This weeks Torah parsha is Vayetze which is about dreams, blessing and deceit. It opens with Jacob’s dream where he comes to understand his connection to G-d. From Jacob we learn that we become that connection – with our feet planted in the Earth and our heads open to Heaven. And from our awareness of the sacred, we are able to open to our hearts, heal our wounds and overcome the challenges of our day to day journey.
Leon’s story this week addresses deceit, love and dedication.
The Gypsy Princess – Embracing Our Differences by Leon Olenick
There was a tremendous disturbance outside one of the hospital units. I was called to assist. Upon arriving I was told that a gypsy princess, whose father was King of the gypsies for that geographical setting, was recently admitted into the hospital. There were gypsies pouring into the hospital from all directions. They were camping out on the hospital grounds. There was concern from the hospital administration they were also stealing articles from the gift shop, and creating a disturbance. I was not asked to offer spiritual care for the patient. I was asked by administration to follow them and report to security their acts of theft.
At that moment I thought of how we are programmed to fear people and cultures with which we are not familiar. I thought of Parta Schlach. It speaks about spies being sent out by Moses on the instruction of God to explore the land that the Hebrew people are to travel. The spies are terrified at the ways of an unfamiliar culture, and come back with a false report. They report back that there are giants in the land that will devour us, and we must not enter. They speak about the land swallowing up our lives and spirit if they enter. I believe this report resembles the report hospital administration gave me, and knew I must investigate for myself.
I knew I must unearth the facts. There had to be more to this story, and I believed that my assignment was not to merely follow these people to assure administration they were not pilfering. I believed our paths came together from a divine space. I went to the patient’s room. I was informed that the patient, a twenty-two year old woman, had cystic fibrosis. She was intubated. The disease had destroyed her lungs and she would not survive the removal of the tube. Familiarizing myself with the facts, I was able to approach the family.
I entered a waiting area where there were no less than thirty people congregating. I introduced myself. I was greeted with some nods, however nobody spoke with me. I passed through the crowd and entered the room of the young woman. Her name was Hilda. The room was filled with life saving equipment. The intravenous pole was supporting many bottles of medication, with hoses that led to the arm of the patient. The woman was lying motionless in bed. Her long black curls surrounded her face, and her engaging brown eyes peeked through the bright colored blankets. There were colored fringes coming from beneath the blanket. Over her, hanging like a mobile, there was a string that contained a beer bottle, a pair of shoes, a pack of cigarettes, and some other ornaments that I later found to be traditional Gypsy healing tools. Her bed was surrounded by men. There were no women present. I introduced myself as the Chaplain. I was greeted warmly by an older gentleman. He wore a flannel shirt that was tucked neatly into his khaki pants, which were supported by wide dark blue suspenders. He wore brightly shined boots that came to a huge point at the toe. His vest was made of the finest silk and was completely hand embroidered. I wanted one exactly like it. His aura was that of a distinguished gentleman. He identified himself as the woman’s father. I knew from prior knowledge that he was the Gypsy king. I told him it was an honor to meet him and offered my compassion for his daughter and his family. I gave him the honor I would extend to any person of high office I would meet. We spoke at length of his daughter’s condition and prognosis. I asked if I could offer a blessing for her. My request was granted.
“Master of our Universe, I stand with the family of Hilda, one of your precious children who will soon join you. Please give them the strength and energy to open their hearts to her that she may know how special and meaningful her life, although short, is to them and to all of the family. Allow her to feel the love they send her allow her not to be in fear. Let her always walk arm in arm with your angels. Make the space for this holy family and tribe to celebrate life and be free of the labels that have shadowed their life style. Amen.”
After I offered prayer, I asked if we could speak outside. Father told me that he was not able to leave the bedside. He said that it is the belief of the Gypsy that when a person is facing death, they must be surrounded at all times by those close to them. He told me that it is their belief that precisely the moment of death the last person they breathe on will gain all of their knowledge. This is their way of passing knowledge.
I thought of Torah, “l’dor v dor,” from generation to generation. The importance of humanity standing on the shoulders of our ancestors transcends time and space – the teaching that we are an important link with the past and into the future. We must learn from the old, live in the present, in order to create the new.
I realized that this family was observing religious practice. I wanted to honor them with honesty so I told the son about the theft concern. I was assured me that there was no theft going on. He said the many people were present out of respect and they would not prostitute this respect with theft. At that moment I knew that there was no theft happening or about to happen. His eyes told me this was so. The theft threat was the administration’s inability to take the time and learn this people’s cultural differences.
I thought of how many lives over the centuries have been lost because of this same reason. They were being denied freedom of movement without suspicion. I spoke with the administrators and assured them there was no theft. They told me I was responsible. It was ironic that the administrators were in greater fear of losing something material, than these holy people were of death.
Time passed and I saw the family at least twice per day. They grew to know me, and sometimes trust me. I sat in the waiting room and spoke with the people who initially snubbed me. I learned some of their prayer ritual, and prayed with them. Their way of prayer was not really different than mine. They went to the same place via a different route. The only person I was not able to connect with was the woman’s mother. Each time I approached her she would look down and spit on my shoes. After a while, I finally accepted this strange act without asking why it was so. The days passed and the woman’s father summoned me. He said it was time to remove life support, and he would like me present. I walked with him near the room. There was a man I had not noticed. He came out and introduced himself. He was a short man, in simple dress, however his eyes were intense and told the Universe that he was holy. “My name is Yaakov. I am the Priest.” Although we had not met, he was aware of each motion and prayer I had said in the previous weeks. In a commanding voice he said, “You will be by my side as they disconnect the life support. You will pray with me.” I thanked him, the father and brother for including me, however, I said I would rather wait just outside the room, as I was not a member of their tribe. Yaakov glared at me with his huge dark eyes. He said nothing for a few moments and I was feeling tense. He then took my arm and said while gently tugging me toward the room, “We walked into the gas chamber together as brothers, we will be together now”.
We prayed together and I was privileged to join in the traditional vidui, end of life prayer, of the gypsies. I had entered holy space.
After the young Gypsy woman died her mother approached me. She explained that her way of mourning was not to engage in any talk. She said she had to be in complete silence in order to clear a connection and create a path to her ancestors for her daughter. She said the community knew not to approach her, however, to those outside the community, she would spit on their shoe. She thanked me for my prayers and concern for her family. The father said “Shalom Rabbi, live in peace.” I wished him the same.
This family had taught me much about respect, acceptance, dedication and love. They authenticated their faith through living action. They opened the path for me to become closer to my own heart. They broke down the barriers dictated by the outside world and we became partners.
It reminds me of the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel “God’s dream is to be not alone, but to have humanity as a partner in a dream of continuous creation. By whatever we do, by whatever act we carry out, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption.”