My Old Man

Chapter One

“Why is this happening to me, rabbi?” the dying man moaned from his bed.

“I’m not a rabbi yet,” I said. “I have four more years to go.”

“Well, that’s soon enough,” he said, “so tell me: What did I do to deserve this? Why does God want me to die before my time?”

His name was Neil Roth. He was a married father, thirty-nine years old, and he was dying of leukemia. I was in my second semester at the Rabbinic College of Reform Judaism, visiting him at Memorial Sloan-Kettering as part of my pastoral care internship, and Neil was the first patient on my list who’d been conscious.

When I saw that he was awake I’d opened with, “How are things going?” and Neil told me his story. He was a computer programmer on the Upper West Side, a lifelong loner, and he had just resigned himself to the possibility that he might spend the rest of his life single when one day he walked into a flower shop in midtown and exchanged a glance with the curvaceous Costa Rican manager, Angela. She was a knockout in her early forties, and as Neil ordered a bouquet of mixed roses to have sent to a sickly aunt in Miami, Angela smiled at him with such unguarded warmth he knew right then they would marry.

They had a whirlwind romance and got married six weeks later. She moved into his place on Riverside Drive, and a year later they had a baby girl they named Ruby. Each night Neil would come home from work to the sight of his wife nursing his baby, a sight he had never thought he’d see, and then one morning as he was getting ready for bed he started getting bloody noses and all these black and blue marks he couldn’t explain.

The doctors diagnosed him with leukemia, and though they put him through chemo he didn’t respond and now they were saying he’d be lucky if he made it three months. Angela had been at the hospital with him every night this week but had gone home to get a little sleep.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, trying to sound rabbinical and authoritative even though I was scared out of my mind. “God doesn’t have a plan for us. We make our own paths and the reason we can experience great joy is because we can also experience great heartbreak.”

Neil was wearing a Yankees cap to cover his bald head and his cheeks were sunken and gray. His voice was thin and dry and he kept licking his lips. He breathed irregularly, almost randomly, which I found unsettling although I tried to act comfortable. He had no eyebrows but his eyes were bright and confrontational. “Why would a just God let a decent person die?” he asked plaintively, in a hoarse, far-away voice.

I cleared my throat, stalling for time. I knew that Jews liked to ask questions but I hadn’t been prepared for anything so hard-hitting. “Many people have struggled with the very same questions as you,” I said. “They wonder, If God is omnipotent and just, why would He bring sudden tragedy into the lives of decent human beings? Since they can’t find a reason, they tell themselves that they must have sinned in some way, and that they’re being punished, or tested.”

“Exactly,” he said. “I have a brother I don’t speak to – we had a falling out over money twelve years ago – and I was thinking maybe this is God’s way of telling me to make up with him. I don’t want to but if this is a test I might. So am I being punished?”

“A time of great illness is certainly a good time to take stock of one’s relationships, but no, I don’t believe you are being punished.” Rabbi Freedman, one of the chaplains at Memorial, had told us in one of our sessions that when they tried to blame themselves, they wanted to be assured that they hadn’t erred in some way. “Given the paradox that God is just but evil exists, some choose to believe that the reason tragic events can befall good people is because God is beneficent but not, in fact, omnipotent. God is engaged in a work of creation that is only partially finished, one that struggles against the forces of chaos.”

He rolled his eyes. “But every page of the Torah is all about how powerful God is. And you’re telling me He’s not omnipotent?”

Neil was the dying one but he was killing me. This was even more sweat inducing than the Rorschach test I had to take to get into rabbinical school. “A conversation about my own beliefs in God is probably a lengthier one than we have time for today,” I said, “but the short answer is that people pray to God for solace. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his classic text on suffering, When Bad Things Happen to Good People -”

“Don’t even talk to me about that book,” he said wearily. “I have eleven copies.”

“Then you probably know that Kushner has some wise insights. He likens the human-God relationship to that between a teenager and his parents. The teen is aware his parents are not all-powerful, but still he seeks out their protection and care.”

“But this God hasn’t protected me. I’m thirty-nine and I’m going to die.” His voice was weak but very clear. “My daughter’s going to grow up without a father. It’s like God has slapped me in the face.”

I wracked my brain, trying to think of something to say, anything, that would help. “Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that both life and death are aspects of a greater mystery, the mystery of being, the mystery of creation. Death is not a defeat but an arrival, a reunion with God.” We had studied Heschel’s essay on death with Rabbi Freedman and I’d found it brilliant and insightful but as I said it, it sounded hollow and half-baked, like a lame answer to a perfectly fair question.

“So I’m supposed to be GRATEFUL about what’s happening to me?” He seemed to get a little color in his blue cheeks and then he said slowly, “Are you insane?”

This was the hardest question of all. If I were Neil I wouldn’t have been reassured by any of the things I was saying either. I wanted to write him off as a cantankerous jerk but he was obviously intelligent. He was staring at me coldly, like he was beginning to wish his last name hadn’t been so overtly Jewish so he wouldn’t have wound up on my rotation list.

I turned my body away from him and slipped my index cards out of my bag, which was hanging on the side of my chair. The week before Rabbi Freedman had had us write down sayings on cards, from different philosophers, that he thought might help us in the hospital rooms. He said not to think of them as cheat-sheets but resources, to be tailored to the individual patient. I lowered my eyes and slipped one out of my book bag. “‘Sometimes there is no reason.'” Neil’s mouth was thin and expressionless. I flipped to the next one. “‘God does not bring misfortune upon us. He is in the love between us and our loved ones when we are suffering.'” I smiled. “He is with Angela and Ruby. With you.”

He slumped even further in his bed with a frown. Flip. “‘A time of suffering can be a time to renew one’s relationship with God.'” He shook his head like I was a bad bible salesman and stared out the window. I’d never had trouble believing in the power of the Almighty myself but both my parents were living and nothing traumatic had ever happened to me or even anyone I knew. At twenty-six the most faith-shaking event I had experienced was getting a C- on a BC Calc exam senior year of high school. I’d never had to deal with anything real.

“Why won’t you give me any answers?” Neil said.

“My role is really just to be with you, and to listen.”

“I don’t want your company! I just want to know . . . WHY THIS IS HAPPENING?”

“A more useful question might not be, ‘Why is this happening?’ but as Kushner suggests, ‘God, see what is happening to me. Can You help me?” Neil was blinking at me slowly, unimpressed. The steady line of his faith was starting to dip below stable, and I felt my own blood pressure rise in response.

“There would be no life without death,” I offered. “The two go together. It is because tragedy can happen that the good things can happen too.”

“That may be true,” he said, folding his hands over his stomach, “but it’s not very comforting.”

I shrugged stiffly, feeling like the room was very stuffy, and said the one thing all rabbis say when faced with questions of doubt, the one they think gets them off the hook: “There is a great history of doubting Jews. So you’re in good company.” It was the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses of theodicy: if everyone else doubted God, it wasn’t so bad that you did too. “Job’s servants, sheep and seven children were killed and then he caught a terrible disease. In his dialogue with God he comes to see that man is powerless in the face of God’s might. It’s sobering but in another sense, comforting.”

“It’s depressing is what it is,” said Neil. He listlessly picked up a Macworld magazine on his tray. Religion was losing to technology.

“If you would like,” I said, leaning over, “I can say a Misheberach for you, the prayer for the sick.”

“I don’t want you to pray for me,” he spat, licking his lips. “I already know I’m going to die!”

I felt lost, like a total fraud. I wasn’t offering theodicy; it was the idiocy. Rabbi Freedman said that in tough moments it could be good to be honest, and real, not to feel like we had to be pillars of wisdom. Maybe the best thing I could do for Neil was level with him.

“You know what?” I said. “You’re right.”

“What do you mean I’m right?”

“I’m seriously striking out here, aren’t I? You’re throwing me good pitches but I haven’t been doing a very good job here.”

“No you haven’t,” he said after a beat.

I shoved the cards back in my bag. “I guess if you want to know the truth, my own God-vision isn’t all that strong. That’s actually true of a lot of rabbinical students. We can talk about the dangerous rise in interfaith marriage or the binding of Isaac or Jewish views on homosexuality and abortion, but nobody really talks about God.”

“You don’t think there’s something wrong with that?” he said.

“It’s not an easy subject! What kind of person do you think applies to rabbinical school anyway? People that think they are God. Half my classmates are completely meshugenah!” His eyes were wide and frightened like what I was saying was more upsetting to him than death itself.

“Look,” I said, “it’s not like I don’t try. I get up there and do my exegesis, put as much passion into it as I can, but so far, God’s been the most elusive part of rabbinical school. I study really hard and do well on tests but most of the time I can’t feel God at all. So I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. In fact, the tragedy around us is pretty good proof that there probably isn’t a higher power. I don’t know what I was thinking trying to put a positive face on death. What you’re going through is so depressing I can hardly even imagine it. You’ll never get to see your daughter grow up. It totally sucks!”

“What’s wrong with you?” he said.

“What do you mean?” I said. “I’m agreeing with you! You wanted answers. I’m giving you answers.”

His face contorted into a grimace and he moaned, “Ohhhhhh.” His lips were turning bluer than they already were. I couldn’t tell whether he was having physical pain or just aghast at my honesty. I had expected my awakening to energize him too, but instead he looked sicker than he had the whole time I’d been with him.

“Are you all right?” I said, touching his arm.

“You . . .” he said, pointing his slender finger at me unsteadily and leaning back like I was the devil.

“What is it?” I asked hoarsely.

“You are . . .” He heaved in and out and his face got even paler than it already was.

“Yes? Yes?” I felt that he had something to communicate, something vital and true that would change my life forever. “I’m what?”

He gulped in some air agonizingly slowly, determined to get enough in his lungs to speak. “You are the worst . . . rabbi . . . I ever . . . met.” With that he turned a dark gray, his head fell back on the pillow, and he stopped moving.

“Neil?” I said, shaking him. “Neil?” He rose up again for a moment and gasped violently for breath, as I leapt back with a scream. Then he was still.

I raced into the hallway and up to the nursing station. “Come quick!” I said to the pixie-ish blonde behind the desk. “Something’s happened!”

She ran with me into the room, checked his pulse and breathing and lowered her head. “Aren’t you going to defibrillate?”

She gave me a funny look and said, “No. He’s DNR.”

“He’s DNR? But – but can’t you make an exception?” I pleaded.

“It’s not your decision,” she said and left to get a doctor.

I stared at Neil’s body, praying it had all been a mistake, that it wasn’t the end. They had to bring him back, if only so his last words wouldn’t be, “You are the worst rabbi I ever met.”

She came back in with a short Indian doctor with big ears. He went to the body, checked some vitals. Then he drew the curtain and disappeared behind it for a few minutes with the nurse.

“Are you family?” he asked, when he came out. His look wasn’t accusatory so much as befuddled.

“No, the rabbi.”

He jerked his head back in surprise and said, “I didn’t know there were -”

“There are female rabbis, yes.”

“So what happened?”

“I . . . I don’t know. His wife went to take a shower. We were talking . . . and he just . . . went,” I said weakly.

“Sometimes they do,” he said, nodding. “They wait till the family goes because they can’t die in front of them. Is this your first?”

I nodded. “The first one’s always the hardest,” he said. His pager beeped and he checked it and walked briskly out the door.

I followed, feeling stunned. As I moved slowly down the hallway toward the Exit sign I realized that though God hadn’t been able to send Neil Roth a message he’d chosen instead to send me one, through him: Rachel Block was not leadership material. I’d been sure my honesty would serve as a comfort but what kind of dying man wanted to sit with a faithless rabbi? I’d been so inept I’d made him croak months before his due date, his wife not even there to hold his hand. She was going to come back only to find that he’d gone. I was a reverse rabbi. Instead of creating miracles, I caused premature death.

As I went down to the lobby and out into the spring sun I wondered two things: what a rabbinical school dropout could possibly do next, and how I was going to tell my parents.