The Human Spirit: The gates of love remain open

‘AND THEN you move your wheelchair to the bima. I gasp. This year, you are again going to lead us in prayer.’ (photo credit: TNS)
‘AND THEN you move your wheelchair to the bima. I gasp. This year, you are again going to lead us in prayer.’
(photo credit: TNS)
Dear Eli Sharon,
Just seeing you in your wheelchair outside the synagogue on Yom Kippur was a prod to introspection. Just one year ago, you inspired us as you led us all through the High Holy Day prayers. Two months later, you received the dreaded diagnosis: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS. Once known as baseball player Lou Gehrig’s disease, now it’s better known as the disease which impaired cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Progressive motor neuron atrophy was written into your Book of Life.
You’ve been paralyzed before. You’ve shared that experience with your congregation, Shira Hadasha on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. How can we help remembering that on Yom Kippur, 45 years ago to the day, you were mobilized?
Your poignant words, translated from the Hebrew.
Evening of Shabbat Bereshit, 1973, 3:18 a.m.
I wake up from an hour-and-a-half ’s sleep after three days of insane fighting, without a moment of respite. I don’t know if I’ve eaten during these last days. I drank some polluted water from a jerry can – water fit for washing the implements of war. The ground is shaking under me – a nine on the Richter scale. Everything is exploding; everything is burning. People rising and falling, I raise my head. I try to understand what’s happening. Turmoil from hell.
What is with them? Our vehicle is burning three meters from me. I shout in an attempt to overcome the noise of the explosions and to make certain no one is sleeping inside it. Z. shrieks next to me, “Mommy! Where’s my hand?” I shout back to him, “I’m here, I’m coming to you!” Bending over, I try to bandage his broken shoulder. I tie the hand to his body and raise him. “I’m here, I’m getting you to a doctor,” I whisper to him, sobbing. I shout to my guys. I take two steps and then it happens.
The explosion envelopes me like a big dark balloon, absorbs me into itself, and drops me with tremendous force several meters away. I don’t hear anything, just a powerful ringing in my ears. I lie on the wet sand in a cornfield. Z. flies into the air; D. disappears. All of me is one ache. I’m hot inside.
Something hot is running down my face, my right side is burning. I try to raise my right hand – it doesn’t move. I put my left hand on my face – there is no face; there’s a big hole, hot blood spurting in a bubbly flow. My right eye is shut, as if it’s not there. My nose is bleeding from a huge piece of shrapnel that pierced it from above. I’m not able to breathe, except through my mouth, which is full of sand and dust. My lungs are burning from the soot and the smoke of the burning dust. The vehicles are exploding all around one by one.
Loads of flammable material are exploding one after another like a synchronized chorus. Every explosion sucks the remainder of healthy air from me and then leaves me in a tremendous gasp. The ground is shaking under me like dancing in honor of its creation.
You were just barely alive. Nili, your girlfriend then, and your parents who survived the Holocaust lent you their strength through the long recovery.
And I haven’t told how I stood for the first time on my own two feet.
And I haven’t told how for first time, I chewed a piece of bread.
And I haven’t told how for the first time, I drank some water and it spilled all over me, down my paralyzed right side.
And I haven’t told how one lives without a sense of smell.
And how one lives with a constant deafening whistling sound in one’s ears.
Or what life is like with a constant stinging in the inside of the cheeks… and the blood… and the pain.
And what am I going to do for the pain in my head?
In your synagogue over the decade and a half of the congregation coming together, you were always the cheerful one, the person helping newcomers, filling in for a missing prayer leader. When anyone saw you and Nili with your beautiful children and grandchildren, no one would have guessed your war injuries. Not long ago, you traveled to Canada for a grandchild’s birth that was almost a tragedy, and you lent your loved ones the strength as it had been lent to you.
And now this.
The words of a questioning angel echo from the afternoon prayer: “This is Torah, and this is its reward?”
As we prepare for Ne’ila, the final section of prayer on Yom Kippur, behind you the curtain is moved so your wheelchair can be positioned to address the congregation.
I’m thinking how brave you are to speak. We all remember last year when you spoke before Ne’ila. Your mischievous smile: “Don’t worry, I’ll finish on time.”
Now you begin with a poem. When the gates of prayer close, the gates of love remain open, is the refrain. And then you move your wheelchair to the bima. I gasp. This year, you are again going to lead us in prayer. You start us singing the poignant “Machnisei Rahamim.” Over and over we repeat the plea, “Put our tears before the King who gives in to those tears... Before the high and exalted King.”
Our tears are there.
Somehow you stand. And when you can no longer stand, you sit in your chair and then continue chanting each word, each phrase, each familiar supplication. The Hebrew for the person leading synagogue prayers is “to stand before the ark.” Never has anyone stood taller as you sit before the ark.
With you are the pains and hopes of the congregation. You’ve made room for all of us. And as always, with you are the six fellow soldiers from your unit who didn’t return home.
With you is your own struggle with a debilitating disease.
Each time the Divine Healer is called upon in our prayers my heart squeezes into a ball.
Four hundred men and women on two sides of the curtain are hanging on every word, eager to join our voices to yours. When the shofar sounds the closing of the gates of prayer, I see the gates of love opening.
You and I talk the next day. It was a huge effort, extreme, you admit. But it was a feeling of glory, of elevation. There was no sign of anger. How is that possible? Sometimes you do feel angry, of course. Mostly you acknowledge that there is no answer to the hardest question: why me?
You are determined to be present in every moment of the present. “The world to come is the next moment,” you tell me. “We cannot know what will come next. If we are focused on it, we miss the present where our lives are.”
You say, “Shabbat Bereshit is my birthday. On Shabbat Bereshit I was born a second time.”
Happy Birthday, Eli Sharon, and thank you.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.