D’var Torah: Seize the moment, do a mitzvah

As an admitted college sports enthusiast, in the short time I have been in Milwaukee, I have already developed fan loyalties for the Badgers, Panthers, and Golden Eagles.

But right now my heart truly lies with the Yale Bulldogs Women’s Hockey team. A hockey team that has added a new player: Giana Cardonita, 9.

You may have heard about Mandi Schwartz, 22, who was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago while attending Yale and playing on the hockey team. The university and the hockey world have held many fundraisers and donor-registration drives in her honor.

Mandi is slowly recovering in Seattle following a stem cell transplant. Mandi’s jersey sits in her locker, while her teammates are wishing for and willing her return.

Despite all the drives and fundraisers, the team felt the need to do something more. That’s where Giana comes in. Columnist David Whitley, on Fanhouse.com, relates the following story:

Giana was diagnosed in August with a craniopharyngioma, a benign tumor that formed near her pituitary gland. Her tumor was huge, the size of two clementines.

Giana had emergency surgery to remove it at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital. In order to get the entire tumor, they had to remove the stem of her pituitary gland. This left Giana legally blind in her right eye, without peripheral vision in her left eye, and with a host of other serious medical issues.

When approximately 20 members of the Yale team arrived at Giana’s house this November, they were worried if she would even be able to speak to them — while Giana was worried that they would all be missing teeth.

Giana spent the entire visit talking, charming the team with her intelligence and wit. Giana related that she had been concerned because her pituitary stem had already been knocked out and she didn’t want her teeth knocked out.

A random mitzvah?

Mandi and Giana’s story reminds me of an aspect of the story we are reading in the weekly Torah portions during January, the story of the Jews as they leave the land of Egypt.

In Exodus 6:13 we find “And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, and gave them a charge unto the children of Israel, and unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.”

The Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh HaShana 3:5) asks what “charge” is being given to the Jews here? We understand that Pharaoh must be “charged” or commanded to let the people go. But what is the nature of the command for the Jewish people?

The text answers that the Jews were commanded about the mitzvah of shiluach avadim, of sending away one’s Jewish servant at the end of their sixth year of service. This would seem to be a bizarre and random mitzvah to be teaching the Jewish people right now.

At this point, there have been no plagues, no splitting of the Red Sea and no commandments. Wouldn’t it make sense to leave the commandment for freeing servants to be related at Sinai? Why is this commandment so important right now?

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (1902-1979), the head of the Mirrer Yeshiva, answers (in his “Sichos Mussar” or “Ethical Discourses”) that the Jewish people had to receive the commandment of sending out servants when it was most relevant to them, when they were in the moment.

While they were experiencing servitude and on the cusp of freedom the Jewish people understood what it meant to be free and how important it is to set others free.

The Torah teaches us an all-important lesson – to act in the moment. When you feel strongly about something – run with that feeling.

The Yale Women’s hockey team is missing a player and doing everything they can to bring her back. But they turned their feelings of pain for Mandi’s illness into the impetus for further action.

They were in the moment. They were wrapped up in Mandi’s illness and this led them to helping Giana and her family.

These moments, when we are overcome by feeling and a compulsion to act, present themselves all the time — not just when someone is sick. There are many times when we see something, hear about something, read something and it moves us.

In that moment we think, “Wow, that’s powerful. I should/could/would/might/will …” And then, too many times, we let it pass and we don’t.

“There has been a devastating fire in Israel – I should…” The Torah tells us to seize that moment. When it’s closest to your heart, don’t delay.

Rabbi Wes Kalmar is senior rabbi at Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah.