As I walk this journey this month of Elul, my t’shuvah trail focuses on relationship:
I remember the rabbinic thoughts of the medieval Spanish Jewish sage, Isaac Abravanel. He believed that in preparing our neshamah for the specialness of the High Holidays, we need to sift through our emotional baggage, our life story pieces, and “prepare provisions for the journey.”
I remember the thoughts of the 19th Century Musar teacher, the Cheshvan HaNefesh, who focuses on the middot of seder (order): “Set all your actions and possessions in order. Assure that everything is in its place and time, and your thoughts are free to engage with what is before you.” He wants us to clear out distractions from the work of the moment. This connective tissue is a journey of self-discovery, reflection and reframing.
The most important gift that I give to my home hospice dementia patients and their families is the gift of presence. Like our foreparents in the Wilderness of Sinai, I accompany them on their journey through their wilderness. It requires me to be open to him or her as my teacher. His or her teaching goes beyond words and into nonverbal psychospiritual conversation. The journey may arise as moments of agitation or mumbled words or be a hand held or a simple smile. In this and other ways that we accompany this individual, we reflect, reframe, and validate the individual and the holy space around him or her. All of us learn to value the essence of being. the life story pieces, and “prepare provisions for the journey.”
By the time I was his student, one man, who taught me how, was 89. He was a sweet, menschy, scholarly man. He never let me forget that his Talmud teachers had been my great, great grandfather and my great grandfather. In the early 20th Century, they sent the two Chaims, him and his best friend, my grandfather, to start an American branch of the family Musar yeshiva. At my Bar Mitzvah, my weekly study sessions with him, and at my rabbinic orals, he kidded me about answering his questions with some of their words rather than my own. He retired only when his battle with Dementia took over.
Each morning and early evening he went to his own synagogue. But on Friday nights he came to my first congregation. His wife hoped that being in shul would slow the progression of the disease. At the end of each service, she waited outside for him. But this man could not find his way to the door. One of his other students brought him to her in his own synagogue, and I brought him out to her on Friday nights.
For the first three years of my rabbinate, this wonderful man continued to be my teacher. Dementia peels away the protective mask layers of personality we put up, revealing the inner spark. His smile warmed each person’s heart.
There is a wise teaching that one learns the most from watching how our teachers tie their shoelaces:
My teacher taught each of us patience. He taught us how to deal with things out of our control with joy. He taught us the sincerity of prayer, and how God answers us. But his greatest life lesson to us was what his disease left of his true priorities-
What makes us angry and frustrated?
How do we behave when stripped of our masks?
How do we set our practical life priorities?
He was 98 when he passed. His spark piece remains close to my heart and my own piece of light. This is one journey to Elul…the T’shuvah trail to relationship.
Rabbi Charles P. Rabinowitz, BCC is a member of the CCAR Rapid Response Team as a Rabbinic Bereavement and Pastoral Counselor. Rabbi Rabinowitz also works for Caring Hospice of New York where he provides home hospice and palliative care services to patients and families.