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My Friend, My Hero

There are many kind of heroes. Some are sports and entertainment stars. Some are teachers and other civic leaders. Some are political or military figures.

Most can think of one or another person we admire – whether we know them personally or not – who we would say is our hero. As I have grown up from my youth when sports figures were my heroes, to adulthood, while the definition of a hero has remained more or less constant, today it is communal leaders, teachers and thinkers I admire who are my heroes. I still admire the sports figures, but their presence in my life is not as significant as it was then, and my heroes today are those who do things or stand for things that I admire and that make a positive difference in our world.

Some definitions of hero that I found underscore why there can be such a wide range of possible heroes. Indeed, one person’s hero may be another’s criminal. A hero can be:
• the principal character in a play or movie or novel or poem
• a champion: someone who fights for a cause
• someone of great strength and courage celebrated for bold exploits
• a large sandwich made of a long crusty roll split lengthwise and filled with meats and cheese (and tomato and onion and lettuce and condiments);

I started thinking about this recently as one of my closest friends did something about which I am in awe, and for which I could find no other word than heroic. One of the traits that makes my friend so special, and for whom this heroic act is second nature, is his sense of modesty. Respecting that, and that he does not do things to be in the limelight, but just to do what’s right, I’ll just refer to him as “R.”

Most people I know look forward to the summer as a time to take a break from work and the daily grind of life. Long weekends and extended vacations are often part of the change in pace. But not for R, not this summer. After months of planning and testing, R spent time in the hospital last week, and will spend the next few weeks in recovery from what’s perhaps the most elective surgery one could elect.

He donated his kidney to his brother.

Organ transplants are a daily fact of life. Around the world there are even black market opportunities to buy an organ. For someone in a developing country, selling an organ can be a big financial gain, as big perhaps to the “donor” as to the recipient of the organ. Yet, on a day to day basis, most people don’t think about donating an organ to anyone, at all.

So when it became apparent that R’s brother’s kidney function would not keep him alive, and the search for a new kidney became more urgent, R was tested and found to be a match. Did R hesitate? Probably. Just like anyone might. That’s human. But what’s super human, what’s heroic, is that once he considered the consequences, his decision was inevitable and his resolve unstoppable.

As much as an average person does not think of organ transplants on any kind of a regular basis, so too an average person (outside of medical professionals) does not think about saving lives more than in concept. How many of us are actually ever given the opportunity to do so? In Judaism at least, saving a life is the highest value for which almost all other commandments are overridden.

So even though donating a kidney would mean possibly painful physical recovery, would mean limiting physical activities, would mean time away from work, and would mean the fear of something going wrong, R did not waver. He wasn’t just going to save someone’s life; he was saving his brother’s life. As a devout Jew, R certainly entered the operating room with a sense of happiness at being able to save his brother’s life. All the worries, potential discomfort and inconvenience could not come close to balancing what he was prepared to do.

Before the surgery, I called R just to tell him I was thinking of him and ask how he was doing. I could not bring myself to tell him how much I was worried, even though odds of everything turning out fine were vastly in his favor. I was impressed to hear that he was taking it all very matter of factly, spending the day before the surgery going to work as he always does. For R, the opportunity to donate his kidney had so entered his being that it was, in fact, matter of fact. He woke up, went to work, came home, had dinner, went to bed, woke up and donated his kidney. He approached this as if it were all as straightforward as that.

After surgery, I got the great news that it all went well, R was in recovery, and that his brother’s new kidney had begun to work properly almost immediately. I was choked up to know that R was OK, and that the surgery went well, just as I am sure he knew it would. I and others worried for the brothers’ well being. Yet as I kept thinking of this amazing occasion, I couldn’t help but continue to get choked up. I still do.

The next day, the phone rang and my daughter answered. “Abba, it’s for you,” she yelled from the next room. I picked up the phone and it was R, just calling to check in, as if nothing had happened. His voice was raspy and tired but removing a kidney had not changed his personality. He wanted to know what’s new with me. The truth is it was hard to talk to him because his voice was weak, and because I got choked up all over again. I told him how I had not wanted to tell him how worried I was before the surgery, but how glad I was that he and his brother were well. It meant the world to me that he called, less than 24 hours after not insignificant abdominal surgery. If he didn’t know how proud I was of him, now he does.

Fifteen years ago this month my wife and I had the very wonderful opportunity to host R, his wife and their one year old at our house for a Shabbat lunch that, like an amazing first date that seems not to end because of love at first sight, went through the long hot afternoon into the evening. We became fast friends, joining the celebration of their one-year-old’s birthday (along with our one year old daughter) the very next day, just as if we were part of the family. Since then, we have danced and celebrated together at the birth of many subsequent children between us, seen them grow up almost as if siblings, and celebrated their respective bar and bat mitzvahs. Hopefully we will have many more celebrations together.

We have cried and overcome the death of loved ones and other challenges as well.

This week, Jews worldwide will observe Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month Av, on which the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem (as well as a host of other national tragedies) is commemorated. It is a day of mourning, of fasting, of prayer and of inner reflection. It is said that the reason for the destruction of the Temples and the Jewish people’s being sent into diaspora is “baseless hatred.” The foil for baseless hatred is unconditional love.

Acts such as that which R did this past week reflect the unconditional love that everyone should strive to emulate. It doesn’t mean that everyone has to donate a kidney, but it does give us a meaningful and very personal occasion on which to reflect about our individual responsibilities that will turn the tide on negativity and hatred that are far too pervasive, and set the scene for the redemption which, in addition to the return to and rebuilding of Jerusalem for which Jews have prayed for thousands of years, is still the fervent dream for which millions pray.

I am proud that R is my friend. He is also my hero. May he and his brother both have a full and speedy recovery and live long healthy lives, until 120.

Jonathan Feldstein is the Israel Representative of the American Friends of Magen David Adom. He made aliya in 2004 and has pioneered the opportunity for tourists to donate blood in Israel.

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