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I Am in a Broken Place but There is Holy Work to Do

Rabbi Ronnie Cahana and his wife Karen. Photo: Kitra Cahana

Rabbi Ronnie Cahana is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-El in the Montreal suburb of Town of Mount Royal. His daughter, photographer Kitra Cahana participated in Jewlicious Festival 3.0 and has enthralled us with her work. Daughter Tamira, a massively talented student of costume design, was a frequent (not frequent enough though!) Shabbat guest while studying in Jerusalem. Their father recently suffered a debilitating stroke, but you know… there’s just no stopping some people. The following is from an email sent to me by Kitra:

Five weeks ago, my father Rabbi Ronnie Cahana had a severe and rare kind of stroke in his brain stem. His mind has been severed from his body; a quadriplegic, on a respirator, with a fully functioning and brilliant mind. They call it incomplete Locked-in syndrome (in French: maladie de l’emmuré vivant – walled-in-alive disease).

(The movie the Diving Bell and The Butterfly paints a clearer image of his condition, although he has regained much facial movements and can now mouth as well as use his eyes for communication).

My father, ever the spiritual poet, has through a process of blinking out letter by letter, been insisting on communicating endlessly day and night, despite being in the hospital. As my father’s mouthpiece my mother, siblings and I facilitate for him to blink out long spiritual messages and sermons, letters in multiple languages and now aphorisms and poems as well (LOVE IS KISSING AWAY THE OTHER’S FEARS).

Communication is slow and gentle (taking hours to write a few paragraphs) and requires a level of mental endurance and tenacity reserved for the yogi or mystic. But perhaps that is in each of our powers, when we sever body from mind. My father speaks much about the division of body and mind, and how special he is to have the outer limits of human experience sparking through his fingers. Most people in this compromised physical condition ask for death, sometimes using all their life force fighting for it. My father has only said let me show you how to live, from the very first instance of occlusion.

We are experiencing something few on earth experience; my father floating through spirit and space, and us through his endless thought-process and spiritual high. I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT THIS TOO IS HEALIGE (holy in yiddish) he blinked to Tamira, my sister and to me: I AM IN A BROKEN PLACE BUT THERE IS HOLY WORK TO DO.

Last week, a day following a very harrowing prediction by the head neurologist, my father began showing voluntary resistance in the muscles of each limb (very in the valley of dry bones-esque). Despite the death, through the brain-voids the cells are beginning to answer each-other’s calls.

Kitra sent me Rabbi Cahana’s first “blinked” sermon, included below:

Most Holy and cherished Congregation Beth El,

To the Compassionate One, the Most High Constant and Pure, who breathes meaning and truth into life. You have allowed me another verse of one more song, one more kiss to a loving life.

Rosh Chodesh Av enters the loneliest experience of the Jew. We are fatherless without Zion. The Rabbis did not direct a negotiation with the Romans. They only asked that their children be taught holiness in Torah, so that they could sustain in G-d’s way. Even during WWII, the rabbis never negotiated with the Nazis. Do not subvert our worthiness to Zion.

Parshat haShavua Massei teaches us that in a world of chaos and vacuousness, we need refuge in life. Even in the perfection of the Garden of Eden, there was the snake. When my nape exploded (when I had my stroke), I entered another dimension: inchoate, sub-planetary, protozoan. Universes are opened and closed continually. There are many when low, who stop growing. Last week, I was brought so low, but I felt the hand of my father around me, and my father brought me back.

I am grateful for all the love, messages and prayers I have received. They are uplifting me, and I hope to be back home soon.

Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Ronnie Cahana

If you want to include Rabbi Cahana in your prayers, his full Hebrew name is: Harav Ronnie David Zishe Hacohen ben Hinde Aliza. You can read the Rabbi’s poetry, G-D stories and Dvar Torahs on the web site created by Kitra at rabbicahana.wordpress.com. Refuah Shlema Rabbi.

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12 Comments

  1. Dodi

    9/15/2011 at 11:49 am

    This is very inspiring! May Rabbi Cahana have a Refua Shleimah. Shana Tova.

  2. themiddle

    9/15/2011 at 2:30 pm

    I am without words. There are no words. I wish the Rav, his wife, his children and all those who have been touched by him all the best.

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  4. Ethel Chaya Igel

    9/17/2011 at 10:38 pm

    Rabbi Cahana, you should have a complete refuah shleimah and a Shana Tova with your beautiful Karen and wonderful family. Our best wishes go out to you for a very speedy recovery from your stroke.
    Very fondly, Ethel Chaya Igel & family

  5. Dottie Swann

    9/21/2011 at 12:06 am

    To Ronnie, Karen and family, I am stunned and hope to find words to adequately express my feelings of admiration and gratitude for all of you. I remember Ronnie visiting me so many years ago – 25? at UTMB when I thought my life was over. He reminded me health comes through our mothers. You have all ready found health and strength through your remarkable and resilient family. You continue to be an inspiration in the face of incomprehensible odds. Continue to mend my friend. I hold you all in my thoughts..

  6. Lisa Chernow

    9/21/2011 at 12:25 pm

    Awesome, in the truest sense of that overused word. Your compassion, your love for your magnificient family and congregation, the poetry of your words, and your amazing perspective leave me humbled and in tears. With love, admiration and greatest respect, my most sincere wishes for your continued uplifted spirit and a swift and full recovery, Lisa Chernow

  7. rivka yaniv

    9/22/2011 at 2:09 am

    ronne
    we love you so much
    i pray for your’s health evry day
    we huge you and let out love to you bringing you back to health and family life and holy work in the kela
    rivka

  8. Ruth Steinfeld

    9/26/2011 at 10:01 pm

    If anyone can get well you and your beautiful family together will make 5772 a good year! I will pray for you! I am Lea Weem’s sister. I too loved your Mom & Dad and your sister Rena.
    Shana tova!
    Your friend Ruth

  9. Steve Nemirov

    10/11/2011 at 11:15 am

    Shannah Tova to the Cahana family.
    May this year be the first step in a series of small steps leading to Ronnie’s
    speedy and full recovery. There are many lessons to be learnt from your situation, Rabbi, and you demonstrate them remarkably well. Yishar Koach! We may not have visited you in Montreal, but you are always in our minds together with your loving family! Now you are all also in our prayers! Every time we pass your former home here, and the shule that you led, we have strong emotions still to this day. I remember how sad we were to have you leave. I remember your unique sukkah invitations, I remember your offer of a car, of visiting Jacob and I in NYGH when Jacob was ill, and I always remember the warmth of your home and “pleasantness of your ways” ! Your continued contact with my parents
    is a treasure that they hold dear! May Hashem give you and your family strength!

  10. Ketzirah

    12/16/2011 at 1:41 pm

    My family went through this with my father-in-law. He was in that condition for nine years. My heart goes out to R’Ronnie and his family. I’m so grateful that the Cahana family at least has the current technology available to them. For the first several years my FIL was struggling with this, there weren’t eye-controlled computers. He had to use a manual letter board with a volunteer. It was grueling.

    Later on he also benefited from eye-controlled computers, which are such a blessing.

    I will add you all to my prayers for healing and solace this Shabbat.

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  12. Yana

    3/6/2012 at 7:24 pm

    This post nearly brought me to tears. How beautiful. Any word on how the Rabbi is doing now?

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