What a Victim of ALS Can Teach Us About Our Power of Speech: Just Shine a Little Light

Imagine being a prisoner in your own body, fully aware, entirely conscious, thinking and emotionally feeling, and yet unable to move or speak at all. For many suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, that is exactly what their life looks like day in and day out. Through a couple of viral videos, last week the Jewish world was introduced to an extraordinary individual suffering from ALS.

Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz and his wife Dina, together with their seven children, were the dedicated spiritual leaders of the Chabad in Temecula, California. R’ Yitzi was always the life of the party, filled with energy, enthusiasm, and love for all people. In 2013, however, his life dramatically changed when he suddenly started slurring his speech and found walking difficult. He was diagnosed with Bulbar ALS and soon after he was no longer able to walk and his voice disappeared entirely.

In a short three years, R’ Yitzi, forty-one years old, has become completely paralyzed and breathes through a permanent ventilator. His only means of connecting with the world is by moving his eyes which allow him to control a screen and choose the letters one by one that spell out words that combine into a sentence and turn into a paragraph. Remarkably, R’ Yitzi publishes a weekly blog (http://yitzihurwitz.blogspot.com/) with a Dvar Torah on the Parsha, which usually contains a message of faith, hope, and optimism. It takes him all day to write the message and leaves him exhausted and spent, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He once wrote, “I don’t know why G-d made this happen, but there must be something I can accomplish now, that I wasn’t able to before this. I have always taught others that everything G-d does is for the good although we don’t always see it openly. So now, when this happened to me, I have to live with this same belief and deepen my faith, so that it is not just a matter of words.”

Recently, R’ Yitzi’s family found an old memory card and discovered an original song he had composed called Shine a Little Light. Famous Jewish musicians worked together to produce a wonderful version of the song and music video tribute to him.

In cannot be a coincidence that R’ Yitzi’s story has gone viral during the very weeks that we read about the gift of speech and the power it contains. We must never take for granted the capacity to communicate easily or the potency in that gift. In fact, Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, teaches us (Mishlei 18:21) “Maves v’chaim b’yad lashon, death and life are in the hand of the tongue.”

Speech can be used to build, to create, to uplift, to encourage, to console and to provide confidence and worth. Or it can be used for what the Torah dedicates two full portions to, namely the consequences of using speech to diminish and destroy, to isolate and to denigrate.

How we use our power and gift of speech says everything about who we are and what we strive to be. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

The Parsha of the metzorah, the one who is stricken with spiritual leprosy after speaking gossip begins by reminding us that the choice of whether to use speech for the purpose of being constructive or destructive is ours: “adom ki yiheyeh b’or b’saro – if a person will have on the skin of his flesh.” A number of commentators ask ,why does the Torah employ the term adom for man? Normally, when the Torah is teaching Jewish law it uses the word ish, why here does it say adom?

Perhaps the Torah uses the unusual term adom at the beginning of the discussion of the metzorah to remind us of the original use of the word adom, in the chapters of creation in Parshas Bereishis: “Vayehi ha’adom l’nefesh chaya, and man became a living being.” This pasuk describes man gaining life and becoming a living creature, in distinction to animals. Unkelus translates the termsl’nefesh chaya as l’ruach melalela, meaning a talking being. According to Unkelus, what distinguishes man from the rest of creation is the ability to talk, to communicate and to express.

Perhaps the Torah chooses to use the term adom in introducing the laws of the metzora in order to remind us of the original adom and that as a ruach m’malela, a speaking being, we have a choice. We can use words to construct or destruct, to build or to destroy. The Sefer HaChinuch writes, “The greatest treasure which the human being possesses is the power of speech, because through this, he is greater than all other creatures.”

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, formerly a prominent Rabbi in Atlanta, writes in his memoirs of the most difficult question he was asked in his entire rabbinic career. He once received a call from a woman who was desperate to meet with him. When they met, he asked her what is so urgent, how could he help? The woman went on to say, “Rabbi, I have cancer of the larynx and next week and I am having surgery to have my larynx removed.” This was before the advent of the device that when placed next to the voice box emits an electric voice. And so she asked him, “Rabbi, I will never be able to speak again, but I can chose the final words my lips will ever utter, what should they be?” Rabbi Feldman describes this as his most difficult question.

What would you answer and what would you choose? Would your last words be an expression of love to a spouse or children, would they be a statement of your faith, would it be a prayer that you offer or a song you sing? If you could only speak one more time, what would you say? And, if that is what you would say if you had one last chance to speak, why not say it now? Why not value every opportunity to communicate as if it is our last.

Last week’s Parsha, Shemini, discusses the laws of kashrus, of what we eat, consume and ingest. Rav Yisroel Salanter points out that it is followed immediately by this week’s Parsha dealing with lashon hara to remind us that what comes out of our mouth is as important as what goes into it.

Though Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz is paralyzed and only able to painstakingly communicate through his eyes, he continues to inspire with his indomitable spirit, his courage and faith and his joyful soul. If that is what he accomplishes with the greatest limitations, imagine what we could do if we all used our power of speech to shine a little light.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.