The first thing you notice in the shul at Haym Solomon Nursing Home is that the room is almost empty but for the holy ark, some bookshelves and a movable bima.
Entering for mincha last Sunday, my father and I instinctively looked for a place to sit, but there was only a solitary chair. I naturally deferred to him, then went to a nearby dining room for another, as it became clear why the room was so empty. Most of the worshipers, elderly men or those in rehabilitation from injury or illness, rolled in on their own chairs. Wheelchairs. Placing fixed chairs in the room for the few people who need them would be a hindrance.
When a healthy but older man with a white beard, dressed in haredi garb, entered on his own two feet, my father and I offered our chairs, but the man, probably a rabbi but not the chaplain, politely but firmly refused. As I rose from my seat he gripped my shoulder and prevented me from standing. Several other able-bodied men also declined to sit before or after the amidah, which requires standing.
For the rest of that service, the two chairs, one wooden and one metal, became metaphors, and soon my father and I, who were there visiting my mother, were standing too. Some of the men davening there were in wheelchairs from which they can't rise without help. Many others in the building couldn't even make it downstairs because they are too infirm or attached to intravenous feeds, oxygen or monitors.
The two empty chairs sent a message: There will be plenty of time for sitting. Now's a time to relish the weight on your feet.
Maybe that's one of the reasons, besides angst, you often see relatives of hospital or nursing home patients pacing in the hallway.
As I have painfully witnessed my mother's decline over the last 25 years, there has been little cause for inspiration, and I have never been the type to speculate on what one person's suffering is meant to teach others, if anything. But one thing is for sure: I have never, and will never again take for granted or neglect to marvel at the ability to rise up from a chair and walk out of a room, while it's still available.
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