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Sep 7 2012

The Jewish Take on My Car Accident

By at 1:55 pm

mayim bialik hand injury emmy-nominatedIt’s been three weeks since the car accident I had which damaged my right hand and set me on a course of several months of recovery, lots of lying on the couch, and more negotiating with dosages of acetaminophen and ibuprofen than I care to discuss.

I have written about the accident cursorily and somewhat lightly: how I removed my false eyelashes in the ambulance, made jokes about desires for tummy tucks with my plastic surgeons who repaired my hand, and the breathing and meditative techniques of natural labor I utilized to manage pain and fear. But my religious identity has pursued me–or I it–throughout this ordeal, and I have a desire to write about some of the more complex aspects of the accident and recovery as an observant Jew.

(I have many non-Orthodox, secular, and atheist thoughts, desires and friends. I do not intend to imply superiority to my identity as an observant Jew. I sincerely hope this will be interpreted as demonstrative and reflective rather than being perceived as self-righteous and as advocating for Orthodoxy, which I am not.)

I have outlined the significant events of the accident and hope to demonstrate the consistency of my belief system, the complexity and strength I draw from it, and the desire to have every aspect of my life affirm and not contradict it as a testament to the unbroken chain of tradition I cling to.

By either no significance or all of the cosmic significance in the Universe, the events broke down into seven mini-epochs, which I realized only after I identified them, parallel–you guessed it–the seven days of Creation.

Day One: EMPTINESS, DARKNESS AND LIGHT

First there was darkness. In the beginning of Creating, there is emptiness of an astonishing quality, and darkness upon the surface of some great depth. My experience of darkness was a loud cacophonous shattering, a flash of white exploding (the airbag, I later realized), smoke rising up, and an astonishing emptiness known to us mortals as a horrifying and deafening silence. My instantaneous instinct was simply to survive and to find light, to get out of the car immediately and find my way to my children, wherever they were (10 miles away at a museum). I knew that I had to reach my husband, and I had to reach him immediately.

This accident was very dark. The darkness still consumes me. But it is always darkest before the dawn, isn’t it. Jewish “days” begin at night because our Torah tells us so: “And there was evening, and there was morning, one day.” We cannot detect light and color and shadows and subtlety if not for the contrast of darkness, and we have only one way to pass through darkness, and that is through the darkness and into the light.

Second Day: WATERS ABOVE AND WATERS BELOW

From the moment I stepped out of my smashed up car until I arrived at the hospital over an hour later, I was stuck in the middle of everything, it seemed. I see why Creation includes separating the waters above from the waters below as distinct from just making land and sea. There is a middle existence before land and sea; a floating, a hovering. I was in that: I was floating and hovering, between Heaven and Earth, if you will, for those tempestuous hours.

I couldn’t escape a sense of movement in my soul and body and a desire to maintain movement for survival. I tried to anchor myself to something but failed. I knew from my neuroscience training and my training in self-hypnosis (which I used successfully for pain management during the birth of both of my sons) that I needed to decrease my blood pressure to let my body block pain with the natural endorphins and opiates our bodies contain.

I tried to remember which t’hillim (psalms) I used during labor, but my brain would not be still long enough to remember. One line from Psalm 118 broke through the chaos: Min ha meitzar: “From the narrow straits, I called upon God. God answered me with expansiveness.” I couldn’t hold more than a few phrases at a time in my head, but I was grateful for something to hold onto. And through the chaos, I found a separation that comforted me, as if to affirm for me: This is who I am, and everything else is not who I am. I felt scared, and impatient, and lonely. But an abstract and simultaneously very palpable notion of not being alone because God is always with me tore through the nothingness and made me feel my sense of identity, concreteness, and self coalesce. I am never alone. This deduction (or wishful thinking?) is not an argument for Belief, but rather is, for me, a consequence of Belief.

Third Day: LAND AND SEA

Arriving at the hospital was the first notion I had of solid ground. It was a place fear and comfort could both reside in contrasting ambiguous safety. As I was wheeled into my hospital room, I asked the nurse to stop my gurney at the doorpost so that I could kiss the mezuzah on the doorframe. That’s how it is in Jewish hospitals. I acknowledged internally that my right hand, the dominant hand in Judaism, is the one with which we typically perform this act. I recall some sort of internal debate I had about using my left hand to touch the mezuzah and bring my fingers to my lips, and I made a mental note to find out from one of my religious friends what the Jewish laws of mezuzah-kissing are.

Onkelos, the 1st century scholar and one of Judaism’s most famous converts to our faith once taught that in most communities, legions of military, dignitaries and soldiers stand guard outside of a King’s quarters. Judaism, however, places God outside the door (mezuzah anyone?) to watch over and protect the most precious thing held inside: us.

I tethered myself to the solid ground of my faith as pain and fear and shock threatened to send me out to sea: when the cheery hospital volunteer opened my door, she couldn’t even get out the sentence, “Is there anything you need?” before I blurted out something you can blurt out at Jewish hospitals: “I need to see a rabbi.” The volunteer looked at me as if no one had made that request in a very long time. She smiled and I decided she was Jewish, too. She told me that she would leave him a message but that he wasn’t due to arrive until an hour later, at 2 p.m. In a sea of panic and fear, I had caught sight of dry land. It was right under my feet.

Fourth Day: THE LUMINARIES

As the sun guides the day and the moon guides the night and the stars shine always in myriad formation and permutation, I found guidance and direction from our tradition for the next hours in which waiting was my main preoccupation. I waited for my husband. I waited to be examined. I waited to be X-Rayed. I waited for my IV to be put in. I waited for the rabbi. I waited to stop hurting.

I chanted out loud to myself the first supplication ever uttered in the Torah: the prayer Moses offers up for his sister: El na, refa na la: “God, please heal her, please.” My husband arrived at the hospital after dropping our sons with a close friend just as the rabbi arrived. The rabbi was young, looked straight out of a Maccabeats video, and was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. We knew people in common, and I was relieved he was Orthodox and therefore knew about the things that would matter to me even in a dire medical situation: not shaking hands with men, not wanting to be seen in any state of undress by men, maintaining modesty even with my husband, not wanting unkosher food served to me.

But what was most comforting and what guided me faithfully was the common language we spoke and the universality of his presence and his words. I recounted the accident for the rabbi and I wasn’t embarrassed to say “Thank God” as many times as I did. I knew he understood me. As I spoke to him, I cried. It was the first time I cried that entire day. I needed to cry.

cedars sinai medical centerI asked the rabbi for a book of T’hillim (psalms) which he happily brought me and he left a card at my bedside printed by the hospital wishing me a refuah shleyma, a complete healing, in Hebrew and English. He blessed me and I cried as I heard my Hebrew name pronounced. Out of the mess I was in, this Rabbi led me through dark and showed me light as he declared, God, please heal Mayim Chaya bas Brayna Basha, please.

Fifth Day: CREATURES OF THE WATER AND BIRDS IN THE SKY

And then there was the first emergence of primal life and primal love. There were murmurings and rustlings of something growing and coming alive. The Yeshiva University Maccabeats, my famous frum friends, sent out a tweet asking people to daven for me. I cried at this show of broad and intimate love.

The book of T’hillim which the rabbi had brought me held my tears, and I told anyone Jewish I could find that the Psalm for that day was Psalm 73 and contained the following passage: “I was always loyal to You, You grasped my right hand.” Indeed, God held my right hand and continues to hold it fast. The skeptics among you will justifiably assert that I–or any religious fanatic–would have found any comfort in any Psalm on any day. I choose instead to see this as a stirring of inspiration and love. Because I want to. And I can. I take great comfort in the slow building of momentum towards vibrancy, intensity, and life itself.

Sixth Day: LIVING CREATURES, MAN AND WOMAN

And then there were people. Doctors, nurses, surgeons, attendants. And a nurse in  recovery who instead of sending me home in scrubs found me a long hospital gown to go home in since the dress I was wheeled into the hospital wearing was all bloody and the sleeves were too slim to fit over my cast and bandages. There were faces and hands, and the products of our hands: needles and masks and gloves and scalpels and surgical thread.

And when I came home, there were more people. Visitors, therapists, emails from people and phone calls and flowers from people. And there were the people with whom I connect to on a deep level; the religious level, the intellectual level, the emotional level: the chevrusa (study partner) I met through Partners In Torah, my fellow Kveller writers Carla Naumburg and Matthue Roth, my best friend Adi, and yes, my favorite Maccabeat. These people and others asked for my Hebrew name, so that when they lit candles for Shabbat, they could think of me.

That Friday when I crawled off the couch to light candles for Shabbat, my older son reminded me to pray for myself.

Seventh Day: THE SABBATH

“Thus the Heaven and the Earth were finished and all their array.” The first Shabbat after my accident, I was not yet well enough to walk to shul, but the following Shabbat, my husband, sons, and I stayed walking distance from our preferred shul so that I could bensch Gomel, a prayer which is recited after a life-threatening incident such as I had experienced.

That Friday night as Shabbat began, I attended Kabbalat Shabbat services at a small Carlebach-style minyan I love. My husband took care of the boys so that I could have some time alone to daven, meditate, and also sing and even dance a little with the other women there. I felt a tremendous sense of joy that Shabbat as well as a healthy amount of fear and trepidation.

Bensching Gomel after the Torah service the following morning, although brief, was very emotional and complicated. I thanked God for saving even the unworthy, as the prayer states. I wondered who is unworthy of saving, and decided to simply be grateful I was alive and not alone.

Blessed. Sanctified. Abstention. Shabbat.

Eighth Day: BEYOND CREATION

There is no eighth day of Creation. However, in Judaism, the number eight holds powerful significance. There are eight days until a boy’s bris, many of our holidays span eight days, and there is a mystical notion that whereas seven is this-worldly, eight is other-worldly. As Matisyahu says in Miracle, his song about the eight days of Chanukah, “Eight is the number of infinity, one more than what you know how to be.”

Our tradition suggests that one who recites Gomel make a donation to tzedakah so as to make some good come from a tragedy. In addition, a Seudah Hoda’ah, or Feast of Gratitude, is also suggested when you are feeling up to it, consisting of a simple meal, breaking bread, and making a Dvar Torah speech including an acknowledgment of gratitude to God.

My hair and makeup artist had, in the weeks preceding my accident, been talking to me about helping her brainstorm ideas for how to sponsor a well for a community in need in Haiti. Days after my accident, I told her to stop brainstorming.

I have decided to take on this well building as my healing/tzedakah project and will be hosting a Seudah Hoda’ah next week to try and make what is this-worldly resonate in the realms of the other-worldly.

Thank you, God, for bringing light to darkness, stability to chaos, guidance, love, people, hands, medicine, and the holy Sabbath. Thank you for a pure soul that longs to cling to You, and an open heart that wants to draw near. Every act of mine is an act of devotion and a reaffirmation of my gratitude. Always.

U’sha’avtem mayim b’sasson, mi’ma’anei ha’yeshua.

“You shall with joy draw forth water, from the fountains of salvation.”

Want more? Check out Mayim’s initial recap of the accident, an update on her injury, and her ode to four female rabbis,

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on Kveller are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

About Mayim

Mayim Bialik is the grandchild of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the mother of two young boys. She is best known for her lead role in the 1990s NBC sitcom Blossom, as well as her current role as Amy Farrah Fowler on CBS' The Big Bang Theory.

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