Whole Presence, Holy Moments
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class XV. She serves as Rabbi of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Havurah in Newton, MA, and as Jewish Chaplain at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently served on the beit din for the conversion to Judaism of a German man whose parents had been members of the Nazi party. During our conversation, I bore witness to an amazing story. He had married a Jewish woman 20 years ago, and decided to convert prior to his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. As he immersed in the mikveh, and his family and I listened to the splash of the immersions and his recitation of the blessings, I looked into the eyes of his mother-in-law, who herself had fled Nazi Germany as a child, and whose mother, also a near-victim of the Nazi regime, had embraced this German man as part of the family long before he made the decision to convert. The tears in her eyes, and the sound of the water, and the sounds of a carefully practiced German-accented Hebrew reciting ancient words of gratitude and blessing, came together in one of the holiest moments I have ever witnessed. The history of our people, the history of this man, and the history of his family, were brought together in an instant that none of us could have imagined or prepared for. The moment flowed from being absolutely present and therefore able to bear witness to the holy. In bearing witness, all of us there had a hand in creating the holiness of the moment. According to the mikveh guide, the man had taken an unusual and astonishing posture as he immersed: limbs outstretched, as if receptive to all that the moment held. I learned from this, as I learned from his mother’s eyes, and from the sound of the blessings he recited, each syllable sounding as if lovingly embraced by a new owner.
Genuine and full presence: No matter how trite and commonplace this idea has become, I learn it anew from every encounter– at the mikveh, at the hospital where I serve as a chaplain, teaching and learning from my congregants, and especially as a parent. When I let go of expectations, and hold a posture of humility, of trust, of openness, and even awe, of “I don’t know what will be needed of me in this next moment, but I will know when I am in it;” when I trust my capacity to listen to another’s story, to witness and to respond, I am able to perceive the holy that resides in every moment.
When I began chaplaincy work, I would come to a patient armed with books of Torah and prayer. I have learned that I can, and I must, in every moment of my rabbinate, enter the “room” with my full self, carrying Torah and tradition woven into my heart, rather than carried under my arms. It is then that true listening, and true holiness, happens.