I’d been feeling below par for a while. I kept imagining reasons that might be so, but mostly I pushed the feeling aside. Then one morning while working out, I realized something was truly wrong when my muscles suddenly went limp. My trainer took me to the emergency room and after a bunch of tests, it emerged that I had blood clots in my lungs again.
A lot of people don’t survive their first pulmonary embolism. I’ve now survived two.
I am grateful: for the doctors and nurses at San Leandro Hospital, for CT scans and science, for my trainer Brittany, who did not let me shrug it off again, and for good health insurance. Without any one of those messengers of the Holy One, I might be dead now.
Once they wheeled me into the room where I am now picking this out on my phone, I saw the sign in the photo above. It says “Goals” and under that, “No S.O.B.” and “No Pain.” Just as with Torah, I see this text as having levels of meaning.
The pshat, or simple literal meaning, is that the doctors hope for me to get to the point that I have no shortness of breath (S.O.B.) and no pain. Those are certainly my goals, too!
But on a deeper level, I wonder, what is it telling me? I am in a situation where I have little control. Indeed, I’m here because my body is out of control. I’m scared. I’m annoyed. I’m tethered (via needles!) to machines I only dimly understand. It would be easy to be cranky and whiny. But there in front of me is a mitzvah, a commandment: “Don’t be an S.O.B.! Don’t be a pain!”
I am reminded of a sermon I once heard. A chaplain was speaking to a group of residents in a Jewish nursing home. He said, “I hear some of you say, ‘I am retired! I have no job any more!’ but the truth is, a Jew always has a job.” He looked around the room. “Anyone know what that job is?”
They looked back at him blankly. He said, “A Jew’s job is to be a mensch! No matter what your body can or can’t do, you can be a mensch.”
It is good to be reminded of these things when I feel scared and uncertain. I can be a mensch. Or as my little sign puts it in a negative commandment, “Thou shalt not be a pain.”
We are living in uncertain times. Many things frighten some of us. We realize how little control we have of much of life. It is tempting to lash out, to behave badly.
But even under the most difficult circumstances, a Jew has a job. We are commanded to live lives of Torah, to be kind to the vulnerable, to deal honestly. We are commanded to care about our impact upon others.
My nurses were amused by my exegesis of the sign in my hospital room. I like being reminded that even in an undignified hospital gown, even with scary news, even with small and large irritations, I have a job that I can do.
That’s what it means to be a Jew.