Ben Avuyah

Welcome to the Pardess.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Hemorrhoids in Heaven

Step right up.

Step right up.

Care to gawk at the lions and monkeys, young feller.

Perhaps a glimpse of the circus performers jumping through hoops and swinging high in the air, will suit your fancy, little missy.

Come young’ins, there’s plenty of tickets for all, now, no need to shove.

Step right up.

Perhaps something a bit more novel for the young lasses and lads, a bit more… out of the ordinary…

Why to the left we have our bearded lady and to the right our mermaid, but straight ahead, folks, yes, straight as the crow flies, behind them bars, lives a creature with a deformity so strange, gentle folk cannot abide it…. Yep, gentle folk ain’t got the stomach for it.

But there he stands, adventurers, there he stands, tall, for all to see.

What is he, you ask?

Why he’s the Amazing Riskin, known to bend himself clear into a pretzel, go on… take a gander…

Why do bad things happen to good people?

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Why do such bad things often happen to good people? This is the age old question plaguing every religionist, and it is an especially poignant question today in Israel after we have experienced three horrific years of suicide bombings, acts of wanton terrorism which have taken the lives and limbs of well over 1,000 innocent and righteous men, women, and children.

Good question nicely tied to current events; surely everyone is nodding their heads in agreement with Riskin.

Our Torah portion teaches: “When you happen to come upon a nest of birds…chicks or eggs, and the mother is roosting on the chicks or the eggs, you must not take the mother with the young. You must first chase away the mother, and only then may you take the young; then it will be good for you and you will live a long life” (Duet. 22:6-7)

Here he has taken our hands and begins the process of leading us as far away from the question as possible. Once we are bewildered by the onslaught of talmudic and textual references that are 'neither here nor there' he will change the question to avoid having to answer it. For now just keep track of the facts.

Chase away mother, get long life..... got it.

Tragically there have been many instances during this period of bus-bombings, drive by shootings, a hotel explosion on Seder night, in which it seems as though the Almighty, as it were, has not fulfilled His own commandment. Mothers together with their children have been exploded into their eternal resting place. Grandparents were forced to see their beloved grandchildren cruelly murdered before their eyes.

Sad, very sad, but don't allow him to throw you off the scent, he has a question to answer, don't let him off the hook until he does so.

The Sages of the Talmud expand upon this particular command in a way with touched upon – even exacerbates – our question: “If someone says (as he is praying the Amidah before the congregation) ‘even unto a nest of birds does Your compassion extend,’ he must be silenced” Mishnah Berachot 5:3).
The Gemara explains: “What is the reason?…One sage says, ‘It makes the traits of the Divine, matters of compassion, and they are in truth merely (arbitrary) decrees”’ (Berachot 33b).
Let us attempt to analyze this statement. To what is this Sage referring? He cannot be saying that our Biblical commandments are merely arbitrary decrees, because the Torah itself iterates and reiterates that the commands are “letov lack, for your well-being!”
In this case, for example, by not taking all of the birds for our own selfish gratification, by holding back from taking the chicks before the concerned eyes of a mother creature, we are training ourselves in the art of self-discipline. We are demonstrating sensitivity to parental feelings. We are paving the way for filial respect from generation to generation.

More obsfucation. Does anyone remember what was asked originally or have you all been lulled into a semicomatose state in which you just nod your head at anything with a citation from the talmud. Don't give in just keep track of the facts.

OK. Mitzvahs exist for us to perfect ourselves and do not reflect God’s compassion on the world.

Indeed, this Talmudic Sage is not referring to the commandments, but rather to the ways of the Almighty. We are referring to the “traits of G-d” we perceive in this world which seem to be arbitrary decrees based upon the “fate of the draw,” the happenstance of genes, the coincidence of circumstance. The Biblical commandment is telling us how to act for our own good; the addition to prayer on the basis of particular interpretation of the commandment is saying that G-d runs this world on the basis of compassion, which is not true to our human experience.

Finally a return to topic, God does not run a compassionate world, now tell us why, Riskin ?

In fact, the Talmud records an incident in which a father asked his young son to climb a tree and bring him down a pigeon. The child climbed the tree, sent away the pigeon, and began to carry down the pigeon- thereby fulfilling two commandments (parental respect and sending away the mother bird) both, which promised long life. The child fell from the tree and died.
The Talmud continues to tell us that when Rav Elisha Ben Avuyah saw this tragic incident, he cried out, “there is no Judge and no judgment,” and became a heretic. His grandson, Rabbi Yaakov, explained that had the Sage only understood a fundamental axiom of Jewish theology he would have remained a great teacher in Israel. The Axiom is, “there is no reward for commandments on this world.”

With out the rest of the article this last sentence is the key, but the remainder of his prose and poetry are bandied about so as to distract one from the paucity of his answer. He believes there are no rewards for commandments in this world, but not everyone is buying it.

Smart guy, that Ben Avuyah…

This world is based upon freedom of choice, the free will of individuals- partners and not puppets- to choose the blessing or the curse, to perfect the world or destroy the world. Were the Almighty to reward the righteous and punish the wicked in this world everyone who whished long life would live in accordance with the commandments, the Torah would be reduced to an ATM bank machine (you put in Torah observance you take out long life), and our freedom of choice would be severely compromised.
We believe in the eternity of the soul, a life after life in another dimension of a world of the spirit. That is the dimension in which Divine reward and punishment take place. The extent to which we develop the light, the good, the spiritual aspects of our personalities and diminish the dark, evil, and bestial aspect of our personalities in this world, will prepare the extent of the spiritual existence we will enjoy in the dimensions to come. But there is no reward for commandments in this world.

Here is a nice slight of hand; he is no longer answering the original question. He is now answering a new question, “why don’t we get automatically rewarded every time we do something good?”

A question that bothers almost no one. Riskin nows that if he now expanded on his explanation with regards to bad things occuring becuase god doesn't get involved it would disturb the reader, and he steers clear.

Let's just stick to the facts he is stating

Because of the need to preserve freedom of choice, there can be no rewards for following commandments in this world.

Given this theological perspective, it is clear why we must silence the chazzan (cantor) who declares that G-d’s compassion in this world extends “even unto a nest of pigeons.” We can even dismiss the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” as being irrelevant in this prior, ante world in which “children, long life and material sustenance are dependant not on merits, but rather on luck” (mazal) (yevamot 28)

Here, in this singular paragraph, he brushes up against the original question at last.

Bad things happen by the whim of luck and nature and have nothing to do with God.

God lets horrible things occur, presumably so as not to interfere with free will.

(He stops just shy of stating this explicitly as if already armed with the knowledge that it is going to come back to bite him in the…well…nether regions.)

Indeed the only relevant question must be, “what ought good people do when bad things happen to them?” And Toby Wiesel, a most beloved resident of Efrat, answers, “They must become even better people.”

As quickly as he states his 'teretz" he bolts in a new direction; revising the question is his best answer. Now he redirects his attentions at dealing with these difficult situations.

In the words of Rav J.B. Soloveitchick, they must turn cruel fate into redemptive destiny. When Rav Moshe Ebstein realized that his beautiful babies were born deaf, he initiated the first Hebrew Institute for the Deaf. When 13 year old Koby Mandel was mutilated to death by a Palestinian terrorist, his mourning Parents, Rabbi Seth and Sherry Mandel, organized Camp Koby for survivors of terrorist attacks. Are these super-human responses? Perhaps they are, but the Bible tells us that we are created in the Divine image. Apparently, it is only when we realize the full scope of our spiritual potential that this world of tears and travail will be redeemed.

Nice finish with deeds of heroic parents and community members that everyone will agree are wonderful and worthy of praise. He is hoping that you remember this and forget the one paragraph in which he declared that all earthly events are chance. Such is the nature of Talmudic 'drush', bewilder and confuse your reader, and then turn to emotions that all can agree on. And finally wilst no one is looking, claim to have answered the question.

So there it is, this is the answer… we are on our own down here and nothing we do can affect the “luck” of the real world, only the afterlife can be altered by prayer and good deeds. In this world the most we can hope for from our Mitzvot is to be trained to better cope with the cruelty of nature and fellow man.

Well… are you buying it?

I did for a few seconds.. but then it hit me, it’s got one itsy bitsy little problem.

It is inherently incompatible with the Orthodox Jewish Religion !

I mean if sustenance is dependant on luck and luck alone, why bother to ask God for rain and dew for our crops in Shemona Esreh every day. Surely if he responded it would take away our free will. Why would we plead with God for something the Gemorah states is due only to chance, something that God will not control on our behalf !!

What, ultimate, sphengali level of cognitive dissonance do you have to attain, in order to nod your head in agreement with this article; and then recite the shema, and remind yourself that the punishment for not following his will is, “the ground will not yield it’s sustenance.”

The central icon of our religion as depicted in Shema; the image of a people taughtly bound to a creator who modifies their world for good or evil, in accordance with their deeds, is so important, it is recited three times a day, and has found it’s way into every Jewish accoutrement, from mezuzah to tefillin.

If orthodoxy prescribed a jock-strap, rest assured this paragraph would be sown to the waistband, made to chafe just so.

The sum total of our religion is a supplication to God for change in this world !!!

I mean if God is truly hands off in this world why the hell does he keep smiting people and turning them into salt all the time?

Is it just a little too much for him to resist, like swatting that hapless fly that keeps bouncing against the clear glass window? Or has he just not arrived at Riskin’s wisdom yet.

Does Riskin truly have the talent to slip this square peg of apologetics into the round bottomless pit of orthodox delusion?

Think about it….If God is involved in our little, real world, lives, then we have a question… how come Moishe, the gentle tailor, keeps getting that canker sore?
‘Why… he would never hurt a soul, and so pious, you’ve never seen such a lamdan.’

And if, as Riskin proposes, God wouldn’t touch this world with a ten foot pole, so as to keep our free will as fresh and spunky as the day we took it out of the shrink wrap, then why does he keep breaking his rules and making miracles and disasters?

If noninvolvement is truly as axiomatic in our religion as he claims, why have generations of our gedolim labored to establish a mesorah and prayer system that is exactly opposed to this reasoning?

I suppose he will sidestep by saying that these threats of Godly retaliation in this world; which is supposedly ruled singularly by luck, are metaphorical for good and bad events that occur in the afterlife.

I can almost hear him saying it, ‘sustenance in the world to come, sustenance in the world to come’.

He has to say it! Where else can he go? He has no choice but to twist into a pretzel.

That is the theme of his little drasha, all our deeds and commandments, all our prayers and mitzvot go to ensure our due reward in the world to come.

If this world is all luck, left undisturbed by God, then surely we must be praying for sustenance in the after life, rain in the afterlife, healing in the afterlife…Hmmmm that makes me wonder….

What disease would one be praying to be healed from in the great beyond ??

Well, surely, by now you see it coming…

Hemorrhoids in Heaven

Harmonic angels singing in unison: God is great, God is great, God is really really really really really, and have we not already mentioned really……Greeeeaaaaaat !!!!

God in all his glory seated upon heavenly throne: No! No! No! No! It’s all wrong, all wrong, somebody is flat and it’s throwing the whole thing off. Gees, what does a guy have to do around here to get a little well-earned praise? I’m disgusted and I think my nose is starting to feel angry. And we all know what happens when my nose gets…..

Poor lost Soul: Uh… Excuse me God.

God half jumping off throne: What the…? Don’t you know better than to sneak up on an omniscient being? I nearly mahbul’ed in my pants just then.

Poor lost Soul: Oh! Sorry God, I didn’t mean to….

God: Well? What is it; I haven’t got all eternity you know…

Poor lost Soul: Well.. not to bother you or anything…there’s this thing you see..Uh..this problem that I …uh…I mean, that my friend has been suffering with…err.. well…

God: Feh. I created this feeble human mind? There are psalms to be sung here, lets go, spit it out !

Poor lost Soul: Well it’s kind of a burning, but also with the stinging, and the searing..... Oy! the searing! it’ll bring a tear to your eye, what, with the boring, and the aching, and the itching, I guess its your run of the mill malady of the spiritual sort that I, uh, that, my friend has in his…Uh…well..Let’s just say that even sitting on his cloud is like a pincushion!

God: So? So? We all have our problems, right? All right, angels let’s take it from the top. And I’ve got my eye on you Gabriel, you better hit the high notes, I mean, if I wanted baritone I would of given you a pair.

Harmonic angels singing in unison: God is great, God is great, God is really really really really really, and have we not already mentioned really……Greeeeaaaaaat !!!!

God: Uggh. Terrible. That was the worst one yet.

Poor lost Soul: But the thing is that every day in the real world when, uh, my friend..

God: Are you still here…

Poor lost Soul: …when my friend prayed he always had kavanah when he asked you to heal…


God with storm clouds surrounding his throne: let me give you a little heavenly advice, OK? Don’t try and fool an omniscient being…

Poor lost Soul: Oh, my, I am so sorry.

God through lightning and hailstones: Your friend ?????

Poor lost Soul: really I apologize…

God through ice and fire: YOUR FRIEND????

Poor lost Soul, petrified: Sorry….I

God: You only had three friends…. And none of them were much for kavanah…Moshe Peperstein, as I recall, only had Kavanoh to look up Sarah Shpritzels’ dress… Yakov Haberstien, well his mind was a total blank during davening, I’m not even sure how he did that…well, must be some trick he learned in Yeshiva….and then of course… Gershom…fascinating human that one, every day for seventy years he dreamed of his soft boiled egg for breakfast right in the middle of my Shmonah Esreh…Now I make him tread water every day in giant soft boiled egg….get it ? get it?

Poor lost Soul: Ummm

God shouting: It’s Mida Kineged Mida !!…. Man, no sense of humor on you, is there? But anyway, none of them had kavanoh…ever.

Poor lost Soul: but.... I really meant to ask about myself, I mean, I was talking about me…

God: Yeah…yeah, it was really great talking with you too. Now, Angels, from the top, and….hit it!

Harmonic angels singing in unison: God is great, God is great, God is really really really really really, and have we not already mentioned really……Greeeeaaaaaat !!!!

Poor lost Soul floating away: Why that son of a….##@@!!! mother….F@@@***##

God: What….What was that I heard….get back here…get back here right now…..

Poor lost Soul quivering in fear: Gulp!

God: Why… that’s the best tenor I’ve heard all day. All right. Someone throw Gabriel in the lake of fire… that’s right, you heard me, I created him with the vocal chords he just doesn’t want to use ‘em. Now what’s your name? No, scratch that, it doesn’t matter; just sit yourself down right here on this wooden pew….

Poor lost Soul: Ouch !

God: And can we move the bass section to throne level two? I’m gonna get some surround sound in here if it kills me….Ha, get it? if it kills me ?

Poor lost Soul; uhh... hee hee ?

God: All right, what were we singing again? What? What? Oh yeah, that’s right. Let’s take it from the top…

Harmonic angels (and Poor lost Soul) singing in unison: God is great, God is great, God is really really really really really, and have we not already mentioned really……Greeeeaaaaaat !!!!

God: mmmmmmmm…oh yeah…that’s the stuff.

(Hat tip \inspired by Dave Barry)

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Katie Remembered

I know this feeling all too well, I’m being rescued again, and no doubt the intentions are good, how could they not be? Someone is trying to help me find my way.

It’s my own fault, truth be told, I’ve slipped and allowed someone close to me to know my doubts. As a result I have been given an article cut out of some leading Jewish newspaper, authored by a well known Rabbi, who has, by no small chance, finally discovered the true nature of the world, why bad things happen to good people, and everything in between.

There was a time in my life when I would have simply read the article, absorbed the information, and filed it appropriately in my brain along with Jewish ethics, culture, rules and ritual; all part of the growing database of this here proudly educated Jew; but since meeting Katie, simple explanations have not sufficed.

I won’t be so bold as to say my spiritual life was flawless before fate had our paths cross. I had my doubts about specific doctrines or rituals, but surely human error in interpreting the divine was accountable.

And I was not so far removed from reality, even back in those days, as to be uncomfortably aware of my own strangeness; walking through the halls of the hospital with my Yarmulke on, in a completely gentile community. People often turned to look at me for a second too long or whispered in hushed voices as I came by. I was something of an anomaly but… wasn’t it a fair trade?

Did I not have the ancient wisdom of God’s chosen people in my grasp? Were the secrets of the universe not at my fingertips while everyone around me fumbled in the darkness, groping for spirituality in the wastelands outside of clear cut orthodoxy?

I wore my faith like a protective cloak, held tightly around my psyche, perpetually warming me to the idea that I was far better off than my surrounding companions. I was above them; leading an existence based on pure directives from the source of all that was and all that would ever be.

How odd I must have seemed to them. So different and yet exuding such powerful confidence. Such self assurance. It must have come across in introduction as I gripped attending physician Dr. Gregory Petrovich’s hand, looked him in the eye and told him, yes, I was ready for the work ahead, because he nodded with appreciation and welcomed me wholeheartedly. I studied his face as he motioned for an elderly nurse to come over and meet me.
I judged him to be in his late fifties, early sixties. His hair had receded to a point of widows peak midway on his forehead and was salt and pepper at the temples. His face was craggy, his teeth terrible and darkened, and his stalwart torso spoke to me of Russian ancestry and a youth of physical labor. He was rumored to be amongst the most brilliant and dedicated of the collective staff.
“Molly”, he said with a light accent, his tongue refusing to part with the last remnants of a his Slavic roots, “this is Ben, he will be joining us for the next six weeks.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Molly.”
She took my hand lightly and did not address me. She looked at me.
She took me in. She assessed me then as if determining my worth by her own careful examination, judging whether or not I had the right stuff for the task ahead..
Molly must have been mid sixties, and old fashioned to boot. She still wore a nurses hat; an accoutrement long since left behind by the profession. From beneath it flowed straight white hair, carefully arranged , and sharp blue eyes.

I had heard of her through rumors and gossip. Some said she had been a young nurse in Vietnam, others claimed she was a Nun who had later become a nurse. I don’t know why legends cluster about some people, but I do know what made Molly so exceptional. She was one of those rare people who had found her calling. It was evident in everything she did. This was where she belonged in life. This was her appointed task. I can’t say what she gathered from looking me over, but I saw in her Divine providence, God must have meant for her to be here.

I had barely had a chance to put my books down in a corner of the unit when the buzz of secretaries and orderlies informed me that we had been alerted to trauma. Dr. Petrovich tossed me a gown.

“Get ready”, he said and stalked off to arrange the armamentarium of medicines and devices on a cart that Molly wheeled to the first curtain.

He needn’t have told me twice, I had at my disposal all the energy and stupidity of youth.

“What’s your next rotation”, my roommate had asked me the night before.

“Burn Unit”, I had replied matter of factly, not bothering to look up from my studies.

“Are you ready” ? he asked smugly, already having been there and back.

What the …? didn’t he see me reading the goddamned chapter for the fifth time?

Of course I was ready. My whole life was about being ready.

As I finished donning my protective gown, a stretcher bearing Katie Janson burst through the double doors.

Now, in all likelihood, my erstwhile reader, you’ve never seen a burn victim before, and neither had I. I was not prepared at that time nor will I ever be, and I will not cavalierly turn that fate over to you without warning.

Take from me now a word of caution and advice. Go somewhere else, find yourself an errand, read a bit of politics, go socialize at the office cooler.

If you have a gentle heart this is not for you, dear reader, why, even after several years of studying the most destructive forms of disease, it was not for me. I froze there in my tracks like a statue, struck dumb by the sight of something writhing on that stretcher that could only be qualified as human based on it’s past history. A barely audible whimper emanated from between it’s cracked and swollen lips. It was a gritty hollow sound, pushed from the burnt trachea it grated like a guttural consonant that could not escape the throat.

Even all these years later I am still agonized by the fact that my first reaction was not compassion, but horror. Horror at the…the thing that kept it’s charred and blistered hands stretched directly out in front of it as if still in the act of warding off the searing flames. Fingers blackened and charred through and through and sheets of skin hanging from extremities, it was almost too much to bear. There was no hair on the disfigured head, and the eyes were blistered shut. But, God help us all, if you looked closely enough, it was still a little girl.

Petrovich snapped me out of it.

“Ben, we need you”

I came back. One foot moved then the other. Medical knowledge replaced panic and fear. I joined in with Molly placing wet cloth over Katie’s charred body. The dissociated, calculating, medical part of my mind began its assessment. 90% full thickness burns…I calculated fluid loss rates and recalled infection statistics. I noted that Katie Janson was still too hot to touch.

Molly began speaking into the nub of what was formerly an ear.
“Katie, your safe now, your in the Hospital, and we are going to take care of you”

“I need a central line for fluid management”, Petrovich said, as cool as a cucumber, “And I don’t like the way the airway looks”, he noted pulling charred substances off her swollen tongue with a gloved finger.

“Were going to intubate right now.”

And so the battle for life began. We fought it for Katie without complaint, without coffee breaks, and with a vigor that only accompanies those moments in life where survival is at stake.

We plied her with antibiotics and poured in fluids, we monitored her breathing and electrolytes. We doused her with pain medications and paralyzed her with muscle relaxants so that she wouldn’t buck the ventilator. We performed emergency escharotomy surgery to save her arms and legs from the tight burn tissue that threatened to cut off her circulation.

We each prayed to our own Gods that long night and as day broke and the first rays of light beamed gently through the window, they were answered.

“Pulse and Blood Pressure stable for the past few hours,” I told Petrovich without need. He could have delegated responsibilities for patient care, but he had stayed by the bedside all night.

“Her airway is looking better,” he said, “let’s let her breath on her own…Molly, we’re going to extubate.”

We gathered about the bedside as Petrovich withdrew the tube and Molly turned off the slow drip of paralytic agent.

For a moment we waited in silence and then Molly bent closer still and talked to the gruesomely burnt tissue and open fissures that was once the face of a little girl.


Now Molly could easily be classified as elderly, and the nights tolls showed themselves in her voice, but she persisted.

“Katie breathe, baby, you need to take a breath.”

It wasn’t hokey.
It didn’t feel artificial.
Molly with her gray hair and steely eyes had that demeanor about her. She had talked people back from the brink before and she would do so again right before our very eyes.

“Breathe, Katie, you can do it.”

It started as a slow rumble, a grating noise deep in her chest that carried out to her throat and past her lips. Her chest moved with the effort, but the unmistakable rasp of air continued to flow.

“Breathe Katie”

She was doing it. By God ! She was really doing it. It was going to be the miracle story of the year. No one is supposed to be able to live through a burn like that. Especially not nine year old girls. The odds against are astronomical, and yet before our eyes Katie Janson thumbed her nose at statistics and bucked the tables listed in every textbook. Her will to survive was a force more powerful than science had yet calculated.

I actually heard myself laugh out loud before I gave myself permission to do so. I was glad for it though, because it was contagious.

Petrovich forgot himself in a brief moment of celebration and smiled wide enough for me appreciate the archaic state of Russian dentistry.

Even Molly allowed the skin in the corner of her eyes to crinkle.

Secretaries at desks and orderlies with brooms, stopped to take notice and move a little closer to the joy of one little girl the grim reaper would not claim this day.

We were men and women of medicine and science and we took a moment to revel in our own glory.

Petrovich slapped me on the back hard enough to assure me that I would not even have survived kindergarten in the former Soviet Union, and we savored the realization of the night’s hard earned rewards together.

But Molly leaned ever closer and was thus the first to notice that something was wrong, terribly wrong.

Katie’s breathing did not rise and fall with a normal tempo of respiration but continued steadily in a pitch that now began to rise in tone.

Molly looked confused at first and that got our attention, but as the pitch grew Katie’s fingers curled into fists holding the sheets, taught burnt skin cracking open over all her knuckles.

The noise she was making got louder.

Molly blinked twice.

“My God… she’s screaming…she’s screaming.”

As the last of the paralytic medicines faded from her blood stream, Katie’s eyes fluttered open revealing unseeing globes of pure white scalded tissue. She looked about frantically trying to ascertain her whereabouts. And now her cry for help was evident to all, filling the unit with the pain of a child trapped by fire

You see, dear reader, estimates had been made, and chances taken. We had to paralyze Katie for the breathing tube, and… without her reactions to guide us, take a guess as to how much medicine would be enough to take away the pain and not kill her in the process.

Gregory Petrovich, twenty year veteran of the Burn Unit, took a step back and turned a paler shade of Belarus as the shrill scream permeated the room.

“Morphine,” he said, his voice cracking.

Even Molly was too slow for him and he snapped his fingers in impatience, “Morphine !”

I, for my small part, fumbled the vial over to Molly to inject, and am thankful to this day that I didn’t drop it.

Katie’s scream trailed off as she lost consciousness and a single tear traced the aged lines on Molly’s face.

Dr. Petrovich was silent as he replaced the breathing tube. His face was stone.

How long had Katie been trapped in her own body, screaming in pain?

Did she ever know that she was in the hospital, or without sight or hearing, had she, in her own mind, been trapped in the building that killed the rest of her family all this time, screaming frantically for help.

No one had the heart to voice these questions. We busied ourselves with the medicine, but the brief moment of optimism had come and gone all too quickly. Katie’s vitals now fluttered dangerously. Her electrolytes became difficult to control, and with every passing hour she seemed worse.

We fought the good fight that day, and paid credence to neither fatigue or mounting despair. I ran laboratory tests back and forth, but the news kept on getting worse, dehydration, acidemia, electrolyte imbalance.

We all took turns talking to Katie now…Hang in there…Don’t give up…Your going to make it.
But Katie’s will to live was slipping away, I suppose she had grown tired of screaming for someone to help her, grown tired of waiting to be rescued, and her body could simply not overcome the damage done.

When Dr. Petrovich pronounced Katie dead that afternoon, I couldn’t help but cry a little. He covered her over with a sheet and walked over to Molly to put an arm around her shoulder.

Low man on the totem pole I knew my task before it was given to me and I found Katie’s Aunt resting on a chair in the waiting room. I woke her gently out of her slumber. And she looked at me with growing apprehension. My face must have said it all for she burst into tears immediately.

I had no prior training but I instinctively lied through my teeth.

“She didn’t suffer,” I said, “She was comfortable until she passed on.”

To this day, I don’t think she heard a word I said, the way she wept. She was inconsolable.

I stayed with her a while to comfort her.

On the table next to her was a picture of Katie. I picked it up. Blond hair, blue eyes, very middle America looking…and oh my…what a smile.

I try to remember her that way.

That night I avoided roommates and human contact. It had been 36 hours of hell and I longed for my bed. I took off my Yarmulke and put it on my night table. I stared at it feeling betrayal of the deepest sort.

Could I pretend to be spiritually satisfied with dietary and prayer laws of the utmost specifics, when I couldn’t begin to fathom the most basic tenets of Gods relationship and responsibility to human beings.

What kind of sick joke had been perpetrated on me, to be told that I could walk around with this funny hat and have the answers, when my most enlightened moment occurred to me this instant, as I understood that I didn’t know a goddamned thing.

What role could Katie’s suffering have played in God’s great cosmic plan ? And if it did have a role then what does that make God ?

I still believed though…despite the days events I still believed, hell, maybe I needed to believe, and I prayed that Katie had gone to a better place, away from pain; but I didn’t see how that would be likely given how little concern God had shown her in this world.

Thirty six hours of standing on my feet and fighting to keep my eyes open, and now lying comfortably in bed and… sleep would not come.

Now I sit here, many years later, with this article on my desk, getting ready to read about the harmony of our universe and how our benevolent God is watching over all of us. And that’s fine, I have an open mind, and I am ready to understand if a rational case can be made.

But before the answer must come the question, and I must remember this first brick that fell out of the previously impenetrable façade of orthodoxy that had been erected for me in Yeshiva. I have to remember the first time I realized that the answer was lacking, and needed, and nowhere to be found.

I’m going to read this article now, but I had to remember Katie first…

Friday, July 01, 2005

Barber Shop Blues

“Going anywhere for the Fourth?”

His question fades in and out as the number five trimmer shears the hair above my left ear.

“No. Not me. I never travel on American Holidays”, I say speaking too loudly over the buzzing in my ear, “the traffic is a killer.”

“What do you mean… American?”

“Uh, as opposed to Jewish Holidays, like Passover, you know, only one percent of the population clogging the highways.”

He stands behind me and puts a finger on each sideburn, carefully gauging his measurement in the mirror.

“Are you orthodox?”

Christ! There’s a good question. Now it’s my turn to stare at myself in the mirror. What do I give him…the truth?
The lie?
Something in between?

Who the hell are you Ben Avuyah ?

“I was born orthodox, but the older I get… the less I believe…”

He actually stops trimming for a second and expresses real concern, asking in a soft lisping voice, “Does anyone know? What about your wife?”

“Yeah, she knows, and now you make four people that do”, I tell him, “So you’ll have to keep my secret.”

I see him smiling in the mirror, “ I guess you can’t be that orthodox, you weren’t here on holy haircut day.”

The trimmer starts again,


“Yeah. That day when all the orthodox people get their hair cut”, he pauses with a hand on his hip, “you know, it’s like some kind of big emergency or something.”

“Oh.... Log B’amoer.”

“Well Gods gotta be bigger than that for me. Bigger than light switches and haircuts and special food.”

And now here it comes, my mistake, my whopper of all whoppers. Listen closely or you’ll miss it.

“Why, what religion are you?”

It was an innocent question, Damn it.

How was I to know?



“You know…Holly rollers”, he steps back in agitation at my ignorance and fumbles to pick up the scissors, “like dancing all over the church in prophetic revelation…”


He is slapping the scissors in the palm of his hand.

“Ohh. If I sneezed in church, my father…”

He is starting to cut again and is pulling a little too hard on my hair.

“…would beat the tar out of me to get the devil out.”

“No way.”

I thought I said it with the appropriate sarcastic inflection.

“Oh yes way”, his voice is choked with emotion and the scissors are moving faster now.

Snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip.

Hair is flying off my head at an alarming rate. Oh no….is that a bit of scalp I see?

“After my father died, my brother didn’t talk to me for six years.”

His voice starts to crack, “and when I wanted to arrive at his wedding with my boyfriend, he told me not to come.”
“That’s terrible!” I tell him desperately trying to think of a way to change the topic while a few precious strands of hair still remain, “ How could anyone be so cruel to their own family…Err…I don’t see my family much either, most of them live in Israel.”

Snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip snip

I am surrounded by a blizzard of my own hair. It is coming off in chunks and tufts now. I watch in the mirror as it languidly flutters to the floor around me.

Fueled by anti religious ire, my hair stylist seems to have entered a state of Zen oneness with his craft, and I, for my part, am being sheered like a sheep.

“Israel!” it’s almost a shriek, “You know all the clergy stopped killing each other over there just long enough to join forces and outlaw the gay parade!”

The scissors are a blur and like the blades of a helicopter I see only a smeared vestige of their motion. They cut through my dusky locks like so much foliage.

Paranoia sets in as the clippers resonate by my ear like a hummingbirds wings.

Despite recent atheistic leanings I mumble a prayer in ye old English.

O spiteful, spiteful, lord that art in heaven. O vengeful master. O mighty wielder of disease and all things itchy. Yea, Surely this day you have smitten the hair upon my head in great wrath, and somewhat tepid fury. But if it please the, O great one, spare now my ear lobes from thy avenging scissors of retribution. If not for my sake, O Lord, then for the sake of the children….yes, my lord…for the children.

“I know, it’s awful,” I reply honestly whishing I had a witty political anecdote up my sleeve to diffuse the situation.

Scissors moving faster.

Must.. change… subject.. but….can’t…the need to speak…heresy…too strong….

Hair be damned I state my piece.

“It really shows you what organized religion is all about, control! Control over a population that has lost the ability to think for itself.”

Scissors reaching speed of sound and beyond.

“Exactly”, he says lips pursed with the energy he is applying to deflate my formerly abundant head of hair, “ all their wars pale in comparison to them, to what would happen if people started to realize how silly their laws are, for then they would loose power. Imams and Rabbi’s are willing to unite to prevent that.”

And then as quickly as it began it was over. Due to pure lack of substrate my haircut had come to an abrupt end.

“Yes,” he agreed, almost in a sigh of release at finishing the cut, “control is at the heart of it all.”

Well I’m so happy that was cathartic for you Mr. Haircut man, but now I’m balder than my dad at age 62!

We both stare silently dumbfounded at me in the mirror in front of us.

“Wow. I had no idea my ears were that big.”

He nods at me in the mirror, “it’s a great summer cut for you, it will really let the scalp breath.”

No Shit.

As we speak I am detecting air currents from down the hall with my de-feathered dome. Care for a barometry report? Cause I’m pretty sure I’m reading a cold front of nor easterlies heading our way.

He walks me over for shampoo of my peach fuzz, and as he lathers up the remnants of my former vanity, I ask him, “ do you think organized religion will ever wither away? You know, kind of like the security blanket of early childhood that we all eventually get tired of.”

He’s rubbing something minty onto my head, and I’m hoping it’s got a chemical in it that grows back hair, “not as long as there are unknowns,” he says. “As long as there are uncertainties people will need something to believe in. A place were there can feel their loved ones will go after they die.”

“Belief for reasons of consolation?”

“I’m afraid so.”

I paid my tip (begrudgingly) and walked to my car and realized I had a more in depth conversation with my barber than anyone in my “religious community.”

I liked his sermon more than my Rabbi’s and he had just scalped me as bald as Mr. Cherokee did farmer John.

As I cranked the ignition I angled the mirror to look at my buzz.

Ohhh. For love of Pete !!!

Note to self: Next haircut….talk about the weather.