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Finding Solace in the Jewish Calendar After Our Daughter’s Accident

Her recovery paralleled the holidays, from Purim to Passover to Shavuot

David Gottlieb
May 13, 2013

We were in downtown Chicago on Feb. 17 when my wife Galit got the first call. Our niece Maya, 24, had been in a bad car accident near our house, some 28 miles outside the city. Her parents were away, so we needed to come to the hospital. We were told that the person driving the car was also injured, but that person was unconscious and the paramedics and police officers on the scene hadn’t been able to ascertain her identity.

It wasn’t a mystery for long. Minutes later, Galit’s phone rang again: The driver of the car was our daughter Becky, 23. Forty minutes later—an eternity—we were led to Becky and Maya’s bedsides.

Later that day, sequestered in Becky’s hospital room, shades drawn against the winter gloom, we were alone in a frigid, fluorescent ecosystem of monitors, IVs, and white lab coats. We were overwhelmed and lost track of time. Before long, we had to consult our phones just to remember what day it was. Becky—asleep or semiconscious most of the time, the entire left side of her body battered and lacerated—appeared pallid and unchanging, like her environment. Maya, whose jaw had been shattered, was conscious, but her face was swollen both from that impact and the reconstructive surgery that followed. For the next three days, the girls’ families settled into neighboring bunkers of anxiety, exhaustion, and vigilance, meeting with teams of doctors, responding to calls from worried friends and relatives, taking turns dashing home to keep our households from being swallowed by the chaos.

It was on one of those trips home, on Feb. 19, that I saw the Jewish calendar hung by our back door and realized that it would soon be Purim. How ironic, I thought: We’re supposed to be happy, to down some drinks, and give tzedakah—and here we were, miserable, sober, self-absorbed. In that moment, the holiday seemed more of a cruel joke than an object lesson in mindfulness and gratitude.

Little did I know at the time how important that calendar would become.

The Jewish calendar runs like a subterranean stream through our lives, rising to the surface on holidays and on the dates of a yahrzeit, a wedding, a birth, a bar or bat mitzvah. But it also offers consolation when our fragility surfaces and our fears are realized. The calendar helped us corral the chaos following the accident into a kind of running narrative, a larger journey: To those other, more historic ruptures and healings, Becky’s and Maya’s now had been added as an achingly personal chapter.

During that first week, I continued to consult the Jewish calendar by the back door, seeking solace in the sometimes exhilarating, often painful passages of Jewish history. I saw that the 7th of Adar, when the accident had taken place, was said to be the date of both the birth and the death of Moses, born in captivity, borne in a basket into the care of female saviors. That date had become a rite of passage for Becky, too: from the carefree and invincible vigor of unfettered youth to the Mitzrayim, or “narrow straits,” of injury and confinement.

Four days after the accident, on the day before Purim, Becky was released from the hospital. (Maya had been released the previous day.) Still too weak and injured to walk, still mentally scrambled from the concussion and the painkillers, Becky nonetheless radiated joy and relief as we hoisted the rented wheelchair up the front stoop of our house. She wasn’t able to get up the stairs to her childhood bedroom, but when she lay down on the couch in the family room, where she would live for the next month, she managed a moment’s luminous smile before falling asleep. I felt a surge of joy and hope—and a connection to the riotous good will of Purim that until then had eluded me this year. I would have been only too happy to drink myself into senselessness, but there was too much to do. Nonetheless, Becky’s homecoming on Purim’s eve brought real, visceral joy.

The girls’ recoveries, though uneven and often difficult, marked the days between Purim and Passover with a growing sense of the connection between the joy of escaping death and the redemption of physical and emotional healing. The gradual return of Becky’s short-term memory, her feisty humor, and her ability to function on her own condensed into the last winter weeks her entire passage from childhood to young adulthood. It was also, in a way, like the Jewish calendar in microcosm: a cycle of growth and renewal that retraced the contours of a distant, difficult history.

When Passover came, we held the second Seder at our house. Maya and Becky were there, sitting upright. Maya, jaws still wired shut, experienced the entire Seder through a straw—until our son realized he could slip slivers of chocolate into the gap left by the one molar Maya had lost in the accident. Becky sat in her wheelchair, reading and singing when called upon, laughing whenever possible—eager to be redeemed from the slavery of her wounds. (And all this time, her older sister watched over Becky in a way that bodes well for their parents’ dotage.)

The connection between Purim and Passover is a bridge between forgetting and remembering. On Purim, we are to drink until we forget the difference between right and wrong. On Passover, we drink to revel in our freedom but also to raise our consciousness to a new level. We do this not only by remembering but by bringing memory forward into an appreciation of the present moment. The passage from Purim to Passover, for Becky and Maya (and for us all), was one of learning to forget the accident, on the one hand, and learning to remember, reclaim, and newly appreciate their freedom as adults on the other. Their loss—of time and, momentarily, of health—was also a valuable gift: They had been newly restored to life.

It is said that on the 16th of Nisan, the date of the second Seder, the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the land. Seated at the dining room table that night, we all felt as if we had made the journey with them.

On April 5, or the 25th of Nisan, we drove Becky back to the home she had established in Madison, Wisc., only weeks before the accident. She was now walking with a cane; her left arm was out of its sling; and she was strong enough, both physically and psychologically, to drive again, and to contemplate returning to work the following week. The next day, as Shabbat was fading, we said our weary, grateful goodbyes. Aside from the cane, and a Harry Potter-like scar on her forehead, Becky looked like she had before the accident. The seven weeks of her confinement—which concluded just as the seven weeks of the counting of the Omer began—had also seemed a kind of highlight reel of the passage of birth and childhood: from the initial trauma and terror, to the helplessness of infancy, the accelerating freedoms of youth … and flight from the nest.

Driving home from Madison, the Midwestern landscape broadened around us, settling into sleep as we left Mitzrayim, the narrow straits, behind.

The counting of the Omer, the 7-week interval between Passover and Shavuot, is traditionally a time of mourning. The tragedies suffered throughout Jewish history during this period call for introspection and restraint. On Shavuot, this sobriety gives way to the joy and the wonder, the great gift and awesome responsibility, of the giving of the Torah—the jolt into Jewish spiritual adulthood that tradition says occurred after seven weeks of wandering in the desert.

As the counting of the Omer nears its conclusion, Becky will come back home for follow-up medical appointments and a visit with family and friends. By Shavuot, if all goes well, she will be back in Madison once again. We’ll record this moment in our familial journey under the appropriate date on our Jewish calendar, where it will reside and resonate with the steps in the larger Jewish journey that are printed there, in bold type.

David Gottlieb earned his PhD in the History of Judaism from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2018. He is author of Second Slayings: The Binding of Isaac and the Formation of Jewish Memory.