Reb Yosef was in his mid-70's when he first learned the full extent of his condition. He had, for many years, suffered from shortness of breath and spasm-like chest throbs. But, like so many of us, he eschewed the dreaded, but necessary doctor appointments.
"I'll be all right," he repeated. "The pains come, but they go away. And what do the doctors really know anyway?"
Having been born and bred in Jerusalem, Reb Yosef was made of tough stuff, but the time had come when he could no longer avoid the tender truth. His condition was serious and it was not going away on its own.
Reb Yosef had never held any official position of renown or glory. Beloved teacher, mentor to many hundreds and bastion of unflappable belief, he carried himself with uncanny humility and unruffled confidence. The old-timers of Jerusalem know about people like Reb Yosef. There are more than a few of them. They flee the spotlight, detest honor, and quietly guide those who seek a word of consolation, advice, or reassurance.
They don't revere God. They live with God... every waking moment and with every fiber they possess.
"We must face reality, Rabbi," said Dr. M. "The medications are not working. We've tried several different kinds of medicine for quite a few months. There is really only one more option."
Reb Yosef sat calmly and listened. He knew what was coming.
"The only choice left is surgery; and yes, it is rather risky."
"If the surgery is successful, you could have 20 more years. But there is a 50-50 chance that you will not leave the operating room alive."
Dr. M. went on to describe the details of the terribly complicated heart surgery that represented the best and only hope he had. Reb Yosef did not inquire about numbers, chances, or odds. That was not his way. But Dr. M. offered them anyway.
"I'm going to be totally honest with you, Rabbi. Without this operation, you may not live more than 12 months. If the surgery is successful though, you could have 20 more years. But there is a 50-50 chance that you will not leave the operating room alive. The decision is totally yours."
Just imagine being faced with that kind of dilemma. Imagine his wife and children. Do they want him to have the operation, knowing full well that they may never see him again? Or do they dare not chance a risk of that magnitude and just hope and pray that the doctor is wrong? Having to encounter a quandary of this import is to reside in one of life's most perilous neighborhoods.
After more than a few sleepless nights and several consultations with the wisest of men, Reb Yosef agreed that it was a risk worth taking.
IN THE OPERATING ROOM
It was a short time later that Reb Yosef entered the hospital. Well-wishers from everywhere, whose souls had been touched by his kindness and his holiness, prayed for his success. But only his closest family members were permitted at his bedside in the precious pre-op moments.
And then, it was time.
They wheeled Reb Yosef out of his room with his modest, apprehensive procession following close behind. His wife, among others, fortified and determined; his granddaughter, terrified and bewildered. No one said a word. There was nothing to say.
In the longest of walks that took the shortest of time, they reached their destination -- the O. R. It was time to part.
The Operating Theatre was a peculiar batter of sterility and morbidity. It is here that life speaks for itself. It is here that tomorrow waits for those who cannot. It is here that destiny governs and judgment is forever rendered.
Doctors, nurses, and attendants all milled about, busying themselves with last minute technicalities, while the patient, almost a curious afterthought, just waited and peered. So many people, so many machines, so much bright light, so much focus -- all directed in a unified effort to bring life and health to one individual.
The final preparations were nearly completed. Dr. M introduced to Reb Yosef the team that would soon embrace the august task of trying to save his life. He then went through a brief summary of the undertaking before him and what Reb Yosef might expect after he awoke. Neither man articulated the dreaded alternative.
"Good luck," said Dr. M as he instructed the anesthesiologist to prepare the insertion of the sleeping aid.
But before he could proceed, Reb Yosef's hand suddenly reached out from the sheet and clutched the arm of Dr. M.
"You told me what I had to know. Now I will tell you what you have to know."
"If I may," said the gentle sage to the good doctor. "There is something I must tell you before you begin.
"Weeks ago you advised me of the risks involved in having this procedure. They were difficult to hear and even harder to weigh. You told me what I had to know. Now I will tell you what you have to know.
"Should this surgery not be successful... should your intervention bring me death instead of life, you may naturally be disappointed. You may even blame yourself for what did and did not happen. You might go so far as to re-evaluate your skills as a doctor and even doubt the value of this procedure. As a result of your questions, you may be reluctant to perform this surgery on others, who may, in fact, greatly benefit from this type of operation.
"Know that life is in the exclusive hands of the Almighty. It is He and He only who determines the fate of we, who are but flesh and blood. No matter what happens here today, you must continue your vital work. You have been given extraordinary talents and you must use them without hesitation, remorse, or vacillation. For it will not have been you that failed, but rather the will of the Creator that has spoken. I hope you understand."
It was a short but penetrating speech. And in it, lay a gift of eternal dimension. Dr. M. had performed hundreds of similar surgeries before, but had never met anyone, in those trying circumstances, who had the presence, the clarity, the pure belief, and the simple kindness of the man who lay before him at that moment.
"Yes," replied Dr. M. "I understand. I agree. And I am very grateful."
It was a life lesson of complete and unfailing conviction, which possessed the unique power that could come only from someone sitting at the crossroads of life.
Dr. M. collected himself and turned once more to the anesthesiologist and beckoned him to proceed. But Reb Yosef, it seems, was not quite finished.
"And... er... one more thing... and this is really the purpose of my words to you at this time. Should I awake in a recovery room somewhere, I trust that you will be by my side. Together we will celebrate an accomplishment of enormous proportion.
"But know, good doctor, that life is in the exclusive hands of the Almighty. It is He and He only who determines the fate of we, who are but flesh and blood. No matter what happens here today, you can never take full credit for extending life. You have been given extraordinary talents, and you must use them without pride, arrogance or conceit. You are just a messenger of God, a wheel in His Majesty's mill.
"It will not have been you that succeeded, but rather the will of the Creator that has spoken. I hope you understand."
Dr. M. nodded slowly. It was a moment he would never forget.
Reb Yosef gave him a soft smile.
And then he closed his eyes.
While the outcome of the surgery is, in fact, unrelated to the brilliant lesson Reb Yosef taught us, you are probably wondering what did happen. Suffice it to say that God did indeed hear the loving prayers of everyone that knew him.