Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing



Today is special Shabbat—Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Repentance, the Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is the time to ask Gd for forgiveness of our sins that we committed against Him, but now, the days before Yom Kippur are a time for us to clean the slate with each other before we approach Gd…because Gd will not forgive us from above unless and until we forgive each other down below.

To help us with this, instead of a sermon I’d like to tell you a story. Stories go straight to the heart in a special way, and besides, you’re getting to hear enough sermons this time of year. This story is about a doctor and a plumber. Doctors are a lot like plumbers in some ways. They both work with valves, and they both deal with broken plumbing—at least surgeons, internists and cardiologists do.

What are the differences? One difference is that doctors get treated with a lot more respect in our society than plumbers. Doctors are usually called by their titles, whereas plumbers are often addressed by their first names. Doctors wear white jackets. Have you ever seen a plumber come to your house wearing a white jacket? And doctors use big words when they explain what’s going on with you. And doctors don’t make house calls anymore; plumbers do.

The doctor’s name in this story is Abigail Zuger. Her toilet broke and she called a plumber to fix it. The plumber put a tool into the toilet and turned a valve…and just as he turned the valve, can you guess what happened? There was a cry of alarm deep within the bedroom closet, which was followed by the sound of gushing water. And within 5 minutes, the whole house was flooded with water. The poor doctor had to move out for 2 weeks until the house dried up, and the damage to the furniture and carpets were repaired. By the time all the repairs had been made, the bill that the doctor had to pay was—what shall I tell you? It was almost as high as what the average patient pays when he or she goes to the doctor.

The truth is that the plumbing was old, and the valve was just about to brake anyway. The plumber just happened to be the one whose hand made the last, fateful turn of the valve before it broke. Although he owned the hand that turned the valve, it wasn’t his fault that the valve was so old. It was just his bad luck to have been the one who turned the valve just before it gave way.

What do you think the doctor’s reaction was when she saw what happened? Can you imagine? The doctor went absolutely ballistic, and she vowed to herself she would never use this plumber ever again. Would you or I have reacted any differently?

And what was the plumber’s reaction? The plumber turned to the doctor and said, “I am sorry that this has happened.” Notice what he did not say. He did not say, “I’m sorry that I caused this damage.” All he said was, “I am sorry that this has happened.” But when he said that, the doctor’s blood pressure went down, she calmed down and thanked the plumber for his kind words. And the doctor made a mental note to use this plumber again if she ever needed one.

Do you know why the doctor thanked the plumber? Because she realized that she had been in the same situation that the plumber was in many times before, and she had never said what he did—and maybe she should have.

Doctor Zuger was not a surgeon or an internist, so she didn’t deal with broken valves and the body’s plumbing as other doctors do. But she did write prescriptions. And sometimes—not often, but sometimes—one of the prescriptions that she wrote didn’t work. In fact, sometimes it did more harm than good.

For example, she once wrote a prescription that caused a patient to develop a rash from head to toe. It wasn’t her fault. She had written that very same prescription for many patients and it helped them. It never caused a rash before. How was she to know that this time her patient would turn out to be allergic to the very same drug that had helped so many others? And this had happened to her more than once. But there was one thing she had never done before until she met this plumber. She had never apologized. She never said, “I am sorry this happened to you.”

Do you know why she never said those words? Because she had been trained from medical school to never to say them…because, if you do, they may come back to haunt you in a law suit. And so, the hospital directors and the insurance companies and the lawyers have trained doctors to never admit responsibility. If someone asks a doctor what went wrong, they’re supposed to say, “Please talk to my lawyer or insurance agent,” but they are never, never, never supposed to say, “I did it, and I am sorry”.

The American Medical Association has now persuaded 14 states in recent years to enact legislation that limits the admissibility of what doctors say to patients in court. And the AMA now counsels doctors to be more open with patients and their families about what happens when something goes wrong.

In fact, there are now some studies that show that doctors who talk to their patients honestly have a better chance of not being sued. And so now some insurance companies recommend doctors do what that plumber did. They even have an acronym for it: RACE. “R” stands for: Rescue the patient by correcting the mistake. “A” stands for: Acknowledge and apologize for the mistake. “C” stands for: Contain the damage with frank and open dialogue. And E stands for: End the matter amicably.

Every doctor will tell you that things sometimes go wrong.  You give someone a great drug and they end up with a rash. You give someone a hip replacement and they’re left with lingering pain. You give someone a treatment that has worked in 95% of the cases and your patient ends up being one of the other 5%.

What do you say then?  “I’m sorry for what happened” is a good thing to say. It doesn’t express guilt. It expresses empathy. It expresses concern. It expresses honesty. And I think that, if the plumber is right, it makes the patient feel a little better to know that the doctor is sorry about what happened.

Why do I tell you this story this special Shabbat? Because I believe that it can guide us in the work that we have to do till Yom Kippur. The ideal would be if we could say to each other, “I did it, I admit it, and I’m sorry”. That is what we’re supposed to do during these 10 Days of Repentance.

But, if for whatever reason, whether because we’re too stubborn or shy…we find it too hard to say these words, “I did it, and I admit it, and I am sorry”, then the next best thing we can say to make the other person feel valued and his/her pain validated is to say, “I’m sorry for what happened.” At least it’s a step towards doing teshuva, and every step you take makes the next step a little bit easier.

And so this is my suggestion to you and to myself and to all who have caused someone pain—which means everyone. It comes not from one of the great Jewish scholars but from this plumber. And I urge you to take what he said seriously. When you hurt someone—even if it wasn’t on purpose or your fault—say that you’re sorry. Say that you feel badly that this person was hurt. And then, once you’ve learned how to say these words, it may be a little bit easier for you to admit your responsibility and say the hardest words in the English language, “I am sorry for what I did to you. Will you please forgive me?”

If we can do that, then we will increase the amount of peace and goodwill in the world and we’ll deserve the blessings of Gd in the New Year. Amen!

                                      Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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