Quadriplegic rabbi reflects on freedom at Pesach
TORONTO — For Rabbi Yehuda Simes, an Ottawa teacher and youth leader, Passover is a special time to celebrate freedom. In June 2010, everything he’d thought of as freedom vanished when his family’s van rolled off the highway. His pregnant wife and seven of eight children received only minor injuries, but Rabbi Simes was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
After months of rehab, in 2011 he returned to teaching and speaking, despite a laborious daily existence and ongoing pain.
Rabbi Simes’ halting, sparing words – at times in a near-whisper – held a full house rapt at a Kashruth Council of Canada (COR)-sponsored pre-Pesach community lecture at Clanton Park Synagogue on March 5.
“In an instant, my entire life, my family’s life was turned upside down… In that one single instant everything completely changed.
“We like to say that all nine of our children were together,” said Rabbi Simes. “My youngest child was inside my wife’s womb, my oldest child was on the phone” from home, talking to his sister in the car at the time of the accident.
His youngest son was born months later, in the hospital where Rabbi Simes was still a patient. His team carefully choreographed every step from ICU to labour room so that he wouldn’t miss the birth. “They transferred me onto the stretcher and all of my gear was ready to go.
“As I was wheeled into the room… the baby was born, and of course, who else should get the baby? So they gave me the baby. That’s how it goes… it’s just a river of tears. It’s not exactly the way it was done before… it’s different, but the same.”
That was also the day Rabbi Simes breathed for the first time without a ventilator. “I should not be here in front of you right now… according to everything they know about my kind of injury.”
Rabbi Simes now appreciates every breath. “Breathing is a very big deal.”
“I don’t look at it as an accident at all,” Rabbi Simes said. “It’s a sign… it tells me I am in cherus [freedom]. It’s pure freedom” to still enjoy everything he could before his injuries.
“So I don’t drink in the same way I used to drink. I always have to use a straw… and that’s extremely positive. Because how ever would I have thought of the great brachah of swallowing? I did it all the time.”
Though the trip to speak in Toronto had been gruelling, Rabbi Simes was pleased to see old friends here. An experienced teacher, he joked with the crowd: “You’re a great classroom, by the way. You’re much too quiet.”
Speaking before Rabbi Simes was Rabbi Dovid Heber from the Star-K kosher agency in Baltimore, who reviewed many rules of Pesach, from cleaning and koshering the home to selling chametz.
Consumers can cut high Pesach costs, Rabbi Heber said, with products that don’t need a Passover hechsher, such as 100 per cent pure cocoa and frozen fruit with no additives. Unprocessed meat doesn’t need a special Pesach symbol, and can be bought on sale at any time. Star-K has also recently unveiled its Star-S (Sephardi) certification, which also helps Ashkenazim who permit kitniyot for infants or sick people.
Rabbi Simes concluded by recalling the moment in the Torah reading for the seventh day of Pesach when the Jews stand at the edge of the Red Sea, yet hesitate. A midrash relates that one of the tribal princes, Nachshon, son of Aminadav, waded in first.
Rabbi Simes said the great Reb Chaim Shmulevitz (1902-1979), was puzzled: “Simple people, throughout our tear drenched history… had the strength to stand up to the challenge in front of them. So how is it that the [desert generation] were not able to have that strength, that conviction?”
The challenge, Rabbi Simes said, is usually to sanctify God’s name with a courageous death, but at the Red Sea, the Jews were challenged to sanctify God’s name by living – to walk through, as the verse says, “in the midst of the sea on dry land.” Only Nachshon “looked it in the face… and said, ‘I can do that.’
“It’s much more difficult, says Reb Chaim…to live life and not to see the difference between the stormy waters and the dry land.”
For kashrut questions, contact COR at 416-635-9550 or the Star-K kosher hotline at 410-484-4110 (Baltimore).