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Stories that Hurt, Stories that Heal

04/06/2015 08:21:00 AM


Stories that Hurt, Stories that Heal
Yom Kippur, 2000 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Jacob slept alone that night. It was only the second time in his life that he slept alone. The first time was more than twenty years ago. Terrified of his brother's murderous rage, he had run from home empty handed, alone, defenseless. He had slept beneath the night sky with only a stone for a pillow. And had dreamed of a ladder, connecting heaven and earth. Since then he had lodged in the household of his uncle, Laban, married Laban's daughters and saw more than a dozen children. 

Tonight, he was alone again. The wives and children, the flocks and retainers, all safely across the river, Jacob returned to the other side, alone. 

Va'yay'avek eesh eemo ad alot ha-shachar. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. 

Once again he took a stone for his pillow, and closed his eyes. This time, no benign vision of heaven's ladder, instead he awakened suddenly to find himself gripped by muscular arms and pinned to the ground. It was so dark, he could not see the other, but he could feel his power. Gathering his strength, he began to struggle to be free. Jacob could hear his attacker's breath. He could feel the cloth of his garments. He could smell the sweat of struggle. Jacob was a strong man. But even using all his strength, he could not free himself. But neither could the enemy pin him down. They were evenly matched and they rolled on the ground and struggled fiercely all through the night. 

Eventually it was dawn. And as the light came, the adversary released Jacob and tried to escape. But Jacob held him fast. "Let me go,"the adversary cried, "for dawn is breaking.""I will not let you go,"Jacob responded, "until you bless me." The adversary struggled hard, but Jacob held him close, until he reached out and wrenched Jacob's hip and wounded him. Finally, he relented. 
"What is your name?"said the other. 
"Jacob,"he replied.
"Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with man and you have prevailed."
Then Jacob said, "Tell me your name!"
"That, you must not know."But he blessed him there and departed.
Jacob named the place Peniel, "For I have seen the face of God and I have survived."And Jacob continued his journey, but he walked with a limp.

In the course of a lifetime, we all visit this place, Peniel, the place of life-struggle, of God wrestling. God knows, we didn't ask for this encounter. The adversary arrives in the middle of the night, in the middle of life, unwanted, unwelcome, unexpected, unannounced. A tiny white spot on an X-ray, a bit of stiffness, a spot of blood. And suddenly, we are wresting for life itself. You can't see the face of the attacker in the darkness but your other senses become sharper: You learn to detect every lilt and nuance in a doctor's voice. The odor of clinical disinfectant makes you gag. You wrestle all through the long night, and when morning comes, we walk away with a wound, a limp -- never to stride casually through life again. The wound will never disappear. Your name will be changed. Your identity, your place in the world will be transformed. Bitterness, anger, depression, fear, loneliness -- they all visit during the struggle. So do wisdom, purpose, compassion, and love. What will we be called after the encounter? What blessing will we wrestle from the angel?

The first time I officiated at a funeral, I was 27 years old, fresh from Seminary, and utterly terrified. The senior rabbi asked me to take care of the service so I called the family and set an appointment see them at home. I pulled up to the house and sat in the car a long time, panicking. In Seminary, I mastered all the complicated halachot of death and burial -- all the tradition's rules and rites -- but what did I know about life and death? I knew all the books, but what was I supposed to say to real people, people in real pain? Whatever the secret, magic words of comfort were -- I must have missed them in class. Why hadn't I gone to law school?

Finally, one of the family members came out and knocked on the car window. Rabbi, are you OK? So I climbed out of the car, and walked slowly into the house. The whole family had gathered -- children, grandchildren, in-laws and cousins. And they all sat, deeply sad, waiting for the rabbi to say some holy words. I shook their hands, found a seat, and I too waited for the holy words. 

There is a line in the book of Psalms, Shomer Peta'eem Adonai. God watches over fools. And I believe this. For out of my mouth came words, I assure you, not my own. I simply said, "Tell me about your father."

The family sat in silence rather stunned. They expected the rabbi to come with bags of ethereal wisdom. They expected the rabbi to talk. The last thing they expected was the rabbi to listen. But I just waited. 

"What would you like to know?"

"Well,"I said, looking to the widow, "how did he meet your mom?"

Quizzical looks and shrugging shoulders filled the room until finally mama looked up from behind her tears and boomed out, "He had a Packard. Actually, it was his brother's, but he borrowed it. And I always wanted to go for a ride in a Packard. So he came and took me out for a drive."

"And then what?"asked one of the sons.

"And then you were born year later."She responded with a sly grin. 
The room filled with spontaneous laughter. And then looks of embarrassment. "Are we allowed to laugh?"one of the grandchildren asked. 

From this came a flood of stories. They came through tears and through laughter. How papa came to America. How the family business was established. How they struggled through Depression and War and into prosperity. Old pictures were passed around. Opening their wedding picture, one of the kids exclaimed: "Grandma, you were hot!"The lessons of Papa's life unfolded. His sacrifices were celebrated. The values he lived became visible to his children and grandchildren. At that moment, Papa became immortal. In that family room, life and death wrestled. And at that moment, life defeated death and earned a blessing. 

We human beings are complex creatures -- we are body and we are soul. This is a paradox. The soul -- the seat of wisdom, of personality, of love, of humor -- the soul is unique and subtle. But the body, the body is fragile. It is vulnerable. It is subject to aging, to accident, to disease and to death. That is the human condition. And because of that, we suffer. We all suffer. But we can heal. The human body has a remarkable ability to mend itself. The body's immune system fights infection and invasion, its reparative function rebuilds damaged tissue, organs adjust and compensate to keep the metabolism in balance. In a similar way, the human spirit heals. And so we pray for -- refuat ha-nefesh v'refuat ha-guf. Healing of body and healing of spirit. 

Death and disease and tragedy invade our lives, leaving us broken and bereft, and we are smothered in sorrow and rage and bitterness, self-pity and guilt and blame and grief. It strangles. It feels as if you can't breathe in life or light. And there's no relief. Then something miraculous happens. It may take a month, or a year, or ten years, but we surrender the rage, the bitterness, the self-pity and the blame, and we heal. 

This is one of God's greatest miracles. We heal. Life, somehow, overcomes death. We find a new wholeness, a new equilibrium. We find a new way to live in the world. 

Sometimes, we can even wrestle blessings out of death -- growing deeper in wisdom, a deeper appreciation for life, a deeper love for those around us, a deeper compassion for the suffering of others. 

The encounter leaves us wounded. We will never be the same as before. The wound can be a reminder of the pain, the bitterness of loss, the fragility and vulnerability of life. It can also be a symbol of the blessing -- what we've gained in the encounter, a wiser and deeper soul. The wound can be a reminder that we have seen the face of God and lived.

In the end, the family thanked me. At the time, I didn't thing I did anything. All I did was listen. Now many years and many tragedies later, I understand what I did. 

I gathered them together. We heal. But the truth is, we heal each other. We can't annul the vulnerability of the body. Disease and death are inevitable parts of the human condition. But we can rescue the spirit. We can help the dying leave this world in peace, acceptance and gratitude. And we keep the survivors from falling into the grave. We can bring them home from the cemetery. Home to family and friends and community, home to work and play and life and meaning. We have the power, often with the simplest of acts, to help one another heal. 

I gathered them together, and I made them tell Papa's story. In telling his story, they realized how his story is connected with a much bigger story. They transcended death and celebrated his life. They uncovered what is eternal in his life. And in that, they discovered that life can overcome death. The lessons of Papa's life came to inspire and shape the lives of his grandchildren. And in that, they wrestled blessings from death. 

This is how human beings heal -- in a circle of love, friendship, support and care, and holding tightly to a faith that our own stories are connected to bigger stories, our lives connected to eternity. 

But it isn't easy. We use this word "healing."It has become very popular in the culture. But it is misleading. Because we use the same word to describe both physical healing --the healing of the body -- and psychological or spiritual healing. There are certain ways in which the two are analogous. They both involve a slow process of mending -- of going from brokenness to wholeness, from pain to comfort. But they are not the same. Physical healing, no matter how much we may help it along with medicines and therapies, is basically an autonomic function. The body heals itself. You don't tell your organs what to do next. You don't direct the secretions of glands. You just stand by and watch. But healing of the spirit demands a great deal of human will. Turning from death to life is a decision, a choice. And sometimes a very difficult one. 

"I set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life."This God's commandment in the Torah. Most of the time it's obvious and trivial. But there are moments in life when that's the hardest commandment to fulfill. That's the struggle, the wrestling. The world is filled with blessings, with life. There are friends who would care for us and save us. There are intimations of eternity all around -- invitations to significance, opportunities for meaning. But sometimes, we aren't able to receive these blessings. Sometimes, we aren't ready to choose life. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote that God constantly rains blessings of healing down on the earth. The problem is that not everyone owns a bucket. 

For many years, as we drove up the 101 toward San Francisco, we'd see signs for the Winchester Mystery House in Santa Clara. Finally, a year ago, we stopped to visit. Have you been there? Sarah Winchester was the wife of the heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune. When both her husband and her young child died suddenly, she became convinced that the family had been cursed and was being pursued by the spirits of all those murdered by Winchester Rifles. She consulted a well-known medium who instructed her that the way to escape these angry spirits was to go to California, and buy a house and never stop building onto it. So Mrs. Winchester abandoned her family and friends in Connecticut, moved to Santa Clara, purchased a six-room farmhouse and began what amounted to almost fifty years of constant construction and reconstruction. At one time, the house had over 300 rooms, with staircases to nowhere, doors that opened into thin air, closets inside of closets and rooms of every bizarre shape and dimension. Over 300 rooms, and Mrs. Winchester never invited anyone in. She spoke only to a servant and her builder. Her plan succeeded. She eluded death. She also eluded life. 

The Winchester House is an architectural oddity, a monument to eccentricity. But it's more. It is a poignant symbol of how grief and fear and loneliness can trap a human soul. Poor Mrs.Winchester, locked inside her ever-expanding house, her ever-growing pain, her ever-deepening sorrow, turning more grotesque and bizarre with each new cycle of obsessive construction and reconstruction. 

As I walked around that strange house, I realized that I know Mrs. Winchester. I've lived in that house. I remember saying to myself: I've spent a lifetime learning how to be self-sufficient, I'm not going to change now just because I have cancer. I solve problems for a living. I'll handle this. That's tragic. First, because no one has the strength to go it alone. We need one another. Second, because by hiding way up in the lonely garrets and attics of stubborn self-sufficiency we deprive others who want and need to help us. Third, because I used up all my emotional energy building this vast fortress of stoic isolation -- with its endless architecture of gables and turrets. And I couldn't see that a kind of cancer of the spirit was spreading -- overturning the lives of my wife, my children, my parents, my friends. I think I'm protecting them, shielding them. All the while, they suffer. And by shutting them out, I make it worse. 

If only Mrs. Winchester had once opened the front door and invited the neighbors in for tea. If only she had once invited the neighborhood children in to fill the miles of hallways with laughter and play. If only she could believe that she was not in this alone. If only Mrs. Winchester had allowed someone to care for her. It is a mitzvah to care. It is sometimes a greater mitzvah to allow others to care for us. 

We can heal each other. But that means coming down from the attic; down from that place of heroic isolation. It means opening the front door, and letting others in. God rains blessing down on us. Not everyone owns a bucket. 

We are healed by the love we share. But sometimes we cut ourselves off. And we are healed by a faith that human life can echo eternity. But sometimes faith can be deadly. We are healed by telling the stories that connect us with eternity. But sometimes, our stories can cut us off. 

A woman came to see me because her strapping 20-something son was very ill with a vicious form of cancer. She actually didn't want to come, but members of the family thought it would be good for her to speak to a rabbi and she was too exhausted at this point to put up her usual fight. So she came. 

I greeted her in the waiting room. She rose, shook my hand, look me directly in the eye and told me point blank, "You should know that I'm an atheist. I don't believe in any of this. I was raised in a religious home, but I haven't been in synagogue since I was a child. I find it all very foolish. Rabbis and all your hocus pocus can't help me. I gave all that up years ago. I don't believe in God. There is no God in my world." All this, before we even get to my study.

I invite her to sit down. I take the seat opposite. She leans across my desk and again, looks at me directly. "What I want to know,"she says, "is why God is doing this to me? I'm a good person. I've lived a good life. I've done more than my fair share for the world."And she had. She had lived a very good life. She told me about the projects she had organized, the kindness and generosity expressed privately and publicly. All very impressive. "So, Rabbi, why is God punishing me?"

Bad theology is as dangerous as bad medicine. Bad medicine interferes with the body's curative power blocking its ability to heal. Bad theology interferes with the spirit's power to heal and to accept blessing. 

This poor woman suffers with her child. And she suffers again, because she believes that she brought this horrible disease on her child. She believes that she's being punished by God and therefore that she deserves what's happened to her. Some hidden transgression, some offense in the forgotten distant past, has caused her beautiful child this anguish. She can neither remember nor imagine what sin, what iniquity has brought all this about. But she knows that she's the guilty. And she knows that God caused this. The God she doesn't believe in. 

Bad medicine is created with the best of intentions -- as remedy to suffering and illness. It still kills. The same is true for bad theology. Perhaps in some other context, in answer to some other question, the idea of divine causality has its place. Surely the conviction that that every event of life arrives from the hands of God was offered as a comfort and consolation. But here it brings only pain. And the first rule of theology must the same as the first rule of medicine: First, do no harm.

She doesn't believe in God, but on some deeper level she does. She rejects the notion of divine judgement, divine reward and punishment. But deeper down, she clings to it. She has let go of every vestige of what's life-affirming in religion and holds tightly to a theology of punishment. Because with all its painful implications, it protects her from an even more frightening prospect -- that there is no meaning in this at all. "Man can adapt himself to anything his imagination can cope with,"writes philosopher Suzanne Langer, "but he cannot deal with Chaos. Because his characteristic function and highest asset is conception, his greatest fright is to meet what he cannot construeÖOur most important assets are always the symbols of our orientation in nature, in society and in what we are doing."Bad theology is still a theology. It still addresses the question, even if its answers are flawed. These are the only answers she's got. 

I don't believe God punishes, I tell her. God isn't out to get you. We have bodies. Our bodies are subject to the laws of nature. That makes us terribly vulnerable -- to disease, to accident, to catastrophe. But those catastrophes aren't God's individual judgements. Vulnerability is the human condition, not God's punishment. Your child is not sick because of something you did years ago. Your child is not sick because God is cruel and unjust. Your son is sick because of a transmission error in the genetic code. 

She looks at me with unbelieving eyes. "That's not what my rabbi said!"

That's right. It's not a conventional theology. But the tradition is full of voices you've never heard. Listen to Rabbi Meir in Talmud Sanhedrin: When a person is in pain, what does God say? God says, My head aches, My stomach hurts, My heart is ill. Healing come, according to Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin, when we realized that God suffers with us. God cries for a world filled with pain. 

I've also had cancer, I'll tell you what I've discovered: God isn't in the disease. God is in our power to transcend the disease. God isn't the cause of suffering. God is revealed in the miraculous power to mend the body and repair the spirit. God is present when life overcomes death, when wholeness overcomes brokenness. I saw the face of God in the doctors and nurses and technicians and friends and neighbors who came to help me, who offered care, compassion and hope.

She begins to cry now. No longer tears of rage, but of sadness and fear and love. "He's such a good boy,"she lets me know. And we both realize that for the first time we're talking about her son and his disease, and not her disappointment and her rage. And it feels so much better. 

In the circle of those who love us, we discover the strength to overcome death. In holding tightly to what's eternal in life, we locate a wholeness that overcomes brokenness. Healing opens a pathway to meaning and to peace. And even a person facing death may heal. Even the dying may find blessing. Death may take the body. The spirit can be rescued. 

Rick and Sheila were to be married in the Spring. We met and discussed the ceremony and the arrangements. Then Sheila developed a back problem and needed to postpone the wedding. In the course of treating the back ailment, they discovered pancreatic cancer. She began an aggressive protocol of chemotherapy, but to no effect. Finally, the treatment was withdrawn and hospice care was arranged. In one of our conversations, Rick told me that what upset Sheila the most was missing her wedding. Pick a day when she's feeling strong, and we'll have a wedding, I offered. 

Their condo was already full of friends and neighbors when I arrived, and continued to fill as we waited for Sheila to gather the strength and come downstairs. Finally, she appeared at the top of the stairs. She wore a lovely white lace dress and though gaunt and frail and weary, she was every bit the beautiful bride. Kaytzad merakdim leefnay ha-kala. How do we celebrate the bride? Asks the Talmud. Kalah na'ah v'chaseeda. She is all radiance and love. 

For a chuppah, we held up a tablecloth over the couple. I quickly recited the blessings. Rings were gently exchanged. Rick broke the glass. And the crowd of neighbors and friends, mostly non-Jews, sang a chorus of siman tov, mazal tov and danced as much of a hora as the tiny condo would allow. 

Ten days later, Sheila died. At peace, with her husband beside her, beneath their framed ketubah. 

The traditional Jewish prayer is for refuah shelayma, a healing of wholeness. We pray, not for a life without suffering -- that's not the human condition. We pray for the courage to embrace life in the face of death. We pray for a circle of friends to dance with us. We pray for wisdom to attach our lives to eternity. We pray for the strength to wrestle blessings from death -- deeper wisdom, deeper love, deeper compassion. 

Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden. And they lived together, east of Eden, tilling the earth and raising children, and struggling to stay alive. After the years of struggle, when their children were grown, they decided to see the world. They journeyed from one corner of the world to the other. In the course of their journeys, wandering from place to place, they found the entrance to the Garden of Eden, now guarded by an angel with a flaming sword. They were frightened and they began to flee when God spoke to them:

"Adam, you have lived in exile these many years. Your exile is finished. Return to the Garden."

Suddenly the angel disappeared, and the way to the Garden opened. 
"Come in, My children, welcome to Paradise!"

But Adam had grown wary these many years. 
"Wait," he replied, "It's been so many years. Remind me, what it's like in the Garden."

"The Garden is paradise!" God responded. "In the Garden there is no work. You need never struggle or toil again. In the Garden there is no pain, no suffering. In the Garden there is no death. Day after day, life goes on for eternity. Come my children, return to the Garden!"

Adam listened to God's words -- no work, no struggle, no pain, no death. An endless life of ease. And then he turned and looked at Eve. He looked at the woman with whom he had struggled to make a life, to take bread from the earth, to raise children, to build a home. He thought of the tragedies they had overcome and they joys they cherished, the suffering they endured and the love they had found. 

And Adam shook his head, "No, thank you, not now ... Come on Eve, let's go home." And hand in hand, Adam and Eve turned their backs on Paradise and continued their journey. So may we all.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780