It’s 25 years today that I went through quadruple bypass-open heart surgery. It all started three months earlier, in September. The Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry was protesting in front of Lincoln Center against the appearance of the Russian Moiseyev Dance Company. Our position was that there should be no cultural exchange with the former Soviet Union until all Soviet Jews were free. As programs featuring the Moiseyev dancers were distributed to those entering the theater our small band of protesters, led by Glenn Richter, was handing out “dummy” programs with pictures of Russian refuseniks.
It was a protest like so many others we had conducted. As the last of the theatergoers entered Lincoln Center we gathered our signs and megaphones and prepared to leave when suddenly all hell broke loose. A smoke bomb was released inside the theater by troubled members of an extremist Jewish group, endangering the lives of everyone there. Thousands began streaming out. I ran to help. But when the throngs saw me in a kippah they assumed I must have been involved in releasing the bomb – and so they attacked me. To this day, I believe that one of my attackers was a KGB agent.
All at once I felt what seemed like a Mack truck on my chest. The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t breathe. I could hardly move. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. Until then I had felt invincible. There was nothing I could not do. Nothing stopped me from pushing ahead to reach my goals. That night as I gasped for breath I sensed that I, and that image of myself, were both in grave danger.
Hundreds of police and many ambulances rushed to the area. Mayor Koch was there as well, standing over me as I lay in the ambulance. He assured me that he’d call my wife and arrange that she and the kids be escorted to the hospital where I would be taken.
The next morning, feeling better, I asked the nurse when I could dress and go home. I’ll never forget her response, “You don’t understand. You are in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. No one is released directly from here. You first have to make it to a regular room.” That was the first time I recognized that I was really sick.
Tests revealed I had suffered a heart attack and so an angioplasty was performed to open up the vessels to my heart. I was in such physical and emotional turmoil that I couldn’t lead tefillah here at the Bayit for Rosh Hashanah. That was the only Rosh Hashanah in almost 40 years that I’ve ever missed. Never will I be able to thank Rabbi Yitz Greenberg enough for stepping in for me during those High Holy Days.
In the ensuing weeks I continued to feel, on many occasions, chest pains. As weak as I was, the politics of the Soviet Jewry movement, sometimes brutal and mean-spirited, continued on. Even when I thought I felt calm, my heart would wring with pain when I’d be verbally attacked. That feeling continues to this very day. The heart can’t be fooled.
And the pain persisted. On December 24, 1986, I underwent heart surgery.
As I reflect on this most powerful chapter in my life this Shabbat, I do so through the lenses of Chanukah. One of the central themes of this holiday of light is the offering of thanksgiving. In the Al Hanissim prayer, for example, we say le-hodot u’le-hallel le’shimcha hagadol – “To offer praise and thanksgiving to Your great name.” This is the holiday to say thank you, as we celebrate the victory of our people over the Syrian Greeks and the miracle of the menorah.
But the word le-hodot, is also associated with viduy, which means confession or admission of wrong. Maimonides writes ke’she-ya'aseh teshuvah, chayav le-hitvadot – “When one repents, one is obligated to confess.” From this perspective, hoda’ah is an admission of guilt, of culpability, of having made a mistake, having committed an error. Within this framework of error, we realize the broader concept of the sense of recognition of finitude. Even at the times where we may not be sinning, our natural human limitations should force us to declare ani modeh or ani modah – I admit to my failings.
How then, can we conflate these two ideas? How can hoda’ah on the one hand mean thank you and on the other mean limitation? The answer lies in understanding that there are two kinds of “thank yous.” There is the thank you that is perfunctory – the kind we say when someone opens the door for us or serves us as we sit down to eat.
And then there is what can be called a substantive thank you. This is the thank you that is deep and real. Such a thank you comes from recognition of limits; recognition that I can’t do it all; that I truly need you to help me in my moment of distress.
Here, the idea of thank you has been turned on its heels. Normatively, thank you is associated with the recipient of the thanks feeling important. I am suggesting that the focus be on the one who thanks, revealing natural human shortcomings and deficiencies.
This might be why many people have problems saying thank you, as thank you involves recognition of finitude, that one is limited – that one cannot do it alone.
No wonder in the liturgy after reciting the Amidah’s birkot bakasha, blessings in which we overflow with request and need, that we immediately recite the birkot hoda’ah, the blessings of thanksgiving. It is not God who needs the thanks, but it is we who feel impelled to reveal our inadequacies, as we display our deep need for God, and unconditional Divine love.
It’s 25 years since that operation. Without the help of doctors and nurses and family and extended family, this Bayit, I would not be here today. Today, I stand before you with a feeling of hoda’ah, of thanks to you. On this anniversary, I recognize and remember – how needy I was, and how limited I continue to be and how only with help from others am I able to continue on.
That night, in the surgical ICU unit, I remember waking. I couldn’t talk. There was a tube down in my throat. But as I opened my eyes I could see my wife, Toby, leaning over me; my children, who over the years I had dragged through so much, were also there. And then there were the doctors, the brilliant Dr. Mark Greenberg and Dr. Avi Merav, my surgeon, whose fingers are the fingers of God. And Dr. David Kaufman, and Dr. Michael Feld. My eyes were half-open and I was unable to speak. All I could do was mouth as best I could two words – from a forty two year old man who had felt invincible but now was coming to grips with finitude, limitation and mortality. All I could do was mouth two words – thank you.
It is said best in the Psalm we add at the end of services on Chanukah – hafachta mispedi le-mechol li…le-ma’an ye-zamercha chavod v’ lo yidom Hashem Elokai le-olam odekah. Since my heart attack, I find deeper meaning in this verse by interpreting it – “You turn my despair into dancing so that my heart might sing to you, and it not be stilled. O Lord my God, forever I will thank you."
Rabbi Avi Weiss is spiritual leader of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.