The smallest blessings

The eve of another new year on the Jewish calendar is hours away, a time that beckons one to look forward in hope and prayer for health, happiness and prosperity and to look back at what one can improve upon. Judaism often goes big and the new year blessings are one example. Just this morning however, I was reminded that it’s okay and maybe desirable when wishing for the future, to go small.

I was leaving a store in an industrial area and was taken aback to see a man on a corner near the main street sitting in a wheel chair with a hand written sign. He must have driven there. There are no homes nearby and no bus service that I’ve seen. The man has no legs, neither a right nor a left. He was smiling and his face looked happy and healthy. This was not a homeless man but probably a veteran I considered who was very healthy with two legs until he was not.

His sign said “Be happy, you’re alive. Jesus loves you”. I could quibble with the end of his message but I can not argue with his premise. I froze, locked eyes with him, smiled and he smiled back and waved. I wanted to rush out and speak to him but traffic was building behind me. He was a man with a message important any day but resonant on the eve of Rosh HaShana. As I drove away I wondered about the days after he lost his legs and whether he had a positive outlook from the beginning of his tragedy when the doctors delivered the terrible news or whether he grew into his happiness with years of therapy, battling anger and depression.

He reminded me of a patient I was asked to see in the hospital, a large man, paralyzed from the neck down, breathing through a permanent tracheostomy. That man, in middle age, had also been able-bodied until he was in a car accident and became a quadriplegic. He lay there and breathed and spoke a bit. He wanted to give me encouragement. He recited the final sentence in the final chapter in the book of Psalms, “Let all that breathe praise the Lord, Hallelujah” and he shared the Talmudic explication: Praise God and be grateful for every breath you take.

It takes a man who lost all his abilities save the ability to breathe to proselytize about the gift of breath. It takes a man who lost his legs to proselytize about the gift of life. It takes someone who has healed in some fashion after suffering a searing personal tragedy or an unthinkable loss to look around with a sense of awe at what remains.

“Be happy. You’re alive”.

There exist rare moments in our busy lives when that slimmest glimmer of light cracks through the thick wall that separates reality and hope, where the mundane and holy bump against each other in the darkness and where the person we are and the person we can be come so close to each other they can almost kiss one another. But never do. These are the moments when for the briefest moment we appreciate just being alive.

One of my sons was out for a walk this week in a forested area and met a seasoned birder. She was spending the morning peering into the trees. It is the fall migration of warblers, the small colorful songbirds that fly thousands of miles back and forth. The birder had binoculars. He didn’t. It is Corona times so not the time to ask to borrow a stranger’s binoculars. He strained to see the warblers with his naked eyes and decided to return soon with his own binoculars. He will need them to see these birds that are quite small, what the woman called “our tiny travelers”. When you begin to celebrate just being alive, seeing a “tiny traveler” is a moment of pure joy.

While in these Corona times we need to hope and pray for health for ourselves and for peoples around the globe, we hopefully can also learn to appreciate and find deep joy from the uncelebrated moments of life, a painless footstep, an easy breath or a chance encounter with a tiny traveler.

Howard E. Friedman

-30-

The still, small, voice…

When I finally stopped gasping for air I realized what I had done.

After plodding along for the past few years with no attention to speed I decided to see if I could run faster. I looked around and found many recommendations and decided to try interval training: Run a lap at normal speed than run the same lap faster. Repeat. And repeat again and again.

After panting I realized I was able to increase my speed by 20%, if only for a short period of time. I did not know what I had accomplished while I was running, only after I stopped.

The Jewish high holidays have concluded. The liturgy for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is filled with images of the majesterial as we proclaim God the Master of the Universe. We listen to the primal sound of a ram’s horn, the shofar, to punctuate the day. And in one stirring paragraph we describe the power of that sound upon our hearts. But that sentence is mysteriously juxtaposed to the most enigmatic phrase of the day. The sound of the shofar will be sounded, the prayer states, and a “still, thin sound will be heard”.

That phrase comes from the book of Kings 1, chapter 19 and concludes a section about Elijah the prophet who had reestablished God’s honor before crowds of idol worshippers, including Israelites who had strayed from their belief in God. Tired from his battle for truth Elijah beseeched God to end his life. God responded by sending an angel who led Elijah on a 40 day journey to a cave from where he witnessed a sound so loud it crushed rock, caused a devastating earthquake and a great fire.

“God is not there” we are told after each cataclysmic event. Elijah did not find God in the maelstrom. But than a “still, small voice” appeared and there is where Elijah reconnected to his Maker. Immediately afterward we read Elijah leaves his cave and re-enters the world, appointing a king for this nation and for that one. He begins to re-build the world. 19th and 20th century naturalist writers have borrowed this phrase as well and often refer to the “still, small voice” they hear in the forests and the fields.

And I thought of this scene finally standing upright after bracing myself on my knees doubled over, oxygen deprived, the lactic acid burn starting to ebb. We don’t know what we have accomplished in the midst of the thing, in the middle of a run, or long hike. Or in the midst of raising our children. Indeed, physiologists believe that endurance is increased not during the quickened pace while running but rather in the moments right afterward when the the cardiovascular system adjusts to the new challenge.

It is only in the calm moments that follow our accomplishments that we, like Elijah, can realize the truth of our lives, and the work we have done and the work we have yet to accomplish.