Dumiyeh - A Fictional Tale of Terminal Lucidity
By Harold Pupko
“Jew?!” menacingly intoned the desperate-looking man who was blocking my exit from the elevator to the apartment building’s lobby.
Was that a question or a threat? I asked myself.
Fearing the latter, I braced my body and began considering the possible ways that my medical bag could be used as a defensive weapon. I became acutely aware that, among the deficits in my education from a prestigious medical school, was a failure to teach that particular skill. Sure, I could probably disable my adversary with some of the bag’s contents, but my potential assailant did not look like the kind of person who would stand around waiting for me to draw up a sedative into a syringe. I contemplated beating him with my Queen Square reflex hammer, but he interrupted my thoughts.
“Doctor, I see that you attend to the sick in their homes. There is a bedridden man upstairs who needs to participate in the recitation of kaddish. We need a tenth man for a minyan. Will you be him?”
Almost every fibre of my being just wanted to go home and rest after a long day of work. However, my fibre of Jewish responsibility got the better of my judgment.
I stepped to the back of the elevator and nodded to my tormentor to join me inside.
He pressed the button for the 18th floor and silently guided me to apartment 1818. This is, after all, a Jewish story.
Upon entering the unit, I was surprised that I recognized many of those present as being health-care professionals, but I could not put names to most of the faces.
Lying in a hospital bed at the centre of the living room was a broken shell of a man, whose appearance in another era would have been classified as that of a muselmann.
Sitting at either side of the bed was a married couple I recognized from my local hospital: Dr. Day, a well-known geneticist, and Dr. Knight, a prominent infectious diseases expert. From the corner of my eye I spotted their daughter, Dawn, herself a respected pharmacologist. She seemed to be preoccupied with preparing something in the kitchen.
As I made my way into the room, the eyes of the bedridden man met mine. A strange sense of warmth emanated from those eyes, a warmth that seemed to fill the room, in contrast to the chill of death that surrounded his battered physique.
It is said that the eyes are the seat of the soul. At the moment that I looked into his eyes, I saw not his, but my own, soul. A chill ran up my spine. I am sure he felt it, too, because at that moment, a crack of a smile fractured his taut face. He seemed to enjoy having that effect on me, as if he had had a lifetime of practice elevating people spiritually with his eyes alone. The twinkle of delight in those eyes at having softened the soul of a hardened physician bonded us immediately.
Whispering began to emanate from his lips. “Good, we have ten, let us begin.”
“Ma nishtana halaylah hazeh? On Passover, we nurture our children’s curiosity by teaching them to ask the four questions, which, if you pay attention, is really one question based on four observations. We pray that our teachings inspire our children to become adults eager to explore their heritage and the fascinating world that sustains it, adults committed to making observations and asking questions.
“And why are we obligated to have someone at the seder table ask the ma nishtana every year?
“Because some questions take a lifetime to answer.
“Question: Ma yishtaneh balaylah hazeh? What will change within each of you tonight?
“Friends, soon it will be time to say kaddish. But before that ritual is performed, first let us study a teaching by the Potzker rebbe about the mourner’s kaddish.
“The Potzker taught: ‘Imagine the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish as a theatrical, almost operatic production. At centre stage, the reciter, a single Jew, spotlight blinding him from an audience composed of the world’s thirteen million Jews. Off to either side, massive choirs, one composed of exuberant optimists, the other by jaded realists.’
“The reciter begins: ‘Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei raba. B'alma di v'ra chirutei, v'yamlich malchutei, b'chayeichon uv'yomeichon uv'chayei d'chol beit Yisrael, baagala uviz'man kariv. V'im'ru: Amen.’
“The rebbe loosely interpreted and translated this as follows:
“‘May the awareness of your essence be sanctified, and grow to fill all of the dimensions of our existence. In the world that . . . ”
The man in the bed suddenly came to life, his index finger thrusting skyward, as he used whatever strength he had left within him to yell the word “YOU.”
The atmosphere in the room temporarily changed, from hospital room to courtroom, and the defendant in the docket appeared to be the Creator Himself.
The man started again, this time somewhat drained by the word that consumed him.
“In the world that You, for reasons only truly understood by You, exercising Your freedom of choice, decided to create. May You imminently be royally acknowledged as having made the right choice. Will it happen during our lifetime? In the light of our days, rather than the darkness of our nights? While Israel still exists as a people to perform Your rituals?
“The audience supportively erupts: ‘Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varach l'alam ul'almei almaya’: through the power that we have to bestow blessings upon everything containing Your essence, may the essence of Your Oneness be blessed in all of the hidden and revealed dimensions of our world, forever.”
The bedridden man paused, and began grunting, groaning, and then gurgling, as if he were about to drown in his own fluids. The sounds drew Dawn from the kitchen into the living room, a cup in her hand.
“Ah . . . ” he sighed. “A cup of bitter pharmakon from a sweet pharmacologist. Just what the doctor ordered,” he said, winking at her parents.
Dr. Day averted her eyes. Tears rolled down Dr. Knight’s cheeks. The others in the room shuffled uncomfortably.
The bedridden man continued:
“I am not quite sure myself what the proper blessing is to say before I drink this, so I will just bless this moment with a quote from the Talmud: Ein chavush matir atzmo mibeit ha’asurim.A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”And with that, he gulped down the contents of the cup, as if his life depended on its quick consumption.
A calm descended upon the bedridden man. He continued his speech:
“Friends, can you hear the drama?
“The optimistic choir pipes in, unable to find enough words to praise God. They go on and on, ‘Yitbarach, veyishtabach, etc. etc. . . .
“The realists respond. L’eilah min kol birchata. . . . God is beyond words. Blessings, songs, praises and consolations: meh. The proper response to an awareness of His essence is dumiyah: finding the stillness within the silence within waiting.
“And on nights like this, we can only say to that, ‘Amen.’
“Finally we reach the pinnacle of the kaddish.
“The optimistic choir brings us to tears with its simple request:Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya, v'chayim aleinu v'al kol Yisrael.V'imru: Amen. May a complete peace descend upon us from the heavens, so that we, and all within Israel, can live lives fulfilling our potential for good.
“The realists get the final word:Oseh shalom bimromav,Hu yaaseh shalom aleinu,v'al kol Yisrael. V'imru: Amen. The One who made and maintains peace in heaven, He will set in motion peace over us and all of Israel.
“What is the meaning behind the realists’ enigmatic response? The Potzker rebbe taught that it is tied to Genesis Rabbah 8:5. In that text, it is written that God, wavering about the creation of mankind, consulted with four angels before creating human beings. Chesed (Lovingkindness) and Tzedek (Righteousness) were in favour of man’s creation. Emet (Truth) and Shalom (Peace) argued against it. So what did the Holy One do to break the deadlock among His bickering consultants and bring peace to Heaven? In a moment of impulsive anger, God took Truth and cast it into the earth, shattering it into thousands upon thousands of truths, releasing a mysterious energy upon impact, an energy that coalesced into a force that we will call the Ghost of The Truth, hereafter to be referred to by the acronym GoTT.
“The three remaining angels screamed in horror, but were soon traumatically muted when God grabbed Peace by the ankles and threatened it with the same fate as Truth. Taking advantage of the quiet, God hurriedly proceeded with His plan to create human beings. Not having had the opportunity to fully consult with Truth, He instead asked Wisdom for Her advice about His plans.
“Wisdom replied, ‘I have no experience in this matter, but I will stay by Your side, a helpmate, should You need me.’
“So God proceeded to create Adam from the earth.
“GoTT, hoping that God would see the value in restoring Truth to its place in heaven, began to ask God questions.
“‘Can man handle being aimless?’
God was taken aback, as He had not considered that. So God planted Adam in Eden to tend to the Garden.
“‘Can man handle being alone?’ asked GoTT next.
Once again, the flaws in God’s plan, or lack of one, were exposed, and God hastily created Eve.
“GoTT sighed. ‘Can man handle the forbidden?’
“God saw that man could not, and cursed.
“GoTT continued. ‘Can man handle the permitted?’
“At that moment, God realized that humans had the potential to eat from the Tree of Life and achieve immortality. He immediately exiled Adam and Eve from Paradise.
“The spirit of GoTT was broken by its observations on how God made decisions without the benefit of Truth’s guidance. GoTT despaired of ever returning to a state of wholeness, and made one last attempt to influence God.
“‘Truth will be restored when man can learn to stand on the shoulders of giants.’
“God looked at Wisdom, who shrugged Her shoulders, puzzled by GoTT’s statement. So God, convinced that He understood GoTT, created the Nephilim, giants to inhabit the earth, and declared with messianic zeal, ‘Truth shall rise from the earth.’
“GoTT burst into inconsolable tears.
“Thousands of years later, humans share the same dilemma faced by God. When it comes to making major decisions about creating or ending life, all we’ve got is GoTT, and it has a bad habit of revealing itself only after the fact. There is a price to pay for making life-altering decisions without the benefit of Truth. But there is another way to get at some truth, and that is to tap into the wisdom of humanity, to stand on the shoulders of the giants of our heritage, to see beyond our own limitations, and to follow the good examples of those most immediate to us, our relatives and friends.
“Friends, how will we be judged for our actions tonight? Only God can judge what is ultimately true. Baruch dayan ha’emet. Blessed is the judge of truth.”
And so, the man in the bed drifted off into a peaceful slumber, leaving me in a state of confusion.
I asked the gentleman beside me, “Who is this man in the bed?”
“That was the Potzker rebbe,” he replied.
“Was?” I looked again. The bedridden man had stopped breathing. Not a single doctor in the room responded to that fact. Drs. Knight and Day each lovingly gripped one of the man’s hands, while Dawn could be heard crying in the kitchen.
What had I just witnessed?
A natural death?
A failed medical experiment?
A holy act of lovingkindness and righteousness? Or a moment whose truth might haunt me forever with a lack of peace?
Suddenly, the rebbe’s words echoed in my mind: “Some questions take a lifetime to answer.”