Hurting to Heal: Repentance as Elective Spiritual Surgery

This Sunday, I underwent an elective surgical procedure to remove the metal plate inserted into me during emergency surgery when I broke my femur a year-and-a-half ago in the final dash of the Jerusalem (Half) Marathon – which has not diminished my enthusiastic support for Nir Barkat’s mayoral re-election. 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 Karem’s sleek, modern, luxurious Davidson Tower.
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 “shanah 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 [tzamud] to God.”
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 tragic-comic “health kick” drama. I lost thirty 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. I 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 plate.
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 perfection is unattainable.  In our careers and relationships, we must balance between being too consumed by ambition and too suffocated by complacency.  Wanting to perfect is healthy, but struggling so much that no accomplishment feels acceptable becomes neurotic.
Elective surgery strikes me as similar to the repentance ritual Jews voluntarily impose on themselves every new year.  Tshuvah, repentance, come 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.
On Rosh Hashanah 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 souls.
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.
A Hasidic 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 man.
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.
Gil Troy is a 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 video!