I never remember the names of the patients into whose rooms I step to blow the shofar every Rosh HaShanah in Lutheran Medical Center, an unpretentious hospital in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s working-class neighborhood that borders on the Gowanus Canal. I routinely introduce myself to the patient, the surrounding kin or friends, the attending physicians or nurses, the infirm in the next bed; I simply say I am here to blow the shofar for the New Year, ask if they would like to hear it, quickly put the ram’s horn to my lips. Most patients, even those who by outward appearances would not be considered “religious,” accept my offer. And so I blow the required sets of plaintive sounds, wish everyone a good yom tov and step out.
Sometimes they ask me to recite a misheberach prayer for health, whose text I always carry with me. May they be healthy enough next year, I tell the patients as a parting blessing, to hear the shofar at home or in shul.
Even more certainly, I don’t remember the names of the handful of people I meet each year in the hospital’s hospice unit. If their physicians’ assessments are correct, their longevity will not exceed six months.
But I will never forget one woman for whom I blew shofar last year.
She appeared to be in her 60s or 70s. She was lying comfortably in bed, covered by a blanket. She appeared to be having a good day, not delirious or unconscious like some of the hospice patients I have met during the dozen or so years in which I have volunteered my services, not moaning in pain like others. At her side stood her daughter, chatting.
The nun who leads me around the hospice unit every year tells me who is Jewish. I introduced myself. Would they like to hear the shofar? Yes, the woman said. After I finished and tucked my shofar into the small backpack I lug every year, she had a question.
“Rabbi,” she said, giving me an instant promotion from member of the press to member of the clergy, “what is more important on Rosh HaShanah, praying or hearing the shofar?”
Since I’m not a rabbi, I had no scripted answer. Since I am a journalist, I have experience listening. She was looking for assurance, not theology.
I thought quickly. “Probably praying is more important,” I answered. “Hearing the shofar is passive. Praying is active. You can tell God what you need.”
What would a dying woman ask for, I thought to myself — though I didn’t expect her to tell me.
She didn’t hesitate. “I’ve had a good life, rabbi,” she said. “I have a wonderful daughter. There’s nothing I need from God.”
Stunned, I didn’t know how to respond. “Then you’re a very lucky woman,” I said, which sounded preposterously shallow in a hospice.
“Yes I am, rabbi,” the woman said.
I wished her and her daughter a good yom tov; I could not offer the vapid and unrealistic wish that she would hear the shofar a year hence in better circumstances; we both knew better.
She thanked me for coming; in retrospect, I owed her thanks, for opening my eyes.
Her words remained with me as I returned to the rest of the hospital, with more — healthier — Jewish patients to find. Walking back afterwards to a friend’s home in Borough Park, hearing the tekiah and shevarim and teruah shofar blasts from the windows of synagogues whose services had not ended, I kept thinking about her attitude.
Every year it’s a struggle to reach the desired level of kavanah, intensity of concentration, as the days of Elul dwindle and the Days of Judgment come near.
How dare I stand before the Judge? How have I merited a year of health? How can I request anyting for the next 12 months when my problems pale in comparison to the terminal diagnosis she faced?
I read scholarly, learned books of inspiration and mussar each year, sometimes listen to lectures or tapes of profound insights, but the woman in Lutheran Medical Center — per my custom, I don’t remember her name — is my role model.
In one of the famous parts of the Ethics of the Fathers, the Mishnaic collection of advice and aphorisms, the scholar Ben Zoma asks, “Who is a rich man?” His answer: “He who is satisfied with his lot.”
The traditional explanation: a person who has few possessions or riches, and does not feel a wonting.
What if it’s your health and remaining days that are limited?
How would I react in her — figurative — shoes?
She is, I am sure, in a better place this year. And next week, when I walk the familiar halls of the hospital again, I am sure I will draw strength from a woman I will never forget.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at the paper.