stories of people who, when faced with incredible physical adversity, have overcome these obstacles to accomplish unbelievable things. In Rabbi Weisz’s case, he has a very supportive wife and children who have a positive outlook on life, and the encouragement he receives from his family cannot be underestimated.
My advice to everyone, and especially those facing substantial obstacles, is to find something you are passionate about. Once you find your passion, you can do nearly anything. The proof is all around us.
On March 3, I will join hundreds of Dirshu members in a celebration of Rabbi Weisz’s outstanding academic accomplishments. It is difficult to explain the magnitude of what he has achieved. The Talmud has 2,711 double-sided pages. When people study one page a day, it takes over seven years to complete, and he has not only studied the material, but has taken extremely difficult tests on this material by only using the muscles of his eyes.
I shared this story so that those of you who will not be celebrating in person with Rabbi Weisz can learn about the power of the human spirit.The writer is founder and leader of Dirshu, a global education initiative, and the author of the ‘Dorash Dovid’ series of books that analyze every section, event and commandment in the Torah.
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