I have had to spend considerable time over the past few weeks with my father who was taken ill and was being treated in a local Jerusalem hospital. Having been a community and synagogue rabbi for decades, I am no stranger to visiting hospitals and patients. Yet, this latest experience of visiting the hospital a number of times every day taught me a lesson, viscerally and emotionally, that I had only, until then, thought about intellectually. The fact that the hospital in question is located in Jerusalem is undoubtedly the catalyst for my new view of this matter. A hospital is the great equalizer in our society. It is the place where the barriers of political belief, religious observance, faiths, and societies disappear. I find myself standing in an elevator that transports Arabs, Jews, charedim, datiyim, chilonim, Russians, Ethiopians, Americans, sabras, leftists and rightists, and settlers and peaceniks all in one small space. People in the hospital's elevators and waiting rooms are suddenly courteous, quiet, sympathetic and comforting to one another. The Arab standing next to me murmurs that he hopes that all the sick in the hospital become well and I return the blessing to him. I have never seen him before in my life - he does not live in my neighborhood and I certainly don't live in his area. I am sadly confident that we would not utter one word to another if we met each other on the street in the midst of our usual mundane daily comings and goings. But the hospital, with its reminder of our mortality and our ultimate powerlessness, is the great equalizer. Everyone there is pretty much in the same boat - human, frightened, hopeful and tolerant of the human condition. If only this feeling and emotion would not evaporate as it does when leaving the hospital. Outside people are already honking their horns, weaving in and out of traffic in order to arrive a minisecond earlier at the next light, and in sadness I realize that life in our society has returned to ‘normal.’
The Talmud saw illness as not necessarily a completely negative state. It causes contemplation and self-examination - not only of the person who is afflicted but also for all those who are connected with that person, who come to visit and who call to inquire regarding the person's condition. The human being needs to be brought up short every so often in order to be reminded how fragile and temporary life is. We pray on the High Holy Days that we be cleansed from our sins and we commit ourselves to the service of God and man but that this reminder of our mission and purpose need not be caused by illnesses or pain. We are bidden to try and raise ourselves to this level of behavior - to achieve the great equalizer without having to resort to hospital visits. Truly pious people are able to accomplish this monumental achievement, yet it is difficult to maintain such an exalted state. The human condition is such that after a while one becomes hardened to what one sees in many visits to the hospital. The great lesson begins to fade from our consciousness. And yet, the atmosphere between people in the hospital is different, better, more humane than on our roads, streets, radio waves and in our political discussions. And in a perverse way, I have found that to be comforting, creating a sense of optimism as to what can and hopefully what will yet be. The rabbis of the Talmud said "chavivim yisurin" - difficulties and even pain can be dear and beneficial. The great equalizer of the hospital reinforces that opinion.
As a stark reminder of our real condition in this country and in the world generally, there is also the experience of everyone having to pass through a metal detector before being allowed to enter the hospital. Who would want to blow up a hospital? But we all know that there are such people - people who do not see the great equalizer of all human life, who are so consumed by hatred and poisonous beliefs that no hospital is safe from their murderous intent. Somehow, this lesson of the great equalizer has to be drummed into general human life. Without its presence, we are doomed to more metal detectors and unfortunately many more hospital patients as well. At the very least, we should internalize this lesson within ourselves and hope to inspire other human beings to like thoughts and similar behavior.
Well said rabbi,but I am often reminded when visiting the doctor or hospital that the great equalizer will one day grab the doctor to.Not one of us is immune.Oh that we all accepted we are only passing through. - I. F. -0/8-/2004
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Thank you. I am glad that HaShem has shown you this and that you shared it with all of us. Ken, life does have a way of hardening us. I hope that I remember this lesson always. Thank you.
Shalom - K. S. -0/8-/2004
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