“Illness, Health, and the Mi Shebeirach” sermon by Dr. Jonathan Hertz

Shabbat Shahlom. I think of us love the word “simcha.” We like to detail and celebrate our happiest occasions together. This comes up from time to time with announcements at Shabbat services. Most of us have been services where congregants stand and recite their simcha’s from the prior week. I discussed this practice with Cantor Sussman who told me the tradition is rooted in our abiding sense of community as a Jewish people. Yes, we do celebrate together on Shabbat.

Yet, I think a more compelling and sensitive part of the Shabbat service is the Mi shi barrach. We say a prayer and a blessing for those family and friends who are struggling and seriously ill, those in need of support and encouragement for physical, emotional, spiritual healing. I would suggest that our role and responsibility to help those in our community in need is more significant and far more difficult and nuanced, than announcing our simcha’s. As someone who’s had a career in healthcare for 35 years, I thought that I, along with my medical colleagues, knew a lot about reaching out to others who might be ill. Last year I had a real comeuppance. I became sick with a tough health problem–I couldn’t hold my head up because of a localized muscle weakness in the back of my neck. It impacted my family, my job, my life.

One of the things that most surprised me was the haphazard way friends, medical colleagues and even mere acquaintances responded to my health problem–some were exceedingly attentive and supportive; others, almost inexplicably, were inappropriate or just avoided me and my issues like the plague. The word on the street and in my office was, “Let’s leave Jonathan alone, let’s respect his privacy; give him some space.” I was at once astounded and baffled. On the other hand, another individual whom I had know from a distance for 30 years, but had not talked to in the last ten, suddenly called me one weekday night in the dead of winter. “Jonathan, I was so sorry to hear you were struggling. I am so sorry it took so long for me to call. Let’s get together.” We met at Starbucks a few weeks later–mostly small talk, but I was blown away.

Last January, I came across a column in the New York Times by David Brooks which resonated for me. This particular column was titled “The Art of Presence.” It reflects on the thoughts and feelings of a family that had undergone an awful double trauma involving two daughters in their 20’s. Eventually, the family posted a blog about where, when, and how they got help and sustenance from others. Their tragedies were of a different magnitude compared to my issues, but I thought there were some common themes that made sense to me. The family made pointed suggestions about how to help those of us in need, those of us who have undergone a trauma or suffered a serious illness.

1) “Do be there. Some people think that those who experienced trauma or illness need space to sort through things. Assume the opposite. Most people need presence.” I recently attended a lecture as part of the TSS continuing ed series by Dr. Ira Byock who is a physician specializing in palliative care at the Dartmouth–Hitchcock Medical Center. Dr. Byock commented that we human beings are “hard-wired” to relate and communicate with each other. Therefore, be present; be supportive. Absence comes across as indifference.

2). “Don’t compare, ever.” Don’t say, “I understand what you’re going through.” “Even if the comparison seems germane, don’t make it. Each trauma and illness should be respected in its uniqueness. Comparisons can sting as clueless, careless, or just plain false.”

3) Do bring chicken soup. The nonverbal expressions and gestures of caring and support can be very meaningful and lasting. Those of us who have been helped by our TSS Mitzvah Corp can attest to this.

4) Do not say “you’ll get over it” or provide false hopes or “unfounded optimism.” I personally was told “you have great doctors”; “you’ve certainly done everything you can to help yourself”; “sounds like you’re getting better.” These comments come across as trite and dismissive of the illness, the trauma. They can be hurtful.

5) “Do be a builder, as opposed to a firefighter.” Firefighters arrive at a time of crisis, lend assistance and then depart. Builders are in it to lend support for the duration. I have one colleague who, for the past year, has reliably and predictably stuck his head in my office every few weeks. He looks me in the eye and asks questions: “What’s happening?” “How are you feeling?” “How are you getting by?” He has also reached out to me and given sound, meaningful advice. I will never forget it.

6) “Don’t say ‘it’s all for the best’ or try to make sense out of what has happened.” This can come across as pretentious or callous. You can’t assume or reliably understand what the ill or traumatized person is really going through.

I’d like to quote David Brooks’ summation in his column:

“I’d say that these experiences call for sort of passive activism. We have a tendency, especially in an achievement oriented culture, to want to solve problems and repair brokenness – to propose, plan, fix, interpret, explain and solve. What seems to be needed here is the art of presence– to perform tasks without trying to control or alter the elemental situation. Allow nature to take it’s course. Grant sufferers the dignity of their own process. Let them define meaning. Sit simply through moments of pain and uncomfortable darkness. Be practical, mundane, simple and direct.”
Mi Shebeirach
May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal those who are ill. May God be filled with compassion for their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May He swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit.

And lastly, may we too be given the wisdom and sensitivity, to help family, friends and colleagues in real need. And let us say “amen.”

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