Raphael’s Voice: Finding the Soul in D

The reflective steps toward the Jewish New Year traditionally begin with the communal observance of Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning and fasting. Here is a D’var Torah sermon, given just before the holiday began:


The observance of Tisha b’Av, our communal day of mourning, begins this evening.

Why would we have this sort of ‘holiday’? and how does it fit with today’s parasha?



If you think about it carefully, this holiday really doesn’t fit in with the rest of our Jewish yearly celebrations. Most are upbeat, with exciting and enlightening themes, great backstories, loads of ways to decorate or re-enact, and of course, great food. Certainly, they are all well worth the wait for their return each year.

So, why do we have this observance of mourning dropped into our liturgical year? It has none of the festive children’s activities or costumes as on Chanukah or Purim, communal meals as on Pesach (Passover), spirited songs or music such as we have on Kabbalat Shabbat (Sabbath Welcoming service), or symbolic decorations or ritual items such as the lulav, etrog or sukkah.jewishlakeview.com

Spirit is a light and wonderful thing. It lives in our wonderful Kabbalat Shabbat tunes, in our imagery of rushing to meet God, just as the groom runs to meet the bride, in our imagery of ascending to the heights in the Yishtabach and Kedusha prayers. We call it ruach in Hebrew, the same word as for wind or the breath of life. Ruach is the kiss of breath that God gave to Adam, and again to Moses on the Mountain.



So, why was it that God turns the Israelites back just as they were being directed to ascend to the Promised Land, and Moses, not allowed to cross at all? Hang onto that thought from today’s retelling of the story by Moses in Deuteronomy:


What is the thing you feel when you are ill or have lost a beloved person or relationship? is it fear?

What do you crave at those times? Is it light and happy music, dressing up gaily, being told to cheer up?



We have great models for how to praise, thank and celebrate. But what road map or models do we follow when life’s curveballs come our way?


Growing up, I’d often missed Tisha b’Av, being away at secular summer camp or a family vacation, as did most kids I knew. Summer was not the best time to attract family participation in synagogue life when I was growing up!



Then as an adult I started to choose to come. The whole thing was a rather self-conscious endeavour, as everyone else seemed to know what to do, and I did not. Some synagogues dressed it up with chant-like dirges, personal confessionals or grim poetry. The common denominator though, was sitting on the floor with a candle, some words, and an overall gloomy experience.

I decided to deepen my understanding by learning to chant from Eicha, the book of Lamentations. This year, I also learned first hand the value of going deep rather than high to look for the answers to inner loss, because high spirits were dancing around me, and interfering with my search.



The Talmud tells us in Berakhot 10a that we praise God for our soul, “Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho”: “My soul praises you Adonai, and all of my being praises your holy Name”. The rabbis are telling us that a human artist can draw a figure of a person, but they cannot give that drawing a soul. Only God can do that. We turn to God when we forget we need our soul.

Many people refuse to believe they need one. They smother over pain by keeping a stiff upper lip, numbing with prescription and recreational chemicals, acting out their anger or rage at others. The acting out can be frighteningly overt as we see on the news regularly, or polite and politically correct and covert with the euphemism of ‘non-violent’, but actually passive aggression.

Tisha b’Av says, good news! there is a healthy way to move through great changes that come with loss.

The truth of loss is that you really can’t go back to the way things used to be; and you will only get more angry the more you expect life to continue as it was. Remember that anger, overt or covert.

The truth is, that we only grow when we let go.

As a people we had to move on when the Temple was once again destroyed in 70 CE. We had no choice, we were forced to leave our place of Ascents behind.



We read Psalm 137 this evening as part of the Tisha b’Av service, reminding us that the first thing we did by the rivers of Babylon was to sit and weep as we remembered Zion. The next thing the psalmist tells us we did was to hang up our lyres, musical instruments of the Temple, on the willow branches, in order that our captors could not force us to levity and to sing and entertain them with songs about Jerusalem.

Why was this so important? Because this was a time of looking inward for guidance, and not the time for those spiritually soaring songs.

The past many weeks have been a time of great change for me too, having been quite ill. I believed at first that resting and staying positive would cause the illness to pass and then I’d go back to my former self and routines and work. But Finally,

A wonderful mentor who I hadn’t seen for a year took me aside and said, “You look terrible! What has happened to you?” Indeed, his plainspoken words cut through all the illusions I had been struggling to maintain to keep myself and others happy and feeling in high spirits.

The next weekend I schlepped myself to a choral concert, Haydn’s ‘The Creation’. I just wanted to let my mind wander and go with the music: after all the four guardian angels were there, in the forms of two sopranos, a tenor and a bass soloist.



I want to testify to you that the man who sang the role of Raphael, the bass soloist, saved my life. In Part II of The Creation, as Haydn took us to the lower realms Raphael’s voice took the audience there with him in the most earnest embrace of power and vocal security, down to the basement of the human voice. Or perhaps lower. This note, the lowest D, poured out like a chocolate lava pudding through his willing and open jowls. We listeners also slid, safely and softly, as if a giant’s paw deliberately and lovingly delivered us to the bottom of a long snowy ride.

The sigh in the room was not so much heard as taken in breath together, much as the way a mother and her baby at breast sigh with satiety as one.

Masterfully, he paused.

Mercifully allowing us that moment of silence to take in our found and restored soul, to be able to return to, again and again.

As our tradition says, the artist can create music, but it is that God gives the musician and the listener the soul. ‘Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’chol koravai et Shem kodsho’.

I have returned many times since Sunday. That place he brought us to, so far down, below from the high spirits of the grand hallelujahs, to the place of healing. There I was safely able to know that indeed life had changed forever and that it was lovingly going to be okay. Who but Raphael, his Hebrew name meaning God’s Healer, should bring such Refuah Shelaima, a return to wholeness?



Back to Moses and the Israelites: We read in Deuteronomy Ch.1: 20-46 that God saw them hesitate with fear and enlist spies to check out the Promised Land, rather than trusting to go forth with soul and spirit in alignment. He told them, No you won’t be going in, and although just like small children they simpered and begged to be let in, God said No. Their descendants, a generation away from the fear and bondage of Egypt, would be allowed in; and rather than Moses, whose work was to lead them away from bondage, it would be Joshua who would now lead the new generation forth into the Promised Land.

I know more of what Tisha b’Av is about now. Each year I will know more.

Each time I find myself trying to lift up when things really need to go down, I know that Raphael’s soul voice will be there to reassure me that it’s okay to trustfully surrender and let go of what binds me, and to find comfort in the recalibration and growth.

Barchi nafshi et Adonai, v’col koravai et Shem kodsho’.

©Susan J Katz 2015


Try This! Slow Down, Surrender, and Recalibrate

Recently, while remaining in the slow lane of recovery from a long string of illnesses, I was invited to relax into a poetry circle. The work began by reading Richard Siken’s poem, ‘Self-Portrait Against Red Wallpaper’.



Its lyrically rolling themes of surrender and recalibration hooked my tired attention. For the past eight weeks, every time I had come up for breath to recover from one gross infection, another would take hold, spectacularly culminating in a trip to Emergency for an appendectomy. Surrender? I was summoned. My regular hi-speed routine was gone and was still out the window far, far away.

Sheesh. What had gone so wrong that it was eight weeks and counting to recovery? Or, was I doing something wrong? A inner review said I dutifully went to doctor appointments and was proactive every time a new manifestation of infection and illness presented. Surely it was not possible to fabricate a sequence of illnesses like this!

My crew of inner cynics tried to persuade me that I had.



After all, they said, what else have you got to do with your time and imagination besides conjure up illnesses? All day long you just lie in bed dozing and reading, and serially watch TV while babying yourself with chicken soup. Why not find new excuses to bother the doctor? Hey, call an ambulance and vomit violently enough to disgust even the paramedics. Wouldn’t anyone want to try that?

Despite the self-taunting, I am am investing in healthcare to end this series of acute illnesses. As a spiritual health practitioner, I recognize the onset of personal review and accounting for all the losses and breakages caused by this time away from health. Our hi-speed modalities just don’t allow for slackers who take three months off from the fast track. Even as I step gingerly back onto the speedway, rejoining the hi-speed pace as it was, is unattainable. My new inner timepiece tells me that trying to do this is actually undesirable as well.Unknown-2

At first this new engagement was a lonely pit I’d fallen into, but as word got out, well wishes and blessings for a return to health came my way. Recovery took on an unexpected twist; I needed to regain my interpersonal skills after spending these weeks mostly with virtual personalities. My companions to laugh and cry with existed mostly on a TV flat screen. I felt apologetic to those whom I’ve let down while being laid up, by missing crucial meetings and deadlines. I needed to stay slow and recoup. Others have silently voiced their views by moving on to other partnerships and projects.



Success is indeed fragile. A detour away from perceived perfection creates disillusionment and fracture. Well, that has taught me another way of learning to discern whom the keepers are and whom to let go of. Friends remain while in need, indeed.

The call to the poet and the faithful to embrace surrender comes more easily. Not long ago I would only navigate the world on my own terms. I’ve learned now about the sweetness, serenity and magic that comes with letting go when the internal tug-of-war becomes futile. I know now that I am not really in charge: Something much greater than myself is. And that is okay. I get some good insights and answers this way. I talk to God and listen for the casual reply, as John Denver would say. It has been a comforting and a treasured time.

Returning to the world with the expectation of being the same has to be re-evaluated.

As the great myths, folklores, faiths tell us, when taking a great journey afar, one never returns the same. In fact, don’t even expect or try to. Come back draped in Golden Fleece, with Stone Tablets and horns of light, ruby slippers, perhaps bearing a Medusa or Jabberwock’s head. We who went away somewhere faced something, most likely of our inner selves, and cannot go back to whom we had been. Once you know something, an inner sight, you can’t unknown it.



I feel thoughtful and good about coming back to those who are waiting. Those folks who’ve moved on since I became ill? It’s because their memory of me that went away and didn’t come back. I’m a new version of myself, shifted not by all the TV watching, but really mostly by observing what feeds me and what does not, and choosing what makes me fed and strong. As Siken’s poem says, “Don’t try to make a stronger wind/ you’ll wear yourself out. Build a better sail.”

I’m sorry, I have to shift now to catch the wind 
I want to say to all. With grace and faith, many are still with me, taking my cues that a gentle entry is happening. We also collectively acknowledge that a few more beckoning sirens and rocky shoals lay enroute before coming into home harbor.



I’ve shed a great deal of baggage these past months, deleting extraneous, intrusive social media accounts and list-serves, and letting go of pet projects: most importantly I’ve faced that inner cynicism that slowly bleeds my attention and energy. Recalibrating with a refined cargo is part of the journey and takes time.

A friend brought me a recording of Michael Meade to listen to. About Fate and Destiny. I was losing interest in gunning up the energy to re-enter the speed chase, but this gift reminded me of the work I am here to do. In order to do it, I must learn to surrender, feel and let go of what drains me, and surrender to the goodness of the work that pulls me lovingly forward. I had created some fine relationships and laid tracks into the work of my destiny. No need to stop now, I’ve built a better sail.

I understand that the hi-speed tracks are here to stay. Please, though, Surrender from time to time, and don’t forget to Recalibrate and capture the wind in your new sail. It’s a blessed roadside stop on the fulfillment of your destiny.susanjkatz.com

…Susan J Katz© 2015

A Bruckner Farewell to Jude

I just came home from attending a Symphony concert this evening. The program was filled with unfamiliar pieces written by familiar composers, Prokofiev and Bruckner. These selections had much in common, particularly their apparent roaming from theme to theme and modulation of mood and modes.

My mind has been filled with too much information this past week. I’ve been awakening from health problems that have waylaid me for the past few months and prevented me from engaging in the things I love most and do best. Some self-focus and attention to healthcare has brought the restoration of my body’s inner chemistry. It’s also unleashed an avalanche of information in the way of waylaid emotions, misplaced jobs, forgotten rendezvous, sheets of unplayed music, and a dear friend whose memorial service is tomorrow afternoon.



I am writing as a writer about a writer. I had known Jude for 7 years; about the time I started facilitating a writing program for mental health consumers, Write From The Heart©. He was one of my first participants, and continued long afterward to be in the program. At the time, he was already a speaker about mental illness, and yet new to writing. One time I had a guest speaker, a very famous journalist, come to the class to talk about writing: I think Jude’s life changed dramatically having been touched by celebrity, bringing him closer to knowing that being on the margins was only a mindset; and that anyone could come close enough to touch the edges where celebrities could be someone we know on a first name basis. Even ourselves.

This evening though I sat with a friend at the symphony in the lower balcony, surrounded by an audience that despite the announcements not to at the opening of the concert, clapped between movements. They also dog-whistled and jumped to their feet, bringing to mind a Vancouver Canucks hockey game right in the midst of the grand old dame of the Orpheum theatre.

They also started to leave in the middle of the Bruckner symphony, which came after the intermission. I guess there was nothing for them to whistle about, as each of the movements became more and more unresolved and restless. And so did the some of the audience, so they left. Except for the man behind me who kept whispering too loudly to his neighbor and had to be shushed.

The third movement came to an end, and many in the audience tried as usual to applaud; but the conductor leapt adroitly right into the last movement before a hand clapped, thank Goodness. People sank into their seats, obliged it seems that there would be more of the same to come.



My tangled thoughts had become an unresolved jumble too, but of information: too much music to learn on too many instruments with too many performing groups; someone who had just phoned me that evening to minister to their loved one in the hospital and I pondered when to visit; how to squeeze in time to run writing programs, minister to others, and also take care of my own health plans, and how I had not yet had time to be with the loss of Jude.

I felt agitated as the unresolved music spread out further and further in its disresolution. In affinity, my waycrossed needs and thoughts were snagged into the sounds, as if blithely grabbing a handhold on a passing streetcar to an unknown place.



I liked the ride. The wave of loss and tears rolled down my cheeks as swells of a romantic theme swept over the orchestra. I could see the big fiddles, cellos and basses, bowing as if adrift on a sea, pulling together with the waves of sighs and resolves.

The call of horns drew me to the other side of the corps, and some noble truths about Jude emerged. How generous he had always been, down to the core. Gifted in his ability to tell things straight, yet always with the caveats of great humility and graciousness. He was fun and funny, and his serious demeanour made him even more so.



One of my best memories was over this past spring. We ran into each other waiting for the #20 bus downtown–otherwise known as the ‘You Could Die Waiting For the #20 Bus’. This one was the ultimate trip: Hastings Street was blocked off, and it took 1-1/2 hours to get to Clark St, which is actually only a 45-minute walk away. We had a wonderful ride, the bus full of DownTown EastSide characters and community. We slogged through police tape and flashing lights and had lots of time to talk. We talked about his work as a Peer Support Worker, about our plans for our third book*, about how mental health services, and our respective jobs. We were two sides of a coin, him working as a peer support to help people in their daily lives, and myself as a spiritual care support for times of crisis and questioning. He again talked about the writing program, and urged me to find a way to continue it, as it was on a hiatus while until finding more funding. He got off to go to his favourite greasy spoon restaurant and I rode the rest of the way home.


The music shifted at that moment of reverie into a disorganized lull again and there the ironic part of the story cut in. A couple of weeks ago, I received word that funding I had applied for had come through. It was after before Susan T and Margo R and I met to talk about our next book. Jude hadn’t shown up for our meeting. Jude never missed a meeting.

The next day, before I could tell them about the funding, Susan T called me. I was driving. She told me–Jude had died. I pulled over, stunned. Now Bruckner’s symphony music washed over me. Jude was in it, he was being pulled away with the breakers and current. ‘No!’ I thought, not now, not Jude!’ But it was true. Susan told me so. That’s why he didn’t show up at our meeting.



Now the music trickled over me more, little sand dabs of hot tears raining down, foretelling an upswelling wave about to crash. Horns blasted, the tuba bellowed from some deep underground belly, the one my doctor told me to breathe into, to allow myself a good relaxation response. The tuba told me to breathe, ‘way down there, feel the body right down to the basement, right down there where Jude lies’. Right down there where nothing and everything matters.

I was held and comforted by the rolling music, in just the right way of reaching into the hurt and loss. Over and over and out, from seesawing bows in the lower strings to the piping in of upper woodwinds; the Gabriel’s horns and trumpets, and the grandest of tubas. The conductor rocked and nurtured the latent nuances from their hesitations as we all headed home for the last gracing of notes, and Jude was held safe in my heart.

I won’t say how we were instantly alerted back to, for heaven’s sake, VANCOUVER, by the shockwave of a



shout out of ‘BRAVO!!!’ by someone seated right behind the conductor. The last of Bruckner’s notes was not even allowed to finish its breath. I’ll leave the etiquette conundrum for the symphony society to figure out, along with any  treatment for PTSD the conductor or orchestra members may require…

I returned to planet real life intact, but will never be the same. During that last movement of that Bruckner symphony, my world shifted forever. Jude is gone, the great sea of something greater than we are took him. And thanks to Bruckner’s music, our memories of Jude and his stories will live on. Our writers, Susan T, Margo, myself, will live with the intimacy we knew with him, that intimacy amongst writers that is so complete. Indeed, like the titles of our books, evening the frayed edges is a lifelong process. We love you Jude, and thank you for the time you gave us, and your stories that will live on after we too are gone.



* for further information about our books, go to: The Recovery Narrative Project©

Vayeitze: Man-O Manischewitz

I just had a sip of Manischewitz wine, expecting to have a bit of warmth and sweetness before calling it a night. As the sweetness turned into a glow, there came a rush of memory. I was suddenly a little girl again, maybe 4 years old, or even smaller, sitting at a big noisy table where my parents and grandparents and brother were all gathered for a holiday dinner. Those times were always so special to me: all my favourite people together in our home, even though it really was all so busy and hard to really take in everything that was going on. But there was the simplicity of that ritual we always had, whether it was Passover or Thanksgiving: the Manischewitz wine. Grandma DotI think my Grandma Dot had a lot to do with insuring that it was served, it was her ‘very best favour’ as she would say, as she took the first sip and became all smiles and more child than adult. I felt little, and loved and happy. At an older age, when we might have had these gatherings with other families and there was a ‘kids’ table’, we could get as giddy on the sweetened wine as we liked. It didn’t take much more than a few stolen sips to make us giggle and howl with laughter and feel our oats at our own festive table.

This leads me to think about the Torah’s Joseph and his family, the subject of next week’s portion, Vayeitze, found in Genesis 28-32. I wondered, did Joseph and his brothers sit around their festival table and partake of sweet wine, too? Did they also become giddy and silly together like we did? Could all the differences amongst them, the jealousy for Joseph, become blotted out as they took this truce time to indulge in sacred moments of gathering together?christianimagesource.com

I read the story and wonder how hard it is for the family of a visionary like Joseph to let go of their fearfulness for his differences and recognize his unusual ways as gifts, instead. Joseph was different in appearance, both beautiful physically and also to look at, and also in how he engaged with the people and world around him. He did not allow himself the usual social inhibitions in showing what his gifts were, in how he perceived the world through not only his dreams, but also the dreams of others.

Joseph was a tattle-tale. He had the habit of exposing his brothers’ foibles to his father, who seemed to reward him for his forthrightness with a special coat. There is no definitive translation for the Hebrew words given in the Torah for this coat: כתונת פסים can be translated as a coat that extends to the wrists and ankles like a great coat, or it can mean a coat made of many strips of fabric. Most commonly it is translated as a ‘coat of many colours’. All of these nuances tell us something similar about the coat and the status it conferred upon Joseph, especially in his brothers’ eyes—that his father gave him the honour of favoured greatness.churchhousecollection.com


How is it then that the father can see this emergent prescience but not the siblings? The strangeness of Joseph’s ways must have been an annoyance to his brothers who had to endure his tales and dreams and his perceptions of them from a dimension they had bible.canot yet reached. Or perhaps, it was that they had left behind their own natural pre-verbal abilities to perceive information intuitively by choosing to accept instead the structured external social systems of their clan and tribe. It is natural to fear someone who does not conform to the safety of the agreed upon social norms. The boundary between intuitively gifted and mentally ill are often confused, the similarities being the discomfort afforded by others due to the unpredictability or unconventionality of the gifted or ill person.


Other ways this might be expressed are gender differences. Perhaps the story of Joseph’s travails is a torah or teaching about homophobia or gender difference: after all, Joseph is hinted at as being rather effeminate by being beautiful of physique and to look at, not a particularly industrious shepherd, and is given a flowing robe by his father who dotes on him and rejects the advances of Potipher’s beautiful wife. These characteristics stand in contrast to how his brothers were and set him apart from them, creating the purpose for their plot to be rid of him and his outsider way of being.

lgbtqniversity.wordpress.comIt takes many years and much travail before he is settled and enabled to use his intuitive talents without retribution, as Pharaoh’s right hand man. And eventually his siblings, in their time of need, must come to him for aid. In what could have been a moment of ultimate revenge, Joseph instead remains loyal to his gifts and powerful abilities, and takes care of his clan.


I know this story began with a sip of wine a short while ago, but it is a memory that I believe we all carry. When was the last time you could let go into the reverie of childhood bliss, taking in whatever joy was surrounding you? Laughing together in gatherings without care, even if you don’t really know all the backstories in the room? Or listening without fear to your own joyous heartsong?


Joseph wasn’t a complete person as a youth. He needed those years of learning to navigate the reactions of others in order to become effective at being heard. Only then could he express his gifts to their fullest, as chief advisor for a powerful nation. In this story we get the chance to see how sometimes the youthful rawness of beauty and truth may need time to mature and ripen before it can be accepted. This takes patience and time, but eventually an adult can smile and look back at those wonderful moments of sweetness and warmth and give that giddy child a knowing hug and a wink.



Liminal Constructs

Today is the winding down after a two-week shift as the On Call Chaplain for the local hospital. It has been an unusually full two weeks. Yesterday I spent the whole day, from 9am to about 5pm with family members on the phone and then at the hospital. It was the third call in for a person who was now a patient on life-support in the ICU. depositphotos.comIn all three calls, the family was wanting spiritual support to help them transition into the decision to remove their loved one from life support. Their request was for a means of navigating the imminent transition of a known life and spirit, knowing that soon that loved one would be dying.


I know these are medical situations of the most serious kind, and that the Social Worker is specially trained to help with practical decisions for arrangements to transport the loved one’s remains. Somewhere in there is wedged the pathos and every day organic trauma that comes with the death of someone who has been part of our life. Someone we may have taken for granted just the day before, such as was the story of two of these situations. Then, unexplainably, a catastrophic physiological event happens. Our body, which we assume will take care of us, suddenly malfunctions: In some cases, decades earlier than we would have guessed.

People in their prime, who exercised, ate all the right things, and were people who others looked up to for inspiration and vitality.lladro.com


I am always pleasantly surprised when people who may not have any ties to a formal faith, will ask for spiritual care to come. They usually ask the Nurse or Social Worker. They may not have a ritual in mind, but just know that this is a time for prayer to an Unexplainable Source, whose spacious living room they may have just fallen into.

We walk in the constructs of our daily lives, but when natural events suddenly trump our constructed ones, we end up in the liminal space between the two.alizul2.blogspot.com


My training as a Chaplain is a mix of construct and natural instincts. I come to the work because it is my nature, for whatever reason, to dwell in the liminal spaces. Knowing this has drawn me forward into finding the constructs that will allow me to channel this way of being and knowing into a practice that others can draw upon.


Some of those constructs are taking almost 2,000 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education, or experiential Chaplaincy training. With the guidance of Supervisors, I’ve learned how to navigate the narrow valley between the liminal spiritual places and the constructs of health care, family, and faith systems.


Although yesterday was formally my Sabbath (Shabbat), I spent it at the hospital working. The ethic is that taking care of a life comes before even the commandment to take a day of rest. Today was my day of rest and it has been good. The sun shone all day as a wonderful autumn treat. I had time to float out my nets and enjoy the evenness in the gentle swells between the liminal and construct states. Tomorrow will be another day.susanjkatz.com