Teshuva: Lessons of a broken ankle

27 Sep 2016

It is Elul and I have fallen. Literally. They say no good deed goes unpunished, right? I have always hated that expression. It seems so unforgiving. And yet, this was a good deed. I was helping my friend Valerie prepare for her mother’s shloshim. Her mother died in a car accident in Nashville, Tennessee and Valerie sat shiva there so this was her opportunity to honor her mother here in Tekoa where we live.

We made a meal. Her mother’s handiwork was on display: the monogrammed tablecloth, the blankets she knit for each grandchild. Photos of her mother as a beautiful young woman.

I walked outside down the stairs and I lost my footing and fell hard. I couldn’t  walk, couldn’t put any weight on that ankle. My husband took me to the emergency medical center, Terem, in Jerusalem and they told me that my ankle was broken and they put a cast on. Then the next day the doctor from Terem called me and told me that I needed an operation—pins and plate.

It’s just an ankle, right? But when it’s your ankle, then it is not so simple. Not a simple break. Not a simple thing to deal with.

My son says katana alich. It’s small for you. After all the trouble you have had. A son murdered by terrorists? 15 years ago, my 13 year old son, Koby, was murdered by terrorists.

So I know suffering. Despite that, this broken ankle is not so small to me.

And my last book was The Road to Resilience. I have to laugh: Here I am and I am not so resilient. I am a wimp. I am terrified. In the hospital after the operation, I worry that I will get an infection and from all the stress, I give myself shingles.

I have made myself ill. I feel like I am falling apart and yet I know all this is temporary and still I feel sorry for myself. And so, in the hope of giving myself (and maybe others) courage,  I have been thinking about Elul and teshuva and the lessons of a broken ankle while I am home recovering for all of Elul and the holidays to come next month. And this is what I have come up with. Lessons of a broken ankle that apply to these holidays.

  1. Take the gifts that G-d sends you.When I am in the hospital, before the operation, I daven with more kavana than I have had in a long time. I daven for my healing and I daven for the healing of all the people of Israel and I daven for my friends who are sick or ailing. I beg G-d to heal me, to take away my pain, to let me be calm.Why does it take a fall to push me to davening? I speak to my rabbi and he says: “Don’t worry about if it will last or if it’s real, just take the changes and appreciate them, use them now.
  2. In the operating room you are stripped of everything. You lie there shivering in a stark white room and the lamps over your narrow operating bed look like giant prehistoric jellyfish and you pray that you will survive this. And I think that that is what G-d wants from us during these days of teshuva. To strip ourselves of our pretenses and our illusions. To really look at our lives. And to admit that we fall short. And then to  turn to him.
  3. Look at yourself as if you stand on the brink. Much as we hate to admit it, we always stand between life and death. Life is infinitely precious.
  4. Holidays are a picture of your insidesI learned that they can take an X ray of an ankle through a cast.And what are these holidays but an X ray, a picture of your insides? Which if you are like me you keep pretty hidden. Air tight. With lots of good intentions but sometimes, too often, a lack of will or compassion or strength. Especially for the people that are closest to you.

    If you are like me, you will not want to look at this picture until it is dangled there in front of you and you have no choice because you are in a dark room and there is nothing else to look at. Even your phone is not allowed.

    It is okay to ask for help.

    When I got home from 2 days in the hospital, I wanted veggies. I needed veggies. My husband was so overwhelmed taking care of me that I couldn’t ask him to cut up veggies and sauté them and steam them. So I asked a friend. Make me veggies. It was so hard to ask. But I did. Sometimes we have to ask directly for what we want. Clear. Clean. Precise. We have to know. We can ask Ha Shem that way too. We are so in need. A friend who was in dire circumstances told me that at some point he said to G-d: this is too much for me. I’m giving it to you.


  5. The world is built on acts of kindness.Every soup and quiche gave me a message: We care about you. We will take care of you. You are not in this alone. My community has showered me with kindness.Our tradition tells us that G-d also is showering us with kindness. Breathing. Walking. Eating. We only need to recognize the kindnesses.
  6. The first prayer we say: I thank you G-d for returning my soul. No matter how much it feels like we are in a tight sport a bind, a painful situation, there is always something to appreciate. It’s not suffering that is beautiful. It’s our ability to transcend it. The kindness we receive from our friends and our community.. Gratitude for our lives. When I went out for the first time after the operation the air, the trees, the sky, all seemed like a miracle. But most important of all, gratitude for our spouses and children.  Thank you Seth!
  7. You are given compassion so that you can give compassion.I will never look at a person in a cast in the same way. Or a person in a wheelchair. Or a person with a walker. I will try to help more, to be more compassionate, to go out of my way to bring a soup or a casserole. G-d gives us compassion so that we too can give compassion.
  8. It may not be a punishment but it’s definitely a wake up call.Ha shem gave you a kick, maybe even a wakeup call. And the psalm we read this month (27) says that Ha Shem is my light and my salvation. Who should I fear? It says that it is our enemies who will fall. Instead it’s me. There is a message here. I suppose I have to work against my complacence, my laziness, my ability to forgive myself so easily. I have to do more, give more. It’s true that my husband and I created the Koby Mandell Foundation where we have helped thousands of bereaved children. But I have not done enough in my own community. I cry out to Ha Shem to help me.
  9. But on the other hand, I really don’t know. We can never really know the ways of G-d.When Eve was separated from Adam, he slept. On one of the most important days of his life, while his partner was being formed so that he would not be alone, he was asleep.The commentators tell us that we cannot predict the most important miracles and tragedies, happiness and sadness in our lives. The Talmud tells us that the greatest events happen unexpectedly. So too for important finds and discoveries. As well as unhappy events.

    So much we don’t know. Mysteries.

  10. So if you can,  can stop worrying. If you are like me, you will keep worrying no matter what. I am an anxious person. But know this: What you are worrying about probably isn’t what will hurt you. And great happiness comes when you least expect it. So have a little faith. Or a lot.
  11. You are not in charge.I am not able to walk, in a wheelchair. I see how the world diminishes when you are in a wheelchair. How dependent I am. I had to ask total strangers to help me in the bathroom near the emergency room because my husband couldn’t go in there with me. Why Ha Shem do you want me to see my dependence? Because I am so dependent on you. It’s as if G-d has made my dependence manifest. You think you are in charge. Forget about it.My help will come from the L-rd, Maker of heaven and earth.  He will not let your foot falter; your guardian does not slumber. (Psalm 121)


Sherri Mandell is the co-director of the Koby Mandell Foundation which runs programs for bereaved families including Camp Koby. She is the author of the Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration and The Blessing of a Broken Heart which won a National Jewish Book Award and has been made into a play. She is a frequent lecturer on healing and resilience. You can reach her at sherrimandell@gmail.com

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