To be human, we must know what humanity means
Shuli Passow is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumna. Her pastoral care field work as a first year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary inspired these reflections. Prior to JTS, Shuli served as the Director of Community Initiatives at the Jewish Funds for Justice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Above my desk, in my former office, was a print of a phrase that expresses a foundational concept of my theology: Ado-nai s’fatai tiftach, u’fi yagid t’hilatecha. Ado-nai, open my lips and my mouth will declare Your praises. This is what I believe about my relationship with God: that it is a partnership. That my work in the world is impossible without God’s guidance in opening my mouth, and the fact that God opens my mouth brings upon me a responsibility to do my work in the world.
Nowhere has this theology come into greater relief than in the psych ward. Nowhere in the hospital am I more deeply reminded that my words are only that: my words. That my mouth may, at best, be a conduit for something divine, but that I have no power to heal or to fix. That, in the words of Rabbi Nancy Flam, I am ‘not the source of healing; rather [I] aspire to influence conditions so that healing may occur.’ Perhaps because I have had first hand experience: bearing the burden of depression in my own soul, and struggling to support loved ones in my life who writhed in their own expression of the pain. I know: I have no power to heal.
And yet. I cannot back away from the pain I see. My work, today, is to engage this pain.
Today, I meet Eric. He wants, in his words, ‘to be rescued.’ From what, he does not say. T’fillin, which the chaplain brings to him every day, is a comfort, a tremendous comfort. He is not sure why: he had only put on t’fillin once in his life before arriving at the hospital. But they help, he tells me. They help.
He speaks of the power of prayer. Struggling a bit to find the right balance between speaking and listening, guiding and letting him lead, I find a few openings over the course of our time together. The first, when he tells me that he wants to pray, that he hopes God will hear his prayers to be rescued. I tell him that I do not know how God works, I do not know what prayers are answered, but I do know that sunset on Friday is traditionally understood as a moment when the gates of heaven are a little more open, when the divine ear is slightly more attuned to our prayers. He wants to know what time is sunset. 5:30, OK, 5:30. I’ll remember that, he says. I am confident that he will.
He returns to the topic of t’fillin, again unable to explain why they ‘help.’ But he likes to do it every day. I ask if the rabbi has come by already today, and if Eric has put on t’fillin. No, he tells me. No. I don’t have a set of t’fillin with me, but I do have a small book of t’hillim (Psalms), and I wonder if in addition to the physicality of t’fillin, what Eric may be finding so powerful is simply connecting to something he understands as ancient and holy. He would like me to say a perek of t’hillim.
I choose number 130, from the depths, I call to you, Ado-nai. Eric has been praying regularly, nafshi l’ado-nai m’shomrim la’boker, his soul reaching out for divine contact, more eager than the watchmen who watch for morning. Shomrim la’boker. Who watch for the break of dawn.
He sighs: powerful stuff.
The experience of sitting with another person in his pain is one of confrontation: with the limitations of what will become my rabbinate, with the inexplicable mysteries of suffering. It is powerful, and powerfully unsettling. Yet, as Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, ‘to be human, we must know what humanity means.’ I take this to mean that to fully inhabit our own humanness, we must open ourselves to encounter all expressions of humanness—that expansiveness which we call humanity. In the hospital, where I face the rawness of humanity, my understanding of what it means to be human deepens.
To be clear: my Judaism, my spiritual life, is one of great joy. I believe in ecstatic prayer, spontaneous and practiced gratitude, childlike wonder and general silliness. But one reality of being human is pain. To be with that pain, to sit with it and not back away, to be open to it and not cover it up with work, food, sex, chatter, distractions—this, too, is a practice of the religious life. This, too, I am finding, is an opening to God. To simply be—with full presence, no judgment, and a willingness to look at what is truly there. In this be-ing, I step into my partnership with the divine.
Ado-nai s’fatai tiftach u’fi yagid t’hilatecha.