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Loss of Dignity

I am reclining in the dentist’s chair, waiting for the anesthetic to kick in, when I become aware that I am drooling. I’ve been in the chair less than ten minutes.

Who drools? I think.

Teething children drool.  My nephew, as a toddler when his first molars erupted, walked around with a drop of drool hanging from his chin. He was adorable.

Sleeping people drool—especially if they are mouth breathers—and sometimes they snore, too. Not so adorable.

I wipe the edge of my lower lip with my sleeve. My loss of dignity is profound.

I recall a teaching of Maimonides about restoring lost dignity to a rich person who has fallen on hard times. I learned it decades ago, from a professor who required us to memorize entire chapters of the Mishneh Torah. My memory of the words is vague, but not my essential understanding of the text.

“According to what the poor person lacks, you are obligated to provide him: If he has no clothes, clothe him…even if this poor person was accustomed to riding a horse, led by a servant before him, you buy him a horse and provide a servant to run ahead of him.”

I recognize that my lack of dignity in the dentist’s chair is a minor setback. Others suffer greater losses in this office and in emergency rooms, where they must have rotten teeth pulled because they cannot afford adequate dental care.  But loss is personal. My loss of dignity cannot be measured and compared to another person’s, because it is, by definition, mine alone.

I pull my phone from my back pocket and text my friend Dan, who possesses an encyclopedic mind of rabbinic sources. I’m looking for confirmation. Did I find comfort in the partially forgotten words of a medieval sage?

Dan responds immediately: “You remembered fine. Hilkhot Matanot Leevyonim 7:3. I’ll email you the text.” Then he sends several humorous texts concerning the dignity to which a rabbi of my stature is entitled. Laughing, I realize that I can’t feel half of my smile.

Later, I am forced to raise my left hand, to signal the technician that I need to sit up. I begin to gag as she takes an impression of my lower teeth, and I narrowly avoid spitting all over her.

“It’s only six minutes,” she reassures me. “Hold your jaw still and try to relax.”

Without moving a muscle, I repeat seven words in my mind:  I have dental insurance. I have teeth.  I imagine riding through town like a queen—with no horse and no servant—no crown on my head, but five of them in my mouth.

And in less than six minutes, I regain my dignity.

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