I had long believed that Judaism was historically lacking in the wisdom to heal that so many other faiths and spiritual paths have built into them. This caused me to explore many other modalities of spiritual and physical wellbeing for sources of comfort, wisdom, and healing.
When I decided to embark upon the study path of Rabbinic Chaplaincy, one of my educational goals was to seek these sources within Judaism. After all, we’ve been around for over 5,700 years. We must have cultivated some gardens of wisdom in this area.
While studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I was delighted to find myself in classes that presented this material from Jewish primary sources, eg the Talmud, Mishnah, Pirkei Avoth, etc.
In preparation to entering a year of residency in Clinical Pastoral Education in hospital here in Vancouver, I began to synthesize what I am learning, from a variety of educational sources. Here, as we anticipate the Jewish High Holydays during this month of Elul, is a first integration of my personal and theological understanding of the difference between curing and caring:
R. Johanan once fell ill and R. Hanina went in to visit him. He said to him: Are your sufferings welcome to you? He replied: Neither they nor their reward. He said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand and he raised him. Why could not R. Johanan raise himself? 11-They replied: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b)
Why bring this story to you as we approach the Yamim Noraim (Jewish High Holydays)? because I see in it much about the relationships and parallels between illness, health, and teshuvah (return to the Source). I am not suggesting that someone is ill because they made a mistake or committed a sin. In fact, we can all think of examples of well-meaning adults and children who experience illness or die, while many seemingly wicked people enjoy good health and long lives. So, that is not my purpose in sharing the above story.
There are two part to the above selection from Talmud that help us understand the nature of our pains or sufferings: notice in the story the question R. Hanina asks: Are your sufferings welcome to you?
Now, take a deep breath, and ask yourself this same question, too, Are your sufferings welcome to you?. Go ahead…ask. And listen for the answer. Are your sufferings welcome to you? are you ready to turn this around for yourself? if so, that is how our Jewish practice of teshuvah can help.
THIS SUMMER AT ALEPH’s annual Smicha Week for Ordination Students, I took a course on Teshuvah. Oy, did I learn that we commit avairos, as Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, calls them. These are mistakes, ‘oopses’, some intentional, some we didn’t know we did until we find out later. The practice of teshuvah helps us to reckon with these so they don’t stay stuck to us, like toxic sticky notes, making us anxious or even ill.
Two steps are involved in this teshuvah practice: acceptance and forgiving our self; and, reaching out to another who may have been hurt or hurt us, with acceptance or forgiveness. We are limited creatures; it’s good to remember that sometimes.
The second thing to notice in the Talmud passage is the last line: The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.
In creating teshuvah, in caring about ourselves and about others, we recognize that we cannot do teshuvah alone; that having someone to reach out to, to be a mirror, or to give an outside perspective, is needed. In my Clinical Pastoral Education program this summer, one of our lessons about reaching out was, ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’.
Sometimes others see the forest while we are too busy being lost amongst the trees. We all have our reasons for wearing blinders or hiding painful or confusing topics from ourselves.
When it was first suggested to me that I should consider using my intuitive skills in a helping career, I balked and said, “No! I couldn’t feel right asking people to pay me to tell them what they already know!”
Well, that was several years ago and to be honest, I have paid the piper to tell me things I thought I didn’t know, too. How long can one spin their wheels or rattle the bars on their self-imposed prisons? Thankfully, we live amongst those toward whom we can reach out, and reach in and hold up those hidden places to the light of day.
Of course, once you know something, you can’t go back and not know it. You can move ahead though, knowing that you have been freed from prison, to find a way to make teshuvah. This doesn’t mean you’ve been struck by magic bullet and a cure; what spiritual care offers is care to go alongside as you work your edges.
IT seems have become too guided towards the expectation of cures, and too far removed from the care once provided by our relationships with family doctors, neighbours and clergy.Spiritual health is an essential part of physical health. May you be blessed with a year of health, happiness, peace, and long life.