Recently, my daughter turned three. It was such a miracle to become a father for the first time at the age of 54. She is such a source of continuing joy.
A lot of other amazing things have come to me late in life, especially since making Aliyah five years ago and even more especially in the last three since our Bernice was born.I think of myself as having had two other ‘babies’ that I’ve brought into the world during this time. First, was a fulfillment of my deep desire to begin contributing to helping build up a better life for all in Israel; I had the opportunity to design and teach a two-year course for the educators who will train the next generation of spiritual caregivers — chaplains — here. I had five amazing students I am so proud of. And now I also bringing to a close a longtime effort to write my dissertation on the spirituality of pastoral care (I fly to New York on Tuesday to defend it at NYU for my PhD!). It’s been an amazing three years — a time of the fulfillment of lifelong dreams.
But it’s almost killed me.
Last summer I ended up in the hospital. The diagnosis on my chart probably said something like “fluid overload secondary to this and that chronic condition; possible congestive heart failure.” But the fact was I was dying from lack of sleep.
It wasn’t just the stress of having a young child interrupting my sleep. I also have sleep apnea that went from years of being just very bad to my essentially not being able to get any real rest at all because I started choking almost as soon as I fell asleep. It shouldn’t have taken almost dying to finally convince me to use a CPAP machine, but it did. I’m not back to where I was, but I’m getting better. My cardiologist thinks I can wait six months to see him again. When I asked him if it’s safe for me to exercise, he responded, momentarily slipping into English from Hebrew, “the more the better.”
So, here I am, 57 years old and almost at the end of earning my last big credential. Growing up, I thought that by the time a man reached his 50s, he would be pretty much done, like Willy Loman or an aging salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross. All the dreams would be gone. I would just be trying to make it to retirement and the inevitable approach of death. But that’s not how it has turned out for me at all.
I’ve turned out to be a (very!) late bloomer. I’m full of hopes and dreams and plans and projects I want to get to. I love having a young child in my life and look forward to witnessing every step of her developing and growing up. I deeply believe in the importance of the field I stumbled into. And I’m totally jazzed to build on the work I started in the dissertation — because I wrote the work, hopefully to become a book, that I wanted to write. I did it for me. I did it because I felt called to create something that I would have wanted to be there when I was starting out on the road to becoming a rabbi and a spiritual caregiver. Something that I would hope would also have the depth to help nurture an aspiring person’s growth, passion and development over time, a bit like Heschel’s “The Sabbath” and Maurice Lamm’s “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” did for me. They helped me see I was pursuing a calling — an orach hayim, a way of life or a way of being — and not just a job with a particular set of skills.
And I do think of spiritual care, of chaplaincy, as, an orach hayim, as something that is fundamentally about faith and passion. I want people to know about that. And that it takes a certain kind of balance. When I was walking the halls of the hospital, I carried with me a deep arrogance that made me able to do what I did. I believed that spiritual care was more important in addressing people’s suffering than anything doctors could try to do with their beeping machines and their powerful medicines. That arrogance made me bold and brave and able to engage in acts of deep compassion.
But — like Simcha Bunim with his two notes, one saying “for my sake was the world created” and the other “I am but dust and ashes — my professional arrogance was balanced by something else. I also had the humility to know there was nothing I could do. I knew I could not heal any bodily affliction. And, more significantly, I knew that even if I could help relieve the loneliness and spiritual pain just a bit, I could not end it. People would still suffer.
So, I’m proud to have written this thing and I am hopeful going forward. But along with the hope comes fear. I know I almost killed myself getting here. The ‘dirty secret’ about writing is you kind of have to turn yourself into a self-centered monster that cares about nothing else — not even your health or your closest relationships — to do it.
In my first career — as a daily newspaper writer who rarely spent more than a few hours writing a story — this wasn’t so bad. But when you’re writing a big project, it’s different. In the last few intensive months, all I could think of or care about was the writing. In the shower, while walking down the street — I was trying to figure out some problem with the writing. My health, my relationships — everything — became unimportant. I stopped wanting to invite people over for Shabbat dinner and cook for them. I even lost the ability to enjoy the simplest of the Holy One’s gifts that normally cheer me — sunsets and flowers and alike. My relationships, and my own body and soul, have really suffered.
So I have two big tasks on my plate. The first simply is to rest and recover. To catch up on the things I’ve put off over the last few years while focusing on my ‘babies’ so intensely — especially my health so I can have some hope of living long enough to see my daughter reach army age. Maybe find my way back to enjoying things, to healing my relationships — both personal and professional.
The second big task is about discernment, about reflecting on what I’m going to do next. I don’t know for sure what will come out of this time of reflection and recovery, but I know my next path(s) will be in the same area of the three ‘babies’: 1) family and living life with joy, 2) trying to be the best support I can to there being the highest quality of spiritual care and spiritual care education here in Israel, and 3) providing resources, writing and research to serve not just the field here, but the field of spiritual care as a whole.
And so as I prepare to vote and then to head to Ben Gurion for my flight to my dissertation defense, I am, despite the exhaustion, hopeful and excited. People will still be able to reach me in the months between now and the hagim, but it’s mostly going to be time of sabbatical. Rest, reflection, discernment, physical exercise. And some learning. Maybe trying to find a way to be able to work without having to pay the price to my health and relationships that the dissertation took.
One place where you might actually see more of me is right here — writing blog posts is fun and (mostly) rejuvenating for me. And it reminds me of the part of myself that is, and always will be a writer.
I will be wishing peace for everyone as I head to the polls. And in the spirit of our approaching holiday of Pesach, freedom. From all the sources of bondage that afflict us.