Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Letting nurses know that by them we are blessed

Sunday May 6 begins National Nurses Week. One thing that many hospitals -- including ours -- do to honor nurses is to send our chaplains out onto the floors to do a "Blessing of the Hands" ceremony. This can -- as it does for us -- just involve words (saying a prayer/blessing for the nurses). But some hospitals take it a step further and do a ceremony that includes anointing nurses' hands with oil.

Judaism, however, has had no tradition of anointing since the time of the Bible. Therefore, Jewish chaplains can find the demand that they participate in an anointing ceremony to be a troubling crossing of interfaith boundaries. This led, last year, to a very interesting discussion on the National Association of Jewish Chaplains mailing list.

Some Jewish chaplains shared that they would refuse to do any such a ritual as well. Others shared that they had come up with a more Jewish version of such a ritual -- a hand washing ceremony (based on the Levites washing the hands of the Cohanim/Priests, something for which there is substantial support in the Jewish tradition).

This led me to do some thinking about what the nature of blessing is in Judaism. Can we bless things? Can we bless people? Can we bless parts of people's bodies? What are we really saying when we do these things?

The Jewish way of answering such a question is to look to our ancient texts and traditions for guidance. The most prominent example of people blessing other people in our tradition comes from the 6th chapter of the book of B-Midbar (Numbers, verses 24-26). It is the priestly blessing (בירכת כוהנים/birkat kohanim) which God tells Moses to instruct Aharon and the other priests to use to bless the people Israel. It is a blessing that has been anything but buried in the Jewish tradition -- it is featured prominently in the regular prayer liturgy and is part of the traditional blessing parents say to their children:
כד יְבָרֶכְךָ ה', וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ.
כה יָאֵר ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ.
כו יִשָּׂא ה' פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.
כז וְשָׂמוּ אֶת-שְׁמִי, עַל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַאֲנִי, אֲבָרְכֵם.

May HaShem bless you, and may He keep you.
May HaShem shine His face upon you, and extend grace unto you.
May HaShem lift His face upon you, and may He give you peace.
[In this way, they will put My name upon the people Israel, and I will bless them.]
The last line (the one I put in brackets because it is not part of the blessing proper) makes one thing quite clear -- the actual source of the blessing is not the priests who offer it; the blessing itself comes only from God. The priests are merely requesting that God carry out this blessing for the people.

If we are to take birkat kohanim as our model, then, any blessing of a person should actually be a request to God to bless that person (and his or her works) -- something along the lines of, May God (or we could substitute a nice name for God like 'The True Source of all healing') please bless these hands, so that they may bring true comfort and healing to others. Keep their work in Your sight, Lord, and guide them on their proper path.

I think the original author of the prayer that is now most commonly used in the Blessing of the Hands nurses week ceremonies had a similar sentiment about the nature of blessings. Her name is Diann Neu, and she is a Catholic feminist liturgist and psychotherapist. When I wrote her last year, I shared with her a copy of her original prayer (which was not written with nurses specifically in mind) with her. She pointedly let me know that the text had been changed from her original in one important aspect:

(not specifically written for nurses)
The text I found
The author's actual original

Blessed be the work of my hands.
Blessed be these hands that have touched life.
Blessed be these hands that have nurtured creativity.
Blessed be these hands that have held pain.
Blessed be these hands that have embraced passion.
Blessed be these hands that have tended gardens.
Blessed be these hands that have closed in anger.
Blessed be these hands that have planted new seeds.
Blessed be these hands that have cleaned, washed, mopped, scrubbed.
Blessed be these hands that are wrinkled and scarred from doing justice.
Blessed be these hands that have reached out and have been received.
Blessed be these hands that hold the promise of the future.
Blessed be the work of my hands.

Blessed be the work of your hands, O Holy One.
Blessed be the work of your hands, O Holy One.

That is, there is a clear recognition by the author of the original of who the real owner (God) of those healing hands is.

My guess is that people changed the original in an attempt to make the prayer palatable to people who don't believe in God (or in one God). I must admit that, as a chaplain, I feel stuck trying to come up with prayers that are both consistent with my core beliefs and that would be palatable to someone who doesn't have a God belief. (This, by the way, is not a barrier to me ministering to such a patient -- I don't need to pray with or for someone to show them caring.)

But, it is neither of the above prayers that we use in nurses week. The blessing most commonly used is an adaptation of Neu's orginal that a CPE Resident made (in Chicago, I believe):

Nurses' Hands

Blessed be these hands that have touched life.

Blessed be these hands that have felt pain.

Blessed be these hands that have embraced with compassion.

Blessed be these hands that have been clinched with anger or withdrawn in fear.
Blessed be these hands that have drawn blood and administered medicine.
Blessed be these hands that have cleaned beds and disposed of wastes.

Blessed be these hands that have anointed the sick and offered blessings.

Blessed be these hands that grow stiff with age.

Blessed be these hands that have comforted the dying and held the dead.

Blessed be these hands, we hold the future in these hands.

Blessed be our hands for they are the work of Your hands, O Holy One.
Note that the last line of this version includes an acknowledgment of the ultimate source of the hands being blessed. I nonetheless am not entirely comfortable with this text as it does not make any reference to the Creator until the last line.

A modification that I think would bring it closer to the Jewish tradition would be something like this:

Blessed are Your, Lord/HaShem our God the creator of hands that touch life . . . ..
Last year, one Jewish chaplain shared with me prayers he created that he was more comfortable with. I like both of them more, as they answer my core concerns. (Both, by the way, were meant to be used with a handwashing ceremony, which is why the language of "lifting hands" (נטילת ידיים/nitilat yidayim) is used). The first is meant to be specifically Jewish:

Praised are You, Eternal G!d, Sovereign of the universe,
who hallows us through mitzvot, and commands us
to lift our hands.

The second is meant to be more suitable for all:

Praised are You the eternal source of all
who enables us to lift our hands
that we may continue
to do our work
day after day.

In the course of the discussion, one Jewish chaplain suggested the use of Psalm 90:17, another suggestion that I like and I think is firmly rooted in our tradition (especially as we recite it traditionally before performing some mitzvot).

יז וִיהִי, נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ-- עָלֵינוּ:
וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ; וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ, כּוֹנְנֵהוּ

May the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
And the labors of our hands, uphold them for us.
The labors of our hands, uphold them!
[A perhaps nicer translation might be, May the pleasantness of my Lord, our God, be upon us -- may He establish our handiwork for us; our handiwork may He establish.]

In conclusion, I would endeavor to avoid any kind of ceremony that looks anything like anointing; it's just not consistent with the Jewish tradition. Handwashing, to me, looks a lot like anointing, especially if it is a matter of one person washing _another_ person's hands. The only place I know of that in the tradition is the Levites washing the priests. Are we saying that nurses are like priests when we do this? I know there are some other places washing has come into the modern tradition (some people wash a female child's feet at a baby naming ceremony), but that strikes me as a place where a lack of a ritual (that is, an equivalent to the drama and power of circumcision for a boy) was especially glaring (which really is not the case with nurses hands!).

As far as prayers, I could imagine a number of options, including some use of Psalm 90 and/or an adaptation of the two prayers the other Jewish chaplain used.

But I also think I can live with the "Nurse's Hands" adaptation of Neu's prayers. I think the key for me would be to add an impromptu introduction I would give just myself (out loud to the group) before asking everyone to say the written text together. The introduction would make clear: a) that the prayer we are about to say together is addressed to God, and b) that we are saying it to ask for God's blessing to be upon us (and the work of our hands). Then we could recite the text of the Nurse's Hands prayer together.


By the way, when I wrote Neu last year, here is how she responded to my asking her if she was pleased about the adaptation of her original prayer:

I am pleased to see that my blessing is meeting the needs of the nurses. I see myself as a healer and feel strongly that healers need to be blessed for the work that we do.

And I was fascinated by what she shared about how she came up with the original prayer:

I was teaching a liturgy course and gave my students (Christian and Jewish) the assignment: take a symbol and write a blessing. I do the same assignments that I ask my students to do. So, about one hour before the class convened, I started to do the assigment. I searched for a symbol. Looked at my hands. Wrote the blessing.

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