Spiritual Medicine

Jewish sages decided that intense mourning time should be seven days only.

My husband Noam and I began our early married life in St. Louis, MO. I took my newly minted law degree to the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, while my husband continued slaving away in his fifth year of neurosurgery residency at St. Louis University Hospital. One evening, after he came home from a three day in-house call, he related this particular story.

A badly injured young man was brought unconscious to the trauma service. My husband, his attending physician, and his other residents took him immediately to the operating room and saved his life. The young man had the dubious distinction as he was a Nazi skinhead. His mangled body was covered with a slew of racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic tattoos.

After the operation, my husband went to check on his patient. When seeing my husband’s very visible kippah on his head, the patient exclaimed, “I don’t want him! Get me somebody else!” Noam obliged his request by getting him another resident. As the next resident, a former College football playing African-American man, came into the room, the patient got even more angry and growled, “Not him either! Get me your boss!” Dutifully, the attending was called, a man born in Korea but raised in Japan. At this point, the patient gave up. The skinhead patient fully recovered and would have to live the rest of his life knowing his life was saved by an Orthodox Jew, an African-American, and Japanese attending physician.

As a physician my husband does not have the right to deny care to anyone, even those who might, given the chance, hurt him or his family. He has been trained to treat and save human life—all human life. I would imagine many Jewish doctors in Israel confront this reality every day. But they still save, no matter Jewish or Muslim, Arab or Israeli. When life is in the balance, it seems most are very quick to set aside political, religious or social differences.

This past week has been particularly difficult for many of us in our country. For the record, I am not rejoicing in any way shape or form in the result. As a future Jewish spiritual leader, I was looking for tools to navigate this new reality. I was able to take a page from the Jewish laws and customs of death and mourning.

The psychological soundness of our tradition begins right from the moment of death to the end of Shiva, the seven day mourning period. In burying the body soon after death, the mourner is forced to confront the finality of the loss. The deceased has passed and is not coming back. And then with that shock, the mourner is essentially allowed to withdraw from the world and have the world and the community take care of her.

Our sages however in their wisdom decided that intense mourning time should be seven days only. They understood the seductive nature of grief. Without limits, grief can completely overwhelm and paralyze the mourner. Without limits and comfort, the mourner is in danger of being consumed by themselves and what began as a true sadness for the deceased can easily turn into a selfish enterprise. The phrase, ‘getting up’ from Shiva encapsulates this sensitivity. The mourner has to literally get up and do her best to return to the world.

There will be world events now and in the future that will be painful and traumatic for my future congregants. The Shiva model allows for acknowledgment and comfort for those grieving. It also provides a structure for moving past grief to rejoin the world. Personally, I am sure these events will hurt and pain me as well. But as a future spiritual ‘doctor,’ I will need to learn how to grieve quickly and not retreat into myself.

I also realize that not all will experience these traumas the very same way. I will have some who are not spiritually or emotionally injured, but rather may be rejoicing. As a rabbi, I will have to hold them as well no matter how unpleasant I find their point of view. I will have to minister to them even if they are offensive as the skinhead that ended up on my husband’s trauma service.

I hope that when the time comes, I will remember to use both of these tools. I hope to be able to foster an environment for those difficult conversations that no doubt will need to happen. I hope that I will have the strength in the enormous task ahead of me. Most of all, that no matter how seemingly dark the reality seems, I hope that my faith in Gd and fellow human beings will remain intact. Without that, times will remain dark indeed.

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