(Saturday afternoon, November 3, 2018 – Saturday morning, November 10, 2018)
When I was asked to offer the D’var Torah today, Pittsburgh was known for its convergence of three rivers. Now, sadly, Pittsburgh is known as the convergence of three synagogue congregations in one building, Etz Chaim, the site of an incredible slaughter of our people, on Shabbat, October 27th. Is there a way to link the two, to link the Parsha Toldot and the Pittsburgh massacre? There just might be a way to link the two.
Commentaries posted on Parsha Toldot universally comment on the battle for the birthright between Jacob and Esau, and the involvement of Rebecca, the mother, in the deception. I posit that a major insight for those of us in chaplaincy comes at the very beginning of the Torah portion:
וַיְהִ֤י יִצְחָק֙ בֶּן־אַרְבָּעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה בְּקַחְתּ֣וֹ אֶת־רִבְקָ֗ה בַּת־בְּתוּאֵל֙ הָֽאֲרַמִּ֔י מִפַּדַּ֖ן אֲרָ֑ם אֲח֛וֹת לָבָ֥ן הָאֲרַמִּ֖י ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃
Isaac was forty years old when he took to wife Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean.
וַיֶּעְתַּ֨ר יִצְחָ֤ק לַֽיהוָה֙ לְנֹ֣כַח אִשְׁתּ֔וֹ כִּ֥י עֲקָרָ֖ה הִ֑וא וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה וַתַּ֖הַר רִבְקָ֥ה אִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃
Isaac pleaded with the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the LORD responded to his plea, and his wife Rebekah conceived.
וַיִּתְרֹֽצֲצ֤וּ הַבָּנִים֙ בְּקִרְבָּ֔הּ וַתֹּ֣אמֶר אִם־כֵּ֔ן לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה אָנֹ֑כִי וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֶת־יְהוָֽה׃
But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If so, why do I exist?” She went to inquire of the LORD
Rebecca and Isaac went through twenty years of marriage childless, before Rebecca conceived after they prayed. We do not know how often they prayed for pregnancy and we do not know what was the phrasing of the prayer or prayers. We do know that Rebecca conceived twin boys, Esau and Jacob. They fought in the womb and they fought outside of the womb. As the British philosophers taught us, “You can’t always get what you want.”
How do we transform the requests of our patients and congregants into “G-D Language” of prayer while refereeing what is most meaningful? What do you say to a child of any faith who prays for a bicycle and doesn’t get one the next day? Our safety zone is to go for the conceptual. Pray for comfort, to be surrounded by kind hearts, for the hands of the doctors and nurses and techs to be blessed. Not for the biopsy to be negative….it may be too specific. it reminds me of my favorite writing of Mark Twain, his posthumous “The War Prayer.” It is a short essay on the dilemma of a preacher asked to bless troops going into battle, knowing that a positive outcome for his prayer means a negative outcome for the opposition.
My wonderful colleague, Rabbi Richard Address, reviewed my draft for this D’var and made some suggestions, for which I am honored to give him credit. Richard wrote to me, “Inherent in prayer is hope. Prayer for a child, a prayer for health, or peace, or calm. But, equally as important, is the reality that what we do with that prayer determines, often, how we respond and the results of the prayer.” By the way, Rabbi Richard runs a wonderful program called the Jewish Sacred Aging Project and JewishSacredAging.com, to which I contribute.
We are apt to stumble when we look at moments as frozen in time. Snapshots are “so yesterday.” Videos are “so today.” When I discussed this on October 31 as I facilitated the monthly video conference call of Jewish hospital chaplains, we lamented on how the memories of Pittsburgh, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, etc., etc., and too many etcetera’s, dissolve into how many deaths happened there. That is sad enough in itself, but we need to take into our hearts those who were injured of body and soul, who still recover in hospitals, who sadly sometimes have to learn to walk again. They walk on a continuum, and we need to walk alongside the continuum.
For thirty years, I was the volunteer manager of the Jewish cemeteries in Tallahassee, Florida. That experience led me into studying chaplaincy. That experience led me to study and live the compassion needed by those on difficult journeys. These journeys are the videos, not the snapshots.
I developed an algorithmic mantra in those days. When someone would ask me, “Is there anything I can do to help? The family does not know me that well, but I want to do something.” My response was, “Take out your calendar, circle six weeks after the death or funeral, and be there for the family at that time, at the time when so many comforters have returned to their own lives and their own homes, and the bereaved are left with tissues and a story to retell and retell. Reach out to Pittsburgh and to the Pittsburghs in your lives in six weeks. Don’t even wait that long…circle four Shabbats later, then six Shabbats later. Look at the continuum.
Toldot is the story of sibling rivalry. Only four weeks later we have parsha Vayishlach, where, after a twenty year estrangement, coincidentally the same time interval that their parents were childless, Jacob attempts a reconciliation with his brother Esau. Six weeks after Toldot, we have Miketz, where the estrangement between Joseph and his brothers begins to be processed.
And so we return to the challenge of interpreting Toldot, and the challenge of processing Etz Chaim in Pittsburgh, as chaplains, as anyone who prays and awaits a favorable outcome in this snapshot in time. At the top of our chaplaincy toolbox sits tikvah, hope. Vayishlach and Miketz teach us that hope may be working behind the scenes, that the snapshot of rivalry and estrangement just might change in its video over time.
Making this change is a tough battle. In December 2017, The New York Times referred to family estrangement as a rupture in a relationship, affecting as much as 8% of the population, in a British study. We, as chaplains, receive no immunity from estrangements. Grudges seem to last longer.
Later in the Torah, when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his first words are, “Does my father still live?” This is the Hollywood ending that we all seek, but, sadly, has become elusive.
For the thirty years I studied with Rabbi Stanley Garfein in Tallahassee, Stanley would bring us back from the silent meditation in the Amidah with a quote from a 19th Century British secular novelist named George Meredith who wrote, “He who rises from prayer a better person, his prayer is answered.”
In Toldot, when Rebecca and Isaac pray to no longer be childless, part of the answer has to be in the process of prayer itself. Rabbi address referred me to a quote from his recently completed reading of a 2018 book by Anne Lamont, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. The quote from Almost Everything is, “We have all we need to come through. Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter what messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, what we offer are our kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness which create hope…”
The same is with the patients and clients we guide with prayer. “He who rises from prayer a better person, his prayer is answered.”
Ken Yehi Ratzon, May this be G-D’’s will.
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.