Just the other day I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my quadruple bypass-open heart surgery, in 1986. It had all started that 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 what was then the Soviet Union until all Soviet Jewry was free. Our small band of protesters, led by the great Glenn Richter, was handing out "dummy" programs with pictures of Russian refuseniks in place of dancers.
It was a protest like so many others we had been conducting since the mid-1960s. As the last of the theatergoers entered Lincoln Center, we were readying to leave when suddenly all hell broke loose. A smoke bomb was released inside the theater by 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 people began attacking me.
All at once I felt what seemed like a Mack truck on my chest. The pain was excruciating. I couldn't breathe, and I could hardly move. I couldn't comprehend what was happening. Until that moment, I had felt invincible. Nothing could stop me from reaching my goals. That night as I gasped for breath, I sensed that I, and that image of myself, were both in grave danger.
A number of people were injured, and scores of police and many, many ambulances rushed to the area. Mayor Ed Koch showed up as well, and as I lay in an ambulance, he came over, assuring me that he'd call my wife Toby, and arrange for an escort for her and the kids to the hospital.
Tests revealed I had suffered a heart attack, and an angioplasty was performed to open up my cardiac arteries. In the ensuing weeks I continued to feel, on many occasions, chest pains. I was weak, but the politics of the Soviet Jewry movement, sometimes brutal and mean-spirited, carried 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.
The pain persisted, and another catheterization revealed that emergency bypass surgery was necessary. I was so sick that a pump had to be placed into my heart to ensure I'd make it from the cath lab to the operating room.
Today, as I reflect on this most powerful chapter in my life, I do so through the lens of the Jewish teaching that encourages one to offer hoda'ah - "thanksgiving." But hoda'ah is also associated with recognition of finitude, of our natural human limitations, something that would normally impel us to declare "ani modeh" - "I admit" to my failings.
How do we reconcile these two ideas? How can hoda'ah mean "thank you," on the one hand, and "limitation," on the other? 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. And then there is what can be called a substantive thank you, the kind that is deep and real. Such a thank you comes from recognition of limits: the recognition that I can't do it all; that I truly need you to help me in my moment of distress. In this way, the idea of thank you has been turned on its head. In place of the one being thanked being the important one, I am suggesting that the focus be on the thanker, who is acknowledging his or her natural human shortcomings and deficiencies.
This might be why many people have difficulty saying thank you, as it involves recognition of finitude, that one is limited - that one cannot do it alone.
No wonder in the daily liturgy, immediately after reciting the Amidah's blessings of request, we recite the blessings of thanksgiving. It is not God who needs the thanks, but we who feel impelled to reveal our inadequacies, as we display our deep need for God. Even if God does not intervene, we say thank you for his fellowship and unconditional love.
That night, in the surgical ICU, I awoke more quickly than expected. I remember hearing voices all around me. It was December 24, Christmas Eve, a night on which very few doctors or nurses want to be in a hospital. But there they were, working late, helping other patients around me, some of whom did not live through the night. In the ICU, there is a hair's breadth separating life and death.
I couldn't talk. There was a tube stuck down my throat. But as I opened my eyes I could see Toby leaning over me; my children, who over the years I had dragged through so much, were also there. And the physicians, led by Dr. Mark Greenberg, who had saved my life. 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 42-year-old man who had felt invincible but now was coming to grips with finitude, limitation and mortality. And those two words were - thank you.
Days later I received a note from Avital Sharansky, with whom Toby and I had developed a close friendship during her successful campaign for the release of her husband Natan from the Soviet Gulag. It contained a word and some numbers, which turned out to sum up my feelings of thanksgiving to God. "Dear Avi," it read, "Psalms 147: 2-3."
I looked up the sentences. "The Lord doth build up Jerusalem, He gathereth together the dispersed of Israel; Who healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds."
Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale - the Bayit, and founder and president of YCT Rabbinical School. He is also co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF ).
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now