LIFTING A SOUL WITH A SONG
"Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone’s life. Be the light that others see, it is what gives life its deepest significance."
Recently I received a phone from an acquaintance I hadn’t spoken with in several years. Although not the reason for the contact, during our conversation Ricky Turetsky told me a fabulous story–and graciously gave me permission to share it here.
The incident he relayed also started with a phone call, to him from a young woman. Years earlier she had participated in a college outreach program he had co-founded to help Jewish students learn more about and become more connected with their heritage. This woman came to it having little knowledge or involvement. Reaching out all that time later she surprised Ricky–not as a voice from the past, but by informing him she had become the vice principal of a religious day school in Las Vegas!
But she had not phoned to catch up on her spiritual and professional progress. She wanted to know about another of Ricky’s communal service involvements: taking high school students to visit hospital patients every Saturday afternoon. She explained that the following month she would be traveling to Miami with fifteen teenage girls for a weekend program (Shabbaton, in Jewish parlance). If Ricky still ran bikur cholim (the mitzvah or commandment of visiting the sick), could her students participate? Thrilled with the prospect, Ricky advised her to alert him the week prior to their visit.
She called only after arriving in Miami, and Ricky already had plans to be in another South Florida community that Sabbath. But, as every week, on Friday morning he went to the hospital to obtain the list of Jewish patients. And he arranged for his son Matthew to escort the visiting girls along with the local youth.
At the close of the Sabbath (Saturday night), Matthew reported to his father highlighting one of the visits in particular. It turned out to have been with a woman Ricky had known years before and with whose daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren he maintained a friendly relationship. When the students entered her room, Matthew said, absolute silence met their attempts to introduce themselves; the 90-year-old Holocaust survivor and Alzheimer’s sufferer remained unengaged. Recognizing the futility of continuing with greetings, Matthew suggested that the girls sing for her.
Those in the group who regularly accompanied Ricky to the hospital asked the Las Vegas contingent whether they knew a particular song from the standard repertoire used on these visits. They did not. Another? No. What about this one? Not this either. Finding no common option, finally someone suggested “Adon Olam,” one of the most familiar hymns across all denominations of Jewish liturgy. (The title translates as Eternal God or Master of the Universe.)
In Ricky’s years of bringing students to the hospital, it had never been sung. But that day, as the girls began their rendition, the non-responsive elderly survivor afflicted with Alzheimer’s joined in, singing every word. As Ricky puts it, “She owned this song!” Overcome with emotion, several of the girls cried. Meeting with Ricky the next day to discuss their experience, they told him the transformation their simple act achieved so overwhelmed them, they had decided to perform bikur cholim every week back home in Las Vegas.
That alone would have been a beautiful ending to this episode. Yet there’s more. Ricky shared what had occurred with the patient’s daughter and son-in-law. They said they had something to tell him, too. Since their mother/mother-in-law loves Jewish music, they had taught the non-Jewish caretaker they hired for her one song, which she sang to the woman throughout the day. Yes, of course, “Adon Olam.”
That still isn’t the end of the story. (This part I can’t tell–can’t even write–without tearing up.) Just days before Ricky’s call, the relatives told him, they had been talking between them, asking why God was keeping the older woman alive. In her state, what was she accomplishing in life? What was the purpose for her continued living?
Ricky’s story delivered the answer: This elderly survivor with little remaining memory affected a group of teenagers who had flown a long distance for a purpose other than visiting her. Because of their experience together–because of the way the woman reacted to their singing and the way her response so powerfully moved them (totally unbeknownst to her!)–they committed themselves to bringing similar moments of brightness to others.
The comfort and relief to be enjoyed by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of patients (and their loved ones) who will hear the voices of these girls and the other young women they influence to follow them, will be in the merit of the woman who lit up at their music, who perhaps sat a little taller in her hospital bed, like a candle flame stretching higher, continuing to burn.
During 25 years or more of guiding young people in performing the lauded act of kindness to hospitalized members of the community, Ricky has witnessed and been part of hundreds of such life-affirming moments. He’s in the process of compiling them for a book. (I’ll let you know when it’s available.) What an inspiring reminder it will be of the power of a modest person-to-person encounter to make a profound difference, to perhaps give meaning, to another human being’s existence.