Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/adamhinett
Each morning at the start of the Shacharit prayers there is a passage in which we praise God for having “fashioned man in his wisdom” and “creating within him life-sustaining organs… If but one of these were to function improperly, it would be impossible for man to survive before Thee. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, who endowest man with health and doest wonders.”
This prayer hit home for me when my nephrologist told me in June 2021 that my kidneys were failing and that I would need a new one. Eight months later and by publicizing my need for a kidney with the help of many rabbis, congregations, a major television station, a Long Island newspaper, and most especially the Jewish group Renewal, I received a kidney from an altruistic donor.
Renewal, which helps patients and their families locate a kidney donor or find a suitable dialysis center, found me a match within days of my altruistic donor contacting it and offering one of her kidneys to someone in need. Renewal did just what its name implies – it offered me a new lease on life.
That is what parshat Shofetim encourages–living one’s life to the fullest. Shofetim cautions the Jewish people not to get involved with those who “inquire of the dead” or to spend their time on such things.
Less than a mile from my home there was a sign along the main street that beckons passersby with the words “Fortune Teller.” A curtain covers the soothsayer’s window. More recently the sign has been changed to “Psychic.” The curtain remains. But Shofetim warns us not to be tempted by these professed clairvoyants. We read: “When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to the Lord ….” 1
Moses tells the Israelites that they are barred from following local Canaanite practices, including necromancy (inquiring of the dead) because it is considered a form of idolatry. Indeed, it is because of that practice that God drives out the Canaanites. Thus, we are admonished to live in the here and now and not listen to the words of a mentalist. Live this life, don’t concern yourself with the hereafter. The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary devotes a section to this passage, writing: “Though countless Jewish teachings speak of an afterlife, Judaism’s primary focus has always been on life in this world. Dwelling on death is fundamentally alien to the tradition, and anything that denies or masks the reality of death – such as open caskets at funerals, dressing the dead in suits and dresses, embalming – is usually forbidden.”
In the Haftarah (Isaiah 51:17), God tells the Israelites that He is the comforter-in-chief and calls on them to “Rouse, rouse” from their travail and sorrow and to “Awake, awake” as they head for their new homeland and a new life of splendor and enjoyment. And later in the Torah we are told to “stand together in choosing life for ourselves and for the world.”
My kidney donor, whom I got the chance to meet five months after the surgery, had practiced what Rabbi Elliot R. Kukla preached in his commentary on the parsha Nitzavim. As quoted in the JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary, he wrote: “All of humanity, residents and strangers, tribal heads and water carriers, stand together in a web of mutuality in this portion …. In this season, may we stand together in choosing life for ourselves and for the world.”
My donor, a woman in her mid-40s who has asked that I respect her anonymity, told me that her only regret is that she did not have another organ to donate. Renewal brought us together for that momentous initial meeting and I am so thankful for its efforts and for introducing me to such a truly special woman.
Since receiving my new kidney, my strength has returned and life has become all the more precious to me.
Is a life with struggle worth it?
Each person will need to make that determination themselves and I certainly don’t wish struggle on anyone. But what I take from this week’s portion is that if we can take the long view on our lives and articulate that which we are grateful for, then when we recite prayers like the Shehecheyanu, a prayer of gratitude for living, we are doing it with the fullness of heart, spirit, and knowledge, that things don’t come easy, but we are grateful for what we have.
When NFL player Damar Hamlin woke up after being knocked unconscious on the playing field and began communicating with his doctors, one of his first questions was, “who won the game?” “You did,” his doctors answered. “You did.”
Let us celebrate the “wins” in our life and support each other at the time of our losses.
- Deut. 18:9-12
Stewart Ain, an award-winning journalist with more than 50 years of experience, is a three times Pulitzer Prize nominee. He has worked for the New York Jewish Week, The New York Times and the New York Daily News. His latest articles have appeared in the Forward, JTA, and the Long Island Jewish World. Ain frequently appears on television and radio, and for more than 40 years has hosted his own weekly cable TV interview program, Jewish Life. He holds a MA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is a co-author of The Living Memories Project: Legacies That Last.