There I was, sitting on a plane. Interesting: I had had no indication whatsoever that I’d be sitting on a plane at this moment of my life. The trip had taken me by surprise. Well, if I was honest with myself I’d admit that it hadn’t been completely by surprise.
Am I confusing you? Don’t worry. It was pretty confusing for me too. The phone call arrived this morning. My youngest brother was on the line, informing me that he was in the hospital with my mother and things weren’t looking so great.
“Does that mean I should drop everything and fly to England?” I asked him.
He was being deliberately vague, and I felt like shaking him, anything to get a proper answer. Did I have to come or not?
“Look, Jonathan,” he said, “it might not be a bad idea to come now, but it doesn’t appear to be an emergency, either.”
“So you’re basically saying that it’s my call.”
“I suppose so,” he said.
Fifteen minutes later, my mind was made up. I was going to go. Drop everything and travel to the country of my birth.
But as I clicked the seat belt closed and positioned my tray for takeoff, I knew that I wouldn’t have been on that plane were it not for the events of the previous evening.
I’ll start at the beginning. I am a scientist. I was interested in science as a child, and that interest only grew as the years moved on. I read everything I could get my hands on about everything, from relativity to volcanoes. I looked down microscopes and looked up telescopes; I collected minerals, mixed chemicals, and constructed mathematical models of multidimensional objects. I loved science so much that I decided to go to university to study science in depth. This decision proved to be the right one for me. I never got bored by what I was learning; on the contrary, the more I studied, the more I realized that this was precisely what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.
In the end I became a scientist, and although many years have passed since I have embarked on this life path, the subject never ceases to amaze and inspire me. In turn, I am able to inspire others: I have developed a series of classes that I give in the local shul on the deep connection that exists between Torah and science. In fact, maybe one day I’ll write a book about our incredible world. Who knows?
Like most scientists, I work with the rational. Statistics speak to me. Probabilities. Facts. Not gut feelings. But sometimes things happen and they aren’t facts, and from a rational point of view they don’t necessarily mean anything. And yet… and yet, you know that they’re important developments in your life and you need to take them seriously.
What am I talking about?
Motza’ei Shabbos is a special time in my home. We’ve just spent a relaxing day and a half together, we’ve learned and davened, and now we’re embarking on the coming week. I make Havdalah, we sing Hamavdil, and then it’s back to work. Oh, there’s something else that I do as well. I light two candles. Almost as if I’m lighting two Shabbos candles. It’s a minhag brought down in the Mishnah Berurah; the basic idea, I think, is to bring the light of Shabbos into your home throughout the week as well. When I learnt about it I thought that it would be a beautiful tradition to take on, and so we do it each week.
Which brings me to the strange events of the evening.
I arrived at the table to make Havdalah like I always do. The spices, braided candle, wine cup made from rosewood, and bottle of sweet wine were all waiting for me on the table. In front of me were two candlesticks, holding the candles that I was going to light right after I finished Havdalah, before Hamavdil. Our tradition. The way we do things. Peaceful. Joyful. Innocent.
I finished making Havdalah, struck a match, and lit the two candles that stood directly in front of me. Once they were lit, I motioned for my daughter to flick on the overhead light.
My daughter walked over to the wall and pressed the switch.
There was a sudden explosion. A huge boom filled the dining room, and the lightbulb that was hanging directly above the candlesticks came away from where it was screwed into the fixture and fell straight down toward the burning candles! The bulb landed exactly between the two candlesticks, and the impact knocked the candles right out of the candlesticks. They fell down to the tabletop and both flames were extinguished. Then the lightbulb rolled off the side of the table and hit the floor, where it shattered. All this took just a few seconds.
The little kids started to cry, while the bigger kids sat there, somewhat shell shocked by the explosion and breaking glass and rolling bulb and candles that had just been put out. As for me, I was kind of shell shocked myself. The reason was simple.
The probabilities of the bulb doing what it had just done were extremely low. Lightbulbs don’t usually drop from the ceiling when the light turned on. And yet, despite the fact that the bulb was the correct voltage for the fixture, it had died a most unusual death. There was no obvious reason why this should have occurred. Taking it to the next level was the fact that the candlesticks had been set up directly beneath the bulb, so s to enable it to fall perfectly between the two candlesticks. Our table is constantly being moved a foot in this direction and then a foot in that direction. Sometimes it stands on this side of the room and sometimes on the other side. If you took all the factors into consideration – which, being a scientist, is something I do – the probability of that bulb falling exactly between those two candlesticks in such a way as to extinguish both candles is about one in a billion.
And that being the case, I was very perturbed by what had just taken place in my dining room. I mean if you look at a falling bulb and say, “Big deal, a bulb fell. Big deal, it knocked over the candles. Big deal, it fell right between them… etc. …if that’s the way you look at this kind of thing, then I guess you’ll just chalk it up to the bizarre occurrences that sometimes happen and get on with your life. But I couldn’t very well do that. I felt as if in place of the light I was hoping to receive, an unaccountable darkness had fallen upon our lives. I was very nervous about what the future held.
So I did what every good Jew does when he’s afraid and doesn’t quite know what to do. I called the Rav.
I explained the entire situation from beginning to end and wasn’t particularly relieved when Rav Malinowitz agreed that this was actually something to be concerned about.
“So what does the Rav think I should do?”
“It would be a good idea for you and your family to sit down right now and say V’yitein Lecha,” he said.
So that’s what we did. All together, the entire family sat down in the living room and recited the prayer one recited on motza’ei Shabbos, the prayer that combines blessings of all kinds, which Rav Malinowitz had recommended. We then attempted to put what had just happened out of our minds. At some point during that frightening night I finally fell asleep.
Twelve hours later, the phone rang.
It was my younger brother calling from London.
Now I was on the plane. From what I understood (not much) there were issues with my mother’s lungs, but the doctor himself was pretty unclear as to how much danger she was in. I’ll be honest with you: If the phone call would have come on any other day, I don’t know how seriously I would have taken it. I mean, the doctor wasn’t saying that the family should drop everything and run to her side.
But it wasn’t a normal day. After last night’s mishap, I wasn’t taking anything for granted. So here I was.
The flight seemed to take forever. You know how it is. On any other day, it wouldn’t have bothered me, but right now, I had this urgent feeling inside me yelling that every minute was of the essence. There was nothing I could do, so I tried to disregard it. Still, it was a miserable flight.
London was London, just like the color gray is gray. My brother was there at the airport to pick me up and drive me straight to the hospital. Twelve hours had passed since our conversation.
“How’s Mom?” I asked.
“Things aren’t good,” he replied.
There was nothing left to say.
I was anxious to see my mother, to sit by her side and make sure that my fears were unfounded. But alas, by the time that I finally reached her side, despite my having left as soon as I could, she was unconscious. It was too late to say any of the things that I had been hoping to tell her.
Apparently, the family doctor had picked up on the infection in one lung by using his stethoscope. Since the other lung had sounded fine, he hadn’t been overly concerned. The X-ray was done too late, and they realized that the lung they’d thought was fine was actually completely non-functional, scarred beyond repair by my mother’s autoimmune disease. Suddenly they realized that she was suffering from full-blown pneumonia in one lung and that the other lung was useless and non-functional. It did not look good. Not at all.
I remained at her side for the next eight hours, distressed that I hadn’t had the opportunity to say goodbye, but extremely thankful that I was there at her side, even if she didn’t know it.
Looking back, I can say that had I not been galvanized out of my apathy by that lightbulb, I would almost certainly have missed the chance to be there with my mother at the end. I wouldn’t have been there in time to ensure that she received a proper Orthodox burial. But that lightbulb shook me up; it made the scientist inside me sit up and take notice.
In the end I was there for the really important things. I guess I have the runaway lightbulb to thank for that.
As heard from Jonathan Sassen
(Reproduced from It Could Have Been You 2 by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 75 – 80, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)