Eternal Youth, Eternal Closeness, Eternal Amazement
by Rabbi Rick Brody
Coincidences are all around us. They … open up windows of fascination with—and appreciation of—the amazing, interwoven nature of our universe.
Yesterday I saw an inspiring article about Pope Francis holding and kissing a man with a terrible bodily disfigurement. In the comments, a reader suggested that it appeared the affliction was “Proteus Syndrome” (“Elephant Man Disease”). [The article I found today (linked above) actually explains that the man with the Pope most likely has neurofibromatosis and that Joseph Carey Merrick, the famous individual who was dubbed “The Elephant Man,” is now believed to have been affected by both of these disorders.]
Out of (morbid?) curiosity, I googled the term to see some pictures and articles, which led me to a list of other rare disorders, which led me to YouTube videos from a cable-channel (TLC?) series about such phenomena. Throughout this digital journey, I found myself being overcome with empathy for my fellow human beings whose life experiences are so different from—and so much harder than—mine, likely filled with terrible pain and sadness. One of the stories was about “The girl who never aged,” made 4 years ago about a 16-year-old named Brooke Greenberg, whose body remained like a toddler’s. [As opposed to some of the other pictures and stories I found, it didn’t appear that Brooke, with her minimally developed intellect, experienced any real mental anguish.]
Just now, I randomly came across a headline that Brooke died a mere 2 weeks ago. Coincidences are all around us. They never fully surprise me but they also never cease to further open up windows of fascination with—and appreciation of—the amazing, interwoven nature of our universe. I’m just one person among millions who at some point came across Brooke’s story. It just happened that in my case it was close to the time of her death and it just happened that I stumbled upon an article today that had a link to this recent news at the bottom of the page. I’m sure there are others within the past two weeks who also learned about Brooke for the first time and then read—less than a day later—about her recent death. But those others are not me. The experience I just had is mine and I embrace it. Life just happens. Sometimes meaninglessly and sometimes with uncanny, awe-inspiring interconnectedness.
I don’t need to discern a concrete “meaning” for “why” this confluence just occurred for me. It just did. But it awakens me. It awakens me to how small we all are, how close we all are on this little, blue marble spinning endlessly on its own axis and swirling around a (slightly) larger ball of fire tucked into one corner of a milky cluster of billions of other gaseous orbs and their attendant planets. And that awareness, I hope, will draw me closer to those who, despite their apparent physical differences, their “otherness,” are really already so close and who need my love just as I need theirs. This awareness binds us together. A religious leader for billions can initiate that inspiration for love and that feeling of boundedness, and peculiar intersections of personal experience can intensify the awareness of those feelings.
May Brooke’s memory be a blessing and may those who have studied her condition be empowered to translate their learning into improvements for all of humanity.
Jewish tradition offers a blessing to be recited upon seeing “exceptionally strange-looking people or animals.” The blessing is Baruch atah … m’shaneh ha-briyot (“Blessed are You … who makes the creatures different.”) Another literal translation could be “who changes the creatures.” My hope is that—when any of us feels moved to recite such a blessing—we are actually inviting the Holy One of Blessing to bless us and change us, so that we may become more awake to our similarities that lie beneath the differences and that we can also be more empowered to embrace those differences with compassion, remembering our command to welcome and love the stranger. We don’t praise terrible and debilitating deformities as good things—we’re not thanking God for bestowing such difficulties on people. We thank God for making us in such a way that we can be moved—by noticing difference, by feeling it, and by acting lovingly in response to those feelings.
Perhaps experiencing “strange phenomena” of confluence like what has just happened to me in the past 20 hours is also worthy of this same blessing. The events themselves take on a life of their own and are “creatures.” But more importantly, the strangeness can transform me, intensifying my commitment to be a vessel of love and compassion. Thank you, Holy One, for this gift of awakening to the peculiarity, the closeness, and the need for love that all define—and continue to transform—this glorious Creation.