When I was eighteen months old, my mother walked into my bedroom one morning and found me lying in my crib whimpering quietly. As she came closer to see what was wrong, I turned my head and my mother gasped in horror. The left side of my head had a golf ball-sized bump right where the crevice of the ear meets the scalp. Terrified, she called the doctor, who advised us to rush to the hospital. We raced to the emergency room, where the doctor discovered a severe infection that had spread to the mastoid – the inner portion of the ear that connects to the skull. If the skull becomes infected, it becomes life threatening.
A few days prior, I had come down with a typical toddler ear infection. My mother did what every mother does – she went to the doctor, picked up the prescribed antibiotics, and gave me the correct dosage according to schedule. However, unbeknownst to her, my body did not respond to the antibiotics, and the infection rapidly spread, almost to my brain.
An emergency mastoidechtomy was performed. During the surgery, a bone inside the inner ear (the mastoid) is hollowed out to allow the fluid of the infection to drain. The mastoid connects to the skull, and if not dealt with correctly, it is only a matter of time before the brain can become infected, leading to permanent injury or even death.
I spent a month in the hospital recovering from this life-threatening – and life-saving – procedure. My dedicated parents took turns spending nights and days by my side. My siblings sacrificed precious time with my mother and father so that I could be cared for 24/7. My father sacrificed much time from work in order to care for my siblings and myself. Finally, right before Thanksgiving, I was discharged from the hospital. Our family had much to be thankful for on that third Thursday of November, and every Thanksgiving to come.
Although I do not have real memories of this experience, I will forever remain grateful for it. I am so lucky to be alive – but I did not realize just how lucky until recently.
Fast forward almost twenty years: I am sitting in my college audiology class learning about the inner workings of the ear. My professor practically skipped over the subject of mastoidechtomy.
I quickly interjected: “Hey! I had one of those!”
He was stunned. “You must be mistaken. Did you just say you had a mastoidechtomy?”
“Yeah!” I adamantly responded. “My left ear. Look, I still have a scar from it!” I was ready to prove it.
“Are you sure it was a MAS-TOID-ECHTOMY?” He slowly repeated the name of the surgery.
“Yes, absolutely! I was in the hospital as a baby for a month.”
He then asked me a seemingly unrelated question: “What year were you born in?”
“1985,” I responded.
My professor was silent for a moment and then said, “Sarah, you are one lucky girl.” He then told me that only 200,000 people worldwide have ever had such a surgery. He informed me that even today, a mastoidechtomy is extremely dangerous, and few survive the procedure. During the 1980s, the technology was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Hardly anyone survived back then.
It was not news to me that the procedure was life-threatening, but what he told me next almost made me fall off my chair.
“Sarah, do you remember that there is a facial nerve inside the inner ear? During a mastoidechtomy, it is extremely common that the facial nerve gets severed, leading to facial paralysis on the opposite side.”
He looked and me and said quite frankly: “You, my dear, are a walking miracle. Not only because you are alive, but also because the right side of your face, and particularly your mouth, functions perfectly – I cannot believe my eyes.”
For many weeks, I felt extremely blessed. Nonetheless, the intense gratitude faded with the passage of time – ten years have passed since then, and my memory of the event has faded. However, one aspect of the conversation stuck with me: the connection between the mouth and the ear.
Was there a deeper connection beyond the medical bond between these two body parts?
As I was learning about Shavuot, that connection became apparent to me.
According to the midrash (Shemos Rabbah 29:9), when G-d handed over His Torah to the Jewish people, the entire world became silent.
Why did the whole world need to be silent? The wind stopped blowing, no animals made a peep, and every human being was silent during the moments leading up to the giving of the Torah. Was G-d afraid the Jews would not be able to hear his voice? Surely He could have made His voice heard over all of these sounds?
G-d did not make it silent so we could hear Him; He made it silent so we could finally hear the voice within ourselves – the voice that longed for a spiritual connection, the voice that longed for His Torah.
We have so many distractions today – technology, billboards, and so forth. It is extremely difficult to ignore these distractions and clear our minds so that we can focus on what is important.
I once asked a student of mine who was feeling stressed to take one minute that week to stop and think of nothing – a meditation minute. The next week she confessed that she had not been able to do so. There were too many distractions.
G-d eliminated the distracting sounds around us so that we could hear our inner voice telling us to connect to what is truly essential: the Torah.
Likewise, in order to really hear another person, we have to learn to listen. There is something called parallel speech. Parallel speech can be typified by two excitable teenage girls chattering on the phone eager to tell each other about their day. The girls speak over each other, not bothering to wait for their friend to finish speaking first. In a sense, they are not really connecting with each other. Each girl’s words fall flat, not making much of an impact, since no one is really listening to them.
Indeed, if no one is listening to what is being said, the words lose much of their power to have any effect. This kind of “silence” in a relationship and in a conversation is just as defining as its sounds.
My miraculously undamaged facial nerve, which affects my ability to speak, could have been permanently impaired thanks to its connection to my ear. Through this link, we can understand that before we can use our speech to meaningfully connect with others, we have to learn to listen. This is also G-d’s message with regard to the giving of the Torah. If we want to accept the Torah, and if we want a connection and a relationship with Him, we must learn to listen – to others, to ourselves, and to G-d.
On the occasion of my father’s birthday, this article was written with tremendous gratitude for my parents Meir Ben Shlomo and Rivka Bat Sarah.