By: Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

THEME: “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.’” (Matthew 21:43)

Matthew 21:33-43

In the gospel passage we hear today, Jesus offers the close-minded chief priests and elders a parable, a story that invites them to recognize the stubbornness of their hearts as they insistently continue to reject the person and message of Jesus, God’s own son. The parable concludes with ominous words to the Jewish leaders. “Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.’” (Matthew 21:43) Perhaps, then, it’s ironic that a group of Hasidic Jews brought me face to face with the truth that I, too, can easily overlook God’s abiding presence within the human heart.

For weeks on end that summer, Deborah remained in critical condition in the hospital’s ICU. Having escaped the confines of Brooklyn’s Crown Heights for the cool beauty of an upstate retreat, a sudden and massive stroke brought an abrupt end to the leisure of the small community of Hasidic Jews to which Deborah belonged. With the encouragement of the hospital staff, she remained surrounded by the women and men with whom she’d originally left Brooklyn. Though she appeared unresponsive as medical technology substituted for failing bodily functions, several members of her religious community were always beside her, quietly praying or conversing with each other in Yiddish. Deborah’s room was emptied of visitors only when medical procedures were being performed and during her daily bathing by staff members. Though I had no direct interaction with Deborah’s extended family, the Roman collar around my neck clearly indicating my divergent religious beliefs, yet we had a respectful nodding acquaintance as daily we crossed paths in the ICU.


The Brooklyn group had commandeered for themselves a small waiting area outside the ICU, and within days of Deborah’s admission, it seemed that they’d simply transferred all the gear from their summer campground to the hospital corridor. Sleeping bags on air mattresses were concealed behind tables well-stocked with unfamiliar-smelling foods. Yiddish magazines and newspapers piled on chairs served to dissuade interlopers. Simply stated, the Hasidim had moved in, and they were not leaving until Deborah did. While I found their presence sometimes overbearing, mostly I was impressed by their care and support for one of their own now in desperate straits.

Most striking, though, was what I experienced each Saturday morning in observance of the Jewish Sabbath. Three men, black-suited, silk over-coated, their heads doubly covered in yarmulkes and wide-brimmed black hats, stood in the ICU’s waiting room, their bodies bobbing as audible prayer filled the weekend silence of the corridors. Stunned the first time I walked by them during prayer, I recalled seeing such a scene only in news broadcasts of crowds at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. But here they were in the hospital’s waiting room, and once I became acclimated to their routine, I was deeply moved by the strength of their faith and their determined commitment to stand beside a sister in need.

Likewise, on the first Saturday morning I encountered the Hasidim, one of the women of the group stood outside the locked door of the ICU waiting for someone to assist her in opening it so she could go to Deborah’s bedside. Thinking to assist her, I instructed her simply to pick up the phone outside the doorway and ask a staff member inside to open the door. Averting her eyes from me, she stated simply, “I’m observant.” Making the connection at once, I knew then that she could not use a phone on the Sabbath, so I gained entry for her, a simple nod of her head and a smile her thank you.

“Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.’” (Matthew 21:43) For many weeks that summer, I daily observed the tight-knit group of Hasidic Jews praying publicly and unashamedly to God as they cared for the weakest of their community by day and by night, their presence and their prayers enveloping Deborah as her body slowly regained strength, the fervent Hasidim a sanctuary lamp burning steadily and brightly before the God who dwelt in the heart of their sister.



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