Rabbinic lore teaches that every person who was present at the revelation at Sinai heard the Divine Voice according to his/her specific abilities. It is at the root of the belief that worship experiences can still be important to cognitively-impaired residents, because their souls are being addressed, not their minds. Moreover, just “being present” reminds the rest of us that they are still part of the faith community and must not be disenfranchised.
Alice was one of those individuals. Alice was a 20-year resident in the facility where I was the rabbi and chaplain. She came as a middle-age woman coping with MS, and through the years her condition gradually but worsened. Nevertheless, she continued to attend religious services. She insisted on wheeling herself to “her” spot near the end of the front row. Eventually, when she needed assistance, she still requested that staff place her there.
Unfortunately, because of the insidious disease that robbed her of her physical and cognitive abilities, her front-row seat didn’t prevent her from falling asleep shortly after arriving. Staff will gently nudge her to wake her up, pick up her book if it fell to the floor, and help her get re-oriented. Alice would respond with a “thank you” and try to follow along —until she dozed off again.
During one particular worship service, when Alice dozed off and dropped her prayer book, there was no staff member who was close enough to assist her. This posed a bit of a dilemma for me as the one conducting the service: my alerting staff members would have disrupted the service. At the same time leaving Alice napping and the prayer book on the floor would also have been disrespectful.
What should I do? Should I continue the service, hoping that a staff member would notice the situation and correct it? Or should I interrupt the service, step down from the pulpit, and retrieve both the prayer book and Alice?
I thought of Abraham, of whom it is written:
The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of his tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and bowing low to the ground he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go past your servant.” (Genesis 18: 1-3)
The text is usually understood to mean that G-d appeared to Abraham in the guise of the three men, thought to be angels. That Abraham understands them to be G-d (or G-dly) is indicated by his term of address: Adonai, one of G-d’s names. However, this word literally translated means “my lords”. Thus, as some read the text, it can also mean that just at the moment when G-d appears to Abraham, so do the three men! To whom should he be hospitable first—G-d or the visitors?
Abraham responds: “If it please you, do not go past your servant…”
In the Hebrew, the words you and your are in the second-person, singular form. In other words, the text can be understood that Abraham says to G-d: “Please don’t leave just yet. Let me attend to these gentlemen who have appeared at my tent, and then I will come back to You.”
The lesson is clear: attending to G-d when others are in need should not be an either/or situation. Instead, when one responds to the needs of others, they and G-d are both affirmed. Hospitality always makes for holiness.
“If it please You, do not go past your servant…”
Stepping off the pulpit, I picked up Alice’s book, gently nudged her, helped her find the right page, and then continued with the service.