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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
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‘Al HaNissim’


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The entire downtown business district would pour into the streets around 5:30 p.m., clogging the already congested traffic lanes of Chicago’s bustling Loop.  Blaring horns of Checker taxicabs and city buses made it hard to hear one’s own voice, but I always heard my father’s voice…

As a child, I fondly recall my father’s homiletic teaching that ”we’re not worth a hill of beans,” if unaccompanied by good deeds. “Words alone are cheap, son. Actions speak louder. Remember that!”

One bitterly cold afternoon stands out in particular. A dusting of powdery snow had made everything look pure. My father and I were on our way home from his office when a shivering, bedraggled man approached us. The butt of a cigarette hung from his cracked lips. His thin, dirty jacket reeked of tobacco and alcohol.

“Here, my man. Take this,” my father reassuringly said while removing his long coat and draped it around the trembling shoulders of this fellow. “Be well,” he added with a faint smile. He took me by the hand and headed to the underground garage where he had parked his car.

“Daddy, aren’t you cold?”

“A bit, son, but I would have frozen had we walked past that man without responding. Giving is more blessed than receiving, sonny boy.”

 

A Generation Later

“That’s it!” I declared after stumbling upon a hamantaschen recipe in the Purimshpil edition of my shul’s newsletter.

“Hey Ben you wanna help me with this?” I asked my firstborn son.

“Sure,” he agreed enthusiastically, “but can we save some for us too?”

“No problem! We’ll make an extra dozen.”

I could have gone to buy the hamantaschen in the bakery, but that was not the lesson I wanted Ben to learn. Besides, I had already signed us up to deliver matanot l’evyonim for The Ark, a Jewish social service agency. By late afternoon, Ben and I had helped 12 Jewish families to enjoy a chag Purim sameach.

Six Years Later

Ben offered to help me with Purim deliveries but on one condition – that we not bake hamantaschen again. He asserted that at 18 years of age, he was too old for “that kid stuff.”

We had had a great morning and were heading back to The Ark when an alarming pause interrupted our conversation. When he did not answer my previous question, I turned to Ben and saw something I had never seen before. He was having a seizure – his body was jerking spasmodically, like a steam pump grinding to a halt for lack of oil. Trapped in his body, Ben turned to me in desperation, bewildered yet hopeful as if to say: “Dad, I sure hope you know how to deal with this!” Truth be told, I didn’t.

I had to be on alert at all times with Ben. Since he had been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 10 1/2, he often suffered from unexpected hypoglycemia. You could be chatting with him one moment and in the next, he might be writhing in the throes of low blood sugar. That’s how frightfully unpredictable it was. But what I saw that morning was unlike any of his hypoglycemic episodes. I had seen enough of them to know.

Terrorized by this unfamiliar demon, I rushed to a nearby restaurant panic-stricken. “I need a regular cola now,” I shouted to the counter person. “Please hurry. It’s an emergency!” I ran back to Ben and forced his mouth open. He began to suck on the straw. I feared it wasn’t doing him any good, but it was the only thing I knew to do. If nothing else, the cola would spike his blood sugar.

The nightmare ended after five minutes. We drove home exhausted, bewildered and scared.

Ben’s mom and I agonized for several interminable hours. The attacks kept on recurring. I lost count after a while. Whenever they started up, I’d restrain Ben with a gentle bear hug to protect him from himself.

“What’s happening to him?” we asked each other while awaiting a referral call from Ben’s doctor. It never came.

Afraid for our son, we left for the emergency room. We’d deal with the insurance company later.

As for Ben, not one complaint! He never became despondent or depressed. On the contrary, Ben embodied the virtues of self-reliance and courage. He was always the sort of person to remount his bicycle quickly if he fell off, always ready for the next patch of rough road. Yet, as strong as he was, I’m sure the tireless presence of chronic illness wore him out at times.

After waiting six hours for the results of a battery of tests, the doctors diagnosed Ben with epilepsy. Epilepsy! We were devastated. His seizures continued for several days during which Ben’s doctors sought the right combination of medications with which to treat him.

Gleanings

“Dad, I don’t want to do this,” Ben stated unequivocally.

“Me neither son,” I quickly added, “but we have no choice.”

“What if I don’t do it?” Ben asked threateningly.

“You’ll get very sick!” I hastened to respond, “You gotta do it, but I’ll help you.”

Ben shuffled along kicking stones, his shoulders hunched, both hands thrust into his pants pockets.

“Why me, Dad?” he complained bitterly.

“I don’t know Ben. I just don’t know.” I felt helpless and ashamed. Aren’t dads supposed to have all the answers?

The strength of faith rests upon our belief that all things do happen for the good. Ben would eventually fashion his own understanding of events. I helped him as much I could, sometimes with questions rather than answers.

Ben, for his part, is refusing to despair of a life of hope. He reminded the rest of us to acknowledge the Divine paradigm of spiritual strength within ourselves, and thereby see the miracle of Purim revealed.

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The phone rang. It was a call I’d been dreading.

“Well, are you going to pick it up?” asked my wife after the third ring.

Bobbie, my dad’s wife, was calling as we had agreed she would in the event of a life-threatening emergency. My father was dying of stage-four colon cancer.

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The time was 6:03 a.m., and I was already late for shul. My father had passed away in October of 2008, and I was saying Kaddish for him. Morning prayers began at 6 o’clock. I had to be there within four minutes or miss the rabbinic Kaddish. To worsen matters, I hadn’t taken my 3 a.m. Parkinson’s medications on time, and I had begun to feel a rise in what I call my “trembling index.”

The entire downtown business district would pour into the streets around 5:30 p.m., clogging the already congested traffic lanes of Chicago’s bustling Loop. Blaring horns of Checker taxicabs and city buses made it hard to hear one’s own voice, but I always heard my father’s voice…

It wasn’t so much my father’s problem as it was mine.

The commandment to honor one’s parents had always been for me simply the right thing to do. Jewish tradition characterizes it, however, as the most challenging of the taryag mitzvos. Anyone who has ever cared for a terminally ill parent appreciates the difficulty of performing this mitzvah well.

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