One cold day in January I experienced my own personal wake-up call.
My beloved father was a patient in Memorial Sloan-Kettering. He was seriously ill. In just nine weeks we watched my father’s 6 ft. 2 frame wane. Though he never lost his dazzling smile and warm love, my father’s energy slipped away a bit more each day. The doctors mapped out a treatment plan. My mother and my siblings spent our days and nights by his side. We plastered the room with happy photos of grandchildren. My father asked that we bring his holy books from home. He also requested a picture hung of our righteous Zaydah known in Hungary to this day as “The Miracle Rabbi,” Rabbi Osher Anschil HaLevi Jungreis. The room was transformed.
Then a procedure went terribly wrong. I recall the sickening feeling of overwhelming fear in the pit of my stomach. My father courageously reassured us that all will be okay. We were supposed to be the ones giving my father strength. Instead he was the one who soothed our souls.
“Sheyfelah, it will be good. Don’t worry.” His smile and sense of calm filled the dark space.
I never heard my father utter a complaint despite the terrible pain he was in and fright he must have felt.
One day I arrived at the hospital and the door to my father’s room was ajar. I approached his bedside, kissed his cheek and held his hand. My father’s eyes slowly closed. A nurse walked in and asked me to give my father a few moments. She set up a screen and told me that I could step behind it.
I sat down on a chair and took out my book of Psalms. The room was silent. I heard the nurse speak softly to my father as I continued praying.
Suddenly I heard a most awful sound. I couldn’t place it. I had never heard this sound before. And then it hit me. My father was crying. My beautiful Abba was sobbing out loud. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. The sound I heard emanated from the depths of the soul.
“Rabbi?” I heard the nurse say.
There was no response. The haunting sobs continued.
“Rabbi, are you in pain?” she asked. “Because this should not be hurting you. I am almost done rabbi.”
My father finally spoke. “No,” he replied through his tears. “Don’t worry. I am not crying now because you are causing me pain. My heart is heavy.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Oh,” my father cried out. “I know that my days here are coming to an end. I don’t know when, but I do know that it will be soon. Perhaps it will be next week or two weeks, maybe even tomorrow. Only God knows. And I will be facing my Creator. I am scared. I am so scared. I will have to answer for my life.”
My father’s anguished cries entered the deepest crevices of my heart.
“But rabbi,” I heard the nurse say, “you are the kindest most gentlest and humble human being I have ever met. You have done so much good in your life. You are a rabbi. You don’t have to be afraid.”
At that moment I was struck with this thought: My father had survived the flames of the Holocaust with his faith intact. He lost his entire family yet stood steadfast with his belief in God sustaining him. His light kindled even the most troubled souls. But he was overcome by contemplating his life. Now what about me? How much more so must I take the time to think about my days here? What can I do to live better, kinder, and greater?
I slowly made my way back into my father’s room. I looked at this giant of a man and was awed with the transparency of his soul. He was all truth. How blessed was I to have been given my time with him. What a void I would be left with. My father’s whole life was living Torah. He did not just study, he breathed Torah’s wisdom day and night. He took the mundane and made it holy. He cared for us with all his heart and transmitted his legacy of life and love.
That day he taught me to value every single moment, to consider every word, because one day I would stand in judgment for my deeds.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come as gifts to us from Above. Each year we are given an opportunity to begin anew. All that God asks is that we take the time to think about where we went wrong and how we can make it right again. What are our weaknesses, our imperfections? Is it angry impatience I must work on, a complaining nature, arrogance, or perhaps a lack of recognizing the good that I’ve been given?
As I approach these days of awe, those moments in my father’s hospital room bring me to a place of quiet contemplation and truth.
I pray that God accepts our prayers and seals us in the Book of Life.