When Leaders Need Chaplains

An important aspect of spiritual leadership is ministering to people in times of stress and pain as chaplains do. Below is an “imagination verbatim” written during a summer hospital chaplaincy internship in the course of my rabbinical studies at Yeshivat Maharat. Writing this verbatim engaged and thrilled me as it was a perfect interweaving of my love of text study together with my practice of “being there” for others.

Background

Moses, our greatest teacher, is mourning the loss of his older sister Miriam. Moses sits in his tent on a low stool as is customary for mourners during the shiva period. His brother Aaron – the middle child – is mourning as well but he is silent just as he was when his two children died at the hands of God. Miriam’s husband and children are off to the side on low stools as they are also in mourning.

As I enter the tent, I notice that Aaron seems shrouded in sadness while Moses shows signs of anger. I wonder at the anger – to whom or what is it directed? What does it stem from? I hope that I can help Moses tap into these feelings so that he can move forward in his grieving. I come in and sit near Moses, waiting for the mourner to speak first as is customary.

Conversation

Moses: It was good of you to come.

Chaplain: Your sister Miriam was a great leader, full of hope and belief in God. She will be missed.

Moses: [angry] I don’t see the nation mourning her.

Chaplain: I hear how upsetting this is for you.

Moses: My sister Miriam z”l was truly a unique leader for all the Israelites but especially for the women. She showed them how to rejoice and radiated joy always! I have carried this nation with all its complaints for so many years. I have loved them in spite of their faults. But it is hard to forgive their disrespect for my sister Miriam.

Chaplain: How so? Can you explain?

Moses: I sit here with Aaron, with her husband and her children. We sit low to the ground, we tear our clothes in her memory.

[Moses stops, anger and grief in his face]

Chaplain: And the nation?

Moses: Instead of coming with words of comfort, they heap quarrelsome words on me and on Aaron!

Chaplain: What do they say?

Moses: [speaking half to himself] I understand that they are thirsty now that Miriam’s well has dried up and we no longer have a source of water. But have they forgotten her? Are their hearts so empty and barren? Are they not filled with yearning and longing to see Miriam once again? To hear her voice lifted in prayer and song? To listen to her wise counsel and unwavering belief in God?

Chaplain: It sounds like she was a wonderful older sister for you. I am so sorry for your loss.

Moses: [hesitantly] Who will carry on for her?

Chaplain: What do you mean?

Moses: Who will take over the mantle of her leadership? There is no one to follow in her footsteps.

Chaplain: Your eyes look so sad as you say this. How does this make you feel?

Moses: Bereft, rudderless. Who will lead the women? Who will keep the torch of hope burning?

Chaplain: Do you think that the Israelites are sharing some of this feeling?

Moses: [pondering this question…I see that he feels there is some validity in this] Perhaps…especially the women…I can see how they are feeling lost and do not know how to act with me and with God. Miriam was a cornerstone of our strength and belief in God.

Chaplain: Yes…I’m glad that you can see a bit of what the nation is going through. That’s very hard when you are wrapped in your personal grief.

Moses: I hope that her legacy will live on in the hearts and actions of the women. I have not yet seen a leader emerge but perhaps…now that Miriam is gone… [He is quiet] And then there’s the water…

Chaplain: What about the water?

Moses: Why did I lose my temper with them this time? God did not get angry with them but I did. I called them “rebels” and berated them.

Chaplain: Moses – are you a forgiving person?

Moses: Yes…I think so… [more confidently] I always forgive the nation, even when they have sinned greatly.

Chaplain: Can you forgive yourself?

Moses: Hmmm…I’m not sure I can.

Chaplain: What is hard for you to forgive?

Moses: I allowed my private feelings to cross over into my public persona.

Chaplain: It must be very difficult to keep them separate all the time.

Moses: [He is quiet for a while] Most of the time I simply don’t allow my private feelings to surface. My duty and my heart are for the people.

Chaplain: That sounds like a great burden to shoulder.

Moses: I do it with joy…God Himself gave me this task and I accept it gladly. [crying out in anguish] I have sinned against God as well!

Chaplain: This sounds like it pains you greatly.

Moses: [sighing deeply] I don’t even understand why I did it!

Chaplain: [in a soft voice] Did what?

Moses: I struck the rock to bring forth water, instead of speaking to it as God commanded.

Chaplain: What happened after that?

Moses: [in a wondering voice] God did not want the Israelites to disrespect Him. He brought forth much water from the rock after I struck it and also meted out a fitting punishment for Aaron and for me. [his voice catches] We deserve the punishment but it is very hard to bear. By disobeying Him, we have forfeited the right to lead the nation to the Land of Israel.

Chaplain: May I ask you a question? [Moses nods] Where did the idea come to you to strike the rock?

Moses:  [tears welling up] The last time the nation was thirsty and asked for water, Miriam was still alive. God told me to hit the rock and water would come out – enough water for the whole nation. In Miriam’s merit this rock became the well which gave us water throughout the 40 years in the desert…until she died.

Chaplain: [gently] What brings the tears?

Moses: [thinking back to what happened] My mind was wrapped up in thoughts of Miriam. I was in the past, 39 years ago with Miriam at my side. And so – I hit the rock!

Chaplain: When we lose someone very dear to us, it is hard to let go so soon. We need time to allow our grief to be replaced by loving memories that are in the past and move on to a new reality. So…can you forgive yourself?

Moses: [smiling wanly] I can try.

Chaplain: Miriam occupied a very special place in your life. Perhaps your grief came out as anger when you felt that she did not receive the respect and love that she deserved. You know – seeing the more human side of a leader is not necessarily a bad thing…

Moses: [pondering] Thank you for coming and listening to me. I feel more at peace.

Chaplain: [to all the mourners in the tent] May The Makom (God) be a comfort to you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May the empty spaces that Miriam left behind her be a reminder of the gifts she left you and may memories of her be a comfort to all of you in the years to come.

 

 

Discover More

The Jewish Funeral, or Levaya

A Jewish funeral is held as quickly as possible after death and usually includes readings, a eulogy, and a special memorial prayer.

Creating the Jewish Pregnancy

From Shehechiyanu to psalms, how I brought Jewish ritual into this momentous life stage.

Debbie Friedman: Singing Unto God

A self-taught musical phenomenon, she had a huge impact on liberal Jewish worship.