Editor's note: This article is a personal essay/dvar Torah corresponding to Parshat Baalak from our regular columnist in West Orange and is not a commentary on current Hatzolah activities anywhere else in the Jewish Link coverage area. We apologize if any comparisons have been made.
It was a Friday night and I was sitting at my parents’, a”h, Shabbos table at our home in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. During my college years I was a volunteer emergency medical technician with Hatzolah of Flatbush. I remember those years as exciting, at times challenging, but mostly positive. Through my experience answering thousands of calls for medical assistance I learned something about life that I still value tremendously to this day. My radio sounded and the dispatcher asked if there were any units available to respond to a possible cardiac arrest six blocks away. I was a new volunteer, and after having gone on dozens of calls as an observer, I was finally given my radio that week. I responded and was the second Hatzolah member to arrive on the scene. By the time I entered the apartment the call was really over. The other Hatzolah member looked up at me as I opened my oxygen bag and got on the floor next to the patient. He said “DOA,” meaning the person had already passed and there was nothing we were able to do to save her. As I exited the apartment and walked back to my car, the other EMT, who was very experienced, began speaking to me about another subject. I was numb. That was the first time I had ever seen a dead body and was shaken, not just by what I saw but also by what seemed to be the rather callous, unmoved reaction of the other Hatzolah member. Some emergency workers suppress their emotions because they are too uncomfortable to deal with them. Others suppress their feelings at the time of the emergency in order to keep their poise and perform their task efficiently. I was bothered by that member’s reaction on that Friday night and asked him about it a few days later. He explained to me that after every call that is of a serious nature he spends time late at night reflecting on the experience. He told me that if he didn’t make the time to reflect on those difficult emergency experiences he would never be able to take any other calls. Reflection is the processing of an event or incident that has taken place in our lives. It gives us the ability to pause and internalize how the given incident or experience impacts our present or future emotional state.
The letter “pe” appears in the Torah quite often, usually several times within each parsha. This letter identifies the “parsha within the parsha.” The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, explains that these pauses have their source in Moshe Rabbeinu first writing the Torah when told to do so by Hashem. The pause represents the reflection of Moshe after having written a part of the Torah. Moshe would pause and ask himself what impact the portion he had written had on his leadership, and how he was going to teach that portion’s lesson to the Jewish people. There is a great amount for us to learn from Moshe’s taking the time to pause and reflect. The letter pe, representing a separation in the Torah, is not found in Parshat Balak. The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, explains that the reason for this fact is that Moshe was baffled when understanding the story of Bilaam. Bilaam was an individual who was given many opportunities in the parsha to reflect and he failed to do so. When he was prepared to curse the Jewish people, Hashem caused words of blessing to exit his mouth. Instead of reflecting on what transpired and concluding that perhaps Hashem didn’t want him to curse Bnei Yisrael, Bilaam suggested to Balak that he be taken to multiple locations in order to curse the people from alternative locations. One would think that Bilaam would have understood the message. But he didn’t reflect, and as a result just reacted, thereby causing his errant ways to continue. We live in a world that is so fast-paced that we generally don’t make time to reflect on experiences in our daily lives.
As Jews, we are encouraged to learn from Moshe and make the time to reflect on important moments that transpire regularly so that we are able to value and internalize their lessons and impact on our lives.The legendary psychologist and philosopher John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” I have tremendous admiration for Hatzolah members and all who volunteer for ambulance corps. I learned much from all of my fellow members over the years. But on that Friday night I learned a lesson that remains with me every day. May we heed the lesson taught to us by Moshe and make the time to reflect, thereby enhancing our experience of life itself.
By Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler is rabbi of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange, New Jersey, and is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice. Rabbi Zwickler can be reached at [email protected]