My mother used to put money in a number of different “poor boxes” when something important was coming up in the family. I knew this money was going to different charities. If I had an important examination to take, she would take out all these little boxes and put some change in each of them. As a child, I wondered what connection there could be between giving money away and my doing well on an examination. It was not immediately obvious to me that God would favor me in return for charity. But this was a common practice, I realized. I did not regard my mother as superstitious.
But there came a time when she told me of a psychic rabbi who had been advising my family. He had special powers, I was told. In fact, his was the only house in his community in Poland that was not destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War. I remember thinking that he might just have been lucky. If he had special powers, why didn’t he save all of the Jews that were being rounded up and killed?
This is the family story: My older brother, Aaron, had served as a bombardier in the Second World War. Afterwards, when the army air force separated from the army and became the air force, he was placed in a reserve unit of the air force. Somehow, by mistake, he was also kept on the rolls of an army reserve unit. Because he was credited with time served in both units, by the time the Korean War broke out, he had accrued more time in service than anyone his age since the Civil War. He was called up by both units. Since he had just started a career in television, he did not want to go back to war. My mother, naturally, consulted the Polish rabbi for advice. He told her that my brother would not have to serve. He maintained this prophecy as the date of both call-ups approached ever closer. And he was right! Since Aaron could not serve in both units at the same time, he arranged for one unit to let him go so that he could serve in the second unit. However, he was too old for the second unit, so he didn’t serve at all. At least, that is the story as I heard it.
I was dragged to see this rabbi one time. He took one look at me and said that someday I would do something important—with drugs. I was not impressed. I didn’t think the rabbi had to be prescient to think a Jewish kid from New York City might aspire to be a doctor. Of course, what was important was not what I thought, but what my mother thought. I wasn’t the one consulting him. She believed in him. And so did my brother.
Many years later I was an intern, and my mother by coincidence was in the same hospital. She was dying. As it happened, she was one of the patients under my care. Caring for her, by the way, was not as bad as it sounds. Although she was hopelessly ill, I could still do some things for her to make her more comfortable and to distract myself moment to moment from the facts of her condition. Being able to fluff up her pillow made a difference to me.
My brother flew in from California and annoyed me by immediately going to the Bronx to consult the rabbi. When he returned, he told me the rabbi’s opinion.
“Mom is going to go through a crisis tonight, the rabbi said. Either she will die tonight, or she will get better.”
“Listen,” I said. “Unlike the rabbi, I’ve had the benefit of looking at her chart; and I’m telling you, she is not going to die tonight, and she is not going to get better.”
I was glad the rabbi had gone on record. Once it could be demonstrated clearly that he did not know what he was talking about, I would not have to put up with hearing in the future whatever nonsense he was inclined to predict for me and my family.
When she finally did die, about two weeks later, I was too busy to think about the rabbi’s pronouncement. I didn’t get around to mentioning it to my brother until about a year later.
“I don’t remember that,” he said, making a face. “I don’t remember going to the rabbi. I don’t remember his saying anything of the kind.”
Important principle: People remember those things that fit in with their expectations, and do not remember anything that contradicts them. Beliefs, however irrational, tend to persist for that reason. In particular, people remember predictions that come true, and they forget all the rest. I recommend, for amusement, reading last year’s predictions by newspaper psychics.
The rabbi alluded to above was arrested, I was told some time later, for accepting payment to perform prayers which he then did not perform. If you think about this story for only a moment, you will realize it doesn’t make any sense, any more than any of the other stories I heard about him.
(c) Freddy Neuman
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