Every year at this time I recall the Rosh Hashana I learned to walk while precariously balanced on one foot.
Five years ago I broke my leg while attempting to rescue my infant daughter from falling off a bed. She recovered. My metatarsal bone was crushed.
During my first days in a cast I hobbled clumsily and cursed my misfortune. As I tottered on my front porch watching my son depart for school, I envied the people walking unhindered on the sidewalk in front of my house.
It wasn't the shattered bone in my leg that pained me most; it was the feeling of helplessness. I had a newborn to care for, a son starting school, and a job that demanded me to run around on two feet.
With one fell swoop I had been thrust (albeit temporarily) into the world of a cripple. Little tasks I had previously taken for granted, such as bathing or brushing my teeth, suddenly required a great deal of effort. The simple act of rising from a chair and crossing the room was exhausting.
I was well aware of the myriad of people with more serious health issues and I knew I was lucky because my disability wasn't permanent. Still I felt sorry for myself. And alone.
That's when Ellen discovered me. Or more appropriately, when I discovered Ellen.
Ellen lived down the block and always greeted passersby while walking her dog. My crutches and somber face halted her in her tracks. I told her my sad story that started on Rosh Hashana and ended in the emergency room.
Ellen listened sympathetically and asked what she could do to help. I rejected her offers of course. I was too proud to accept assistance. Our conversation went forgotten until late afternoon when a neighbor appeared at my door with platters of food. Unbeknownst to me Ellen had informed all my neighbors and everyone had volunteered to bring meals.
The sweetest ingredient of these dishes were the warm wishes and friendship that accompanied them.
Their kindness came delivered by the bag and frying pan. There were three-course meals with meatballs, ribs, salads and desserts. The sweetest ingredients of these dishes were the warm wishes and friendship that accompanied them. The compassion extended beyond food to include offers of rides, grocery runs and babysitting. Someone lent me a wheelchair.
I stopped feeling sorry for myself long enough to wonder what I had ever done to deserve such an outpouring of love and caring.
I wasn't accustomed to receiving but I didn't turn anyone away. I realized I needed the help. I felt honored to be part of this wonderful extended family that considers it a mitzvah to help someone, even if their immobility is fleeting. The physical sustenance was delicious. But the greatest gift my neighbors gave me was a sustaining source of inner strength. I no longer felt alone.
Their efforts reminded me to admire the good in the world even from the precarious vantage point of one leg. I tried to thank Ellen but she kept insisting there was nothing extraordinary about what she did. To her it was second nature. I thought I was one of the lucky few recipients. But since my ordeal I have discovered that there are dozens of Ellens in communities across our Jewish globe. Each has made a pursuit of caring for others, whether they are victims of broken bodies or broken hearts.
When we purchase new homes we often consider the beauty and expansion potential of the construction. But the true greatness lies in the spirit of those who live down the block, who breathe meaning into the expression "quality of life." These are the people who know it's not just important to do well in life, but to do good. They earn the quiet satisfaction of comforting the afflicted. Their names rarely make the headlines but they are the ones who keep our nation mighty. They know that the best way to correct the injustice in the world is to fix it with our own hands and feet.
How appropriate that my fall came on Rosh Hashanah when I could realize the humility that comes by standing on one foot.
How appropriate that my fall came on Rosh Hashanah when I could realize the humility that comes by standing on one foot. And I could discover the beauty that comes when kind souls take action: Their compassion not only comforts it reverberates through other homes. I have seen recipients who in turn become providers for others facing their own hard times. I like to imagine that each time someone takes action it has a domino effect so that eventually, more and more people will continue the trend of performing acts of kindness for their neighbors. All because of one Ellen.
Since that Rosh Hashana I too have tried to become a better neighbor. When I hear about someone going through hard times I am more inclined to run to help. I have organized meals for sick people and have cooked dinners which I deliver with good wishes. I find it comforting when tragedy strikes to be able to do something productive instead of throwing my hands up in resignation. And now I know from experience that when someone shrugs, "I don't need anything," it could be a sign that they need it most.
Eight weeks after my fall I returned to the doctor. He removed my cast with a dramatic flourish. Then he pulled me to my feet and announced, "And now you can walk."
As I took my first steps I realized that the doctor was only half right. Even with a broken heart and shattered bones you can hold your head upright and make real strides forward. You just need the right people to lean on.