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Magnet Moment

Jacob L. Freedman

Everyone’s fighting a battle we know nothing about

Wednesday, January 16, 2019




ashon hara is always a tough call. So many halachos and reasons to be machmir. So many heterim and excuses to be meikil.

I’m always impressed by new patients who ask me the following: Is it okay for me to speak lashon hara about my (fill-in-the-blank)? And yet the answer here is clear: If it’s relevant to their treatment, of course it’s important and necessary information for me to know. How could I have known how challenging Mrs. Z’s relationship with her husband was unless I knew about his secret drinking problem? How could I understand the family’s history unless I knew that Uncle Feivish also suffered from mental illness? There are myriad examples of how critical information must be shared in order for the therapeutic process to move forward.

And yet there are also many times that it pains me to listen to what seems like pointless lashon hara or rechilus. I remember the first time I heard a patient tell me that his wife’s father — an upstanding man that I’d known for his work as a fundraiser for the local Bikur Cholim organization — was a terror when it came to criticizing his children. It was a challenge, but I remained a professional in my chair and kept quiet. It was only after the session ended that I called my rav, Rabbi Naftoly Bier of the Boston Kollel, and asked him what to do when I had a patient tell me a hurtful piece of lashon hara.

“Yaakov! Baruch Hashem we have people who care about Klal Yisrael like you out there,” he said, instantly rejuvenating me with his chizuk. “It’s necessary for you to listen in order to help your patients by letting them tell you their full story.”

“Really?” I chirped in, perhaps a little too fast.

“Not so simple,” he caught me. “Because it’s also up to you to fight your yetzer hara and not to believe everything you hear. That’s your mitzvah here.”

I’ve always tried to keep this in mind so that I’d have a path to follow for times when I’d be put in this situation. And it happens often.

Meir Lurie was a popular local politician known for his personal warmth and professional dedication to the community. He’d served as the town mayor for the past two decades, running unopposed for the past four election cycles. He was jovial, approachable, and embodied the teaching of Shammai from Pirkei Avos, greeting everyone with sever panim yafos.

While he was an Israeli Sabra for generations, he was beloved by the American community as well, who would call him “Mayor Meir.” And whether you thought it was clever or ridiculous, here was a man you knew you could trust to advocate for his community.

As a general rule, I was always happy to help Mayor Meir in any way I could, so when I received a phone call from him asking to schedule an emergency meeting, I told him we could schmooze later that evening when I finished with my patients. But Mayor Meir spoke to me without his trademark jubilance and rather had the concerned tone of someone with a serious problem on his hands.

“What can I help you with, Mayor Meir?” I asked as I prepared myself for some bad news.

Mayor Meir proceeded to tell me about his second son, Effy, who had become progressively withdrawn over the course of the previous months. The once ebullient young man who was poised to follow in the footsteps of his charismatic father was increasingly reclusive and hadn’t left his room — even to shower — in over a week.

The story was presenting as the onset of psychosis, and it was clear that Effy needed an emergency evaluation. As Mayor Meir was a personal friend and my general policy is not to treat friends, I referred him to a colleague who was available to help and to make a home visit for the consultation.

What happened then was unpleasant and yet somewhat predictable. Effy’s situation escalated, and the full strength of his paranoia burst forth when he refused to talk with the psychiatrist. A few screams about the Mossad, a broken lamp, and a phone call to Hatzolah ended with a necessary hospitalization. While traumatic, it was the right place to get the treatment he needed to work through what was most likely his first episode of schizophrenia.

Although I wasn’t involved in the clinical care, I was happy to speak with Mayor Meir about the situation and to offer support for my friend.

The case turned out to be more difficult to treat than might have been expected, and Effy was still in the hospital a few weeks later. But Mayor Meir was resilient and visited his son daily, even when it meant he had to leave his office early and miss some of his legendary “schmooze with the constituency” hours.

The locals grumbled when there was a workers’ strike and the buses stopped for an afternoon. Where was Mayor Meir to smooth everything over? When there was talk of a new municipal tax vote and Mayor Meir was absent from the monthly town hall meeting, I heard more than one person complain that Mayor Meir had gotten too comfortable in his office. Certainly these detractors didn’t understand that he was as dedicated as ever but happened to be at a team meeting with the doctors. Certainly he’d rather be anywhere else, but he was busy discussing plans for transferring his son to a long-term care facility.

But at a kiddush the following Shabbos, things came to a tipping point when I overheard two guys talking about how Mayor Meir was “too choshuv” to come to our little shul and chose to spend Shabbos in Jerusalem with a bunch of politicians and askanim instead.

I boiled inside as I heard this. What would they say if they knew that Mayor Meir was in fact staying in the Bikur Cholim room at the psychiatric hospital in order be with his son for Shabbos? I wanted to scream at them, I wanted to tell them that they were resha’im, I wanted to explain how Mayor Meir had tzaros they could never fathom.

But I didn’t. Instead I thought about the Chofetz Chaim Foundation magnet my wife put smack in the middle of the refrigerator, and while I normally don’t quote something I saw on an appliance, desperate times called for desperate measures.

“Sorry to interject, guys,” I said as politely as I could. “But we gotta ‘Be kind. Every single person we meet is fighting a battle we know absolutely nothing about.’ Mayor Meir is a good fellow, and you both know it.”

They stared at me blankly, most likely wondering why I was jumping to the defense of a local politician who was very conspicuously absent over the past month.

But I was feeling inspired as the local shemiras halashon police and continued, “Hey, it’s Shabbos. So, what do you say about the new herring they got this week?”

Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 744. Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in The Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem.  Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website


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