There is always the question of whether to leave the phone on full volume or to lower it before retiring. After all, no one relishes being awakened in the middle of the night. In our house, however, the decision is usually made to keep it plugged in "just in case." Thus, it was at 3:00 a.m. when I was jarred awake by the shrill sound of the phone ringing. I grabbed it after one ring.
"Hello, is this Rabbi David Goldwasser?" The voice on the other end of the line was not only unfamiliar, but had a gruff edge to it.
"Yes, this is he."
Then in a very businesslike manner, "Rabbi, I'm Officer Costanza of the N.Y.P.D. I've got a young lady here who is standing on the roof of her apartment building, ready to jump. She says you're her rabbi, so maybe you could talk to her. She's serious, Rabbi. She won't let us come within two feet of her, and she looks like the real thing. She just wants to speak to you first. Her name is Elaine Smith."
I had never received a phone call like this before. From the midst of a deep sleep I had been thrust into the middle of a life-and-death situation that required the sharpest mind, the most persuasive tongue, and the greatest help from heaven. I could only pray that all three would materialize in time. I did not recognize the young lady's name, but before I even had a chance to answer, I heard him hand the phone to Elaine.
She at once began to speak in a slow and steady monotone. "I can't go on anymore. I just want to end it all. The difficulties I've been having... they're just too much to bear. I can't take it any longer. I just want it to end. The pain I'm in... Going to school didn't help. My existence -- it's too painful. I'm alone. Don't you see that? I've tried to help myself, but I just can't seem to do it. I just can't. Nobody understands me. I want to put an end to this misery..."
Elaine continued her diatribe for what seemed like a very long time. As she spoke, I paced back and forth with the phone pressed hard against my ear, alternately sweating and shivering. A human life hung in the balance. I trembled at the knowledge that such a dejected soul needed a reason to continue and that I had to supply her with that reason. Ironically, the only thing that stood between Elaine and a horrible death 30 stories below was the instrument of communication that she and I held in our hands.
She paused for a second. Quickly, before she could start again, I said, "Elaine, don't ever give up. A Jew doesn't give up. Our sages said that as long as a person lives there is hope. You have not exhausted every possibility of hope. You are young and you have many years ahead of you -- happy years, fruitful years. Don't let this moment of desperation cloud everything you've accomplished in your life so far..."
She charged in loudly and with bitterness, "That's not true! I haven't accomplished anything. I'm not a good person. I don't deserve to live." Then quietly with a stifled sob, "Help me! I'm in pain."
I could tell from her voice that Elaine was becoming more dejected by the minute. My mind raced. What could I say? How could I veer her thoughts away from this demoralizing trend? Suddenly it came to me. I had met her once at a symposium for Jewish professionals in upper Manhattan, where I had delivered a lecture about four years ago. I remembered a mention of parents, so I quickly asked in as casual a way as possible, "Elaine, how are your parents?"
To my complete horror, she began yelling, "Why do you ask me about my parents? What do they have to do with this? Why did you mention them?" She kept on and on while I futilely tried to calm her down.
"Elaine, I only wanted to ask how your family was doing. Your parents have nothing to do with this. You're absolutely right. I only..."
Abruptly, she interrupted me. "Why aren't you here?"
"Give me 15 minutes and I'll be there," I answered quickly.
Again she started screaming, "No! Don't go. Don't hang up. Don't get off this phone." Then she began rambling along in the same vein: She was worthless. She wanted to end it all. No one understood her. Then, "Why aren't you here?"
I repeated my offer to jump into a cab and be there in 15 minutes.
Then she announced, "That's it! I'm going to end it. I've had enough of this talk." She sounded completely sincere. Desperately, I wondered what I should say. Should I take a chance on reminding her about how she would be hurting her parents? No. Obviously that was a sensitive subject. Should I quote the Torah about the sacred value of a human life? My mind was a miasma of thoughts and questions.
I forced myself to retain at least a veneer of calmness. "Elaine, I accept your decision. But I still have one question I would like to ask you. What shall I tell your future fiance?"
Suddenly she became still. There was absolute silence for a second. Then Elaine answered, in a subdued voice, "I don't have one."
"That's not true!" I countered. "[Our sages say that] 40 days before a baby is formed, a Heavenly voice proclaims: The daughter of this person will marry that person. Every Jewish soul that comes to this world has a match somewhere. So that means that there is a groom somewhere waiting for you, too. And I just want to know what to tell him in case he asks me about you."
"You mean even I might one day stand under a chuppah?"
"Elaine, I honestly believe so."
The next thing I heard over the phone was bitter crying and a great deal of shuffling sounds. Then the original gruff voice came back on the line, only this time there was an undercurrent of strong emotion. "Okay, Rabbi, we've got her. She's fine. We've got her. You did a good job, Rabbi, and God bless you..."