Chaplain Barry E. Pitegoff, BCC
My synagogue, (Conservative) Temple Sinai in Middletown, NY, invited me to participate in its teach-in as Shavuot began on Saturday evening, June 8, 2019. Each speaker was asked to talk on a verse of Torah/Tanakh that has resonated to them in their careers. Here is the speech I delivered:
My teaching is based on Tehillim, Psalm 71, Verse 9. This resonates to me constantly in my career as a professional chaplain. The JPS translation of this verse is, “Cast me not off in the time of old age; when my strength faileth, forsake me not.” I have often seen the last phrase translated as, “Do not abandon me.” I often teach the verse to patients as, “Do not cast me off in my old age. When my own strength fails, do not abandon me.”
First, as my Rabbinic Theology Professor, Cass Fisher at the University of South Florida, would teach, we never spoke like that. We never said, “Thou, Thy, and Faileth.” Medieval English came along a lot later.
Second, we alway work from the premise that the Torah, indeed that all of Tanakh, does not mince words. If there appears to be a repetition it is for a reason.
Therefore, let’s look at “Do not cast me off in my old age. When my own strength fails, do not abandon me.” NOT as the same phrase repeated but as two separate pleas. “Do not cast me off in my old age” is a geriatric reference. However “When my own strength fails, do not abandon me” can happen anytime. Our strength, which might be our physical strength, our health, our spiritual strength, our mind acuity, or anything, when that fails, please be there for me.
Although the Psalms are positioned as David’s pleas to G-D, I always look at this passage as a plea to others, especially to our close ones, especially to our families. After all, we are b’tzelem Elohim, we are in G-D’s image, we can be G-D’s angels, melachim, doing the work of “being there for others,” not abandoning them. And, after all, the Fifth Commandment, in the Torah portion of this Shabbat, begins with the requirement for kavod, honor/dignity/respect. If you like or love your parents, it is a bonus. Honor/dignity/respect is absolutely incompatible with estrangement. Period. A child does not have a case to withhold kavod.
I like the word “abandonment” better than forsake because abandonment is a primal fear. Freud taught us that the child’s biggest fear is abandonment, and we all recapture many of the traits of the child as we age. In many ways, we, indeed, come full circle.
Let’s call today for what it is. We have every right to feel abandoned, because we are abandoned. We are abandoning each other at an alarming rate. Abandonment and loneliness are synonymous. We have a national epidemic of loneliness.
On January 17, 2019, just a few months ago, the United States Health Resources & Services Administration published its paper on “The Loneliness Epidemic.” Quote: “Two in five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful.” Quote: “One in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.” Quote: “Living alone, being unmarried (for being single, divorced, or widowed) no participation in social groups, fewer friends, and strained relationships are not only all risk factors for premature mortality but also increase risk for loneliness.”
Just half a year earlier, in July 2018, Psychology Today reported: “In the last 50 years, rates of loneliness have doubled in the United States.”
Some of this loneliness must come from intentional abandonment; as this Psalm verse teaches us, we have been forsaken. As a chaplain, this resonates with me because we listen to stories of estrangement over and over again, stories of patients having been intentionally cut off by those who have inherited a moral obligation to take care of them, their own family members. And Chaplains do not receive immunity from what we treat.
In December 2017, The New York Times came up with a few insights on how common is estrangement. The Times found a good piece of research from England which projected that five million, that’s five million, British adults had cut off a family member.
Can today’s electronics assuage this separation? Thirty-two years ago, way back in 1987, AT&T responded to this evolving need of the time, even then, with its advertising, “Reach Out and Touch Someone” but, by AT&T’s standards, reach out and touch someone electronically. Does electronically count? AT&T abandoned that advertising theme and evolved it into how many gigabytes of data are in your plan?
This week, the Jewish Theological Seminary, where we train our Conservative Rabbis, hosted a webinar I was a part of on the topic of a remote minyan: can we be connected electronically and will that count for saying Kaddish? This week’s lecture was by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School of JTS, with many references back to a responsum by Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner in 2001.
Naturally, the more rabbis, the more sources, the more differences in opinions. However, the consensus, as I interpret it, is that for a minyan to work, we must have the ten people to start in the same room. We can join in electronically with an amen to the mourners’ kaddish, for example, but only if we are in the same time zone. The core ten must be in one room physically. As Dean Nevins said, saying kaddish is supported by a hug, a handshake, a touch on the shoulder, asking, “How may I help you?” You cannot do this electronically.
Our sages had it right by reducing this to something very simple. In its simplicity, I find an antidote to estrangement. It is the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan visiting the sick Rabbi Chanina, a Talmudic story. Rabbi Yochanan got it right … and simple … with the four words, “Give Me Your Hand.” “Give Me Your Hand.”
That, my friends, is my Torah on Psalm 71, verse 9: “forsake me not.” The universal antidote is, “Give Me Your Hand.”
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.