He looked deeply into the doctor's eyes, searching for a glimmer of hope, but Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz found none.
"Operating on your spleen would be like playing Russian roulette," the doctor explained. "I'm not willing to take that risk, and I don't think you should either."
Rabbi Steinsaltz stroked his scraggly red beard and gazed out the window. After several minutes, the doctor spoke again.
"Rabbi, did you hear? It's too dangerous to operate."
"Yes, I heard you." Although Steinsaltz was sitting in the doctor's office, his mind- which TIME Magazine described as an intellect that appears only once every millenium-was wrestling with a difficult section of Gemara. Since 1965, Rabbi Steinsaltz's dream of translating the Babylonian Talmud into Modern Hebrew, and writing a commentary on all 63 tractates had consumed him. He refused to allow his declining health to interfere with his goal: helping people understand the Talmud.
"Do you agree with the American doctors who said my spleen might heal itself?" he whispered.
"No, rabbi. You have a genetic disease, which might return even if we risk removing your spleen." The doctor's pessimism hung in the air, but Rabbi Steinsaltz chose to ignore it.
"Thank you," he said graciously as he stood to leave. But before he reached the doorway, Rabbi Steinsaltz stopped and smiled to himself; the solution to the difficult text had crystallized in his mind.
"Is there something else?" the doctor asked.
"Yes," the rabbi laughed, "about 38 more volumes to translate and explain."
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz had surgery on his spleen and recovered nicely. He has now completed 38 volumes of his incredible undertaking, a feat not achieved since Rashi, 900 years ago.