Joining the Fraternity of (Minor) Sufferers
In the bygone age of my youth, when suburban parents still saw their task as character building, the rule for summer jobs was more or less: the harder and more unpleasant the better. As a columnist, I've somewhat adopted the "even a bad experience is a good experience" rule for new purposes: "Even a miserable experience is still a potential column."
Let me give an example. In February, I had the boarding gate door slammed in my face.t LAX. My despair was twofold. I had to get to Seattle for an interview the next morning with talk show host Michael Medved, along witha speech that evening. But the airline could not even assure me a place on any flight before my scheduled departure from Seattle to London two days later.
That was the least of it. That morning my wife and I had agreed to disagree about how early she needed to be at LAX before her flight back to Israel, and we had ended up travelling separately to the airport. Truthfully, I had arrived at the airport in plenty of time, but I underestimated how much time I would have to wait for a shuttle bus to a distant gate -- in the perpetually "under repair" airport -- and had treated myself to a leisurely Minchah. Nevertheless, I knew I would have nothing to say the next time the subject of time needed to arrive in advance of international flights arose.
By the time I was next able to speak to my wife, she was home in Jerusalem, and I had managed to arrive in Seattle flying standby on a later flight. She was kind enough not to mention our disagreement. No need to rub it in. But she did finish with a typically astute observation, "Anyway, you were probably already writing one of your 'shlemazel in the airport columns' before you had even boarded for Seattle." She was right about that.
So when I awakened in excruciating pain last Friday morning, it was predetermined that this week's column would be about kidney stones. A writer must mine even the painful experiences, and, in any event, I was too uncomfortable all week to think of anything else.
So what did I learn from my first bout with kidney stones, which required two emergency room visits, and an operation on late Tisha B'Av afternoon, when the stone proved resistant to all the folk remedies to remove itself?
Well, for one thing, the absurdity of the description of Israel as an apartheid country was placed in clear relief. I would guess that sixty to seventy percent of the medical professionals – medical technicians, nurses, and the two night doctors -- at Terem Emergency Clinic who treated me were Arabs. I doubt too many white South Africans under apartheid placed their health in the hands of blacks, or even used the same hospitals and medical facilities.
Second, drink more water. Lot's more. Few of us drink enough, and that failure is almost always implicated in kidney stones.
On the third day of my ordeal, my bachor entered my room and said in an amused tone, "So, Abba, do you feel humbled?" I was astounded, for that was exactly what I was feeling, though the word I would have used was mortal, very mortal (if there are degrees of mortality).
All the kale and blueberries and my excellent trainer had still left me vulnerable to a tiny five-millimeter stone. A stone no longer than the mosquito that flew into Titus's ear had left me writhing in agony. I definitely was not the one in control here.
In any event, my son assured me, the newfound humility would be good for me: "You reduce us to frailty, then tell us, 'Children of man, repent!'" (Tehillim 90:3). Lesson number three.
I also discovered that I had joined a rather large fraternity. Not quite as large as that of men of a certain age who never experience a night of uninterrupted sleep, but large nevertheless. Friends whom I had never known suffered from kidney stones wrote to describe being stricken at a convention or at the Seder table. One told me of enduring multiple procedures over twenty years.
And, in a way, I joined a sorority as well. My family doctor explained that internal organs are buttressed by smooth (as opposed to striated) muscle, and that the manner in which the smooth muscles around the kidneys strive to evict an intruding stone is virtually the same as how smooth muscle works to bring the newborn child into the world.
I'm not so foolhardy as to claim the pain of kidney stones equals that of childbirth, and I certainly pray not to endure eight more bouts like this week's. But at least I could finally appreciate Rashi's comment that the chattos offering brought by the new mother is for having taken an oath, in the throes of labor, foreswearing future childbearing. I would happily foreswear any future kidney stones were it in my power to control.
As is usually the case, the week's travails, as unpleasant as they were, definitely had a positive side. They reinforced how fortunate we all are to live within a Torah community, where one can count not just on solicitude but any help one needs. I knew my upstairs neighbor had recently had a kidney stone surgically removed, and went to consult with him immediately upon returning home from my first emergency room visit.
He and his wife spent hours with us discussing the process and what to expect, and loaded us up with a large variety of natural remedies to help a stone pass. But for the information they provided, it might well have taken another week to arrange the surgery, which would have precluded my participation in next week's family summer vacation and likely an eagerly anticipated trip to the States the week following.
And most of all it reinforced the blessing of having a life partner who you can rely on completely in a time of need. Despite dealing with her own lingering virus, my wife jumped out of bed to take me early in the morning to the Shaarei Tzedek Emergency Room, and two days later spent almost the entire night with me at Terem emergency clinic, without a peep of complaint. That reminder of what has been built – reinforced by the constant calls from children and their vying to be of assistance – almost made it all worthwhile.
The Three Weeks have passed, and with them all the (anti-) lashon hara gatherings that have become a staple of this time of the year. But the work of reducing improper speech and the negative feelings it engenders is never over.
So let me share something I learned recently: People do not like to be shtuched. No, really.
How do I know? Last Shabbos, we finally managed to get together with very close friends on a Shabbos when neither of us had children visiting. As our guests were leaving, the wife recalled that they had been with us for Shabbos exactly twenty years ago.
In the course of the meal, she had spoken animatedly of how much she loved The Bamboo Cradle, which she had read 39 times. I allowed that the Bamboo Cradle is indeed a gripping story, and justly one of the all-time best-selling works of Torah non-fiction. But I expressed some doubts as to whether it could really bear so many readings. (Besides The Jew in American Sports, my childhood favorite, what book can?)
At the end of that two-decade-ago meal, the wife asked me if I had any good books for her, as she had nothing to read in the house. I replied, "What's the problem, you can always read The Bamboo Cradle again?" That shtuch, of which I had absolutely no memory, had stuck with her for twenty years.
When she brought it up last Shabbos, I was reminded of a time I was on the other end of the shtuch. I don't mind humor at my expense mind you, but I prefer being the one doing the deprecating.
On the occasion in question, I was on a panel in Manchester, England, with the much missed Abba Dunner, z"l, as the moderator. At one point, someone asked Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair, a former actor and music producer, whether there was anything he missed about his life in Hollywood. When Reb Yaakov Asher had finished, I started to add something from my own experience. At which point, one of the other panelists piped up, "Isn't this an amazing panel? You ask a question to Rabbi Sinclair about his life in Hollywood, and two people answer."
The audience laughed heartedly, and I felt a proper fool. I had learned in kollel with that particular panelist for a number of years, and we were (and remain) friends. But I must admit that the experience of being the victim of a joke not of my own making always niggled me, and no doubt affected my feelings toward him for years.
(This morning he even reminded me of details of the panel I had forgotten, including how I leaned over to him before it began and whispered, "Baruch Hashem, we have Rebbetzin Heller with us, in case they ask us any hard Torah questions.")
Those of us blessed with quick-silver tongues that often work in advance of our brains do indeed face real challenges. A great rav was once travelling with three of his talmidim. The rav was blind in one eye, and as the group sat down to eat on a large rock on the side of the road, one of the talmidim observed, "We have now fulfilled the verse, 'Al even echas shivas einayim.'"
The rav placed his talmid in nidui for having made such a pun at his expense. But the talmid went to beis din to be free from his status in nidui on the grounds that he had been anus (compelled), or at the very least unable to control himself. And he prevailed with that claim.
But as the Rosh Yeshiva from whom I first heard the story commented, "If you know the psak, it doesn't help. You had time to think." And if we think, we will realize that a joke at someone else's expense is never worth it.