On the Shabbat following Simchat Torah, I will listen to the opening words of Genesis. Yet, I have never heard them more clearly than I did seven years ago from my hospital bed.
I was 57 when I was diagnosed with sepsis. My hospital roommate was a thin, short man, with a heavily-lined face named James.
He was in his late 60s, married with an adult daughter. He had stage 4 colon cancer and was awaiting surgery.
He spoke in clipped sentences and came across as mean-spirited. In phone calls with his family, he always talked obsessively about money.
“You paid what? Thirty dollars to that bum to fix our stove. He’s not worth 30 cents,” he said. “You’ve got to learn to fix things yourself. We just wasted money giving it to that lazy bum.”
James reprimanded his wife and daughter multiple times for the money they spent on groceries, taxis, takeout meals, movies. He told me he wanted to retire soon and needed to save up.
My doctor thought I would be home within a day, but my infection was stubborn. By the end of my second day in the hospital, my doctor was clearly concerned, unnerving me.
Despite my concern, I felt much more energetic than when I entered the hospital. I relished having time to read the books my wife, Brenda, brought me and was surprised by all the people from my synagogue who visited. They always left me feeling the warmth of community.
One morning, a doctor entered our room and closed the curtain before speaking with James. He said that James had an infection that would delay his surgery.
“I am sorry your surgery is being delayed,” I said, after the doctor left.
“That’s OK,” he said. “It’s in God’s hands.”
That afternoon a young priest enthusiastically introduced himself before moving to James’ half of the room, drawing the
James’ voice took on a soft, desperate tone.
“I was reading the Bible, and I noticed something I hadn’t seen before,” he said. “I always thought that Genesis said, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’ But that’s not what it says. It says, ‘God created the heaven and the earth.’ It made me wonder what else I had missed.”
I wanted to give James privacy, but there was nowhere to go.
“My whole life I’ve been angry,” James said. “I always thought people were trying to cheat me. I even thought that way about my family.”
The young priest praised him for being honest with himself.
“Maybe I was wrong about people,” James said. “I just didn’t give anybody a chance.”
I hoped James was not embarrassed by my presence during his confession. I felt ashamed for having judged him harshly — for having failed to see the pain underneath his surliness.
James’ question about what he had missed made me think back to the year before, when I moved from the apartment I had been renting for 33 years, to live with Brenda and her 5-year-old daughter. As the movers loaded up my furniture, I reflected on the transition I would be making to become a husband and father.
Taking a last look around my block, I was surprised to see that the five-story building across the street said “1876” across the facade. It was the first time I noticed the writing on the building, and I wondered what else I had missed about my neighborhood.
Still, I had little regret. My life was moving in a positive direction, which promised many opportunities for important discoveries.
As we begin reading the parshahs anew, I will, like James, try to see something I previously overlooked. The beauty of the Torah cycle is that it challenges us to see our heritage with fresh eyes.
At its best, the tradition of repetition can train us to look at our everyday lives anew and draw out what we missed before. Hopefully, these observations will come in time to help us grow, rather than when we can only look back with regret.
After four days in the hospital, my infection level receded and I was sent home. I felt greatly relieved and realized how stressed I had been during my hospitalization.
As I entered my house, and saw my wife and daughter, the sun streaked through the windows. The light made everything look brighter than it had ever been before. PJC
Ben Krull is a lawyer and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.