Much of the information in this article was gleaned from an article by PBS Health on May 15, 2015
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis may go down in history as the most frustrated and frustrating doctor in history, but he certainly will also be remembered as the doctor that saved millions of mothers and infants. Born to a prosperous Jewish family in Buda, Hungary that ran a wholesale business in spices and consumer goods, Ignaz was given a stellar education as a child, and continued on to the prestigious University of Vienne where he began studying law at the age of nineteen. Not finding law to his liking, Ignaz switched to medicine (the other profession allowed by his Jewish mother), and in 1844 graduated with his PhD.
Dr. I wanted to pursue a career in the more respected fields of surgery or internal medicine. But when he applied for positions at the venerable Vienna General Hospital (locally known as the Allgemeines Krankenhaus), despite being a young brilliant doctor, he could not get a job in either field. The problem with Dr. Semmelweis was that he was Jewish and Hungarian, neither of which made him desirable to the Austrian Christian doctors who controlled the hospital. They did offer him a job in what was considered one of the lower fields of medicine, obstetrics. Evidently, people felt that bringing humans into the world was less important than cutting them open later in life.
But perhaps there was another reason that obstetrics was such considered to be a lower field in the Allgemeines Krankenhaus. They were really bad at it. While five out of a thousand women who gave birth at home or with midwives in the mid-19th century died after childbirth, the number in the best hospitals in the US and Europe could reach from fifty to three hundred out of a thousand women! The vast majority of the deaths were attributed to puerperal fever also known as childbed fever. It was a gruesome and painful death; painful abscesses in the abdomen and chest, putrid pus emanations, burning fevers, and rapid onset of sepsis and death within twenty-four hours of childbirth.
When Dr. Semmelweis came on as chief resident, he noticed that the women giving birth in the same hospital, but in the midwives wing were not dying in great numbers. But every day, when he walked the corridors of the medical birthing wing, he would hear the cries of the many women dying of childbed fever. They all implored him to let them out of the hospital, claiming that the doctors were killing them. Most people would have ignored these claims as the fevered delusions of dying women, but Dr. Semmelweis listened to them, and started watching the doctors more carefully.
Dr. Semmelweis noticed that many of the doctors would come in early in the morning, and go directly to the morgue, where they would perform autopsies on the bodies of the women who died the previous day of childbed fever. From there, they would go directly to the birthing wing, and start examining the birthing process. The world did not know about germs yet, most of the early work on germ theory was done in the 1860’s, but Dr. Semmelweis did notice that the hands of the doctors coming from the morgue had a putrid smell on them, and he surmised that this was linked to a “morbid poison” causing the enormously high rate of death in women being examined by these doctors. This was especially backed by the fact that the women in the midwives wing were not dying of childbed fever, and the midwives were not performing autopsies.
In late 1847, Dr. Semmelweis ordered all of the doctors who were performing autopsies to first clean their hands with a chlorinated lime solution until the smell of the corpses was totally gone. Immediately, deaths in the medical birthing wing dropped precipitously.
Dr. Semmelweis was elated at this discovery! He could now help prevent the deaths of thousands of women around the globe. He began by announcing his findings at a meeting of the Vienna Medical Society on May 15, 1850. Standing at the podium, in the grand lecture hall where many of medicine’s greatest discoveries were made, he described his findings in detail and waited for the thunderous applause. Instead, he met with a room filled with angry people. How dare this Jewish Hungarian doctor suggest the doctor, the most prestigious and respected professionals were harming their patients with dirty hands! He was heckled and laughed at, his science being mocked as pseudo-science and conspiracy theories.
Had Dr. Semmelweis been a more docile man, he would have simply walked out of the room, went back to the hospital, performed more studies showing the veracity of his findings, and published them in medical journals. But Dr. Semmelweis was not an easy man. For months he fought back at those who didn’t agree with him, hurling insults at some of the most prominent doctors in Vienna. He refused to publish his findings until he could get the other doctors to agree with him. This did not work out well for him, he soon lost his job, and suddenly he disappeared from Vienna and headed back to his childhood Budapest.
His time in Budapest wasn’t easy. He kept abreast of developments in the field, hoping to see his discoveries meet widespread adoption, but they didn’t, and women continued dying by the thousands in prestigious research hospitals around the world.
It wasn’t until 1861, fourteen years after his discovery, he finally published his work, “The Etiology, the Concept, and the Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever,” where he not only shared his theories of what caused the fatal fever, and how it could be avoided through vigorous hand-washing, but he also lashed out at all his detractors with such venom that people reading his article today still gasp. This time, his research received mixed reviews. Some mocked him, some took him seriously, but his response was even more violent this time. He published vicious Open Letters to his detractors, calling them horrible things, and demanding that they make a conference of all obstetricians where everyone would stay “until all have been converted to my theory.”
The pain of years of being mocked when he knew he was right, the anger at seeing thousands of women die needlessly at a time that should have been a time of their greatest joy, took its toll on him. His mental health continued to degrade, he suffered numerous mental breakdowns, became absent minded, and turned every conversation into a discussion of childbed fever. He started drinking heavily, and engaging in risky and immoral behaviors. In 1865, a friend lured him into an asylum on the pretext that he was being asked to evaluate it, but really he was being committed. When he realized the true purpose he fought valiantly, and the guards beat him and subdued him. Two weeks later he passed away, most likely from an infection he contracted in an open wound on his right hand that he got while being subdued upon his arrival. In the ultimate irony, the doctor that taught the world about proper hand-washing died of an infection to his hand.
Most historians believe he was driven mad by the reluctance of the world to accept his findings. Can you imagine the feeling of knowing exactly why thousands are dying needlessly but being unable to do anything about it? Can you imagine knowing that it is merely people’s misguided pride that is preventing them from taking the steps that would save thousands of lives?
This Sunday night is Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment. If we look at the prayers carefully we will notice that most of our prayers are calling for G-d Kingship to be established in the world.
“And so too, O Ha-shem, our G-d, instill Your awe upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all that You have created. Let all Your works revere you, and all creatures prostrate themselves before You. Let them all become a single society, to do Your will wholeheartedly… Iniquity will close its mouth and all wickedness will evaporate like smoke, when You will remove evil’s domination from the earth… Then You, Ha-shem will reign alone over all Your works….”
On Rosh Hashana, we are all Dr. Semmelweis (minus the tantrums and drinking). We look at the world around us and see so much pain and suffering. And we know what is causing it, a lack of recognition of Ha-shem and His ways. We know that if the whole world would become “a single society to do His will wholeheartedly,” the world would immediately transform into a place of love and giving, happiness, honesty, and uprightness. How can we not cry out to Ha-shem, begging Him to reveal Himself, and bring that state to the world.
On Rosh Hashana, the day that the entire year is being decided for mankind, we don’t focus on our needs, we focus on the pain of the world and the pain that G-d must feel watching His world and His beloved children at war with each other. We focus on all the unnecessary death and pain in the world and call out to G-d to end that, by bringing the knowledge of His true path to the forefront.
Of course, we take upon ourselves commitments to do our part, to make sure that we are washing our own hands better, but the main focus is on G-d’s way being recognized in the world, our fervent prayers that everyone else in the world also recognize the importance of washing their hands of the infections on their hands.
When we focus on G-d’s pain, and spend our time praying for the overall health of the world, G-d looks down and says, “Who is that? The one more concerned with My pain than his own needs? He is the one I will elevate this year!”
So this year, as we sit in shul, let’s make sure to focus not just on our own desires, needs, and requests, but rather on the needs of our world, the pain G-d must feel at seeing so much unnecessary death and pain in his children, and think about what we can do to alleviate it. And through that, we will definitely merit A Happy Sweet New Year!
Parsha Dvar Torah
“For this mitzvah that I am commanding you today; it is not abstruse to you nor is it distant. It is not in heaven, [for you] to say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” Nor is it overseas, [for you] to say, “Who will travel overseas for us, and acquire it for us, and inform us of it, and we will fulfill it?” For the matter is extremely close to you; in your mouth and in your mind to fulfill it.” (Deut. 30:11-14)
Many of the early commentators tell us that this verse is referring to the mitzvah of repentance, which is discussed in the paragraph preceding this one. Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein zt’l asks, why does the Torah say “in your mouth and your heart to do it”? Shouldn’t the order be your heart and then your mouth?
Usually, a person thinks or feels something, then they begin to verbalize it, and only after talking about it for a while do they actually carry it out. (For example, for years now I have had an idea of a really cool invention. At first I thought about if for a long time. Then I started discussing it with people who knew the industry, and they liked it. In about four or five years I may actually get around to doing something about it!)
Contrary to what most people think, the reverse of the above idea works as well. One can verbalize an idea so much that it starts to get solidified in his heart. I’ll give you an example. When I stub my toe, I start to sing a little song with the following words “yisurim mechaprim avonosov shel adam!” This is a phrase from the Rabbis that means that when one gets afflicted in any way, major or minor, it serves to atone for some of his sins. I sing it to remind myself that the pain I am feeling from my stubbed toe, is actually serving a great purpose. Within second of singing my little ditty, I usually start smiling.
That is the power of words. Most people in that situation would be saying things which wouldn’t reflect too well on them as a person, and I am actually happy! The words we utter can affect real changes in our heart.
This is the message that Moshe is imparting to the Jewish people. Repentance is a very daunting task. It forces us to come face to face with our shortcomings and reminds us that we will need to undergo significant lifestyle change. Sometimes we feel in our hearts that we simply can’t do it. However, we must verbalize (out loud, not just in thought) how much we want to change, how negative our behavior is to our life, and that WE CAN DO IT. If we do that, the words will enter our hearts, and we will be capable of instigating changes we had previously thought impossible.
I’m sure some of you are skeptical, and you may even be thinking that my social work background is making me too touchy-feely and new age, so I will give you the following exercise. Next time you are angry at someone for something that you know deep down does not really deserve that anger, say, “I’m not angry, it’s not worth it,” ten times, and I guarantee that you will cool off significantly. If it doesn’t work, email me, and we will have to work out an alternative anger-management strategy, but I am quite confident that it will work.
This concept is the underlying idea behind Viduy, the verbal confession on Yom Kippur. G-d knows what we did wrong, why do we need to verbalize it? For the answer please read this dvar Torha once again and you will have your answer. As a matter of fact, read it out loud, verbalize it, and you will begin to feel its truth!
This Parsha begins the description of the last day of Moshe’s life. Moshe called together the entire Jewish nation from the lowliest water carrier to the highest elder. He brought them together for a renewal of the covenant that they accepted at Sinai, but with one key difference.
The new covenant included an acceptance of liability not only for an individual’s own action, but also for the deeds of all other members of the Jewish nation. We don’t regard other Jews as separate entities loosely held together by similar experiences, a common language, or ethnic commonality; rather we are all tiny parts of one national soul.
If your left hand was being bitten by a rabid dog, your right hand wouldn’t stand by, saying, “Will you look at that! No wonder must people are right-handed, left hands have such bad luck!” Your right hand would spring to action, trying to wrench the Doberman off the other hand! This is because both hands are part of one being.
Likewise, if a Jew sees another Jew falling into the lure of sin, he can’t stand by idly and do nothing, he must attempt to help him. (However, if one assesses that his attempt to help the person will have a negative result, he is commanded to desist from action.) Based on this covenant, being a good guy just isn’t enough, we need to spread our goodness to others in order to be the Ultimate Jew!
Here, the Torah adds another warning against idolatry. (Idolatry is the most oft-repeated prohibition in the Torah. Serving idols involves denying the Source of everything, including yourself. There can be nothing worse than that, as it causes all your deeds to be focused in the wrong direction, thus making you a complete failure!) We are told about how we will be exiled from our land if we continuously serve idols. G-d always treats us the way we treat Him. If we deny Him as our source, He says, “You don’t recognize me as your protector, your source? No problem, I will remove my protection from you.” Without G-d’s protection, it is clear that we can’t survive (please see Exhibit A, the Land of Israel). We will immediately be driven from our land.
Ha-shem continues by promising us that when we do recognize Him and return to Him, He will have mercy on us, and bring us back from all the exiles to which we have been dispersed. He will rejoice with us the way he rejoiced with out forefathers.
Moshe then tells the Jews to recognize that the Torah he presented to them is not found on a distant island or on a far away star, to be reached only by a perilous journey. “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and your heart– to perform it.” (Deut. 30:14) Here, we see the crucial three things we need to be able to serve G-d properly – mouth, heart, and body. We need to want the right goals (heart), which will cause us to verbalize our desires (mouth), and then our bodies will perform that which we wanted and verbalized.
The Parsha concludes with Moshe calling the heavens and earth as witnesses to his rejoinder that the Jews pick life, that they choose good over bad, righteousness over evil. He calls the heavens and earth as witnesses because they are eternal, and will always be there to testify whether we are keeping our part of the bargain and choosing right over wrong. Additionally, there is lesson to be leared from them. Even thought they get no reward or punishment, they fulfill G-d’s will, shining brightly every day, bearing fruit and produce, exactly as G-d wills them to. We, who do get reward and punishment, how much more should we do exactly as G-d tells us.
Next is my favorite verse in the entire Torah. “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.” (Deut. 30:19) So many religions encourage their followers to do the right thing to earn great reward in the next world. In Judaism, while we do believe there will be a great World to Come, we don’t use that as our selling point.
Moshe tells the people, “Choose Life! So that you will live, you and your children!” He tells us to keep the Torah because that will give us the most incredible life possible! I happen to be a social worker, and I see that the Torah way of life averts so many of the ailments of modern society. It is no wonder that Jews following a Torah lifestyle have drastically lower rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violent crime compared to mainstream society. So, please remember to choose the Torah life, not for the best next world (although you’ll get it), but for the best of this world!
Quote of the Week: He that fears not the future may enjoy the present. ~ James Patterson
Random Fact of the Week: A woodchuck, while hibernating breathes 10 times an hour. While it’s awake, it breathes 2,100 times an hour!
Funny Quip of the Week: Flying is simple. You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.
Have a Tranquil Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham