The Rav is Waiting
One of the inspiring aspects of the Torah world is the frequency with which individuals turn their own experience of tragedy and pain into a means of preventing others from experiencing the same pain. The classic example is Dor Yesharim. After Rabbi Yosef Eckstein and his wife lost four out of their first five children to that dreaded disease, he resolved to do something to ensure that no other Jewish family would ever suffer what they had. And he succeeded. Today, through the genetic testing for carriers of Tay-Sachs instituted by Dor Yesharim, Tay-Sachs has been virtually eliminated from the Torah community.
The first deaf education for Orthodox kids came about when a little boy started crying at the Seder table, "I'm not a rasha. I'm not a rasha." His Haggadah portrayed the evil son as without a yarmulke, and at that time the only deaf education available was in public schools that did not permit wearing a yarmulke. His parents, Yosef and Ruth Ebstein, decided that they had no choice but to start a Torah school, the Hebrew Institute for the Deaf, for their two deaf sons and others like them.
Rabbi Moshe Schlesinger is another example of someone who used his personal travails for the benefit of Klal Yisrael. He and his wife Goldie were married over 25 years without children, before being blessed with twins – a son and a daughter. Long before he and his wife had yet become parents, Rabbi Schlesinger began counseling other couples with respect to the complicated medical, emotional, and halachic issues faced by couples experiencing fertility problems.
He had felt acutely the lack of such guidance and wanted to spare other couples the same feelings of being all alone and not knowing what to do. By that time, Rabbi Schlesinger, a graduate of Ponevezh Yeshiva and subsequently a close talmid of the Brisker Rav's son, Rabbi Yehoshua Ber Soloveitchik, had accumulated considerable halachic and medical knowledge of the issues connected to fertility problems.
Over the past quarter century, Rabbi Schlesinger has counseled between 25,000-30,000 couples experiencing difficulties in having children. When his twins were born eighteen years ago, Rabbi Schlesinger told a rosh yeshiva who called him to wish him Mazel Tov, "Baruch Hashem, now I can return to being a rosh yeshiva [of yeshiva ketana Ma'alei Simcha]." The rosh yeshiva told him otherwise, "There are lots of roshei yeshiva. You have a unique shlichus (mission) from HaKadosh Baruch Hu."
"ONE WHO HASN'T EXPERIENCED INFERTILITY cannot possibly comprehend the pain, the pressures, the tension involved," Rabbi Schlesinger told me as we sat in the study of his Mattersdorf apartment on a recent Motzaei Shabbos. The couple need someone to speak to them who can be a father figure, he explains, but the last person in the world to perform that task is the actual father or mother. Parents too often only add to the pressure that the couple are experiencing. (One night a week, Rabbi Schlesinger meets with parents of couples who have not yet had children to help guide them how to be supportive without inadvertently making matters worse.)
The couple who come for counseling need warmth and support, Rabbi Schlesinger stresses, but they also need someone who has enough emotional distance to properly guide them. His statement reminds me of something that Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky once said about his own ability to give people a good eitzah: "I let others' tzores penetrate, but only a quarter of an inch. Otherwise I couldn't give a good eitzah."
Knowing that Rabbi Schlesinger has also experienced what they are going through assures couples of the empathy they seek. But they also require the best possible advice and guidance. Rabbi Schlesinger has been called the Rabbi Elimelech Firer of infertility – i.e., a layman who has thrown himself into studying the subject in depth and keeps abreast of every recent development in the field. Besides his rosh yeshivos's black frock, he also wears a metaphoric doctor's blue gown.
He is a member of the American, European, and Israeli fertility societies, and travels abroad three times a year for conferences to remain informed of the latest developments in the field and to meet with couples. There are constant advances in the treatment of infertility. One area of advance concerns the preservation of fertility in women undergoing chemotherapy or who have still not found their ben zug. Another developing area deals with male infertility, where those who would have been told just a few years ago that they could not father a child are now able to do so. Rabbi Schlesinger is the halachic advisor to an Israeli laboratory that is a world leader in the field, in addition to serving as an advisor to the Maccabee Health Fund. (In his lectures to kallah and chassan teachers, rabbonim, and morei hora'a, Rabbi Schlesinger always points out that the principal problem in about 40% of the cases of infertility lies with the male.)
The doctors with whom Rabbi Schlesinger works often rely upon him to explain to the couple at length the purpose of each test and procedure and what is involved, something for which the doctors frequently do not find the time. His busiest times, he notes wryly, are Erev Shabbos and Erev Chag when doctors are not available and a couple might need to understand a particular test result immediately or risk losing another month. He remains in contact with the couples he counsels at every stage of the process, often times reviewing test results sent to him by fax in order to explain their significance.
About 30% of the couples who consult with Rabbi Schlesinger are not shomrei mitzvot. They learn of him from various forums for those dealing with fertility issues. When it comes to fertility, even those who are not strictly observant often become acutely conscious that "the key to life" is with Hashem, and they want to be very careful to do everything scrupulously according to halacha.
One such woman called Rabbi Schlesinger and asked him whether a certain invasive procedure could be performed on Shabbos. She had been told by her doctors that the only chance of success was if the procedure was conducted on Shabbos. Rabbi Schlesinger asked her to send him all her test results. After going over them, he told her that her doctors must have made a mistake – the procedure needed to be performed on Friday and Shabbos would already be too late. She went back to her doctor, who confirmed that Rabbi Schlesinger was correct.
It is Rabbi Schlesinger's combination of halachic expertise – he consulted frequently with Rabbi Elyashiv, zt"l, for decades – and broad medical knowledge that makes him a unique address. He tells me that in 95% instances today there is no tension between the medical advice given and halacha, and in the other 5% of cases solutions can almost always be found.
But he gives me an example of how it makes a difference to consult with a rav. Often a couple will call up and ask a question in the form, "Is IVF mutar?" In such a case, he might answer, "It's assur, except if you fall into one of the categories for which it is mutar l'chatchilla. The point he is making is that it is halachically wrong and a mistake from a medical point of view to rush into the most expensive and invasive procedure, without having tried other forms of treatment first.
At the end of our two-hour conversation, I asked Rabbi Schlesinger why he wanted to speak to me, especially since the Pri Chaim organization he runs does not solicit funds. Volunteers, who have themselves experienced fertility problems, run call centers and other programs in 26 cities in Israel. Besides his daily consultations in Jerusalem, Rabbi Schlesinger receives couples once a week in Bnei Brak, and once every three weeks in one of the other cities.
It's very simple, he explains: He wants to make sure that any couple who needs his counsel knows that he is available and waiting for them.
Pri Chaim can be reached at 011-972-2-500-1501 or 500-4161.
The Way the Ball Bounces
Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez retired after last Sunday's game against the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park. Though he is widely considered the best tight end in NFL history, I suspect his retirement was not on the radar screen of many Mishpacha readers. There was, however, a story repeated in many of the summaries of his career that holds a lesson for all of us.
Thirteen years ago, in a game at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, Gonzalez was tackled out of bounds and sent crashing towards photographer Mickey Pfleger. Pfleger's desperate attempts to get out of the way of the 240 pound Gonzalez, were to no avail. The latter flattened the much smaller cameraman, knocking him unconscious.
Gonzalez was blameless, but nonetheless felt terrible about what had happened. Three days later, however, he received an update. Pfleger had gone into a seizure after being hit. As a consequence, the 49ers team physician told the paramedics to tell the emergency room staff to order an MRI. That MRI revealed a still aymptomatic brain tumor that would almost certainly have claimed Pfleger's life fairly quickly.
Over the next decade (prior to Pfleger's death), Gonzalez and Pfleger ran into one another a couple of times, exchanging hugs when they did. And Pfleger never failed to mention how he was supposed to be leveled by Gonzalez and was supposed to go into a seizure on the sidelines, though no one could have seen G-d's plan at the time.
Department of Corrections
My oldest son, who did not have the advantage of his father's math training, pointed out that my piece last week on South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein contained an elementary arithmetic error that diminished the point I was making. The 75,000 member South African Jewish community is at most .14% of the total population, not 1.4%, as I wrote. That makes Rabbi Goldstein's choice to be the opening speaker at Nelson Mandela's funeral, even more remarkable.
Second correction: The email address given at the end of my column on Rabbi Aharon Bezalel's Achdut Yisrael cheder, "Keeping the Lights Burning," was incorrect. It should have been [email protected] I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of the large number of readers who managed to find me nevertheless.