During the months leading up to my kidney donor surgery, one of the questions that I was asked over and over again (in many different forms) was: “Why are you doing this?”
The simple answer was that if I had the opportunity to save someone’s life, I wanted to try to do it. But, of course, there are no simple answers…and the question still honestly puzzles me.
Most of the time the answer I gave centered around an incident that happened more than five years ago. I was serving as a rabbi at a large congregation in Columbus and had a member of my congregation who was in need of a kidney. He had placed a sign on the back of his car that said “Got Kidney? I Need One,” along with his phone number. Someone eventually called the number and was a match. I had gone to the OSU Medical Center to sit with the family during the surgery; I went into the immense surgical waiting area and made my way to the check-in desk. I asked for the family of so-and-so, and a moment later a woman (who must have overheard my question) jumped up and asked if I knew that family. HIPAA-be-damned, I told her I was the rabbi from the family’s congregation. She informed me that her daughter was in surgery at that moment donating her kidney to him. I was there when the two families met and it was one of the most incredible moments of my 20+ as a congregational rabbi. I remember saying to myself that if one day I was able to do something like this woman’s daughter had, I should not let the opportunity pass.
The truth was that I had already let it pass a bunch of times. Over the years, the congregation had done text study about organ donation (spoiler: Judaism supports it). I am sure that I had preached about it over the years. Undoubtedly there were Organ Donation Sabbaths too. It had just never occurred to me that this was something I could do (because of my medical history, or because I was raising a family, or because I was too busy, or because this was something that only “heroes” and “angels” do, or because….) And those of you who read my last blog post know, I am still surprised that it actually happened.
So, back to the original question: why did I respond to that FB post for someone I did not know at all?
Growing up, I was always taught how important it was to save a life; in Judaism, one can violate almost any law in order to preserve it. We were also taught that whoever saves one life, it is as if s/he had saved an entire world. I knew this was an important thing but there was still a disconnect for nearly 58 years.
Maybe my response this time was due to a nagging guilt on my part for having talked-the-talk about saving lives without ever really having walked-the-walk. Maybe part of it was that I was fairly certain there was no way I would get approved so I was not really risking anything. (Would I get “brownie points” just for trying?)
Like so much of what we study in our lives, we can learn about it, but when do we really get a chance to put it into action? In this regard, unless we are medical professionals (doctors, nurses, therapists, technicians, etc.), how often are we able to save a life? The opportunities are out there, but sometimes it is not so easy. How many of us donate blood to the Red Cross? (BTW, under doctor’s orders I am not allowed to do that; kidney=yes, blood=no!) How many of us have been swabbed for a possible match for a bone-marrow donation? Are we willing to take time out of our days to be inconvenienced to help others who need our help, whose lives we may not be physically saving but whose quality of life we may be enhancing? Do we stick out our necks when we see someone being harassed? Are we willing to stand up for what is right through more than just a social media post?
We cannot do it all. Pirkei Avot teaches us: Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to not do your part.” The needs in this world are overwhelming–even paralyzing. We must, however, find what speaks to us and do it because we know the price of doing nothing. In the last century, so few people took risks to save victims of the Holocaust while the vast majority simply sat by and did nothing–which is all that was need for evil to triumph.
In the final analysis, I am still not exactly sure why I stepped up this time. It could be that something in the photograph on the FB page reminded me of my own family; if I were in their position, would I not want someone to step forward? It could be that I wanted to prove something to myself: that this almost 58-year-old guy who was sick as a child and got picked last for sports teams, who had decided to get healthy and fit, was now capable of using his body to save someone else. It could be that as I am aging I want to convince myself that I am young enough to do something like this. Perhaps I am trying to assuage feelings that I have not really accomplished anything of significance or made a big enough difference in the world (I know it is not true, but many feel that way at times). I certainly was not doing it for any health or financial benefit. (To be completely transparent, I did get a cool Kidney Donor T-Shirt, pillow, water bottle and tote bag!)
There is an expression in Judaism: Ma sheh-lo lishmah, ba lishmah. Roughly translated, it means that something that you do for the wrong reason, in the end you will come to do for the right reason. Often this refers to people who give money so that they will get their name on a plaque or get some other recognition; charitable giving should be done modestly, but better for the person to give for the plaque than not at all…because eventually they will do it even without the plaque.
Whatever my motivations might have been to get into this whole kidney donation thing, I am not sure that it really matters. In the final analysis, because of my actions Papa Phil got a new kidney, and so did two other people. Does it really matter why I did this? What matters is that I did…when it would have been much easier not to.
I know this has been kind of preachy, but what do you expect from a rabbi? I have learned a lot from this experience, and know that I will continue to do so. My biggest takeaway: we should never assume that we cannot make a difference. I never would have believed that I would be qualified to donate a kidney, but here we are. Of course, making a difference rarely calls for something this drastic. Even the smallest of actions can have a tremendous impact, and it is never too late.
I know that I cannot complete the work; I cannot solve every problem out there in our world. I am grateful to have had the opportunity this time to do my part.