It is wonderful to be back after several weeks of vacation that included meeting Ron’s sister, a sunset cruise in Key West, a visit with my aunt and uncle, a big family wedding, and, a close brush with death. I didn’t realize immediately exactly how close, but in retrospect it is nothing short of miraculous that I am standing here virtually unscathed, if you don’t count the hole in my head!
It was our last day in Miami and a beautiful day for a bike ride. Wearing a helmet. I borrowed my aunt’s bicycle, and, being unfamiliar with toe cages, I practiced getting my foot in and out. However, I didn’t have the muscle memory to do so when I came to a stop. And thus fell over. So far just a routine bicycle mishap. Going zero miles per hour.
When I stood up, I felt a lump in my head, and figured that ice and Ibuprofen would resolve that issue. A few moments later, Ron had the terrible realization that, no, we were not feeling a bump, but, rather, a stick that had impaled itself through my ear and lodged under the scalp. A two+ inch stick, ¼ inch in diameter, was now in my head! In fact, this precise stick!
We quickly got to the emergency room, where, after a number of hours, the stick was surgically removed. Following an overnight stay and IV antibiotics, I was discharged, and we made our way back to Phoenix. It was only on reflection that we began to understand the enormity of what had occurred. My incredible good fortune that the stick traveled vertically rather than horizontally, sparing my life and brain function.
As a rabbi, I am hyper-aware of the fragility of life. I am moved by the words of the Psalm- teach us to number our days that we may gain wise hearts. Now, though, I think that it is not enough to number our days. We need to be aware of every moment. Aware how in one second everything that we hold precious can change. In a heartbeat. We can’t and shouldn’t live our lives in fear, but, oh, we certainly can and should live them with gratitude and appreciation. Earlier this week, I was speaking with a member of our community whose husband is very ill. Her comment was apropos this point. She said, “Forget taking it day by day, I’m taking it hour by hour.”
I re-read the moving words of Jonathan Stern, may his memory be for blessing, son of Larry and Sheri Etkin who died from a brain tumor on June 18th. He wrote in the Washington Post that, “I am a naturally optimistic person, but I constantly wonder when my death will arrive. Yet in several ways I count myself lucky because of what I like to think of as miracles, or fortuitous occurrences, that have given me the luxury- which many with brain cancer don’t get- of choosing how to spend these last months.” Imagine seeing yourself as fortunate while living with a debilitating terminal diagnosis?
None of us know when death will come. How would our lives be different if we had that consciousness to really choose how we spend our days? What pettiness would we abandon? What relationships would we treasure? How would we spend our precious time? Life is dangerous, accidents happen. Another one of our members recently fell while holding a glass which severed an artery. We imagine that we have the luxury of time, yet, it may not be so.
There is nothing new or profound about this realization. But finding yourself lying on the ground, with a stick impaled in your head, is an attention getting moment. Words cannot express my gratitude to have this potentially tragic event end on such a miraculous note.
Our tradition mandates that one who experiences something life-threatening should “bensch gomel,” that is, offer a prayer of thanksgiving. The 4 classic categories for the gomel prayer are:
- a) One who has crossed the ocean(an overseas flight travel, etc.)
- b) One who has crossed the desert
- c) One who recovered from a very serious illness
- d) One who was released from
Included in the category of desert are all other life threatening situations from which one is saved such as a wall collapsing upon him, a goring ox, robbers, car accidents, etc. As I open the ark, please rise as you are able and join me in a contemporary version of this prayer that you will find in your Shabbat bulletin. I’m sure that many of us can relate to these profound sentiments:
Preparing for Birkat Ha Gomeil- from Mishkan HaNefesh
A teaching of our Sages:
in the presence of the sacred scroll,
we give thanks for the blessings in our lives.
Rav Judah said in the name of Rav:
“Who should offer thanksgiving?
Those who have completed an arduous voyage,
those who have recovered from an illness or injury,
and prisoners who have been set free.”
In the midst of the congregation,
we honor those who have come through
times of challenge, difficulty, or danger.
Today we celebrate their survival.
Together we give thanks:
for the resilience of the body,
for the strength of the human spirit;
for the precious gift of life,
experienced with new intensity
when life has been at risk.