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Rabbi Avi Weiss

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Offering Thanks: Reflections on 25 Years of a Gift of Life

Posted: 12/30/11 08:14 PM ET

Just the other day I celebrated the 25th anniversary of my quadruple bypass-open heart surgery. It all started three months earlier, in 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 the former Soviet Union until all Soviet Jewry was free. As programs featuring the Moiseyev dancers were distributed to those entering the theater our small band of protesters, led by the great Glenn Richter, was handing out "dummy" programs with pictures of Russian refuseniks.

It was a protest like so many others we had conducted. As the last of the theatergoers entered Lincoln Center, we gathered our signs and megaphone and prepared to leave when suddenly all hell broke loose. A smoke bomb was released inside the theater by troubled 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 so they attacked me. To this day, I believe that one of my attackers was a KGB agent.

All at once I felt what seemed like a Mack truck on my chest. The pain was excruciating. I couldn't breathe. I could hardly move. I couldn't comprehend what was happening. Until then I had felt invincible. There was nothing I could not do. Nothing stopped me from pushing ahead to reach my goals. That night, as I gasped for breath, I sensed that I, and that image of myself, were both in grave danger.

Scores of police and many, many ambulances rushed to the area. Mayor Koch was there as well, standing over me as I lied in the ambulance. He assured me that he'd call my wife Toby and arrange that she and the kids be escorted to the hospital where I would be taken.

The next morning, feeling better, I asked the nurse when I could dress and go home. I'll never forget her response, "You don't understand. You are in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit. No one is released directly from here. You first have to make it to a regular room." That was the first time I recognized that I was really sick.

Tests revealed I had suffered a heart attack and so an angioplasty was performed to open up the vessels to my heart. I was in such physical and emotional turmoil that I couldn't lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Prayer services at my synagogue.

In the ensuing weeks I continued to feel, on many occasions, chest pains. As weak as I was, the politics of the Soviet Jewry movement, sometimes brutal and mean-spirited, continued 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.

And the pain persisted. Toby insisted that I visit a doctor. So, on Dec. 24, 1986, another catheterization was performed, revealing that surgery was necessary. I was so sick that a pump had to placed into my heart to ensure I'd make it from the cath lab to the operating room.

As I reflect on this most powerful chapter in my life, I do so through the lenses of Jewish teachings which encourages one to offer hoda'ah -- the Hebrew for thanksgiving.

But hoda'ah is also associated with recognition of finitude, with recognition of our natural human limitations which should impel us to declare ani modeh or ani modah -- I admit to my failings.

How then can we conflate these two ideas? How can hoda'ah on the one hand mean thank you and on the other mean limitation? 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 or serves us as we sit down to eat.

And then there is what can be called a substantive thank you. This is the thank you that is deep and real. Such a thank you comes from recognition of limits; recognition that I can't do it all; that I truly need you to help me in my moment of distress.

Here, the idea of thank you has been turned on its heels. Normatively, thank you is associated with the recipient of the thanks feeling important. I am suggesting that the focus be on the thanker revealing natural human shortcomings and deficiencies.

This might be why many people have problems saying thank you, as thank you involves recognition of finitude, that one is limited -- that one cannot do it alone.

No wonder in the liturgy after reciting the Amidah's birkot bakasha, blessings in which we overflow with request and need, that we immediately recite the birkot hoda'ah, the blessings of thanksgiving. It is not God who needs the thanks, but it is 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.

It's 25 years since that operation. Without the help of doctors and nurses and family and extended family, this Bayit, I would not be here today. Today, I stand before you with a feeling of hoda'ah, of thanks to you. On this anniversary, I recognize and remember how needy I was, and how limited I continue to be and how only with help from others am I able to continue on.

That night, in the surgical ICU unit, I woke more quickly than expected. I remember hearing voices all around me. It was Christmas night, a night in which very few doctors and nurses want to be in a hospital. But there they were late into the night. I could hear them helping other patients around me, some of whom did not live through that night. In the ICU, there is a hair's breadth difference between life and death.

I couldn't talk. There was a tube down in 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 then there were the doctors, the brilliant Dr. Mark Greenberg and Dr. Avi Merav, my surgeon, whose fingers are the fingers of God. And Dr. David Kaufman. 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. All I could do was mouth two words: Thank you.

Days later I received a note from Avital Sharansky, with whom Toby and I had developed a close friendship as she campaigned for the release of her husband Natan. It contained a word and some numbers. "Dear Avi," it read, "Psalms 147:2, 3." I quickly looked up the sentences. "The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem, He gathers the scattered exiles of Israel. He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds."

As the Psalmist declares elsewhere, "O Lord, my God, forever I will thank you."