How My Mother's Organ Donation Changed My Commitment to Social Justice

November 20, 2015Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

Three weeks ago, my 70-year-old mother donated a kidney to someone she did not know.

Many people tried to talk her out of it including doctors, friends and family members, including me.

"You own your own business.”

"What about your grandchildren?"

"You're 70 years old!"

I had my own questions and concerns. Why was my mom choosing to do something that might jeopardize her own wellbeing? I didn't think she had thought it through. Did she know what she was getting into?

But here’s the thing about my mom: Once she makes up her mind to do something, she does it. Generally, she goes over the top; her motives aren't always evident.

No one uses more Clorox bleach than my mom. No one has more style and willingness to take fashion risks. I haven't heard of any other grandmothers who add Jell-O mix to the bath for their granddaughters and fill the water literally all the way to the top.

So why did she donate a kidney to a stranger? I'm still not completely sure.

While she was recovering from surgery, we talked about how this decision was linked to her sobriety. My mother has been sober for more than 20 years, and is a devout practitioner and leader in her sobriety program. The meetings she attends and the people she meets in those church basements nourish her, offering support, guidance, meaning, and connection.

Occasionally, we talk about the work she does to stay sober and the work I do as a rabbi.

Jewishly, we teach about different ways of giving. Maimonides' ladder of tzedakah (charity) teaches that the highest level of charity is to give a gift that enables a person in need to help him or herself (i.e. teaching someone to fish instead of giving him a fish). My mother’s kidney is now enabling someone else to live a fuller life and contribute to his family and community.

Maimonides (a famous medieval Jewish philosopher) suggests that the next level of tzedakah is when the benefactor and the recipient are both anonymous. This is the path my mother took.

She does not know who has her kidney, and he does not know her. We do know that, in order to receive my mother's kidney, the recipient had to identify someone who would donate anonymously to someone else – a chain donation. The recipient’s spouse, who was unable to donate to her husband, successfully donated her kidney to yet another person in need.

Pirke Avot (the Sayings of the Fathers) 4:2 teaches, “Mitzvah gorreret mitzvah,” one mitzvah leads to another.

Might there be connections between the "ladder of tzedakah" and the 12 Steps toward recovery? Each step moves one further from his or her own problems and closer to a relationship with God and the surrounding community. The Twelfth Tradition of Recovery states:

"... the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of God who presides over us all."

Considering this helps me to understand why and how my mother made this brave and generous gift. One thing is for sure: She did it with the support of her community and with the shared language and values of gratitude, generosity, and anonymity.

My mom has inspired and impressed me before, but this time, once again, she has gone over the top. The least I can do is share her story in the hopes that more of us will follow her example and live our lives to the fullest extent.

Professionally, I am working with a stellar team at NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement, to make this more of a reality: to challenge ourselves and our teens to engage in more acts of generosity, both quiet and bold.

Here’s my pledge: I will donate blood more regularly. I will write, vote, and advocate to prevent gun violence. I will build on the work of the NAACP to respond to racial injustice in our communities.

How about you?

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