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Published On June 18, 2018

CLINICAL CARE

Finger to G_d

A patient seeks treatment while trying to observe the Sabbath.

Before I even rub the sleep from my eyes, I tally the sins I am about to commit: Shower. Get in a car. Ride to the hospital. I might be almost 39 for 39 melakhot, an important Hebrew word I’ll happily explain in just a minute.

First let me catch you up on Eli’s adventures in the outdoors. I had been hiking in Olympic National Park, about three hours from Seattle. That day’s hike brought me to the top of a mountain near Hurricane Ridge. It was all so beautiful up there, waterfalls and emerald forests, an experience of nature that is hard to get between a Brooklyn apartment and the subway.

It wasn’t until I got back to the parking lot that nature, in the form of a tree root, had her little joke. I tripped and fell down—hard. My pinky swelled up until it was huge. It was a pinky pregnant with another pinky.

I asked the locals about the nearest hospital and they told me it was in Forks, Wash. That’s the town in the Twilight books, they said helpfully. I got there and met with a doctor who was not, thankfully, a teenage vampire.

“I showed your X-ray to a doctor in Seattle,” said the medical professional (after ordering a suspicious number of blood tests). “You need to get surgery soon.”

I decide to head for the suburbs of Seattle and throw myself on the mercy of my cousin’s family. They volunteer to host me during my surgical ordeal. Unfortunately, the only day my emergency surgery can be done before the July 4 holiday is a Saturday, the day when I am supposed to be observing Shabbat law.

For thousands of years, observant Jews in my orthodox tradition have refrained from 39 activities—the melakhot—on every Sabbath. Prohibitions include writing, carrying objects, and operating electronics and machinery. There are big stretches of Brooklyn, including hospitals, which have made this kind of thing easier to observe. Redmond, Washington—not so much.

During my medical consultation, I stealthily send a Facebook message to a friend in rabbinical school: “They say I have to get surgery tomorrow. What can I do, and what can’t I do?” When you are at risk of losing organs or your life, he writes me, much is permitted. But I’m not convinced that my pinky situation qualifies.

I head home that night, dreading the next day. My Seattle family is sympathetic, but they don’t follow the same religious rules that I do. I try to explain the situation, as I make their kitchen kosher for Friday night Shabbat dinner. This, by the way, is a complicated process of dipping utensils into a large vat of boiling water with one hand and consulting with a New York rabbi with the other, phone cradled in a plaster cast. If you ever need to do this in a Pacific Northwest kitchen, here’s a hot tip: a crab sieve is a great way to boil a drawer-full of forks and spoons at once.

The family says they’ll make the day as easy as they can. They will drive me and run interference. The solution is not ideal in my head, but I let them do this for me.

At the hospital I can’t uphold the Sabbath at all. Despite my family’s desire to help, I have to sign my name I don’t know how many times—liability, medications, insurance. The hospital staff just doesn’t know how to handle me. They are solicitous about my body, but draw the line at my soul.

I go under, and the next thing I know it’s over. The door of the recovery room opens and my cousins are there to pick me up, the broken wanderer far from home.

We ride home together in my cousin’s car. Yes, this is a prohibited activity, and the whole day has become an exercise in showing how imperfect I am.

But I will have to have my reckoning later, I think. Right now I am whole again. I am on the mend, and with family that just wants to see me well.