Friday, June 04, 2010

Neither them, nor their reward -- suffering, and how to talk about it

One of the things I am grateful for from my recent trip to Israel for a spiritual care conference, was the opportunity to hear Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon teach a text that I had learned many times over the years, but had almost forgotten about somehow. I'm no mind reader, but I think I know something of why Ramon chose this text to introduce herself and her group of Israeli colleagues to an American delegation of chaplains who had come to advise the Israelis on how to professionalize pastoral care: because the text speaks to a particularly Jewish way of understanding suffering -- and to tell the Americans (mostly Christian) that, for all the Israelis desire their help, a Christan approach suffering is not what was desired.

I think Ramon was wise to introduce herself with this text but I also think the beliefs and spirituality expressed in it are too universal to be claimed only by Jews -- which is why I started my teaching to my (all Christian) chaplain students this summer by learning it with them at the beginning of this week.

The text from Talmud Brakhot (full text and translation) tells of us three times when an ailing rabbi is visited by one of his colleagues. Each visit has key elements in common. All three ill rabbis are asked by their visitor about how they feel about their sufferings -- are your sufferings welcome, even beloved, to you? "Neither they, nor their reward," is the answer. Then the three stories diverge from each other for a bit -- some words and such pass between the two participants. But then, finally, as all three stories approach their end, the visitor says the same thing -- "give me your hand." The ill one reaches out his hand, and he is lifted up.

There is something so empowering about the right our tradition gives us to say "neither they, nor their reward" in the face of our suffering -- to be given permission by the example of the most faithful of our Sages that it is possible to detest our suffering while still loving God and remaining true to God and our tradition. To be free from feeling we are commanded to welcome all our suffering as somehow being God's work.

I was reminded of something else when I taught this text to my students this week -- that the problem with the insensitive questions that so many untrained chaplains ask is not the content of the questions. It's how and when they are asked.

We were studying the part of the story where one of the Sages asks some seemingly insensitive questions of his ill friend that seem to be imposing his beliefs on him: "Why are you crying?" he asks the ill one:
  • Is it because you didn't study enough Torah in your life? Because you shouldn't be worrying about that -- we have a saying that says the only thing that really matters is if you directed your heart to God.
  • Is it because you didn't make enough money in your life? Because you shouldn't be worrying about that -- not everybody gets to be rich.
  • Is it because of the lack of children? Because you shouldn't be worrying about that either, children can die after all.

Learning this text again with my new students helped me see is that these are not just examples of bad questions or statements -- they're also universal examples of the major things that come to a person's mind as they realize their life may be coming to an end. They ask themselves what kind of person have I been and what kind of life did I lead? A good one or a bad one? A full one or an empty one? The three questions above correspond with three major categories where people ask these life review questions:
  • Spirituality -- did I do right by God or my faith tradition? (This text, in accordance with the Jewish tradition, uses Torah study to represent spiritual good.)
  • Material matters (I would include not just material wealth here, but career accomplishments)
  • Family matters (children)

So, if the ancient rabbi's questions were problematic, it was not the content that was their problem. The content they represent correspond with universal things that many suffering people would like to talk about. The problem comes in how these topics were broached. Did the suffering person volunteer that he or she wanted to talk about them or did the caregiver impose them? How is it that a caregiver can appropriately invite a person to talk about the things that are most dear to him or her -- that concern him or her most at a time of deep crisis in his or her life?

I hope the rest of the summer with my students will be devoted to answering that final question. And that we all, including myself, will grow to have a clearer idea of what the answer might be.

I'm excited about it!


I write these words in Boston as a moment not of of suffering, but of joy approaches -- the ordaining of my life partner Minna on Sunday as a rabbi (at Hebrew College here)! The image to the right, from our recent trip to Israel, is one of Minna doing one of the things she is very best at -- singing . . . . and through her singing, helping people find joy and meaning in their lives and in their relationship with the Holy.

Minna, I hope it is the will of the Holy Blessed One that you will have many years of raising your voice and putting your hands together in service of God, Torah and the people Israel. And that many -- all the seekers among us! -- will know some small piece of the incalculable joy and meaning you have brought to my life. Long may you run!


Shabbat Shalom!

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