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The Catapult

May 8, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Passover: Why redemptive things happen to good people.

One day in 1962, something terrible happened to Dick and Judy Hoyt. After nine months of joyful anticipation of the birth of their first child, something went terribly wrong. During the delivery, the umbilical cord coiled around the baby's neck, cutting off oxygen to his brain. The baby was born brain-damaged and quadriplegic, coupled with cerebral palsy. The doctors said that the child would be a vegetable all his life, and recommended putting him into an institution.

Dick and Judy refused. They brought their son Rick home, determined to make the best of the situation. Six years later, when the local public school refused Rick as a student, Dick and Judy themselves taught him the alphabet.

Although Rick could neither talk nor move, Dick and Judy were convinced that he comprehended what was going on around him and that he was as intelligent as his two younger brothers. Rick was 11 years old when his parents raised $5,000 and approached computer engineers at Tufts University to build a computer that would allow Rick to communicate using the only motion he controlled, slight lateral head movements. The engineers refused, saying that the boy had nothing to communicate because nothing was happening inside his brain.

"It's not true," Dick insisted. "Tell him a joke." One engineer told a joke, and Rick laughed heartily. A few months later, the computer arrived at the Hoyt household in Holland, Massachusetts. By pressing a switch at the side of his head, Rick typed out the words, "Go Bruins."

At the age of 13, Rick was finally admitted to public school. Two years later a lacrosse player in the school suffered an accident that left him paralyzed. The school arranged a five-mile run to benefit him, and Rick wrote on his computer, "I want to do that."

"When I'm running, I feel like my disability disappears." 

Although Dick Hoyt, an ex-Marine who served in the Air National Guard, was out of shape, he agreed to push his son's wheelchair in the race. When they crossed the finish line, Rick was grinning from ear to ear. At home he wrote on his computer, "When I'm running, I feel like my disability disappears."

That was all Dick Hoyt needed to hear. In the three decades since then, Dick has pushed his son's wheelchair through 65 marathons (including 25 Boston Marathons) and 224 triathlons, including 6 Ironman competitions. For the bicycling segments, Rick sits in a seat in front of his father's bike; for the swimming segments, Rick lies in a life raft tied by a rope to his father's waist. None of this came easily to Dick. Before the first triathlon, he had to learn how to swim. "I sank like a stone at first," Dick recalls, "and I hadn't been on a bike since I was six years old." In 1992, the father and son duo, called "Team Hoyt," biked and ran across the USA—a 3,735 mile journey that took them 45 days.

In 1992, Dick founded the Hoyt Foundation, "to enhance the lives and mobility of people with disabilities, and to integrate the physically challenged into everyday life."

The video on youtube shows a middle-aged Dick Hoyt, his tattooed arms stretching forward in the water, swimming as he pulls a raft in which lies his immobile, grinning 35-year-old son. At the dock, Dick bends and, with visible difficulty, lifts Rick out of the raft. As he carries his son in his arms some 20 meters to a waiting wheelchair, the several dozen people lining the pier give Dick Hoyt a standing ovation.

Every time I watch the video, I am overcome by twin responses. First I cry at the sheer greatness of this man. Then I wonder if he would ever have become so great if his life had not been stricken -- and galvanized -- by misfortune.


On Passover we celebrate that God redeemed our ancestors from slavery in Egypt 3320 years ago. The sages asked the obvious question: If God is the sole power in the universe, is God not also responsible for inflicting them with slavery in the first place?

Free will means that human beings, such as Pharaoh, can choose to do evil, but whether they succeed in their nefarious schemes is up to God.

In fact, the question is sharpened by reading the 15th chapter of Genesis with the classical commentaries. When God promises Abraham that his descendents will inherit the Land of Israel, Abraham, who is used to covenants of mutuality, questions how this unilateral promise can be fulfilled if his descendents are not worthy. God, in an apparent non sequitur, replies that Abraham's offspring will be slaves in a foreign land and will suffer oppression for 400 years.

The classical commentators explain that the tribulations of slavery would make Abraham's descendents worthy of inheriting the land.

We are predisposed to thinking of suffering as punishment. This passage, in which God's decision to enslave Abraham's descendents clearly predates any wrongdoing on their part, offers a new paradigm: suffering as a galvanizer to growth and greatness.

What quality did the Jewish people need to acquire that could be won only through the experience of slavery?

The Talmud asserts that the defining characteristic of Jewish people is rachamim -- compassion. The Talmud goes so far as to say that if you meet a Jew who lacks compassion, you can legitimately doubt that he is a Jew.

Jewish compassion no doubt accounts for Jews being at the forefront of every social movement dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the downtrodden. This compassion was forged during the formative stage of the emergence of the Jewish nation -- in the crucible of slavery.

Passover celebrates not only our redemption, but also the suffering that led to it.

Thus the Seder table is laden with symbols of suffering: the bitter herbs, the salt water symbolic of tears, the choroses to remind us of mortar, even the matzah, called both "the bread of freedom" and "the bread of affliction." Can you imagine a celebration of American Independence Day full of emblems of British oppression: Tory uniforms? The muskets used in the Boston Massacre? The preponderance of symbols of suffering at the Seder suggests that Passover celebrates not only our redemption, but also the suffering that led to it.

One of the four Biblical mitzvot of the Seder is to eat the bitter herbs. We are commanded not only to gaze at what is bitter or to remember it, but to actually imbibe it. Only by "swallowing" the suffering served to us do we attain redemption.


Judaism does not glorify suffering. In fact, in the High Holiday liturgy, we ask for atonement, "but not through harsh illnesses." We should never ask to be tested. Yet Judaism understands that the purpose of life is individual and collective redemption (breaking out of our limitations, fixing our shortcomings, and achieving our full spiritual potential), and that the process of redemption often involves hardship, pain, and difficulty.

One of the most pervasive illusions is that the well-lived life is characterized by ease and pleasure. Therefore, anything that intrudes on our ease and pleasure (such as illness, the birth of a handicapped child, financial loss, or the death of a loved one) is by definition "bad." For many, the very question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" presupposes the definition of "bad" as equivalent to "painful."

In the Jewish concept, the well-lived life is characterized by inner growth that creates a person of depth and compassion. Acquiring these qualities usually requires passing through challenges and hardships.

Is freedom escape from pain or embracing our challenges and using them as a catapult for inner growth?

The "ease and pleasure" model produces superficial people. The "inner growth through hardship" model produces people like Dick Hoyt. The crux of the issue is: how do you define freedom? This is the unspoken question behind the Seder. Is freedom lying on the beach for a year? Escape from all pain? Or rather embracing challenges and using them as a catapult for inner growth?

The very word "Passover" [in Hebrew Pesach] alludes to "leaping over." Thus, Passover is the time to replace the paradigm of "hardship as punishment" with the paradigm of "hardship as opportunity to catapult forward."

This is not to say that suffering necessarily produces spiritual greatness. An indispensable component of the formula is how we respond to the hardships that are put in our path. Here are the possibilities:



Last summer, a family from Manchester, England came to Jerusalem. The father, Leon Phillips, was a successful solicitor in his early forties when he was stricken with a nearly fatal brain tumor. Five years and three major surgeries later, Leon is in a wheelchair, his once thriving legal practice defunct, the family's financial resources strained due to their huge medical costs, and their faith and optimism foundering. Sitting with them in the lobby of a Jerusalem hotel, I felt powerless to encourage them. After all, what did I know of such cataclysmic hardships?

Then suddenly it occurred to me: Take them to meet Dr. Melamed-Cohen! Dr. Melamed-Cohen, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease, has been completely paralyzed and on life support for ten years. In that state, he has managed to write nine books using his eye movements on a special computer. I phoned his house, and his granddaughter relayed to him my request. Dr. Melamed-Cohen's reply was swift: "Yes, come!"

With difficulty, Lucille Phillips situated her husband in a taxi, put the wheelchair in the trunk, and off we went. The elevator Dr. Melamed-Cohen had installed during the early stages of his disease carried Mr. Phillips in his wheelchair up to the Melamed-Cohens' second-floor apartment.

Then there they were, facing each other: two wheelchair-bound men whose lives had been stricken with devastating illness. In a subsequent letter, Lucille Phillips described the visit as "totally awesome":

We felt so privileged to meet [Dr. Melamed-Cohen] and have a glimpse into the way he is able to conduct his life with such faith, joy, and determination despite his paralysis. We felt honoured to have managed to converse with him and felt so welcome there… We really felt absolutely in awe of him and his family!

Dr. Melamed-Cohen has called the years since his total paralysis, "the best years of my life." When questioned how that could be, since his prior life was filled with professional accomplishments and family joy, he explained that his illness caused him to meet challenges over which he had never thought he could be victorious. He has thus attained totally unexpected levels of depth and compassion.

His life with Lou Gehrig's disease has been neither easy nor pleasurable, but it is redolent with redemption.


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