The week leading up to Rosh Hashanah is a busy time for any rabbi, and Rabbi Schapiro of Chabad of North Shore is no exception. His congregation, in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, is a thriving one and keeps him well occupied at the best of times, but that particular year, the week before the High Holidays found him especially busy. In the midst of his preparations, he received a phone call.

“Rabbi Schapiro, we are not affiliated with any synagogue, but we need a rabbi. Maybe you can help us.”

Rabbi Schapiro detected a sense of urgency in the woman’s voice. “Who am I speaking to? What can I help you with?”

We want Dad to have a Jewish funeral; I have no idea whom to contact

The woman introduced herself and explained: “It’s my father-in-law, James. He is in the hospital, and the doctors say that he has only a short time left; they have requested permission to invoke a DNR order. We want Dad to have a Jewish funeral; I have no idea whom to contact.”

“Which hospital is Dad in?” answered the rabbi, mentally re-juggling his busy schedule. “Is he able to have visitors?”

The woman gave him the name of the hospital, but added: “He is not really responding to anyone. His condition is a result of severe depression. He’s refused to eat for the past four weeks. The doctors say that his organs are starting to shut down . . .”

When Rabbi Schapiro arrived at the hospital, he wasn’t sure what he would encounter in James’s room. He didn’t know the man; his family had a minimal connection to the Chabad House. Rabbi Schapiro found the hospital room. He approached the semi-conscious figure in the hospital bed. “James? It’s Rabbi Schapiro. How are you? Would you like to put on tefillin?”

James murmured his consent.

Rabbi Schapiro gently wrapped the tefillin and helped James say the blessings and the Shema. As he put the tefillin away, James fell back on the pillow, exhausted; but the aura of death seemed to have lifted, ever so slightly.

Art by James Stock
Art by James Stock

“Now tell me, what is this business of not eating? James, listen to me: you are in this world for a purpose. You are here to draw G‑dliness into the world by doing mitzvahs, and to do that, you need to be healthy. And for that, you must eat. G‑d says that you must eat! You cannot just choose to leave. G‑d put you here to live! James, can I give you something to eat?”

The Angel of Death receded to a corner of the room, befuddled, as James agreed to eat.

“The rabbi’s strong personality reminded me of my late father,” James later recalled.

Rabbi Schapiro looked around and found a bowl of cornflakes and soy milk. He rang for a nurse.

“Can you give this man some food to eat?”

The Angel of Death receded to a corner of the room, befuddled

“Eat?” she asked, unconvinced. “The patient hasn’t eaten since he was admitted!”

“Don’t ask questions; just give him something, anything. He told me that he will eat.”

“And I tell you that he’s been delirious the past four weeks. I’ll come back in half an hour, and try then.”

“No! You must at least try now!” insisted the rabbi.

The nurse saw she had little choice but to sit down and try spooning a bit of cornflakes into the patient’s mouth. She was surprised when he actually swallowed a few spoonfuls. After he wouldn’t eat from her any more, she left. Rabbi Schapiro took the bowl, and began spoon-feeding James bit by bit, all the while speaking to him words of faith and words of encouragement.

By the time the little box was emptied, the Angel of Death had left the room; apparently its services were no longer wanted there. Rabbi Schapiro too, left, promising to return soon.

And so he did. Each day that he came in to feed James food, he nurtured his spirit as well. By the time Simchat Torah, the Festival of Rejoicing with the Torah, came around, James was well enough to come to shul. “Tell me, James,” Rabbi Schapiro asked, “what do you enjoy doing? You must have something that you can offer the world.”

“What do I enjoy? Well, I do like to paint . . . I used to paint 10 years ago.”

“Then you should paint. That is your mission now. G‑d has given you a gift called life. You should stay healthy; you should paint, and give joy to others.”

James took the rabbi’s words to heart, and set about painting. He painted and painted dozens of vibrant works, all of Jewish content, paintings full of joy and color, depth and warmth, many of them on display in the Chabad House. James decided to designate part of the proceeds of any sale of his work to charity, so each painting can benefit G‑d’s world in more ways than one.

Life is G‑d’s gift to each of us. What we do with it is our gift to Him.


View more of James’ artwork, or purchase prints at Hassidicpaintings.com.au.


© James Stock
© James Stock