Portraits in Holiness

We will soon get to Rav Shim’on Shkop’s explanation of the mitzvah “qedoshim tihyu — and you shall be holy.”

נלענ׳׳ד, שבמצוה זו כלול כל יסוד ושורש מגמת תכלית חיינו, שיהיו כל עבודתנו ועמלנו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל, שלא נשתמש בשום מעשה ותנועה, הנאה ותענוג שלא יהיה בזה איזה ענין לטובת זולתנ…

It appears according to my limited knowledge, that this mitzvah includes every foundation and root of the purpose of our lives. All of our work and effort should constantly be sanctified to doing good for the community. We should not use any act, movement, or get benefit or enjoyment that doesn’t have in it some element of helping another….

In light of this sentiment, here are two stories of holy people.

Sargent Michael Ryan of the NYPD was off the day of Sept 11, 2001. When he learned of the attacks, he went in to the 144th Pct and took the detectives he supervised to downtown Manhattan. They assisted in the evacuation of the area, and directing walkers across the Brooklyn Bridge. (Who knows? Maybe I was one of those he directed to the FDR Drive…)

The next day he started work at the morgue, and later he was assigned to sifting through debris from the World Trade Center site collected at the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Often working 12 hour shifts, he never complained, knowing how desperately people were waiting for news of loved ones, so that they can finally bury their relative and friend and get further along in their mourning and healing.

In May of 2006, Sgt Michael Ryan sought medical attention for a persistent sore throat ailment. The physician prescribed an antibiotic, assuming a simple infection was the cause. Two weeks later a large lump formed on Michael’s neck, and a few weeks later, a large growth appeared in his armpit. Sargent Ryan was eventually diagnosed with three different forms of non-Hotchkins lymphoma, later reclassified as a single rare form of lymphoma which showed a complex picture to the microscope — mixed B & T cell, mixed small & large celled indolent (ie slow-growing but also harder to kill) lymphoma

On November 5th, 2007, Sargent Michael Ryan lost his battle with cancer. He was 41 years old. He left behind his parents, Jim and Ann; wife Eileen, sons Liam and Aiden, and daughters Erin and Casey.

A two and a half weeks later, November 24th, 2007, the fire department lost one of NY’s Bravest — also to lymphoma. EMS Lieutenant Brian Ellicott was also close to Sgt Ryan in age — 45 rather than 41.

On 9/11, Lt Ellicott arrived at the World Trade Center site that night, and put in over 100 hours work sifting through debris looking for survivors. His EMS partner, Edward Cosenza, told reporters “Brian would always say, ‘this is my job, this is what I do.’ This man was a true hero, and he lost his life doing his job and serving his city.” The dust got in his lungs and gave him a hacking cough, but he kept on working.

Brian Ellicott was a loving father, who shared his love of science fiction and fantasy with his children.

Both died of the same very rare form of lymphoma. After over 8 years of remission (barukh Hashem ubeli ayin hara) after my own bout with this obscure lympoma, it’s natural for me to empathize with the people they left behind. It would seem 9/11’s death toll is still climbing.

Why did I survive and they didn’t? They were their doing G-d’s work, whereas I was just caught at my desk putting in a day at an investment bank job. Can we speak of inspirational stories of how Hashem watches over us? And yet, He clearly did.

The Almighty made me with only a sliver of bone in my pinky toe.

On October 15th, 2003, I was laid off from that job at the investment bank. A few nights later, my daughter plunked herself down on my bed — landing on my foot. I was in a lot of pain. In fact, a couple of hours later, the pain was so consuming, I hopped a block away to the ER to get that toe taped. While talking to the doctor, I asked about the swollen gland that didn’t seem to be going away. She felt it, said it wasn’t really an ER issue. I should see a doctor. Tomorrow.

So, six days after losing my job, I found out I had cancer.

But because the Creator made me with that deformed bone, my toe broke easily, and I got the medical attention I was stalling on. It was caught in Stage I, meaning, before it spread beyond that first lymph node. Had I not been caught that early — who knows?

And so, I think of those two families who G-d chose not to save such pain with much sympathy. Those who lost out because they loved someone kind and generous, men whose “greatest desire should be to do good to others, to individuals and to the masses, now and in the future, in imitation of the Creator.”

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  1. Neil Harris says:

    Very powerful posting. I’m glad I read it today, since I have been struggling with the whole “individual/communal” issue over the past few days. “Doing good for the community” is something I need to work on. Thanks!

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