Jewish art has many faces. I focus on the visual, but of course we have our musicians, composers, poets, and writers. One of my favorite writers and composers is Rabbi Shefa Gold. I regularly check in with her book, “Torah Journeys”, to see how I, personally, can relate to the Parsha of the week. This week’s Parsha, even though it is named, Sarah’s Life, is in fact, talking about the death of Abraham and Sarah. From this Rabbi Shefa teaches that “during the time of greatest loss it is also the time of the most abundant harvest. Even as our hearts break in mourning, we receive, through that very same broken heart, the legacy of our loved one and we seek a way to secure that legacy, to plant it within us like a seed”.
With this in mind as an introduction, I want to share a story my husband has written during the course of his career as a Board Certified Hospice Chaplain/Rabbi. I will be posting blogs and sharing his stories, which we both hope, one day will be published as a book.
Modeh ani l’fanecha Melech Chai V’kayam
Thank you for restoring my soul.
I was making rounds in the cardiac unit. This is one of my favorite units in the hospital because I can help people with understanding and compassion at a very intense level. When people are in the cardiac unit they have usually had a heart attack or heart problem. Their lives have been turned upside down and inside out. This usually comes as an unexpected shock to the patient and family. In a split second their life style has changed. They are usually upset and in fear of a sudden and threatening life change. These challenges afford me the opportunity to work with them. I attempt to embrace their fears, therefore joining deeply with their soul.
I often think of the passage from Psalm 90, “Limnot Yameynu keyn hoda v’navi l’vav chochma” (Teach us to treasure each day that we may open our hearts to your wisdom) when in the cardiac unit. Life is the ultimate gift from the Holy One of Blessing. We have our choice how we will use and treasure this bounty.
I entered a dark dismal room. The shades were drawn and the bright sun of the day was not allowed to enter. There were a few shadows and glimmers of light that forced their way into this gloomy space. The prevailing reverberation and mantra of the respiratory machine provided the only sounds. I knew the birds were singing outside, but their sounds were not echoed inside.
In the bed was a man I will call Bill. He was very thin, and it seemed as though his eyes were larger than his face with his depressed unshaven cheeks. His hair was disheveled and his general appearance was unkempt. He appeared defeated. To his right sitting on the drab blue chair was an elderly woman. Her hair was neat, with the gray strands peeking through the red dye. She wore moderate make up that was neatly placed. She wore tasteful attire fitting for a senior citizen.
I introduced myself as the Chaplain. I was greeted warmly, and invited to sit. I learned that Bill’s heart was tired and worn out. The medical people offered no hope of recovery. There would be no cure for him. He was told that he would be released from the hospital this day. He was also told death could come any time. Both Joy (his wife) and Bill were telling me their story. Joy said that they had been married for fifty years, and this was not enough time. She wanted more. Bill was brave as he spoke of his impending death. We spoke about end of life issues, and Bill inquired if I knew what would happen to his soul. I told him my belief that eventually his soul would choose a new body to enter, and re-enter our Universe. He acknowledged the concept although I did not feel he grasped it. I asked about his Jewish practice. He said he never really practiced living as a Jew except for liking chicken soup and lox and bagels. We laughed. In my mind I realized that the greater majority of Jewish patients I visit are “lox and bagel Jews”, however they are Jews and cling to their heritage. It was a nervous laugh. He said he was now sorry that he was not knowledgeable and he wished he had been active. I assured him that his life as a decent and gentle man was sufficient for God at this time. I asked if he would like me to recite the vidui (end of life Jewish confessional). He nodded yes. After I recited the traditional prayer, I offered a prayer from my heart.
“Rebbono Shel Olom (Master of the Universe) please summon your holy angels to escort Bill when his soul returns to you. Michael at his right, Gabriel, at his left, Uriel in front, and Rafael, behind. Let them be joined by Shechina, your holy presence, so there is no fear walking through the valley of the shadow of death. When his soul passes, let him be greeted by familiar faces, and people with whom he feels comfort and love. Let Joy know that death cannot take away the love and bonding of their lives. Let her realize that their souls are braided like a challah and they will be braided for life. Bless her with strength and courage to free these braids as she walks life’s path. Amen.”
It was time for me to exit. Bill grabbed my hand and said, “Wait, there is one prayer that I have said since I was a little kid. My grandfather taught it to me. I say it every day and I don’t even know the meaning.” I asked him to say the prayer. He proudly said, “Modeh ani l’fanacha, melech chai v’kayam.” We spoke of this prayer being the Morning Prayer that offers thanks for restoring the soul. We also spoke of being thankful for all the years that the soul was restored after its incredible journey’s into the night through the Universe. We are taught that as we sleep our soul has the freedom to travel in the Universe and complete missions necessary for its evolution. We sometimes recall these Universal visits as dreams, and sometimes as a deja vue. We really do not know where it travels, as it is not bound by our body and therefore has total movement. We do, however, welcome it back when we awaken.
I thought how ironic that this is the prayer he is familiar with at this time when his soul is preparing to leave and not return.
As I exited the room I felt that on some level I had offered this family meaningful spiritual care, however I had not really connected to their souls. Something was missing! I did not fill the space of anticipated emptiness they were experiencing. My wife is an artist who creates visual interpretations of her inner visions of Torah and its teachings. Upon arriving home I went into our kitchen for a drink of water. Staring directly into my eyes was one of my wife’s Judaic illuminations. It was the “Modeh ani.”
I brought it back to the hospital and gave it to Bill and Joy. I could tell how important it was for them to have a visual, touchable, picture of this prayer.
My heart dictated this action, and I have learned that I must listen to my heart and act within the directions it dictates. I now felt that I connected with their souls.
Bill went home and I did not hear any more from him again. About five weeks later there was a letter from Joy.
“Dear Rabbi, I don’t know if you remember Bill and me. You visited us in the hospital and brought us one of your wife’s pictures, the one with the rooster. Bill died last week. He was in such anguish, confined to bed and denied even minimal movement. I believe death may have been a blessing. The reason for this letter was to thank you. The last weeks of Bill’s life were like a honeymoon for us. We hung the picture of the rooster you gave us where we could view it, and each morning I cuddled up to Bill as he recited the modeh ani. We held each other tightly, and understood what it meant to be grateful for restoring life and we felt our love renewed. We were like newlyweds. I will continue to look at the picture each morning as I remember my Bill and recite his prayer. Sincerely, Joy.
As I exited Bill’s hospital room, I was spiritually pushed into the world of “doing.” My connection to this couple and to their soul was not to be found in my pastoral toolbox. I had called upon all my spiritual resources, and still thought it not sufficient. My link was knowing that my wife had the image of Modeh Ani, and the act of physically getting it for them. In this case I was the “sheliach”, the messenger, that brought them the material needed to connect their souls. If I did not recognize this need they had for a spiritual connection, I would have denied them the last few weeks of feeling togetherness at the holiest level.
I also thought about and became in touch with the space in me that yearns for touch and visual stimulation. This enables me to see past the surface, and connect with my heart and soul.