The Chaplain as Spiritual Companion


Davar Torah for Tazria-Metzora

Recently, my wife and I visited Israel to spend time with our son who is studying there. In conversations with a Israelis about our respective lives, I was surprised by the extent to which Israelis, even those fluent in English, did not understand the word “chaplain.” When I asked an American-born moreh-derekh, a licensed tour guide, how to say “chaplain” in Hebrew, because I wanted to convey more easily what it was that I did professionally, the tour guide taught me the term “melaveh ruhani.” A light bulb went off in my mind. “‘Melaveh ruhani, of course!” The term roughly translates to “spiritual companion.” The source of the light bulb flash was that I had encountered the term melaveh ruhani in an amazing book that I read.

On a basic level, the Hebrew makes sense. It is related to the more familiar term from traditional Jewish practice halvayat ha-met, accompanying the dead to a proper burial; however, melaveh ruhani applies to accompanying the living. Both terms are related to the name Levi, as in the Tribe of Levi. As we try to make sense of the Book of Leviticus and especially this week’s double parsha of Tazria-Metzora, it’s important to remember the Kohanim as leaders of the Tribe of Levi — the tribe of accompaniment, par excellence.

One particular drasha on this week’s parsha highlights the pastoral role of the kohen: Lev. 13:3: “The Kohen shall examine the blemish on the skin of his body … when the priest sees it, he shall pronounce him impure.” 

R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843–1926) notes that it means when the priest sees him — the person — not “it,” the disease. In other words, the kohen is to examine the whole person, not only the diseased limb. He is to see what is whole and healthy about the person, not only what is affected.

A Kohen is responsible to look out not only for flaws but to look at a human being and appreciate him or her beyond any flaws. The Kohen is charged to look out for a nega, a blemish. However, to fulfill that mission, there must be a vision of healing and wholeness. If the kohen focuses only on the blemish, the person will only be seen in terms of the blemish. With this broader perspective, the Kohen can unlock qualities of kindness that bring about healing for the individual and the community.

I’ve long appreciated this drasha (homiletical interpretation). However, I still have long found the plain meaning (full of diseases, blemishes, infestations and their out-of-mode remedies) to be very difficult reading if not impenetrable. Maps and Meaning: Levitical Models for Contemporary Care by chaplain colleagues Nancy Wiener and Jo Hirschmann was the source of my light bulb flash in Israel because it was in this book that I first encountered the term melaveh ruhani. The authors examine more deeply the role of the Kohen in tending to the metzora (person with skin disease), not as a diseased person to be fixed, but as a whole person who needs personal guidance and accompaniment through difficult transitions. Maps and Meaning took this difficult section of Torah and connected it to my life through explaining the practical role the kohanim played in serving the community as the leaders who provide spiritual accompaniment.

Most poignant for me from the book is the notion that those afflicted with the skin disease need to spend time outside the camp in order to heal. It is the Kohanim, leaders of the Tribe of Levi, who — in keeping with their tribal nam — are melaveh, they accompany the metzora to transition back into the community after healing.

In Maps and Meaning, the authors note that the role of guiding people has modern-day corollaries in which all of us as chaplains serve the role of melave. These include our work in hospitals, nursing homes, and military bases. In these and other places people are in some sense outside the camp of their familiar surroundings. The role of the chaplain, or, melaveh ruhani, is to see their situation, to name it, and to provide support. After healing has occurred, the chaplain, as melaveh ruhani, accompanies our modern-day metzora equivalents back across the threshold to return into the fold of the community.

Members of the Jewish community are often afraid of Tazria-Metzora because of its perceived lack of relevance to modern times. However, a fresh look at this double portion reveals the very mission statement for the chaplaincy profession. Each of us as a melaveh ruhani has the sacred task to be present for those experiencing dislocation in their lives. For one who is forced to be “outside the camp,” it is often a terrifying and dehumanizing experience. Our task is to see each person “outside the camp” in their wholeness, irrespective of any blemish, in their lives. We see them. We listen to them. We name their fears and other feelings. We bear witness to their humanity and remind them that they are special. We put our arms around them and accompany them.

May our sacred service in the role of melaveh ruhani, promote healing and wellness for the people we serve.

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