Monday, October 2, 2023 -
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Lessons from Rabbi Brafman’s bypass surgery

I must admit, I winced when I first heard the term, “health opportunity.” In fact, I didn’t get it. This person had cancer. What was the “opportunity?”

I was speaking with a person of faith. Whatever happens, happens for the good, and one learns from good things — that was her perspective.

Recently, a short, powerful memoir unfolded this idea. Rabbi Aaron Brafman of Far Rockaway, New York, underwent bypass surgery. He published “Lessons from Bypass Surgery” in the Jewish Observer. With permission, I reprint his memoir in full, slightly edited.

• • •

“Right after Purim, I went through multiple bypass surgery. During the traumatic ordeal — which was successful, thank G-d — I tried to learn lessons for my spiritual growth from what I was experiencing. I would like to share some of the insights that I gained, for they may be beneficial and a source of encouragement for others.


“During the preparation for surgery with all that it entails (the same goes for some other experiences during a hospital stay), one’s dignity can be lost. When you are told how they will cut you up, you may feel like you are just a piece of meat.

“To fight those feelings during the pre-op and the hospital stay, you have to say and remember the prayer, ‘My G-d, the soul, the neshamah, that You gave me is pure.’ Focus on the soul that I have. My body is not the real me, but rather the garment for my soul that defines me.

“This is not a new idea, but it is something we often overlook. Later, during my recuperation, I thought that with this insight I had a new understanding of a statement of the Sages, ‘The Shechinah, the Divine presence, is above the head of the sick person.’ During an illness, the patient focuses on his spiritual dimensions and thus connects to the Shechinah — so the Master of the World is that much closer.


“A new understanding of this verse came to me.

“After surgery, one’s blood sugar rises and they give you insulin intravenously. They want to determine, however, if this is a temporary spike or if you are a diabetic. They do a blood test to see what was happening in the blood three months ago to make that determination. Also, the loss of blood during surgery makes one anemic and therefore very weak and tired for several weeks after surgery. One’s blood is an essential factor in the healing process.


“There are stories about the great pietists, the tzaddikim who did not make a move, even with their hands, unless it was purposeful. For several days after the surgery, it was hard for me to move my right hand. Every move involved a degree of pain, and I had to decide each time whether it was worth the effort and the agony.

“I was thus in awe over how tzaddikim can live on that level, where nothing is haphazard and everything is only done after careful calculation.


“In order to make sure that my blood sugar was getting under control, medical attendants came every hour — day and night — the first two days following surgery and jabbed my finger to test my blood. (It then went to every four hours.)

“This reminded me of what Rabbi Shlomo Lorincz wrote in his book about Rabbi Yitzhak Z. Soloveitchik — that his level of fear of Heaven was such that he analyzed his behavior every hour. Tzaddikim are aware that behavior can change every hour. Would that we could make that analysis more often than just during the Ten Days of Repentance!


“Judging from my outer appearance and eating habits, everyone used to comment that I did not have to worry about my heart. But when my brother, Ben, had emergency bypass surgery two months ago, I was sent for a stress test.

“One thing led to another, and I wound up with bypasses on five arteries. I realized that in the physical world, outward appearances could belie what is happening inside.

“The same is true in regard to spiritual growth. If we do not work on our inner essence, correcting our character and uprooting our negative traits, one can add layers of external religiosity while, at the same time, seeking to fulfill unworthy drives of envy, unchecked desire and glory seeking. These can eventually destroy the inner person.

“Thus, there is a constant need for study of the classic texts on personal ethics (musar) or on chasidic thought.


“During my hospital stay, I was taken from my room and wheeled into the x-ray room (another one of the demeaning experiences). You are in a room with many patients waiting to be x-rayed, then you wait there afterwards to be transported back to your room. (I only waited for half an hour.) Two people next to me had been waiting for a longer period of time. One was in pain and the other was generally very impatient. The flow of expletives and foul language that I heard then was more than I had been treated to in the last several years.

“When a spiritually sensitive person is in crisis, he cries out in pain to G-d, and he recognizes that pains of suffering are meant as a source of atonement. ‘Ashreinu, How fortunate we are, how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, and how beautiful our heritage.’


“When you take into account all the machines and intravenous lines that are connected to you to maintain your body’s functions, and contemplate the surgery and all the different medications that you have to take afterwards to stabilize your body, you recognize the miraculous aspects of the body’s functions that G-d created, and you achieve a deeper appreciation for what we say in the asher yatzar blessing, ending with ‘Who acts so wondrously.’


“Even though the doctors and everyone else tell you that the surgery is routine, you know that it is not so simple, that there are no guarantees, and that you might not come out alive.

“During the last few minutes before the anesthesia took effect, my head was full of words of Torah, chapters of Psalms and some inspiring, spiritual tunes. This was a great comfort to me.

“Rabbi Lorincz also relates a story told by Rav Shach about someone who was on his deathbed. This person was always in pursuit of money, and he told the people standing around his deathbed that if someone would come in now with money, he would stretch out his hand and grab it. Thus, one dies the way one lives. It matters not what one does for a living (although someone in Jewish education may find it easier to give expression to spiritual strivings during one’s final moments).

“I know many businessmen and professionals who view their work as a means of supporting their families and giving tzeddakah, but that is not who they are. Their essence is more obvious when they are studying Torah. If one, however, gets trapped in the pursuit of wealth and luxury, then ‘Whoever attains 100 desires 200,’ and ‘No person dies with half of his desires attained.’Then, on his deathbed, he will grab for the dollar. What a pity!

“I am far from claiming that I have achieved lofty spiritual levels, but one can want to rise above the status quo, and reach for inner growth.

“One need not wait for a new lease on life to realize that one does not have to stay on the same level, but can truly enhance his standing. I hope these words will be helpful to others, as well as to myself.”

Rabbi Brafman is principal of the Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, NY.

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IJN Executive Editor | [email protected]

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