When I was in rabbinical school, I spent a year as a chaplaincy intern at Memorial-Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York. One morning, several weeks after the Jewish high holidays, I received a call from the wife of a patient requesting a visit from a rabbi. When I walked into their room, I noticed that the man had clearly been a big man in healthier days that — like his body — were at risk of fading away. He was shaking rather intensely, and his wife sat by his bed, tears falling copiously from her eyes.
Fighting back my sense of helplessness as a young, untrained rabbinical student, I entered the room with the most soothing smile and gentle demeanor I could muster. “Hi, I’m Dan Ornstein, the Jewish chaplain” I said. “Oh, Rabbi,” she responded, (he could not speak), “I am so glad you are here. My husband is so sick that he can’t even read the paper or talk on the phone.” We talked for perhaps twenty minutes about their lives and the progress of his illness, but the conversation felt like forever for me. At twenty-three, I had never touched mortality so intensely before, so the passage of time felt unimportant to me.
But time was catching up with us and I had other patients to see. “Would you like me to say a healing prayer for you before I go?” I asked. “Yes, rabbi, please say it! I know that God listens to the prayers of young people!” she whispered back through her sobs. Inside my head, I forcefully brushed aside my childish, condescending skepticism at her words. God just does not work that way, I reasoned with sadness and certainty, citing to myself the proof that lay in every room of the hospital. Surely, if the woman and her husband needed to trust in God in this way, I would go along with it for their sakes, but I would never fall prey to such self-deception. I held the man’s hand and recited the ancient prayer asking God to grant him healing of spirit and of body. We said goodbye and I left the room.
A week later, I went back to visit them again. Entering the room, I noticed that the man was smiling and relaxed, and that he was busy reading the paper. His wife looked up and saw me, and before I could even say hello, she blurted out joyously: “Rabbi, I told you that God listens to the prayers of young people! No sooner had you left last week, than my husband’s tremors stopped, he picked up the paper to read it, and he felt well enough to talk with people on the phone!” What have I done and what kind of voodoo magic has God wrought through me, a poor rabbinical student unprepared for — and skeptical about — my role of healer? I asked myself. Things didn’t happen this way. The fancy Jewish theology books said so, and they offered me a kind of twisted solace by reassuring me that the power of prayer to heal us is predictably limited.
Only years later, as my wife and I sat in a hospital waiting room, anxiously anticipating the end of our then six-month-old daughter’s kidney surgery, did I begin to understand the deeper meaning of those encounters I had had with that family. My family and I had been in town for no more than nine months; we were feeling isolated and scared as we sat in that waiting room, when a friend who was the Jewish hospital chaplain came by to check on us. We talked with her a few moments. Then, as she prepared to leave, she asked us, “Would you like me to say a healing prayer for you before I go?” Now on the other side of the hospital bed, we said yes.
She took our hands and said the prayer in behalf of our daughter. My fear melted away, and I felt as if my most basic needs for love, protection and attention had been fulfilled, at least for that moment. The touch of her hands, the sound of her voice, and the words of the prayer became God’s arms, lifting me, my wife and our baby up in an embrace of hope. Obviously, even with a great surgical team, we had no way of knowing for certain that she would survive the surgery and be well again. Yet our friend’s voice and words became our bridge to God in Whom we placed our faith to carry us through that day and into the future, whatever the future might hold.
Though her situation many years earlier was completely different, in fact far less hopeful than ours, my patient’s wife expressed that same trust that I was feeling, but she used very different language and metaphors. We both experienced something beyond the rational that was still profoundly real: this life-giving presence of God, the flow of life itself, letting us know that we could trust God never to abandon us, regardless of the outcomes of our experiences.
We rabbis spend a great deal of time walking with our fellow members of the community on their journeys, during celebration and crisis, seeing them through illness, loss, death, and the deep disappointments that occur in everyone’s less than perfect lives. We walk on our own journeys as part of the community as well. Painfully, all of us, too often, ask anguished, well worn questions about why bad things happen to good people and how a good God can allow evil in the world. In my earlier years as a young chaplain, rabbi and parent, I thought that the way I should help people find strength in God and Judaism during crisis was to try to answer those questions. Years later, I have been humbled by life’s mysteries, by loss, and by people’s amazing strength, courage, and dignity despite so much suffering. I have come to see that the best way to help others find that strength is through the cultivation of what Jewish tradition calls bitahon, a deeply spiritual form of trust.
What is this kind of trust? How is genuine trust different from blind trust that brings either disappointment or dishonesty? The word “trust” derives from an old Norse word meaning “strong.” Note that, unlike “verify,” which derives from the Latin word, verus, “true,” trust does not necessarily imply complete reliance upon truth or fact. It implies remaining strong in the absence of total truth and fact. It holds out for us that often clichéd leap of faith that makes no logical sense, yet which is often all we can rely upon when we are walking through a life full of pitch black absurdity and uncertainty.
We are the inheritors of a great Jewish religion, which insists that we live in a spirit of trust even as we constantly seek truth and certainty. For instance, here are the words of the 13th psalm of the biblical book of Psalms:
How long, O LORD?! Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I take counsel in my soul?
How long will my enemy loom over me?
Look, answer me, O LORD, my God! Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death;
Lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,” my foes exulting when I stumble.
But as for me, I trust in Your faithfulness.
My heart exults in Your deliverance.
I sing to the Lord, for He has dealt generously with me.
As you read this psalm — hopefully out loud — did you hear and feel the poet’s pain and longing in her repetition of each phrase, “How long”?
Imagine the poet planting herself in front of God, demanding to know how long it will be before God’s palpable absence from her life will end, as she grasps for an answer of protection and love from God in the face of her enemy’s looming presence. The enemy could be anything, anyone: a physical foe, an illness, a personal crisis. “God, this is when I need you most, but it feels like You are nowhere to be found!” the poet repeats in robust, insistent protest. Nonetheless, the poet concludes, “I will trust You, God.”
Implicit in her conclusion is the assertion that she will trust, and do so joyously, even though she has no logical basis for doing so. Our teacher, Rabbi Benjamin Segal, emphasizes in his writings that many biblical psalms like this one adopt this pattern of constant movement between hope and despair, trust and insecurity, a vision of what is ideal and skepticism based upon what is real. These are, in fact, far more mature ways of believing, living, and seeing the world than retreating to either of the polar opposites of blind faith or bitter cynicism. The psalms — and Judaism — offer us this more complex path to faith, which might be more challenging to us, yet which I think is far more rewarding. In a grand sense, we are asked by our tradition to verify the truth when we can, and to trust even when we cannot verify that all will be well in our lives.
Because it often operates in the absence of verification, trust can be a slippery human disposition that gets easily abused. Demagogues, charlatans, and snake oil salesmen, who handily exploit needy and gullible people into committing atrocities or giving away their money and security, with horrible consequences, abound. The call of religion for us to trust God and our religious leaders has too often resulted in robotic submission to authoritarian evildoing, such as we see among extremists within every faith, including Judaism. Yet, religion’s call to us to live in trust can also be a rock of strength and dignity when reality is so chaotic it threatens to drive us insane.
My patient’s wife trusted, without really knowing for sure, that I would somehow carry her sadness and fear for her husband to God through my prayer. My wife and I trusted, without really knowing for sure, that our friend’s prayer in our behalf would help us to find God walking with us through the terrifying hours of our baby’s surgery and beyond. Trust during both experiences helped all of us to hold on to a greater hope beyond the reality of despair in which we found ourselves, one which could easily have suffocated us. Most important, each of us found trust in God by relying upon trust in the people around us or by being sources of trust; we helped each other to build bridges to God’s love, through compassion, community, and concern.
Are you feeling that the bridge has fallen out from under your feet: that you have been betrayed by life, by God, by others you thought you could trust? Are you no longer certain you can trust that Israel will be able to find peace, that humanity will correct its worst excesses, or that there will even be a healthy world awaiting your descendants?
I humbly offer you our psalmist of ancient times as one model for struggling back towards trust. Caught in a stranglehold of enemies, a brush with death, and who know what other crises, our psalmist nonetheless found the ability to declare: “God, I trust in Your faithfulness.” Not, “God, I trust in Your magical powers,” or “God, I trust in Your miracles,” or “God I know with certainty that all will work out fine”, but “God, I trust in Your faithfulness.”
Isn’t that what we learn from God? Isn’t that what we learn to expect from each other as we move through life? Not the capacity to provide quick fixes or facile solutions to complex or unsolvable problems, not unattainable perfection, but the ability and the willingness to reach out with faithfulness, love, persistent presence, and at times, repentance and forgiveness. The reassurance to one another that when you are most in need, God and I will be there for you.