Mining for the Light. A Chassidic view of a doctor in Africa.

By Ian Mirlin, Toronto, Canada
Essays 2017

MyLife Essay Contest 2017


With the goal of presenting this childhood memory in the fairest light, I should confess that the learning I describe here did not occur ‘in the moment’ as a result of applying Chassidic insight to a situation at hand.
It would be more accurate to say that it is the mellowing effect of time coupled with my more recent attraction to Chassidus that has allowed me to look backwards across the years to properly see the wisdom that lay before me back then.
That the learning took so long for me to fully appreciate hasn’t dimmed its resonance.
On the contrary, it is entirely due to the profound principles contained in the Chassidic tradition that I find this story and the life lessons it offers to have been elevated and made immeasurably more meaningful.

Through the lens of memory

South Africa is a country where the primitive nature of the Dark Continent often clashes discordantly with 21st century progress and the relative sophistication of a modern society and its values.
There are incidences of differing practices of commerce in apposition, polar ideas of justice in conflict, modes of civil behaviour can vary from one region to another.
Most essential to this story is that you will still find witchdoctors dispensing voodoo as frequently as there are highly qualified doctors and surgeons engaged in the disciplines of contemporary medicine.
It is against this backdrop that my father practiced as a doctor for almost five decades until his passing in 1991.
For reasons of his own, he was mostly attracted to working in small rural communities and so it was that we moved from town to town, our family of four making our small dent in the local population, made up in large part by the shopkeepers on the main street and the corn famers of the district whose farmlands lay like green quilts across the dry African bush that surrounded us.
It was in my bar mitzvah year that we moved to a mining town located close to one of the world’s deepest gold mines. There, my father took a job at the local hospital mostly treating the miners who had migrated from the ‘reservation areas’ in search of work.
These are strong men, able to work long shifts two or more miles underground, wielding their pick axes and hydraulic drills, singing their tribal songs in the ramshackle wooden elevators hoisting them up to the earth’s surface at day’s end, tired and spent.
These are simple, uneducated men. They arrive randomly at the gates of the mine asking for employment, carrying only a tribal blanket, a hand-hewn walking stick and the heritage of a belief system that includes witchcraft and its ability to set a curse upon a targeted victim.
Once afflicted, the unfortunate man or woman would believe they were inhabited by a little ‘demon’ that had begun to grow inside them and slowly overtime, would bring about their demise.
Some of these victims suffer irreversible psychological damage; some unfortunately, may even die.

One morning, a mineworker came to see my father in a state of deep anxiety, explaining that he had been carrying a curse implanted by a witch doctor from his homeland and that he sensed his days were growing numbered.
Understanding that there wasn’t much he could do by trying to convince the man otherwise, my father suggested to him that he undergo an X-ray to help identify where the ‘demon’ was located in his body.

The man agreed and my father had his assistant set up the X-ray machine.
While his patient sat outside in the waiting room, my father cut out a small figure of a man from a sheet of aluminum foil and slipped it beneath the clean white sheet on the X-ray table.
He then brought the patient in.

After taking a series of X-rays, my father held them up one by one to the light and there, visible from a multitude of different angles, the shape of the foil man could clearly be seen floating between the patient’s ribs, close to his heart.
The ‘afflicted ‘ but now validated patient pointed to the evidence, trembling.
Here was proof that he had indeed been cursed and my father nodded sympathetically in agreement.

Reassuringly, the doctor told his client he had the perfect remedy to cure him and with that, decanted a half dozen aspirin into a small manila envelope, advising him to take one every day and
to return when the pills were done.
The patient followed the advice and in a week he was back.
Again my father conducted the same process, but now without the little cutout figure concealed beneath the white sheet.
This time of course, the X-ray was clear; the ‘demon’ had completely disappeared.
The pills had worked. The patient was elated.
For years I saw this man in my mind’s eye, his giant hand engulfing my father’s hand, shaking it vigorously, a torrent of gratitude pouring from his mouth in all the tonal inflections of his native language.
I pictured him emerging from the hospital and out into the hot African sun with a spring in his step, his heavy heart made lighter with a renewed sense of life and purpose.

But now, I see far more than this.

Through the lens of Chassidus

What sends an educated Jewish man into the bush land of Africa? What propels us into situations in uncomfortable foreign locales, often dealing with people culturally far removed from the values we know and hold dear?

In this context the Baal Shem Tov teaches these principles:

  1. Everything seen and heard is to be applied as a guide, providing navigation for our spiritual journey and service to G-d.
  2. Everything is Hoshgacha Protis – Divine Providence.
  3. Serve G-d with Simcha.

The Rebbe updates how they are to be applied in our age – “the last generation” in our prelude to
living with Moshiach:

  1. Moshiach is the word Sameach with an added Yud, the ten faculties of the soul, Chochmah, Bina, Daas, and the seven Middos.
  2. Geulah is comprised of the letters of Golah, with an added Aleph. The work of our generation is to add the Aleph.
  3. Moshiach leadership is about “ dispensing advice” rather than “ruling, cajoling and enforcing.”

We learn that through integrating the ten elements of the soul, a state of Simcha arisesa state to be both protected and cherished.
We should anticipate that situations will often arise that are not always conducive to sustaining this single-mindedness.
To be mindful that it is only through a concerted focus of our talents on unearthing the light that lays hidden in the darkness itself, will the darkness dissipate.
It is then that we are inserting the Aleph into Golah and serving G-d with joy.

The words of the Alter Rebbe provide the groundwork in the Maamar of Beshalach, (Torah Or 61.1).

“ I will sow her in the land as Mine.” As the sages teach: “you sow a koor to reap many more”.
The Jewish people are planted in the Galus in order to manifest this added bounty.
The koor of potential waiting to be harvested is dormant in the sparks of Tohu spread throughout the world, covered in earth, where there is even the darkness of “ they call Him the G-d of Gods”.
These hidden sparks derive from the boundless Chesed that created them in the first place. Neither earned nor deserved, they exist as a lofty paradox of Infinite Kindness, awaiting their  redemption.
The darkness they lie in is likened to the earth.
Insert the seed of righteous behavior through kosher and proper business practice and Torah and Mitzvahs using the products of the earth such as the wool of sheep raised on green pastures or the leather for tefillin, the embedded lights in the darkness will say “ I am also G-d”and will begin to awaken.
Touch them with the light of your conscious action, they feel their source and a “profit of new growth” emerges, the darkness turning to light.
In this place, one is to be with joy in anticipation of the added harvest writes the Alter Rebbe.
This is what is explained in relation to the curses contained in Torah.
That they are the result of not serving G-d with simcha.
It is only when you meet darkness ready to apply your mind and heart – your ten powers of soul focused on extracting the hidden potential for the opposite, that you serve G-d with joy.
This is the Moshiach-minded man or woman, ready to insert the Aleph into Golah.
The Rebbe also explains that there are times we are called on to fight the galus not by “the rod of the law of the court, but rather with mentorship and working with the world on its terms” – the difference highlighted in the daily prayer: “ return our judges as was first and our advisors as was at the beginning”.
The chidush that shines here is that by applying the 10 Eser Kochos Hanefesh to what’s in front of us and by approaching it with the right attitude, not put off by it, but by elevating it: this is what is truly asked of us.
This again is ‘Simcha’.
It is here that we touch the heels of Moshiach.
Oftentimes we bemoan the darkness and feel its power and hold on the world. We lose sight of our being a seed. We lose the joy of working with the darkness and instead sink into its grip, abandoning the potential of the harvest awaiting us and the joy it is capable of unleashing.

As an example of the devotion I have come to appreciate is so vital to our work in this world, I share the story of the Jewish doctor earning his parnassah in the unfamiliar surroundings of mining country at the tip of Africa.
A place where hard-working men plumb the depths of the dark earth everyday, prone to their alien beliefs in the powers of idols and demonic curses.
His unwavering dedication as a doctor never allowed the realities of circumstance to compromise his purpose. Undaunted by a patient’s belief system foreign to his own, he kept his eye on what had brought him to this far flung place:
His mission to heal.

While the miners brought up the gold from the mine each day, my father – a different kind of miner, managed to excavate something even more precious from that dark earth.

For the insights contained in the telling of this story, I am appreciative of the guidance afforded me by the learned Rabbi who I am fortunate to count as a friend and by whose humble insistence is not accredited here. For the value of the story itself, my endless love and gratitude to Shimon ben Shmuel, my dear father ז״ל