My illness recently left me in the Neuro-ICU of one of New York’s finest hospitals for over a week. The medical care I received there was truly exceptional. That was the good news. All too quickly, it became clear that mine was no ordinary hospital room. There was no bathroom to speak of. There was only a mini toilet that pulled out from beneath the sink in the middle of the room with a curtain that wrapped around it. A nurse was required to stand beside me at all times, as a safety precaution. Privacy was a thing of the past.
I was not allowed to lift my head more than an inch without the aid of a nurse. To top it all off, I received my tray a full two hours late at every meal. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but even my food had to be abnormal? Bereft of dignity and independence I was losing hope. With darkness surrounding me and fear in my heart, I felt a profound sadness.
Then, I thought of Rabbi Akiva, two thousand years ago, walking with a group of rabbis among the ashes of a still smoldering Jerusalem. It had been pillaged and burned to the ground. Most horrifically, at her very center, stood the Temple Mount, shorn of our most precious jewel, the Holy Temple. The very heart of the Jewish people had been destroyed. As these righteous men looked on, the dreaded prophecy had come true before their very eyes, and they saw before them foxes exiting the place where the Holy of Holies once stood.
These sages all tore their garments and cried in the face of such darkness and destruction; all but one. Instead of crying, Rabbi Akiva began to laugh. When questioned why he would laugh during a time of sorrow he explained that just as we had witnessed the prophecy of destruction coming to fruition so too, we would merit to see the prophesized rebuilding of Jerusalem. To this his fellow rabbis responded, “Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us!”
A moment later, a nurse came into my room. With a smile on her face she asked. “Would you like to take a walk?” I thought to myself, “Lady, I can barely make it to my makeshift jack-in-the-box bathroom three feet away! But, if you think this is a good idea, let’s give it a try.” And with that, we were on our way. It certainly wasn’t easy, but I was so happy to be out of my room and walking down the hall. It was in between those steps that I had the idea to raise my head, take some small peeks into the rooms that surrounded me in this Neuro-ICU. Upon returning to my room a whole five minutes later I was completely exhausted, but the room that had only moments earlier looked and felt so dark all at once seemed so very light.
I was elated to see my room-temperature lunch waiting for me, exactly two hours after it “should” have arrived; right on time! I was even more excited to see that they had removed the commode that had been once sitting in the corner of my room in favor now of my delightful little “potty.” And as my nurses got me back into position in bed with my head at the exact right angle for all of the instrumentation to work as it should, I couldn’t help but thank them over and over again for being so attentive and working so tirelessly during their 13-hour shift.
You see, as I walked down the hallway that afternoon and peeked into those rooms, I realized that I was the ONLY patient that the nurses could walk with that day. Why did I not have a “real” bathroom in my room? Because most patients in the neuro-ICU aren’t blessed with the ability to use a bathroom on their own. And why was my food delivered very last of all the units in the hospital? Because I was the only person in my entire unit who was not being fed through a tube. I was no longer angry and afraid, I was grateful for the seemingly endless list of gifts that Hashem had given me. Gifts that until now I had been blind to, taken for granted, and frankly did not appreciate.
As Rabbi Akiva stood upon Mount Scopus, with the embers of Jerusalem still burning beneath his feet, did he not feel the pain of the destruction? Was the darkness not real? Of course it was, but there was still light to be found. I often find the darkness of this interminable exile too much to bear. There are days when it is too frightening for me to tolerate. There are times that I must rend my garments like the rabbis that stood beside Rabbi Akiva and cry for the destruction, for the sadness, for the loss. But then, I work to find the Akiva within myself, we must all find the Akiva within ourselves. We must take that walk down the hallway and seek out the good. To find the opportunities to improve the world around us and to change the narrative that surrounds us.