You Gotta Serve Somebody


One never knows who may be walking into your worship service and who you may be influencing. Words you may casually impart, stumble over and toss aside can be words that save somebody’s life.

“Rabbi, give me a blessing.” Walter looked up at me from his wheelchair. “I came back for your blessing.” I had spoken at a Shabbat morning service about choosing life. No matter how heartrending the situation, we are commanded to choose life; uvcharta b’chaim u’lmayan tichyeh. “And thou shall choose life in order to live” [Deuteronomy 30:19].

“We all need blessings,” said Walter, an African-American man, gazing up from his chair. At standing height, he is a 6-foot-4-inch former basketball star, and now his face is looking up, full of wonder, full of faith. “I’m living on blessings.”

Of course I was more than willing to offer a blessing, and I explained to Walter that I’m the chaplain, not the rabbi, finishing my board certification in Jewish Chaplaincy from JTS.

But he came for the blessing nevertheless. 

In David Brooks’ new book, “The Second Mountain,” he speaks about the phenomenon of the relentless ego; our inability to transcend the lust for power, achievement and sensual gratification. Ultimately our success becomes crusty, boredom sets in and we end up with a loneliness we cannot recognize. That, he says, is the First Mountain of life. On the Second Mountain, we encounter wonder. On the Second Mountain someone else matters. This is the benefit of a life devoted to service, to the “other.” 

“Success, like happiness, cannot be pursued,” Viktor Frankl, the legendary Viennese neurologist, Holocaust survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning,” writes. “It must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself; you have to let it happen by not caring about it.”

And this is what I encounter at times at The New Jewish Home, an elder care center in Manhattan. Some people come here after recovering from devastating traumas that, over time, become launching pads for the miraculous. Often their faces take on an otherworldly gaze; a look of gratitude that surpasses prayer, surpasses logic. A sparkle in their eyes that I have begun to recognize.

“Rabbi, give me a blessing.”

Walter had been a professional basketball player who routinely ate carbohydrates to keep his energy up. For breakfast he consumed 10 pancakes, 10 eggs, a half a loaf of bread, three bowls of oatmeal, spiking his blood sugars to 1,080. His doctors told him that he had, just as his father and mother had before him, a failing pancreas and failing kidneys. They told him he needed to find both organs and undergo two organ transplants or he would not be able to live much longer.

“It will never happen,” they explained sadly. “You will never be able to find both organs from the same person with matching blood type. Expect to wait five years.”

But one evening not long after, while he was watching TV, Walter saw a most tragic story. A beautiful boy playing high school football took a head-on hit from an opposing player and was rushed to the hospital with a brain concussion. Heartbreakingly, the boy died from the collision and then Walter got a phone call at 2 a.m. from Columbia Presbyterian: “We have your organs.” They had both organs, both the right blood type. 

A light filled Walter’s room. A yellow light. A luminous light penetrated every object in his surroundings. Walter heard an unknown voice as he was flying in the ambulance, and replied, “I’m coming. Hold on.” When he arrived at the surgery room, he understood it was the voice of his surgeon.

And now, five years later, Walter uses no drugs, functions as a marketing agent for many professional basketball players, and is at The New Jewish Home merely to heal a wound in the heel of his foot. But reverence still abounds within Walter. Taking Frankl’s words about happiness to heart, his appreciation for every patient and nurse, every book group and religious service, remains aglow around him.

“Nothing else in life matters,” he says. “I didn’t know. That yellow light was my privilege, like a sneak preview of the divine kingdom.”

I blessed Walter to be graced with the ability to access this awe, this unfiltered joy, for the rest of his life. Even the boy whose pancreas and kidney keep Walter alive, had these words engraved on stone for his memorial: 

“You need a team. A family. Teams are more important than individuals. Teams who are more united, perform better. We must become a family.”

In reviewing the teaching of that morning, “Choose life, for you and your children,” Walter became eager once again,

“Yes! The Bible stories inspire us. Jesus, Moses. When Moses brought down the Ten Commandments, he was teaching us the real magnitude of God. These stories instill so much confidence in your mind and in your body and in your spirit. What do I really have to fear? I have the greatest protection that will never leave me. Never.” 

Dvorah Telushkin, author of “Master of Dreams,” a memoir of her year working for I.B. Singer, is a chaplain at The New Jewish Home in Manhattan.