Author Archives: Rabbi David Rosenn

Rabbi David Rosenn

About Rabbi David Rosenn

Rabbi David Rosenn is the Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.

Feeling Another’s Pain

Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.

One summer, when I served as a student chaplain at Beth Israel Hospital, I was assigned to spend part of my time in the hospice wing, a place for patients at the end-stages of life.

Unlike my visits with patients in other parts of the hospital, which often centered on hopes for a quick and full recovery, the time I spent with these patients had a different quality.

They and their loved ones also had hope, but not for recovery. During many visits with dying patients and their families, I discovered that they hoped for peace and dignity in life’s last moments. Above all, I realized that the family and friends of dying patients all hoped that they would not be left to face their last moments alone, but rather would be surrounded by those who cared deeply for them.

As part of the hospice staff, I understood that it was my job, together with family and loved ones, to create a presence at their bedsides that reflected God’s companionship with all of us in times of suffering. Jewish tradition teaches that the shekhina, God’s intimate presence, dwells at the bedside of anyone who is ill (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 40a).

No One Dies Alone

During that summer, I came to understand that passage to mean that we have a responsibility to ensure that no one is left to die alone. On one level, this meant accompanying God at the person’s bedside. Being there for him or her wasn’t only an act of kindness, but also a way of emulating God’s compassion in the world: “Just as God visits the sick, so too should you visit them…” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a)

But deep down, I wondered if we were accompanying God, or rather serving as God’s representative at the bedside. It occurred to me that since all of us are created in God’s image, perhaps we are responsible for bringing that image to the sick person’s bedside in the first place.

Or perhaps God is there but not quite visible, and it’s the presence of others that enables the patient to see a manifestation of God at that moment. However I chose to explain it, it became clear to me that simply being there for one who is facing a difficult and frightening time is a godly act.

Joseph is Alive

In this week’s Torah portion, we witness Jacob, who for years has believed that his favorite son, Joseph, was dead, learn that Joseph is in fact alive and prospering in Egypt. Naturally, Jacob wants to see his long-lost son. But rather than making a short visit, he finds that it’s become necessary to move his entire family to Egypt due to famine in the land of Canaan. The idea of leaving his homeland frightens him.

Sensing Jacob’s fear, God appears to him in a vision and says: “Jacob! Jacob!…I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back…” (Genesis 46:2-4).

Commenting on God’s promise to personally accompany Jacob into exile, the Rabbis teach: “The relationship between God and the Jewish people is like the relationship between twins. When the head of one aches, the other feels it, too. Therefore, we see that the Holy One said to Moses, ‘I am with him in distress’ (Psalms 91:15) and again, ‘In all their afflictions, [I], too, was afflicted. (Isaiah 63:9). Are you not aware that I am wracked with pain when Israel is wracked with pain? Take note of the place from where I am speaking to you–from the midst of a thorn bush. I am [if one may ascribe such a statement to God] a partner in their pain’” (Sh’mot Rabbah, early medieval collection of midrashim on the Book of Exodus, 2:5).

Real Companionship

We are so often focused on relieving pain and suffering–and rightfully so!–that we sometimes lose sight of how important it is to provide real companionship to those in pain. We search for ways to remove pain because we genuinely want to do everything possible to bring their suffering to an end. But we also do so because opening ourselves up to sharing in someone’s fear and suffering is extremely difficult and uncomfortable.

Yet as I learned in the hospice that summer, sometimes it simply isn’t possible to provide immediate or permanent relief to those who suffer. At such moments, being fully present is all we have to offer; distracting ourselves by seeking a way to do something is avoiding the real work before us.

To promise to be there with someone in difficult times isn’t a small thing. It’s what we do when we establish communal structures that ensure that children with disabilities, recent immigrants, or the frail elderly receive not only services, but also the knowledge that they will not be left to their own devices. It’s what we do when we form committees to visit

the sick and to make minyans to comfort the mourner. It’s what God promised our forefather Jacob and his family on their way down to Egypt and, when we act at our best, it’s what we promise and provide to one another.

Protecting Biodiversity: A Covenant With Every Living Thing

Provided by SocialAction.com, an on-line Jewish magazine dedicated to pursuing justice, building community, and repairing the world.

“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” goes a well known bit of folk wisdom. If the basket should fall, you’ll lose everything at once. While this may be plain common sense for the weekend shopper, we seem to have a harder time following this principle when it comes to preserving diversity among the world’s living creatures.

To take just one example, 90% of all eggs sold in the United States are laid by one breed of hen, the White Leghorn. What would happen to our egg supply if some disease struck this breed?

Rice in India

Or consider the fact that India had 30,000 varieties of rice just 50 years ago. Today it depends upon just 10 strains, most of which are not native to India, but are hybrid seeds, engineered to produce higher yields in shorter growing seasons. Farmers who switch to these new varieties often abandon more genetically diverse local types, many of which then become extinct. The result–a radical narrowing of the agricultural gene pool–places the world food supply at risk. It’s the global equivalent of putting all our eggs in one basket.

Why do we need so many different kinds of rice in the first place? In short, because genetic variety holds out the best hope for species survival. In the 1970s, a virus swept through rice paddies from India to Indonesia. Fortunately, seed banks contained samples of enough varieties to produce a solution. After testing 6,237 kinds of rice for resistance to the virus, only one species, an Indian strain called Oryza nivara, contained genes that could withstand the virus. It was cross-bred with a commonly cultivated variety, and the hybrid seed is now grown across Asia.

So are seed banks the solution to our problem? While seed banks represent an important strategy for preserving nature’s genetic bounty, many types of seeds cannot be stored by conventional means. Furthermore, only a tiny fraction of plant species is covered by seed-bank inventories, and it is far beyond the resources of such programs to collect and maintain the thousands of endangered varieties. Most important, while seeds from certain species can be stored, their “partners in nature”– insects that pollinate it, fungi that bring it nutrients, etc–cannot all be stored at the same time. In the absence of their symbiotic partners, many seed-bank species do not survive when replanted.

Preserving Natural Eco-Systems

Today, scientists suggest that the best way to preserve the world’s biodiversity is to preserve as many as possible of its natural eco-systems. Especially important are those such as rain forests, which contain a large concentration of plant and animal species. By protecting the global environment, and specifically by designating certain biological “hotspots” as inviolate preserves, we can slow the narrowing of the genetic flexibility that ensures life on Earth.

Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “Everything that God created in the world has a purpose. Even things that a person may consider to be unnecessary have their place in creation.” (Bereshit Rabbah 10:8). We are witnessing and helping produce the most rapid decline of species diversity in the history of the earth, and yet we barely understand the place in creation of most of the world’s species, including those that have been lost to us through extinction. Researchers have recently discovered that the rosy periwinkle of Madagascar produces two alkaloids that cure most victims of two of the deadliest cancers: Hodgkin’s disease and acute lymphocytic leukemia. How many sources of healing have been lost to us forever through environmental neglect?

Reinforcing this midrashic awareness of the versatility of species, Judaism contains a legal proscription against wanton destruction of property and natural resources, known by its command form bal tashchit, “do not destroy.” This prohibition reflects the belief that human beings are temporary tenants on God’s earth (Leviticus 25:23), charged to till it for their needs, but also to tend it, that it may be saved for future generations. (Genesis 2:15)

The Torah sounds the theme of conservation in this week’s reading as well, through its description of the careful preservation of every species on earth in Noah‘s ark, both the “clean” and the “unclean.” After the flood, God makes a covenant with Noah’s descendants and with “every living thing on earth” never again to destroy the world. (Genesis 9:8-10) Do we dare allow ourselves to proceed with that which God has foresworn?

Preserving biodiversity is an issue of planetary survival, but it is also–as we have seen–a theological issue. Nature’s stunning variety often invokes feelings of deep fascination and awe, attitudes closely associates with religious experience. Maintaining our capacity to appreciate such feelings–our capacity for wonder–may enable us to enlarge our sense of God’s presence in the world and to enhance our appreciation for the sidrei bereshit–the orders of creation. Conversely, by allowing creation to be diminished, we invariably diminish ourselves as well.

To find out more about the sources and scope of the crisis of biodiversity, as well as some possible solutions, I recommend these books: Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (Harvard University Press, 1992) and The Rain Forest In Your Kitchen (Island Press, 1992).