Thursday, September 5, 2013

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774: The Gift of Life

Rabbi Yair Robinson
Congregation Beth Emeth
Erev Rosh Hashanah 5774: Gift of Life

When in your time on earth have you had the opportunity to save someone else’s life? How often have you had the opportunity to save another person’s life? If presented with the opportunity to save a life, would you do so?

It’s a challenging question, and I’m sure you’re thinking of this time you had to drive a loved one to the hospital, or that time you called in a traffic accident, or perhaps a time you used the Heimlich maneuver or CPR on a person.

As a people, we take life seriously. The principle of pikuach nefesh, of saving life, trumps all other mitzvot, all other Jewish laws and traditions. If observing the Sabbath would prevent you from saving a life, you violate Shabbat. If performing ritual circumcision might jeopardize the child because of family medical history, you don’t circumcise the child. Donating organs is permitted so long as it will save lives and the ‘discarded’ organ is buried respectfully. Doctors, nurses, and other professionals tasked with saving lives are not required to sit a full seven days of shiva. Indeed, I once had a surgeon come to me who agonized over missing Yom Kippur because of his call schedule, and I told him that he needed to be in that hospital, that it was his sacred obligation to be in that hospital because of pikuach nefesh. Pikuach Nefesh even holds true in challenging and upsetting circumstances: if you have the means to stop someone who has a weapon and is pursuing another individual, even if that means killing the armed assailant, you do so, to save a life. Likewise, abortion in the case of a mother whose life is in jeopardy, even very late in a pregnancy, is required in order to save the life of a mother. That’s not Liberal Judaism folks, that’s Judaism—from the Mishnah to Maimonides to the Shulchan Aruch.

So let me ask again, and let me ask this way: what if I told you there was a way  you could save someone’s life, right now. A way to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh. Would you do it? To save someone who, without your help, would certainly die.

There is a way, and it’s right outside this door. It’s called “Gift of Life” . Gift of Life is one of the nation’s public bone marrow registries helping children and adults find donors for bone marrow transplants.   What does that mean? It means that children and adults who, without a bone marrow transplant, would die of leukemia, or some other blood cancer, are able to be cured. Someone like Sam.

Sam is the son of friends of mine, fellow rabbis. Those who follow me on Facebook or Twitter have probably seen their posts. Phyllis and Michael, Sam’s parents, are rabbis in Chicago, classmates of mine. They have four children. Sam is their third. He’s seven. He loves superheroes and hanging out with his grandparents, videogames and everything you’d expect a 7-year old to love. He has a pet turtle named Speedy. He also has acute myeloid leukemia. This is a rare form of Leukemia, at least for children. He was diagnosed around two years ago, and has been fighting it with chemo and radiation since then. Chemotherapy and radiation alone will not cure him of his leukemia. In fact, he’s had a relapse just this past spring, and after three months out of the hospital, had to return for inpatient treatment. He needs a bone marrow transplant.

As of right now, there are fewer than 300,000 registered donors with Gift of Life. They have matched over 10,000 individuals and facilitated nearly 2500 transplants. And you could be one of those registered donors. How does this work? It’s something I’ve done myself, years ago. On Yom Kippur, you will see a station. There you’ll find volunteers, led by HarrietAnn Litwin, who will ask you to fill out some minor paperwork, and take a swab of your cheek. It’s a giant q-tip that they rub inside your mouth and then bag. Anyone ages 18-60 is eligible to be a donor; anyone of any age could be a volunteer. Those giant q-tips are bagged carefully and sent to Gift of Life with your paperwork, adding you to the registry. It may be days, or weeks, or years before you receive a call verifying that you are a match for someone, and then asking if you would be willing to donate bone marrow or stem cells.

What does donation look like? For bone marrow, they bring you in, and an anesthesiologist puts you in a twilight state. They use a needle to extract the bone marrow from your hip. When you come out of the anesthetic, it’s a little uncomfortable, like you were kicked in the side, and you take some Advil and go home. For stem cells, it’s much like donating blood, or more specifically, donating platelets. You’re injected with a medication that encourages the stem cells to move from the bone marrow to the bloodstream. A cell-separating machine filters out the stem cells, which can then be infused in the recipient. It takes between 60-90  minutes.

One or two hours of inconvenience in order to save a life. A couple of Advil to save a life. Is it worth it? The answer is unquestionably yes. For a kid like Sam, the answer is yes.  On the holiest day of the year, will you fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving a life? I hope the answer is yes.

This past spring, I got a phone call. As I told you, I was cheek swabbed some years ago. They think I might be a match, and wanted to know if I was willing to be a donor. After a few questions exploring the possibility, I said yes. I haven’t heard back—it may be that they don’t need me, that someone is a better match. But how could I say no? How could any of us say no, knowing that in our marrow, in our blood, may be the key to bringing someone to a complete healing.
I strongly encourage you to go to the Gift of Life website, to pick up a handout on your way out of this service, to ask questions, and then come and add yourself to the donor registry on Yom Kippur. And I encourage you, on their website, to go and read the donor stories there, stories of people who lost their friends to cancer, who felt called to help these young people with cancer, who added themselves while at camp, on a birthright trip, at synagogue, in some way to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, who simply donated because it was the right thing to do. And if you cannot donate due to age or for a medical reason, I strongly encourage you to think about how else you can help.

Sam is lucky--he has a donor, he has a match; he had his transplant last Monday. Too many people are waiting for that match.

We read in Talmud Sanhedrin: if you save a single life, scripture ascribes merit to you as if you saved the entire world. Each life is a world of its own, and we have an obligation to protect and secure that life. I hope you’ll choose to join me on the Gift of Life register and help fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving lives.

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