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A Precious Gift

Friday, 24 February, 2017 - 8:45 am

A nutritionist was presenting at a conference.  "Years ago, the stuff we eat today would have killed us already," he said. "Red meat is awful. Processed food is making us fat, soft drinks corrode the stomach lining. Chinese food is loaded with MSG. High-fat diets have been a disaster for society, and nobody truly understands the long-term harm caused by the contamination in our drinking water."

Forcefully he continued, "But ladies and gentlemen, one food is the most dangerous, and we all have eaten, or will eat, it. Who can tell me which food has caused the most grief and suffering for years after eating it?"

After several moments of quiet, a 75-year-old man cautiously, softly, guessed: "Wedding cake?"

At the end of this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim, we read one of the more mysterious verses in the Torah. It relates the events which transpired at the foot of Mt. Sinai upon where the Torah was given: 

And Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel ascended, and they perceived the G-d of Israel…. and they perceived G-d, and they ate and drank.

What is the meaning of the words, “they perceived God, and they ate and drank?” At this critical juncture, upon receiving the highest revelation of G-d, how could they find nothing better to do than eat?

Imagine you are summoned to meet the greatest man ever, face-to-face. During that meeting, would you take out a hot dog and a can of coke and start eating and drinking?

The men who partook of the food and drink were not brutes! They were Aaron the high priest's sons. Later, Moses said about them that they were holier than him and Aaron! The sons were joined by Israel's elders, leaders, and spiritual scholars! How could this be?!

The Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Dov Ber,  offered a beautiful explanation of their behavior. He explained that the giving of the Torah represented the empowerment of man to integrate spirit and matter, soul and body, heaven and earth; for the mortal, frail human to achieve intimacy with the Divine. Thus, while they gazed at G-d, they ate and drank to introduce holiness into the simple, mortal act of eating and drinking, the emblem of human physicality and materialism. We no longer have to separate the two realms. Now, we can firmly bridge and connect them.

The nobles of Israel symbolized the breakage of the borders between the simple act of eating and spirituality, between the bodily needs and wants and the Divine.

Last year, I was deeply moved by a story on CNN.

James Harrison is just an average guy. He loves his daughter and grandchildren, collects stamps, and goes for walks near his home on Australia's central coast. But it's what's under the surface that makes him extraordinary—specifically, what flows in his veins.

Known as "The Man with the Golden Arm," nearly every other week for the past 60 years he has donated blood plasma from his right arm. The reason can be traced back to a serious medical procedure he underwent as a child.

"In 1951, I had a chest operation where they removed a lung—and I was 14," recalled Harrison, who was then 78. "When I came out of the operation... my father was explaining what had happened. He said I had received 13 units (liters) of blood and my life had been saved by unknown people. He was a donor himself, so I said that when I would be old enough, I'd become a blood donor."

Soon after his first donations, doctors called him in. They said his blood could be the cure for a deadly problem. In Australia, up until about 1967, thousands of babies died each year. Women had numerous miscarriages and babies were born with brain damage. This was the result of Rhesus disease, a condition where a pregnant woman's blood attacks her unborn baby's blood cells. In the worst cases, it can result in brain damage or death for the baby.

Rhesus disease happens when a pregnant woman has rhesus-negative (RhD negative) blood, and the baby in her womb has rhesus-positive (RhD positive) blood, inherited from its father. If the mother has been sensitized to rhesus-positive blood, usually during a previous pregnancy with a rhesus-positive baby, she may produce antibodies that destroy the baby's "foreign" blood cells.

Harrison was discovered to have an unusual antibody in his blood. In the 1960's he worked with doctors to use the antibodies to develop an injection called Anti-D. It prevents women with rhesus-negative blood from developing RhD antibodies during pregnancy.

Australia was one of the first countries to discover a blood donor with this antibody, and it was quite revolutionary.

Harrison's blood is precious. He and Anti-D are credited with saving the lives of more than 2 million babies, according to the Australian Red Cross blood service. That's 2 million lives saved by one arm! His blood is actually used to make a life-saving medication that is given to moms whose blood is at risk of attacking their unborn babies. Every batch of Anti-D that has ever been made in Australia has come from James' blood.

Over 17% of women in Australia are at risk. James Harrison has helped save many lives.

Doctors still aren't sure why Harrison has this rare blood type, but think it may be from the transfusions he received when he was 14, after his lung surgery. He's one of less than 50 people in Australia known to have the antibodies, according the Australian Red Cross blood service. But he is the only one who drives to the hospital every other week for 60+ years to donate his life-saving blood.

Though he has given over 1,000 plasma donations, still, "I look at the ceiling or the nurses, maybe talk to them a bit, but never once have I watched the needle go in my arm. I can't stand the sight of blood, and I can't stand pain.”

One arm has saved 2 million lives! That is a mighty arm, an arm reflecting the Divine arm. The Zohar says that kindness is the Divine right arm. When I use my arm for kindness, I am aligning my arm with the Divine “arm,” the attribute of kindness and love.

Reb Eli Chaim Meizel, the Rabbi of Lodz, Poland, was trudging through the snow-clogged streets of a little village. He approached the house of one of the richest men in the village and knocked on the door. A servant opened the door and, seeing the old rabbi, immediately invited him in. But the rabbi just shook his head and asked to see the master of the house.

In no time, the rich man came hurrying. “Rabbi, why are you standing outside?” he wanted to know. “It’s so cold out there. Please come in where it is warmer.”

“Thank you so much,” said the rabbi, “but I prefer to stay out here. Can we talk for a moment?”  

“Why, certainly, certainly,” said the rich man. He shivered and pulled his jacket closer about him.

“Well, you see,” the rabbi began, “a number of poor families in this village don’t have any money.”

“I’m sorry for interrupting, rabbi,” the rich man said. His teeth were chattering. “You know I always contribute to the poor and hungry. Why can’t we talk about this inside? Why do we have to stand out here?”

“These people need firewood,” the rabbi explained. “I am collecting for firewood for poor families.”

“So why can’t we talk inside?” asked the rich man.

“Because I want you to feel what they are feeling,” said the rabbi, “even if only for a few minutes. Imagine how they must be shivering in their drafty little houses with the ice-cold furnaces! The more you give me, the more families will be spared this dreadful cold.”

This is holiness, Jewish style. As you gaze at G-d, you remember that there are people who need to eat, drink, and be warmed up. And as you are extending your arm to another human, you realize that you are gazing at G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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