Give Heed to the Bark/Meow/Cluck of the Shofar

We may teach animals, but our animals teach us.

We may teach animals, but our animals teach us.

Apparently yesterday was “National Dog Day.”

I had not heard of National Dog Day before, but it was created 10 years ago as an effort to bring attention to dogs who need to find good homes, to celebrate pet dogs and to recognize the role working dogs play in the lives of many.

What I do know is that yesterday and today are Rosh Hodesh Elul, the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul. Rosh Hodesh Elul brings us one step closer to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and ushers in a time in which we turn our spiritual energy to reflection and repentance (teshuvah), to making new plans and making amends.

But Rosh Hodesh Elul has an animal connection as well, as found in the ancient Jewish text, the Mishnah, tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, which states that there are four new years in the Jewish calendar: 1 Tishrei, which is our new year of Rosh Hashanah; 15 Shevat, traditionally used to determine the age of trees for tithing, now our environmental holiday of Tu Bishvat (literally, “15 Shevat); 1 Nissan, the month Passover falls and a date used in the past to determine the length of a king’s tenure; and 1 Elul.

The first of Elul was set aside as the “new year of the animals,” a time in which the age of animals was determined for the purpose of tithing. This is not in practice today, but this day and its connection to animals is worth reclaiming. We can use the first of Elul to honor animals and the role they play in our lives, especially those domesticated animals that share our homes. (In my congregation I perform a “Jewish blessing of the animals” ritual in my community on or around the first of Elul.)

And there is a deeper connection between living with animals and the work of teshuvah and self-improvement we do during this season.

I grew up in a home without animals, but currently my menagerie includes two dogs, seven cats, one fish, one guinea pig and five chickens. I’m not sure how exactly I got to this point, but my house is definitely full of animal energy. And moving from having no animals to being surrounded by them has been a challenge and a growth process.

There is much that living with animals has taught me: feeding and walking my animals has taught me compassion for those who are dependent upon me and the responsibility to care for others. Maintaining the fish tank has taught me about our power to protect and maintain whole ecosystems. Raising my chickens has taught me much about the cycle of food and interdependence. I have learned humility, patience, boundary setting, companionship and more. I have learned, though my interaction with animals, to be a better human.

These are important lessons to learn as we move forward through Elul. And to wake us up to the process of self-reflection we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every day of Elul, starting on Rosh Hodesh. Thus another animal connection to this day.

The question for us, on this Rosh Hodesh Elul, is can we hear what our animal companions—and the shofar—are calling us to do?

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Posted on August 27, 2014

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Treat Every Person with Dignity

police traffic stopI was a college student doing about 78 mph on my way from Pittsburgh to New York City to visit my boyfriend. Suddenly flashing lights appeared behind me, my stomach flipped over, and I was busted. The officer sauntered up to my window. He asked questions that I felt were intrusive, like where was I going, where was I coming from, who was I going to see. He made a comment about my “pretty face” being smashed if I crashed at that speed. I wanted him to just give me a ticket and go away. Finally he did.

This isn’t a dramatic story. Most of my interactions with police have been related to speeding. They have been uneventful. I doubt that police officers, when they see this white professional woman’s face, feel at all threatened. Even so, in the story above, I felt shamed and angry. I can only imagine how it feels to be stopped and frisked repeatedly, or pulled over for no reason other than my race. I expect that many officers engaged in those activities are showing at least as much condescension as was shown to me.

I can also only imagine what it is to be a police officer. Last week in the Washington Post, Sunil Dutta wrote about what it’s like for him and his colleagues. His emphasis was on the behavior of the person stopped, not on the behavior of the officer stopping them, though he mentions that officers should treat people with courtesy and respect. Research shows that students meet the expectations of their teachers. By the same token, the way people are treated affects their behavior and their self-image. Police officers have a lot of power over the people they stop. Treating people like criminals, humiliating them, or assuming they’re up to no good, all have an impact on the relationship between police and residents of a community that is detrimental.

Judaism places high value on the dignity of each person. In Genesis 1:27 we are told that humanity was made in the image of God—b’tzelem Elohim. This teaching urges us to recognize every person’s equal value and treat each other with dignity.

Our great rabbi Maimonides wrote that “The Sages say, ‘One who shames (lit., ‘makes white’) the face of his fellow… has no share in the World to Come’ (Pirkei Avot 3:15). Therefore, one must be careful in this matter—that he not embarrass his fellow publicly, whether a small or great [person]. And he should not call him a name which shames him, nor should he speak before him about a matter which embarrasses him.”

We are so far from these goals in many of the interactions between police and civilians in Ferguson, MO, though we saw the difference that mutual respect can make when the state highway patrol took over police operations there. Recognizing how difficult it is, we must move in the direction of honoring the dignity of every person and interacting with them accordingly. This is particularly incumbent on police, who have the power in their encounters with others.

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Posted on August 26, 2014

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Commanded to Dis/Connect

A few weeks ago, I celebrated the marriage of two dear friends.  Along with the biological and chosen families of the bride and groom, I spent the weekend at a rustic campsite in the Oregon woods. To set the tone for this magical weekend, the couple requested that we not bring our phones into public spaces. Seeing this invitation, I decided to use the weekend as an opportunity to turn off my iPhone for the three days I was in the woods.

Over the course of the weekend, I partook in the mitzvah of misameach chatan v’kallah, the joy of celebrating these dear friends’ commitment to each other. Though mitzvah is popularly translated as “good deed” or “commandment,” it also means connection (from the Aramaic word, tzavta). When you do a mitzvah, you connect: to other people, to the world around you, or to something greater than yourself. During the wedding weekend, by inviting us to disconnect from our phones, the couple invited us to connect with their friends and family, the magnificent river near the campsite, and the Mystery that brought these two individuals together.

Distracted by a smartphone during a dateA growing majority of us sees our smartphones, tablets or computers promising us greater connection. The word “connecting” literally shows up on our screens when phones are finding the nearest available wireless signal! But if these devices are offering us more connection, why do we feel so profoundly disconnected from the real world around us when we are looking at our Facebook feed?  Or, conversely, when we are out to dinner with a friend, why is it so hard to ignore the impulse to see if we’ve received any new e-mails or texts?

The rabbis of the Talmud establish the rule: osek b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah, which literally means “the one engaged in a mitzvah (connection) is exempt from another mitzvah (connection)”.  This guideline calls into question the possibility of “more” connection.  As many recent studies have shown, while technology may make it increasingly easy for us to multitask, we are still human beings, and (with rare exceptions) can only actually connect to one…thing…at…a…time.

My partner and I know that spending time together is a mitzvahan opportunity for sacred connection. Over the last year, we’ve established the practice that when we go out together (and know we don’t have to be anywhere else), we leave our phones at home. In engaging in the mitzvah of going out together, we know we are exempt from checking our e-mail, or looking at our Facebook feeds.  But for the rest of the summer, I was in Vermont, and he was in New York City. During this time, we used our computers (or iPhones, or iPads!) to Skype with each other.  And when we Skyped, we weren’t doing anything else, like checking e-mail, or talking with our roommates. This is how we remembered that we were connecting to each other.

Before we mindlessly fall into the endless world in our pockets, we need to pause and make a conscious choice about what, and whom we are connecting with.

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Posted on August 25, 2014

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An Electrifying Altar

A few summers ago, on a trip through Samaria, Israel, a passage in this week’s Torah portion jumped out of the past and came alive in front of my eyes.

The portion of Re’eh introduces us to a stupendous covenant ceremony that Moses commands the people to enact upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval when the Israelites enter the land of Israel after his own death. The outlines of the ceremony are further fleshed out near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy in chapter 27, where Moses instructs the people that the ceremony is to include, among other things, the construction of an altar on Mount Eval, “an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them; you must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones. You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them…”

Joshua’s Altar on Mount Eval

And indeed, after the death of Moses, it is reported near the end of chapter 8 of the Book of Joshua that the Israelites built the altar and performed the ceremony exactly as commanded in the Book of Deuteronomy.

And here we were, 3000 years later, gazing upon Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval from up close, and taking in the contours of the altar built by Joshua, Moses’ successor, exactly according to the biblical requirements. Our guide, Benny Katzover, grippingly described the discovery of the altar upon Mount Eval over two decades earlier by his friend Adam Zertal, a well-known archeologist. Zertal, so we learned, had been at that time part of the consensus of secular scholars at Tel Aviv University who were certain that most of the Bible has no historical veracity.

And then came the dig that was to change his life. Made of only unhewn stones, it was dated to the early Iron Age, about 3,400 years ago. At first they had no idea what this strange structure could be. A storehouse, a watchtower? But as the excavation progressed no entranceway was to be found. And the debris that filled it upit slowly become clear that it was not random sediment, but rather had deliberately been placed there at the same time that the walls themselves had been erected; it seemed as if the use of the structure was not inside of it but rather upon its top. It was like no other edifice unearthed in the Near East. What could it have been?

A tremendous number of bones, representing over 700 animals, were found scattered about. Scientific analysis indicated that they were all from animals that had been roasted over an open flame fire of low temperature. Perhaps what had been discovered was an altar for animal sacrifice! And all the bones without exception were from kosher animals! Furthermore, all of these animals were within their first year of life, exactly as the Torah demands for sacrifice!

And then the ramp on the side of the altar, and the measurements of the alter itselfcompletely unlike pagan altars of the period, and conforming exactly to the specifications found in rabbinic texts.

I was almost brought to tears as Katzover described how Zertal, over the course of many seasons of the dig, gradually came to the conclusion that the only explanation for the amazing find was that it is indeed Joshua’s altar! The dating, the location, the measurements, the bonesit all fit like a glove. Here on the slopes of Mount Eval the Bible had been corroborated. For Zertal the discovery was life transforming, and he began to change his whole professional orientation towards the biblical text.

And here we were, spellbound by the saga and by the altar itself. The Bible had come alive before our eyes. And as the meaning of the whole thing penetrated my soul, I felt indeed that we had come one step closer to the real Bible, and to reuniting with our history and with the land!

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Posted on August 22, 2014

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What (and How) The Simpsons Can Teach Us All

Simpson FamilyIf you’ve got nothing to do for the next twelve consecutive days, and don’t need any sleep. starting tonight you can turn on FXX and watch all 552 Simpsons episodes ever made.

The Simpsons has been a television institution for two and a half decades, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Yet what’s most amazing is how effective it is for studying a whole host of subjects. There are books that use the Simpsons to teach things such as philosophy, psychology, mathematics, educational theoryscience and religion.

Why is that? I think it’s because the Simpsons is not simply entertaining — its humor often acts as a vehicle for learning. The show is filled with references that are often arcane and obscure. Before I watched The Simpsons, for example, I had never heard of Rory Calhoun or knew what a tontine was. It inspired me to look into the philosophy of Pablo Neruda and the difference between history, legend and myth. And I’ve used it to teach about the everything from the American Jewish immigrant experience to the story of Job.

Even the show itself has remarked about how they intentionally make viewers work in order to understand the jokes. In an episode a few years ago that focused on the declining appeal of kid-show-host Krusty the Klown, one character remarked that “[t]oday’s kids are uncomfortable with a clown whose every reference they have to look up on Wikipedia.”

Yet in fact, being challenged helps us learn. There’s some significant research that in fact, when something is harder to learn, we remember it better. As Harvard Professor James Lang wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “when students…have to put in more work in processing the material, it may sink in more deeply.”

That’s an important message for the Jewish community, because Judaism requires work. Prayers are in a different language. The Torah is complex and can be hard to understand. Some of the rituals seem antiquated and have very specific steps.

Yet the flip side is that the more Hebrew we know, the more we get out of services. The more text study we engage in, the more rewarding we find Torah. The more we observe rituals, the more meaning they give to our lives. In other words, the more we put ourselves into the learning process, the more we get out of it.

So what do we do? As Professor Lang notes, “[t]he challenge that we face…is to create what psychologists call ‘desirable difficulties’: enough [challenges] to promote deeper learning, and not so much that we reduce the motivation of our students.”

That’s a lesson The Simpsons has learned, and is the key to making Judaism engaging. We need to make sure that Judaism is fun and enjoyable. At the same time, we need to make sure that people have to invest themselves in their Judaism.

If we can do that, if we can create the right “desire difficulties,” then we’ll be creating a new generation of dedicated, engaged, and committed Jewsand will outlast even the longest-running sitcom in history.

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Posted on August 21, 2014

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If We Remove Our Masks, We Have a Chance to Save the World

These past weeks have brought a recipe of complication and hardship which have sent us reeling in disbelief. From Ebola, to ISIS, to racial strife, to the suicide of a comedic hero, to existential danger in Israel. I find myself waking in the middle of the night to check the news wire and see if things have gotten any worse.

I know I am not alone in my concern for our fragmented world. And yet, I also wonder and worry about us….you and me. I don’t just mean “worry about us” as it relates to world events. I worry that the world keeps throwing so much at us that we stop making time to look in the mirror to be sure that we ourselves are in balance. I am not suggesting that we be selfish. But I wonder if we use the complications of our world as a disguise from doing our own inner-work.

shutterstock_55298944

I fret that we obsessively watch the world; react to the world; yell at the world—and, then, well, we forget to look at the mirror and inquire about our own role in the drama we call life.

We rabbis are beginning to prepare for the Jewish Holy Days. The coming season is one we refer to as the season of Teshuvah—of turning; of change, of reflection, of renewal. In the coming weeks, we will be reminded that we all have primordial purpose; a reason we are here on earth. During the year, our vision becomes clouded and unclear. The burden of our responsibility is heavy; indeed, we work diligently to fulfill everything we are supposed to get done and be for everyone else. And, so, we forget to remember why we were put here in the first place. We forget that we are unique and important and vital to the cosmic process of our beautiful universe.

These days, we cannot help but be called by events in the world. We are summoned to do our part in picking up the pieces of brokenness. I hope we feel the need to create clarity in the fog of confusion. But, we are also called upon to change and evolve as human beings if not first, then at least simultaneously.

I am asking my community during these days to pay attention to the complexity of the world, but to also take a few minutes away from the world’s noise and reflect. I am asking them to think about how they are doing; to think about why they are here; to think about how fulfilled they are in life; to think about their relationships; to think about their jobs; to think about how they act; about the way they are treated.

How are we doing in the midst of the madness? While the world has gone a bit mad, I wonder about all of us, who constitute in small pieces, the makeup of our world. The world does not just exist on CNN; it exists within our own reflections as well. When we look, I wonder how it is that we love, speak and share. I wonder about our sense of compassion, sensitivity, jealousy, anger, guilt, joy and sadness. I wonder which parts of ourselves we need to change, so the world can change also.

The world is trembling. There is much for us to say and do in response to it all. But in the meanwhile, I am thinking about what we owe ourselves in our own process of evolution.

I hope as we head towards the Season of Change, that we find the renewal within to help renew our world.

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Posted on August 20, 2014

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Emerging from Hiding

There’s a reason you haven’t seen me online much this summer. I went underground to avoid the graphic images of children suffering in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria; to escape the vitriolic language of my friends’ Facebook updates; to disconnect from bullying demands that I demonstrate loyalty to my ally and condemn the enemy. Unable to find peace, I chose to disengage from the violence in the world upstairs and embrace the silence in my basement studio.

Here, I breathe normally and work purposefully. I empty my mind of anxiety as I systematically empty bottles of glaze onto ceramic plates and bowls, pieces that feature sunbursts and flames—light to dispel the darkness of this summer. Somehow, my hiding in the basement studio transforms into an act of sympathy with those seeking shelter from missiles.

Thinking only of the micro-motions required to finish this piece, I steady my left hand against the rim of a Yahrzeit candle holder and begin writing the words of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days and allow us to acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) I patiently apply three coats of glaze, allowing each letter to dry before tracing the next. I cannot possibly number the hours I spend absorbed in this task, seeking solace in this underground sanctuary.

Recently forced to emerge from hiding—to teach Torah and serve as a rabbi—I can barely resist my desire to avoid the news and graphic images of violence and destruction that continue to plague the world above ground. Sitting at my desk, struggling to find some wisdom that I acquired in the studio to share in this space, I realize this is my Torah: how I spent the summer devoted to healing my own broken spirit.

Writing this piece and daydreaming about glazing ceramic pieces, I wonder more than once if sharing my experience of hiding in the basement will be of value to anyone else. Will teaching this Torah help anyone else find peace? Maybe others don’t suffer anxiety about the state of the world or feel the need to hide as strongly as I do. Maybe it’s true that I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe someone will read these words—the description of one person’s experience of trying to mitigate her anxiety—and find them to be helpful. If so, I’ll consider my return to the blogosphere a first step toward pursuing peace.

The experience of channeling nervous energy into the creation of Judaica helps me get through difficult days. I rewrite the words of the Psalmist in glaze and sing them quietly; they awaken my soul from despair. I find the strength of spirit to emerge from hiding, ready to heal our broken world.

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Posted on August 19, 2014

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Judging Ourselves – Not Judging Others

It’s been a week since Robin Williams’ death. My Facebook newsfeed continues to be filled with beautiful tributes to and memories of him. I think it’s safe to say his death came as a shock to most people. Many asked “how can someone so funny, so successful, so [fill in the blank] take his life?”

The reality, though, is that none of us can possibly know what it was like to be Robin Williams. He struggled with a mental illness, one from which he felt the only option was to take his own life. While we can try our best to understand, to empathize, to imagine what it would be like to be in Robin’s shoes, we must still acknowledge that we can never fully know.

Robin Williams' Star

It is so easy to make assumptions about other people. And, yet, to do so is to cheat ourselves and themfor by doing this, we take only a snapshot of what we imagine to be, colored by our own experiences. We do not have a full portrait of the complexity of someone else’s individual experience.

One of my favorite YouTube videos is called “Empathy.” It opens with a question from Henry David Thoreau: “could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes in an instant?” Continuing with footage from a hospital, the video includes thought bubbles over each person’s head, sharing what’s on their minds. We don’t have this luxury in our interactions with othersbut perhaps if we knew what was going on in others’ hearts and minds, we would be a bit more compassionate.

I am reminded of Rabbi Hillel’s words 2,000 years ago: “don’t judge another until you have stood in his or her place.” The reality is we can never stand in another’s place. So perhaps the message is more simply stated as, “don’t judge others.”

It does strike me that in just over a month we’ll be observing Rosh Hashanah, also known as the “Day of Judgment.” For me, Rosh Hashanah is not about an external judge evaluating individuals.  It’s about doing my own reflection and self-evaluation, constantly retaking my measurements to better understand if I am hitting my own potential. And if I am not, figuring out where the opportunities for growth are.

We can never know what it is like to be anyone other than ourselves. We can only know what’s in our own hearts. Being on a journey to discover that seems like a much better use of our energy than jumping to assumptions about others.

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Posted on August 18, 2014

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Jewish Learning Beyond New York: Jewish Learning Everywhere With @OpenSinai

When I was in my final year of rabbinical school I had a remarkable opportunity to spend a weekend in a very small Jewish community in the deep south. It was a beautiful experience with a warm and engaged community and yet I left understanding that there exists a profound inequality of resources and access to Jewish opportunities depending on geography, ability to travel and other factors. I had spent most of my formative Jewish educational life in New York City, one of the largest hubs for rich Jewish learning and growth. I was fortunate to have access to some of the top educators anywhere in the Jewish world. This is not the case for many Jews throughout the world.

An example of a class

An example of a class

What can we do to address this inequality gap? Thankfully with constantly improving technology and the emergence of an entire e-learning sector there now exists the opportunity to put forth a Jewish digital learning platform that is uniquely a Rabbis Without Borders experience. The learning experience will merge Jewish wisdom in all of its depth with openness and pluralism. The educators will be borderless, coming from all walks of life and life experiences. The technology will enable seamless integration of multimedia and real time conversation not just one-directional from the educator to the students but between the educator and the students and between the students themselves.

It is precisely because Rabbis Without Borders pushes its rabbinic participants to think in new ways and to conceive of new tools for bringing Jewish wisdom public that this project is beginning to bear fruit. I was so fortunate to be in the second cohort of the Rabbis Without Borders program when Rabbi Irwin Kula, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield urged us to consider the blending of technology with tradition and to reflect on the egalitarian access to learning that new media can provide.

It is therefore with great excitement that I am able to share the beginning of a new initiative: OpenSinai.com.

opensinai logo

OpenSinai.com is about offering Jewish learning everywhere. It is not about blog posts or articles but about facilitating real-time classes utilizing the best in digital learning technology that allows for meaningful conversations. No matter whether someone lives in the heart of New York City and is looking for a radically pluralistic borderless Jewish learning space or lives in a small community in the Midwest and is looking for Jewish enrichment, OpenSinai.com aims to provide those classes that fills that need.

We are in the beginning stages of the project and each week brings new developments. Visit the website, like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and join our e-mail list to get the latest updates and find out when the first classes will be live. If you are an educator thinking about what it would mean to teach in this new space find out more on the website. If you are thinking about this project let us know what you think and get involved and help make it a reality. Let us continue to close the gap between big Jewish centers and Jewish communities throughout the world so that the small southern Jewish community I visited several years ago and all Jews everywhere can grow and deepen their spiritual, religious and intellectual lives.

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Posted on August 15, 2014

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Can I Pray in the Name of Jesus?

healing hands

Although he has now healed into death, I prayed for the recovery of my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, for many weeks this summer, folding into my daily practice a prolonged chant of Moses’s plea on behalf of leprous Miriam: Ana, El, na, refa na la. Please, God, please heal her.

Just a few months ago I was with Reb Zalman as he chanted the morning liturgy accompanied by whirling Sufi Dervishes, this, in itself, an ecumenitical healing. Now, as I mourn and review what my teacher has taught me, I recall my own first experience collaborating in prayer across religious modalities and dogmas.

It was the second week of my residency in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and looking over my shoulder as I scanned my patient census, our department chair noticed a patient had identified as a member of the Church of Christ.  She offhandedly pointed to this patient name and said: “You’ll want to pray in the name of Jesus Christ.” I probably blanched visibly, most definitely not wanting to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, wondering what I was to do if this was the expectation?
I headed to the neuroskeletal surgery unit with trepidation.

There, I visited with Ruth, recovering from numerous spinal fusions. When I asked about her experience, she explained, smiling: “Jesus is filling in my cracks!” This reminded me of a story the Integrative Medicine doctor Rachel Naomi Remen tells about her final therapeutic session with an oncology patient wherein she returned to the patient a picture he’d drawn at their first meeting, of himself as a broken vessel. She asked if, now, these many months later, he’d like to emend the drawing in any way. The patient picked up a yellow crayon and drew rays of light pouring out of the cracks.

My patient was deeply moved by this story and we spoke of what it is to be filled with supernal light, and how that seems even more possible when one is broken open. Ruth said that when we’re sick we need a healing God and I saw that she was able to visualize God healing her as God filled her with Presence.

Then Ruth told me she’d never met a Jew, and asked if I spoke Hebrew. Could I pray in Hebrew? I said yes, and that we could pray Moses’ biblical words of supplication when his sister Miriam was so very sick. Oh yes, she would like that, and could I hold her hand?

So I chanted Ana El Na in the late Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield’s haunting melody… And in the intervals where I was accustomed to hear members of the community intone names of those in need of healing, Ruth began to murmur and then call out: I see you, Jesus. Thank you Jesus. Thank you, Baby Jesus!

I smiled to myself. Here we were, collaboratively praying in the name of Jesus Christ and I had not sublimated my identity or compromised my theology. Rather, Ruth’s completion of my prayer to her own satisfaction had deepened my part in the mitzvah of healing the world.

Ana El Na, Aryeh Hirschfield, as sung by Hannah Dresner

Posted on August 14, 2014

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