Getting in order to give, in Israel and back in Bavel (a spiritual care story)

Part of my dream is to be a bridge between the pastoral care communities in Israel and the United States, bringing knowledge and experience back and forth between the metaphorical “Israel and Bavel” of our time as the ancient rabbis did during their travels between the Holy Land and the Diaspora of their time. And so this week I traveled to Albany, NY, for a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) conference.

One of the most powerful moments there was when one person said, “CPE did save my life, in a lot of ways.”

Saved his life??!? This is supposed to be a professional association of people who are certified as educators of chaplains, clergy-in-training and others who want to learn about how to do spiritual care work with people in hospitals, hospices and other settings. We’re supposed to be helping other people, not ourselves.

But I knew exactly what he was talking about. I went through a hard time when I was in rabbinical school. I was depressed and I felt unseen and misunderstood by everyone around me; it wasn’t a great setting for doing the kind of spiritual growth one needs to do to become a rabbi.

But then I discovered CPE. I wanted to learn about how to care for others who were hurting, and that’s what convinced me to spend a whole summer full-time working and learning in a Los Angeles hospital. And that learning happened, but I was surprised to also learn so much about myself, and that here in CPE things like my introversion could be appreciated for their value instead of condemned by people who did not seem to see who I truly am at all.

Yeah, CPE saved my life. It’s given me a career, a call and so much more. I don’t know if I ever would have become the man whom my now wife agreed to marry without it.

And, I’m not alone. There was a lot of personal reflection at the meeting because — as our professional association, the ACPE, reconfigures its structures — the regional sub-organizations are being dissolved; this was the last meeting of the “Eastern Region.” Some talked about how CPE had helped them move from being priests or pastors assumed to be heterosexual by their communities, to being people were able to come out of the closet despite the risk/cost of losing their positions. It was so humbling to listen to their stories of personal transformation.

Maybe it seems strange to you that we caregivers have gotten so much ourselves out of our work and professional journeys. But in our parsha, we find one of the most famous sources for Jewish Pastoral Care, the appearance of three people — maybe humans, maybe angels, maybe manifestations of God — at Avraham’s tent at the Oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18:1). Our tradition understands this scene in two key, seemingly contradictory ways.

One view sees it as about the importance of hospitality and focuses on Avraham as caregiver, willing to offer these travelers food and water to wash their feet.

The other view sees it as a scene about Avraham himself being cared for in the wake of his circumcision in the previous chapter. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a), we learn of how we should “walk in God’s ways” by imitating the works of the Holy One. This scene is cited there, just as God visited Avraham when he was ill, we too should visit the sick. This is the mitzvah of  ביקור חולים/bikur holim that is the foundation for all Jewish pastoral care.

Are these two views really in contradiction? I think not — the Torah is teaching us that the first step in becoming a great caregiver is learning to allow onesself to be cared for.

Learning to accept care, you ask, what’s hard about that?

Everything. To be truly cared for, we have to admit our own ultimate helplessness and finiteness in front of both the human before us and before the Ultimate One.

Some many years ago in Holland there was a controversial Jew by the name of Baruch Spinoza. One of his greatest interpreters, the French 20th c. philosopher Gilles Deleuze, says that Spinoza’s greatest insight was that “we lack nothing”. That is, Spinoza thought that ‘to live as though we lack nothing’ is the path to a wise and ethical life.

Avraham was in pain and suffering when the travelers appeared to him. But the wisdom of “we lack nothing” allowed him to change his focus of attention from his own suffering to the needs of others, and he was able to serve them with energy and joy.

Thus, we start to see how joy is part of the path to wisdom and maybe to justice as well. In the coming week I hope to write a great deal here about joy, and what it means in this time when so many of us want to be involved in some kind of “reistance.” Is there a way to resist oppressive power structures that arises from joy and not just outrage at injustice? And, so next week I will write more about what I learned and experienced at this wonderful, joyful meeting where we said goodbye to the ACPE Northeast Region. And I will  talk about two young, influential leaders of the resistance in the Jewish community who seem stuck in a place of outrage and try, through this blog, to offer them a hand of friendship.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who make Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their “sabra” daughter Berniki. Alan is the founder of HavLi, a spiritual care education and research center associated with the Schwartz Center for Health and Spirituality. A rabbi, Alan is scheduled to receive a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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