A project I started at the beginning of the year was to read the myriad of books/seforim that line the shelves of the bookcases that “insulate” our apartment. We’re the people of the book, so it’s fitting that even though much of the world has opted for a greener route of e-readers and tablets, we still have plenty to read. This is an undertaking that hearkens back to my childhood. For as long as I can remember, my mother was always reading. It seemed to me that every day she’d be reading a different book than the day before. I never asked her about it, but I would be surprised if she changed books due to her dissatisfaction of the content. What more likely transpired was that she finished her books very quickly. The living room in our home on Lyman Blvd. had two massive bookshelves that my mother filled with countless volumes she picked up. History books. Books about Israel and the Jewish people. Cookbooks. Novels. There was undoubtedly something for everyone in her collection. While she may have read the majority of the books in her library, I hadn’t necessarily been as successful as she. I followed in her footsteps, somewhat, by being curious about many different things and getting books about them to one day enlighten myself about said topic. This year, the plan was to, within reason, slowly but surely, tackle my ever-growing reading list.
Book 13 on this list was Song of Teshuvah Vol. II, the second of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s books of commentary on Rav Kook’s Oros HaTeshuva. Studying the Torah of Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook is not easy. Yet, Rabbi Weinberger makes this already incredible content come even more alive. The chapters are often buttressed with supplementary works, including Tanya and Torah from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov or Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Charlop, to name a few.
In the eighth chapter, Rav Weinberger comments that in the course of doing teshuvah or merely even contemplating repentance, it is very possible for someone to get brokenhearted and depressed over their previous actions. While we consider these feelings to be one and the same and synonymous, Rav Weinberger notes through a thought of Rabbi Nachman that they are indeed different. Rabbi Nachman (Sichos HaRan 41) explains various different emotions and their sources, and that while a broken heart comes from the heart (obviously), depression itself emanates from the spleen. This seemed a bit confusing to me at first. The spleen? Can anyone who is not a medical professional tell you where on their body their spleen is? There are people who live without a spleen! At this point, my mind immediately began to run wild and I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother.
The summer of 2011 was one of my most challenging summers ever, and not because I took classes for two months in New York and then Cleveland. Unfortunately, my mother was in the midst of one of her long stays at the Cleveland Clinic. Sometimes, I think I spent more time there on my visits home during college than time spent in my actual house. People who knew my mother will tell you that she was special, from the doctors and nurses to the food service workers and the housekeeping staff at the hospital. Similarly, her medical diagnoses and ailments were special, too. During this stay at the Clinic, her symptoms befuddled even the top members of her care team. In addition to her normal issues, her blood levels were low. Even after a transfusion, they would revert back to where they were before. It simply didn’t make sense where the blood was going. After a while, it was determined that an enlarged spleen was to blame, and that it needed to be removed at once. After successfully doing so, the doctors noted that my mother’s weighed ten times as much as a “healthy” spleen. This was a fact that my mother relished, and happily informed her doctors that she was looking forward to fitting into some old clothing that she hadn’t worn in a while.
While this was happening, I was hopeful. Now with the spleen removed, it’ll be smooth sailing for Sheila Balk. Yes and no…
Someone over Shabbat at Kiddush wanted me to tell him and his son something about my mother. There was so much I wanted to say, but I couldn’t narrow it down to just one thing. I told his son that my mother loved the St. Louis Cardinals, who, at the time of her death, were in the World Series. We all thought that with her no longer with us, she would march straight up to God and demand a championship for the baseball team of her youth. I then remembered my mother’s penchant for recounting my grandmother saying “those damn Cardinals” after failing to perform up to their level, so this indeed may have been the better outcome for her. But whether the Cardinals were good or not, my mother was always smiling and content, to her dying day. It’s no coincidence that her headstone is emblazoned with the words from Mishlei “Vatischak LeYom Acharon.” When looking to praise someone, they will often quote the first half of that verse, yet, the second half is even more applicable when it come to my mother.
When my sister and I were little, my mother bought a pin that she found to be hilarious, and joyfully affixed it to her winter coat. It stated plainly “If I’m not happy, nobody’s happy.” It was funny to her because she thought of herself as “the boss” (just ask my cousins Noam or Aliza) and if she were not happy, then she would make others around her so miserable so that they, in turn, would also not be happy. It’s funny to me now, looking back, because if she wasn’t happy, then nobody anywhere would be happy. She was the reason people were smiling because she would command a space and light up a room like no one else I’ve ever met. If she wasn’t happy, it must be because there is something happening that is so unfortunate that it would be able to take control over her and remove the smile from her face. Everyone else could be upset about something, but it was Sheila who would cheer them up and make them smile. Her reason for jokingly buying that pin frankly was not a reality.
Then Rabbi Nachman’s words hit me even more deeply. If we are to believe that depression comes from the spleen, the spleen weighs about one pound in a grown adult. My mother’s spleen at the time weighed 10 pounds, which should have rendered her ten times more depressed about her health situation. Ten times the tears should have been shed. Ten times the hopelessness and sense of oblivion at her lot. The intensity of this depression should have consumed her, it should have made her a pain to interact with or be around.
But where was it?
It simply didn’t exist.