As a fifth year student in the rabbinical program, I have a unique vantage point to reflect on my time at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. I came into HUC-JIR following a “non-traditional” path, although at this point so many of my classmates and colleagues have a diverse portfolio of skills, interests and passions that it is hard to determine “traditional” from “non-traditional.” I came into rabbinical school focused on pastoral care, with a particular passion for issues of end-of-life care, hospice and palliative care.
I now know more about living, having accompanied people on their journey into the hereafter – into life eternal or however they have named it. It is not dissonant to say my work in hospice, palliative care, care at the end of life, is truly the most life-affirming work I have ever engaged in. I know more about what I want my congregation to be having accompanied my student congregation in Uniontown to their final days. I know the way I want to spend my final days – mostly that I don’t want to wait until my final days to live my life that way. I am a work in progress and building trust and love with people around me means that not every relationship starts that way, nor will every relationship end up with that kind of union. But for the people who truly know me, see me, love me – I want to love and be loved – these are those people who are already witness to my journey. They accompany me, they protect me, they are a source of strength. And in turn I can offer them support and strength as well. We journey together.
I find it difficult to explain to people who have never been in the presence of someone who is actively dying the holiness of the moments, presence and experience. Part of the limitation is my own ability to find words to address something utterly transcendent. In the framework of Buber – putting words to an I-Thou relationship necessarily changes it into I-It. Part of the limitation is the uniqueness of these final moments – each patient, each family – each moment itself is different from the previous moment and from the subsequent moment. I believe that the immediacy and finality of death makes it more obvious than in other moments of life. But each of our life’s moments is part of a constellation of relationships, unique for time and place, each different from the moment before and never ever able to be duplicated. Part of my limitation is being invited as a guest into someone else’s family constellation. The family/patient has invited me to share the moments; these are not my own moments to share. But, of course, my own experiences of those moments, my own emotions, my own responses, my own challenges… the beauty and the transcendence that I experience – those certainly are mine to share.
As I near the end of my time in school, I approach the next stage of what (I am certain) will be an exciting and fulfilling job/career/venture in the rabbinate. I have already met people who believe in providing holistic care, connecting healing of the body to healing the soul and spirit. I have met people whose goal it is to see, accompany and witness the lives of the individuals who are in our presence.
Recently, I thought back to my first year in New York, when I was chaplain intern at Zicklin Hospice. Three people are indelibly written into my life’s narrative. GW, JW and ML. GW was my first patient, the person who I accompanied as far as I could, but couldn’t go any further. I was not yet comfortable (faithful??) with offering presence that when GW ceased to speak, I could no longer offer him care. Though I have regret upon regret about my inability to continue caring for GW (I see his face in the face of strangers throughout the city frequently) I know that because of my affection for him, because of my discomfort, because of my limitations at that stage of my learning I was driven to learn more, to explore more, to do more. I offered him as much as I could for as long as I could. And how much more I can offer now! How much more of my heart and soul I have to offer – not only the technical skills I have learned over time.
JW was a woman who I had probably the longest relationship with. She offered me her years of wisdom, a lifetime of lessons. She teased me, we laughed together, we spoke about God and life. She told me that the best thing she ever did was have children – and this is something I have heard from people again and again. Legacy, making life and giving life, continuing the name. There are many reasons why people understand this to be the best thing they have done. JW was 97 when she died and she was the first person I prayed over at the bedside. I prayed for myself as much as I prayed for her. She was a strong strong woman of 4′ 10″ and it took her time to die. But she was comfortable. And she got me to pray!
ML – we put together a seder because she wanted it. She brought her family and friends together, and gifted the entire institution with the ceremony, inviting others who were able to participate. Thanks to her, leading the seder is forever changed within me. How do we speak about l’shana haba’ah b’rushelayim with people who will not live another year? What comfort do we offer them and their families? That will reign as the most sacred of holy dramas, when the specifics of an orthodox liturgy mattered little and I believed the moments of our collective narrative and rituals. I think that on that day I started believing in olam haba, letting go of the need to be rational and intellectually consistent, and allowing the metaphor, to be more than merely figurative.
There are many other people whose stories and faces I remember, even if I don’t remember their names. And certainly people from each of my pastoral placements who mean something very special to me. Those moments of sacred communion have changed me and the way I live and experience myself in my world.
So I sat beside TR on Friday recently. I was invited into the sacred space by TR’s family. “Do you have a favorite memory of T?” I asked. And they shared T with me. The sacred act of witnessing, accompanying, testifying. This too is a sacred act that is beyond metaphor, doesn’t need to be intellectually consistent or rational. And I come out of those moments changed. So yes, this is most life-affirming work that I have ever engaged in. This is my life’s work. This is my calling. I feel honored. I feel humbled. I feel love. I feel sadness. But when it comes down to it – I feel. So I offer gratitude to the One who Reigns on High, that the Source of Being may spread a shelter of comfort and protection over me as I form our sacred union, as I affirm life.
Amy Goodman is a fifth year rabbinical student on the New York campus. Amy is in her second year as a rabbinic/chaplain intern at Mt. Sinai Hospital as part of their interdisciplinary Palliative Medicine team.