Of Blood and Hope: Building a Community: Lessons Learned with Max Profeta

In Parashat Vayechi, after Ya’akov’s death, the Torah spends numerous verses describing the narrative of the mourning process for Ya’akov as well as his funeral procession to Eretz Yisrael. Amongst what is a rather lengthy description, there’s one verse which seems somewhat unnecessary; not misplaced or irrelevant, but perhaps extraneous. The Torah tells us, “Va’yar…Va’yomeru eivel kaveid zeh l’Mitzrayim, al kein kara shemah ‘aveil Mitzrayim.’” “And the people of Cana’an saw the mourning (taking place for Ya’akov) in Goren Ha’atad (a place) and said, ‘What an intense (literally, “heavy”) mourning this is for Egypt!’ Therefore they called the name of the place ‘The mourning of Egypt.[i]’”

The purpose of this verse is unclear. With all due respect to the people of Cana’an, is it so important to know that they too saw Ya’akov’s funeral procession? Why do we care to know a random historical fact, such as what they named a nearby city? Why do we need the seemingly random historical perspective of the non-Jewish onlookers?

On one level, I believe this question gives us a window into understanding an earlier statement made by Ya’akov. In the beginning of the parasha, Ya’akov calls over Yosef and insists that he be buried in the Land of Israel as opposed to in Egypt. One of several reasons given by the Midrash for this command is that Ya’akov was afraid his burial place would become a place of idol worship[ii].

Why, according to the Midrash, is Ya’akov worried about his burial place turning into a place of idol worship? Our knowledge of the Egyptian culture of mummifying and pyramid-like tombs provides one answer.  However, our verse illuminates Ya’akov’s concern even more clearly, for we see even when his funeral procession was merely passing by, it still warranted the naming of a city after him! Clearly, Ya’akov’s tomb was liable to be idolized.

That being said, I believe this verse lends itself to an even deeper level of understanding, one which carries much relevance to our lives. It seems that Ya’akov not only successfully avoided becoming an attraction for idol worship, he in fact generated a tremendous Kiddush Hashem.

The name given to the site of Ya’akov’s funeral procession is not an insignificant one. The name given is, “The Mourning of Egypt,” indicating it was an ideal. This funeral procession was seen as the ultimate way to properly mourn for the deceased. The non-Jews didn’t simply passively notice the event; they experienced it actively, and having clearly been moved by the nature of this funeral, they concretized the experience by designating it as a lesson for the ages, as the paradigmatic way to mourn for a leader.

The idea that this verse is teaching us about Kiddush Hashem can be framed by the following two factors. The first stems from a Gemara on Yoma 86a, which teaches the idea of one who brings about love of G-d through his actions. It depicts how if one is a Torah scholar, community leader, or rabbinic mentor, if he interacts positively with his colleagues, pays his bills on time, assists the needy and other such virtuous acts, those who see him will praise him and his G-d. In essence, the Gemara is saying that a person whose neighbors respect and appreciate him creates a Kiddush Hashem

The second factor is the simple idea that places and positions are only named after people who are respected and appreciated. Earlier this year, two streets in New York City were named after two police officers who were tragically murdered in cold blood. Why? Because we recognize that these two men were killed in the line of duty, have the utmost respect for them and are infinitely appreciative for the sacrifice they made on our behalf.

Consequently, if the people of Cna’an named a city after Ya’akov’s funeral procession—and again, a name with such long-term import—it only follows that they must have had immense respect and appreciation for the beneficiary of that funeral, Ya’akov. In other words, the dictum of Yoma 86a was fulfilled and G-d’s name was sanctified, a Kiddush Hashem was made.

The question is, then, what were the factors that produced this sanctification of G-d’s name? To this, I believe, the Torah gives us two answers. One is quantity, the other is quality. Earlier in the narrative, a lengthy list is given of the people who joined Ya’akov’s funeral procession, and it concludes by saying, “And the camp was very kaveid,” (again, literally meaning heavy, but) indicating a substantial amount of people. The non-Jewish observers were astounded by the sheer number of people who accompanied Ya’akov to his final resting place.

As for quality, we have to keep in mind that the Torah is not simply talking about Ya’akov’s memorial service where the eulogies took place; rather, it is discussing the entirety of the funeral procession and the burial. Accordingly, all of the numerous participants sacrificed a significant amount of days from their regular schedule and undertook what was surely an arduous trek from Egypt to Israel! And not just Ya’akov’s family, but a substantial amount of people. This exertion clearly impressed the non-Jews as well.

While this is a nice story from thousands of years ago, its lessons and underlying roots continue to reverberate in today’s times as well. A few months ago, Max Profeta, a YU student from Indianapolis, was unfortunately diagnosed with leukemia. A few weeks later, Rabbi Yonasan Shippel, head of Max’s Judaic Studies program, gave a regularly scheduled sichah in the Beit Midrash. During this sichah, he briefly mentioned that blood can be donated and earmarked specifically for Max and he thanked those who had already done so. Soon after, I went with a friend to Sloan Kettering Hospital to donate blood for Max.

While I have donated blood numerous times before, this time it was an eye-opening experience. While booking the appointment by phone, we were asked if we were donating for someone specific and after I mentioned Max Profeta, the woman gave a ready acknowledgment of Max. Nothing explicitly out of the ordinary yet, but her familiarity seemed a bit unusual. When we arrived at the donation center and were asked the same question by the receptionist there, we again received a notion of familiarity with Max’s name and she commented on how nice it was that we were donating for Max. The comment struck me as slightly strange only because there are hundreds of patients in the hospital.

After we finished donating, we asked if we could visit Max. The receptionist said she would call and see, but first requested that we tell her our relationship to Max. We responded that, in fact, we had never met Max. We explained that we merely went to the same school as him and wanted to visit if possible. At this point, she could not hold herself back and proceeded to shower us with compliments of all sorts, about what incredible people we were, what a tremendous kindness we were doing, etc. When we finally got to the 9th floor where Max was staying, as one could imagine the nurses who actually knew Max were even more effusive in their praise than the receptionist who had never met him. Without exaggeration, as we walked out of the elevators, one of the nurses called to us, “So you’re the special people who just donated?”

Now, all of these accolades caught me quite by surprise. While I won’t be one to deny that I was doing a kind deed, I by no means felt that what I did was extraordinary. And, in fact, it wasn’t extraordinary, as I proceeded to learn during my visit with Max that I was only of many to donate for him. Deserving of a compliment? Perhaps. But endless praises? I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. Luckily, all the answers soon became clear.

During what was truly a nice visit with Max, I discovered two exceptional pieces of information. The first was that, in his relatively brief time at the hospital, Max had already nearly set the record (2nd most) of blood donations earmarked for a specific patient. Around 150 people had donated blood specifically for Max!

The second tidbit was that though Max had needed approximately 50 blood transfusions by that point, only twice had they needed to go to the general blood bank! All the other transfusions came from blood earmarked specifically for him, which is significant because even though there were 150 donations, if unused after a few weeks, earmarked blood is transferred to the general blood bank. What that means, therefore, is that blood wasn’t donated to Max just in the initial week or two after his diagnosis while emotions were running high; rather, people had been constantly donating blood for Max, going 3 weeks after, 5 weeks after, 2 months, 10 weeks….so much so that throughout his treatment he virtually never needed the general blood bank!

What I realized later was yes, perhaps I didn’t do anything extraordinary, and neither did the other 150 individuals, but something did. Max’s school did something extraordinary, Max’s people did something extraordinary, the Jewish nation as a collective did something extraordinary. While I saw my action as simply a nice act, for the hospital workers it was in fact extraordinary, because this was a depth of caring which goes well beyond what they are generally exposed to.

Ultimately, what this was, of course, was a remarkable Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of G-d’s name, for much the same reasons that Ya’akov’s funeral procession was a Kiddush Hashem. First, the pure numbers—the 2nd most donations in the hospital’s history! And second, the effort. After all, the NY Blood Center comes to the YU and Stern campuses every few months and anyone who wants to do so is able to at their convenience, with a minimum of time taken from their day. Nonetheless, over a hundred students, not just his close friends but many who did not know Max, got up and traveled to Max’s hospital so that they could donate especially for him.

I believe this element of effort really underscores one of the fundamental differences between Judaism and other religions. Judaism is a religion of effort, a life of initiative, a commitment to seeking out knowledge of what G-d wants from us, and an experience of sacrifice. We are blessed with the day of Shabbos, but it entails sacrifice. We are blessed with the laws of Taharas Hamishpacha/family purity, yet they demand sacrifice.

There are no “free lunches” in Judaism. What I find to be one of the most striking teachings in the entire Gemara is what we learn in Yoma that even the day of Yom Kippur—our ultimate day of repentance and renewal—only acquires meaning after we have done our part to make amends and to achieve our own renewal[iii]. Only after we have made ourselves vulnerable to our friends and close ones is G-d, so to speak, willing to make Himself vulnerable to us.

Similarly, creating a community is not an easy task. To form an entity whose individual parts feel responsible for one another requires opening oneself up to those around him, desiring to march towards a common goal with them, and, ultimately, acting on that desire. Through Max, the YU community has been blessed to uncover an oft-hidden sense of unity amongst its student body. May God give us the strength to continue to put forth our best efforts in all that we do, and may we realize that while our own individual actions may seem small, together, they can produce something extraordinary.

I recently spoke to Max over the phone. Max is deeply appreciative for all that everyone has done for him the last few months and would like to extend his gratitude to the YU community for its unwavering support. With much gratitude to G-d, we are happy to say Max recently concluded all his treatments and was released from the hospital. In fact, he is even back to living in the Heights and please God anticipates continuing his education at YU in the fall.

Additionally, it is worth noting that by the time Max was released for the final time, the number of blood donations earmarked for him was up to around 200. Furthermore, approximately 300 donations were made in his name in his hometown, Indianapolis.

Chaim Goldberg is a Junior at Yeshiva University, majoring in Psychology and Jewish Studies.

[i] Genesis 50:11

[ii] Rashi Genesis 48:29

[iii] Yoma 85b