Friday, February 29, 2008

Comfort ye, Comfort ye…

During the past six months I underwent a very intense program in pastoral care called Clinical Pastoral Education. If there is one word that can best describe the impact that this program has had of my understanding and application to the ministry, it is “transformational”. Clinical Pastoral Education, better known as CPE has contributed prodigiously to my understanding of the word “comfort” within the context of Isaiah chapter 40 verse 1 when Isaiah says to Israel in their suffering: “comfort ye, comfort ye, my people saith your God…”: The vision I have is that a spiritual, loving and intensely sensitive prophet comes down from the hills of Jerusalem into the villages of his suffering people in an attempt to comfort and assuage them in their suffering. I understand the task of the rabbi, the chaplain in this light. To enter the room of the sick and to offer a measure of comfort. The tradition from which I grew and evolved was an intellectual environment, the emphasis more on the written word and less on the spiritual. If there was any need in relating to the spiritual side it was perfunctory and as the sages would say “latzeit midei chovato”, to fulfill one’s obligation, not necessarily out of love and genuine devotion, but out of obligation. To visit the sick, to empathize with those who are suffering and in need, to participate in humanity on the sensitive, spiritual and delicate level was a default duty, unavoidable in the scheme of things, but not necessarily a priority.

It wasn’t always this way, but somehow and through the course of history it devolved as such. This CPE course has taught me above all else that the teaching of our sages extolling the virtues of of ministering to the sick needs to be venerated and restored to it’s position of sacredness. CPE training has caused me to rethink and reconceptualize so many of our teachings, to read more into the text, more of the spiritual and less of the intellectual. The Midrash elating the following story could be seen as an intellectual exercise or as a spiritual challenge: R. Huna says: One who visits the sick lessens one sixtieth of the illness. It was asked of r. Huna: If so let sixty people visit and the sick will be healed. Said to them: Sixty! But only if the visitors love the patient as their own soul. But even without this the visit helps him. One could be tempted to intellectualize this ( Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 34:1) reference as the rabbi did, but one could understand the text on a spiritual level: The rabbis are saying that one’s compassionate presence can bring a small, but real measure of comfort. We can’t heal him, no amount of love and compassion can, but we can make as small difference: we can comfort him.

CPE has presented to me a new dimension within the theological concept of “tikkun olam”, roughly translated as making the world a better place, improving it. Tikkin olam, however is more profound than that. It is the Jewish approach by which we can become co-creators with God in making the world more complete. There are indeed many ways in which we can do this. Many of my coreligionists have fulfilled this theological precept by becoming “greener”; for others more philanthropic. For me CPE has offered another portal by which I can become a co-creator with God. Having been called to the O.R. to offer final prayers (vidui) was one of those sacred moments; it was there that I was totally confronted with the creative power of medicine and it’s limits. I believe that those in the operating room doctors, nurses and technicians were all in need of pastoral care at that very moment when their efforts at co-creation were discovered to be sorely limited. Frozen by the reality of the moment I ministered to the patient, but neglected those servants of God who in spite of their skills came up short. It showed on their faces.

My encounters and limited experience with pastoral care have given em new understanding of what prayer means within my tradition. In our faith there are fundamentally two forms of prayer: Tefillah- a sreructured well articulated formulary tha is the basis of our prayer book and Zaaka- extemporaneous unstructured crying out to God in our time of trouble and need. The hospital rooms, the ER, and the family rooms have all become sacred spaces because it is there where God can particularly be felt. These sacred areas are places where I have felt the Zaaka, prayer articulated by the sick and their families, not from formularies that have been sanitized by its redactors, but genuine heartfelt out pouring of the soul. It is this experience that has given credence and deeper understanding to the Talmud Nedarim40: a, which relates the following: “R. Helbo took ill. R. Kahana proclaimed ‘R. Helbo is sick but no one came to visit.’ He rebuked the others as follows, ‘did it not happen that one of R. Akiba’s students took sick and none of the sages came to visit?’ But R. Akiba entered to visit and because he swept and sprinkled the room before him, he recovered. ‘My master you have made me live’. Following this R. Akiba went and lectured ‘whosoever does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood.’”