Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A caring community (Zalman’s legacy)

As the summer fast approaches, and I prepare to lead a group of chaplain students through an intense full-time summer of learning, I’ve had opportunity to consider how it is that it might be possible to teach people about how to care for – and about – others. One way I think it happens is through community – by joining and participating in a caring community of fellow caregivers. Caregivers who just don’t care for patients or their congregants, but who make it their business to care for each other as well.

This Monday, looking at all my fellow former rabbinical students who had come from around the country to be with a former classmate of ours who had just lost his teenage son, I felt affirmed in my sense of the importance of community. This is what we had learned in rabbinical school – not just about words of Torah, but about acts of caring. We knew that when Zalman lost his hold on life in this world – six months after his tragic and unexpected heart attack – it was time to get on a plane, something many of us did even before the funeral was scheduled.

But the real community of caring that I witnessed was not the one of us rabbi and rabbinical student colleagues who had gathered from far and wide. Rather, it was the community that Zalman himself had called together – the communities of people, friends and family, who had known, and loved, him during his too brief life. The people who had been inspired by his energy and love for life. And, the people who had cared for him these many months – most of them spent in the front room of his family home in Topanga Canyon. The people whose caring for him, even in the face of his inability to speak since his heart attack, had also brought caring for one another. The people in that community of caring that we saw gathered Monday up high on that hill where Zalman was laid in the ground beside running water and where his friends and family, as is the Jewish way, shoveled the dirt down onto his grave.

May his memory be a blessing.


One thing that one of my friends noted to me after the funeral was that, while many rabbis spoke, hardly any mention of God was made. In their words, none of these rabbis felt any need to explain how God could have allowed this to happen, or to urge people to keep their faith in God despite such a tragedy. To my friend, this struck him as a very Jewish thing.

I was grateful to him for sharing that with me and I found it very affirming. As a Jew who works in a hospital and ministers almost exclusively to Christians, I often struggle with the tension between how reluctant I am to engage in “Godspeak” and how much my patients, and chaplain students, seem to need that very Godspeak. I’ve learned to stretch myself quite a deal in this regard and, for example, to gain a good deal of comfort and skill in offering spontaneous prayers for patients and family members. I am indeed comfortable with that “stretching”, but it was good to be reminded of where I come from and who I am at my core. It was good to be reminded what it means to be a Jew, to belong to his incredible community that endures over the stretches of space and of time.

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