This week in my Rabbinics class we were asked to write about Pastoral care. This is my submission, in part.
Who amongst us has not lost a beloved one, be they a parent, a spouse, a sibling, or God forbid, a child. This week our Jewish community lost a teacher of many years, a woman who guided so many children into their adulthood, a woman who valued her Judaism with all her might and all her soul. The same week, the mother of one of our beloved members of Kolot Mayim died. Last Sunday was a day of Remembrance for all those souls who perished in the Shoah. As we look at photographs of these souls, men, women, children, we can only begin to imagine what our world has lost as each one person perished. The literature, the scientific discoveries, the music, the theatre, the Torah learning – those souls gone up in flames, or buried in mud.
Our hearts are inconsolable; we know in our kishkes that the angels are still weeping. God too is silently weeping, saying an endless Kaddish. When we hear of a death we say, “Baruch Dayan Emet.” When I opened the e-mail from the rabbi, I had no words, but gratefully found Baruch Dayan Emet, on my lips. God is the True Judge. Gratitude and grief are strange bedfellows.
I have been at the bedside of a number of dying souls. This is part of what God has summoned me to do. My sister was run over by a truck backing up next door. She died when I was a little girl. Her death was a tragedy that marked my family in a totality of grief as much as any scarlet letter scarred Hester Prynne. There was so much silence. Silent questions, and silent made-up answers. Those many years of silence became the only container my parents could countenance, but I eventually learned that I needed to speak about life and about death.
Our rabbis were our teachers. They too had to teach, all too often in the face of death. They ensured that Torah was learned and passed on. They taught that the level of kedusha, of holiness, of the human body – of each of us – is compared to that of a Sefer Torah. The Gesher HaChayim (volume 1, page 65) tells us that when we are alive we are called a Sefer Torah chai – a living Sefer Torah. Moed
Katan 25a teaches that when a person dies, it is as if a Sefer Torah was burnt, going up in flames.
Carrying that analogue forward to a teaching from Pirke Avot we hear the words of Ben Bag Bag: “Turn it and turn it again, for all is in it; see through it; grow old and worn in it; do not budge from it, for there is nothing that works better than it.” Pirke Avot 5, 22
And so for the past many years I have tried not to budge, from Torah or from the end of life. I have stood by many bedsides. I sang, I washed, I listened, I advocated for, I held hands, I changed sheets, I told stories, but mostly I tried to just be present. I tried to learn how to better live in the relentless face of death.
I have so many stories, stories that could break your heart, stories that could unlock your own buried grief. I have stories that have made me aware of the infinity of time held by each of our souls – I know we live in an expanse of time far beyond our imaginings, never mind our physical limitations. I have had minute glimpses of that stretch of timelessness – it is infinite and precise and it is perfect. Each of our souls bears witness to the light of each other. Our work here is to listen and to always be honest.
When my beloved Goldie, z”l, died, I was beyond bereft. When my beloved father, z”l, died, I thought I would break. And then, as minutes passed, I knew that they knew that I knew what to do. And so I did. And while my heart’s mind shifted into the practical realities of taking care of their now-dead shells, I was well-comforted by that glimpse of their infinity.
Dad hasn’t come to me for a while – but I know he is watching me; every now and then I can feel his nudge. Hardly a day goes by I don’t think of him. And this week I found myself thinking of a woman I visited many years ago. I think her name was Ann.
My rabbi asked if I would go to see her, so I went. In the 1950’s Ann and her husband were chicken farmers living in the country; back then they felt rejected by the city Jews. We too were chicken farmers back then, but not Jewish, not yet. I stood beside her bed, trying to find an opening into her rigidly held silence, her contempt for our people who had rejected her. And then she turned to me, and she asked, “And you, what does your husband do?” I paused, and then quietly replied, “I don’t have a husband. My partner is another woman.” She looked at me. I looked at her. And then after an achingly long pause, she said, “Well you’ve had it tough too, haven’t you?” Hours later, after we talked and laughed and shared chicken stories, I went home.
The next day she died. I was so grateful that in those flames of her dying, Ann let in some light, for both of us.