Arthur Kleinman taught that every person who suffers has their own “Illness Narrative.” If you struggle with illness, or care or advocate for someone who does, what is your narrative? What is it like to be ill, and what would getting well look like in your world?
Contact us to invite Dr. Jonathan Weinkle to speak at your event or teach your group: medical providers, faith-based organizations, healthcare training institutions, or anyone else who wants to hear about healing with humanity.
Find out more about the “Perfecting Patient Communication” curriculum, developed with the support of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. Check in regularly for tips on how to block out the noise and hear the person, and how to respond so they know they’ve been heard.
3,000 years of Jewish wisdom, 3,000 people seeking healing, and one nice Jewish doctor with messy, curly hair trying to use one to make sense of the other. Take two stone tablets and call me in the morning?
New material will be coming shortly, but in the meantime please check my events page for the details of my trip to the Twin Cities in a couple weeks! Many thanks to my cousins Rabbi Jeffrey and Dr. Deborah Schein for their hospitality and to Liz Rappoport, SaraLynn Newberger, Susie Held, and Rabbi Alexander Davis for bringing this together!
I spent the morning of October 27, 2019 taking down my sukkah.
Leviticus 23:42-3 tells us that God commands us to dwell seven days in the sukkah so that future generations will remember that God made the Israelites dwell in sukkot when God redeemed them from Egypt. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz comments that this period in Jewish history is like the childhood of the nation, quoting Jeremiah 2:2:
“I counted in your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride; How you followed me in the wilderness in a land not sown.”
For Steinsaltz the period of the Exodus is marked by a
youthful, innocent love between the people and God, unencumbered by mundane
distractions and burdens of working land, paying debts, and maintaining possessions. The Children of Israel have nothing to
concern themselves with other than their relationship with God.
In such a time, it is possible to be totally present, to
experience real, complete joy. The kind
of joy experienced by children. If you
have children, you have likely seen unadulterated joy – the child at Disney
World, the child when you give them a balloon, the child when they bite into a
piece of chocolate. Or even, and this I
think is what Steinsaltz is really referring to, the child when they run to
greet a parent returning home from work, plastering themselves to the adult’s
legs before the bags, coat, and keys have even been dropped.
It is for this reason that in a different passage about the
holiday of Sukkot we are commanded, “V’samachta b’chagecha . . . v’hayyita
ach sameach.” “Rejoice on your
holiday and be ach happy.” Ach is a strange word, which is why
I’ve left it untranslated for a moment.
It could either mean, “entirely,” alluding to the precise kind of
unbridled happiness I described above.
Or, it could mean something along the lines of “but” – in other words,
“you should nevertheless be happy.”
Those future generations would no longer be in the devotion of their
youth, their nuptial bliss. They would
have business deals, ill relatives, marauding cattle thieves, and a host of
other annoyances and tragedies to deal with.
The verse is therefore saying to them, “Nevertheless, you should
be completely happy. Forget all of those
other things; for seven days you must rejoice! Get to it!”
Those seven days are over, as are the two additional days of
joy and celebration that follow. We are
back to the grind. And so it happened
that on the morning of October 27th, the one year anniversary of the
worst tragedy my neighborhood has ever seen, and the thirtieth anniversary of
the tragic murder of my classmate Karen Hurwitz, I was physically dismantling
the temporary dwelling of joy on my deck.
The basic design of my sukkah is PVC pipes, tarps,
and bamboo mats held together with PVC joints and cable ties. Dismantling it begins with taking a garden
clipper to the cable ties one by one. At
certain points, there are often multiple overlapping layers, or extra ties securing
a tarp both to the horizontal and to the vertical pipe, or attaching lights and
As I worked I noticed something that had never caught my
attention in years past: when I would clip one tie, it often seemed I had done
nothing at all. The pieces would hang in
mid-air undisturbed, testing my faith in gravity. Only when I made two or three more snips,
cutting all the ties would the tarp flap open, or the strand of lights drop
agonizingly toward the deck, daring me to catch them before they shattered on
the wood. Likewise, when I got to the
end and took a hammer to the frame to open the joints of the pipes,
disconnecting just one elbow or tee left the skeletal walls still upright. Only when I had separated an entire panel
from the structure did it topple forward onto the boards like a fainting drunk.
The sukkah is an inherently unstable structure, so
much so that during the grace after meals on the holiday we bless, “The
Merciful One who will right for us the fallen sukkah of King
David.” I once received a text message
from my wife 90 minutes before the holiday started imploring me to come home at
once because the wind had literally folded the entire thing flat, like a
broken-down cardboard box. These pipe
joints and cable ties are a flimsy defense against the heavy rains and high
winds that often hit Pittsburgh in October (to say nothing of the snows in
places like the Twin Cities or Toronto).
The bamboo roof is intentionally porous to the elements, so that
the rules of the holiday actually have a built-in excuse to let you eat inside
if there are raindrops visibly falling in your soup.
Yet taken together, all of those little connections keep it
standing. This year I lashed one side to
the drainpipe, one to the planter box, and one to the basketball hoop for good
measure, and it held. And in that place,
despite illness, a flood of work which threatened to drown me, and the looming
commemoration of all that was evil in the world, when I was in there I was ach
sameach – nevertheless completely happy.
So it was striking to see that my happy place did not fall
apart with the loss of one or two of its connections – but with the removal of
more and more of them, I was soon left with just its bones, and then with a
disassembled array of parts drying in the sun.
It’s been a hard year, but one of the overarching themes of
the anniversary commemoration was that we are strong as a community. Rabbi Joseph Ozarowsky, whose book To Walk
In God’s Ways was one of my first stops on the journey to Healing
People, Not Patients, taught us that when Isaiah 40:1 says, “Comfort,
comfort, my people,” what he means is “Comfort one another, and be comforted
by one another.” Individual
connections were destroyed in the shooting, but in this neighborhood there
existed so many connections, including hundreds I have only realized existed in
the aftermath, that we could not be broken.
The sukkah did not fall down because there were so many ties
holding it together. In the wake of the
shooting I was able to call my second son to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah, and
feel true joy in that moment, because those ties were enough to hold it all
I liken it to human balance.
There are three components to being able to keep yourself upright:
vision, the balance organ known as the vestibule in your inner ear, and
proprioception, which is the sense of knowing where your joints are positioned
(for example, is your foot flat on the ground or are you standing on your
toes?). The body does not need all three
of these to keep you balanced; any two will suffice.
Years ago, a doctor named Romberg figured out that if you
deprive a sighted person of their vision by having them close your eyes, you
can then confirm that both of the other components are working. To do Romberg’s test, a person must stand
with their feet flush together. As my
own Rabbi, Seth Adelson, has recently taught me, this stance, the regel
yeshara or “fused leg” of the angels, is the way we are supposed to stand
when reciting especially holy texts, including the Kaddish for mourners. In addition to mimicking the angels, it is
also an inherently unstable stance – as is fitting when we are speaking words
of holiness while mourning. Yet
according to Romberg, if both the vestibule and our proprioception are working,
if the nerves are connected properly, we will not fall.
Romberg also forbids people to hold their arms out to the
sides to aid in balance. What to do if
someone starts to fall? That is the job
of the healer: they must keep their hands just an inch or so away from the
person’s shoulders. The healer catches
the person who can no longer hold themselves upright.
One of the most dangerous things I encounter in my healing
work is people who do not have sufficient connections, where one snip, one
loose joint is enough to bring their whole shelter crashing down. Even a missed bus connection, on the way to a
job interview or to a court hearing, can destroy everything. When they experience trauma, like the death
of a loved one or being assaulted by a domestic partner, there are no walls
surrounding them to protect them from the aftermath. A person with diabetes gets an infection, has
a toe amputated, and stays a week in the hospital. When the wound heals and the infection is
cleared, who will they go home to? How
will they cope with mobility, grocery shopping, showering, and food prep if
they are going home to an isolated, and empty, apartment?
You may have a picture in your mind of the type of person I mean; discard it. We can all readily call to mind some of the factors that might leave a person vulnerable, lacking a sukkah to hide in on a bad day (see my earlier post “One Thing I Ask”); poverty and disadvantaged minority status are two of the most obvious. Yet within those groups are some who are incredibly resilient to trauma, because other connections make up for those which they lack in the financial or social status categories.
Family, close-knit neighborhoods, worship communities,
professional associations, old army buddies and roommates are just a few of the
places where people might find the ties they need to hold them together in a
crisis. The more of these they have, the
more intricate the network, the harder it is for one cut to destroy the whole
web. Should these disappear, being in
the cultural majority, educated and well-off may not be enough to provide the
support someone needs.
Think for a moment about overcrowding. We are used to thinking of this as a public
health hazard. Refugee camps are among
the most overcrowded places in the world, and filled with infectious disease,
potential violence, and safety hazards like fire. Yet they are strangely protective against
this danger we have been discussing. For
the elderly, the mentally ill, and the disabled, being in a crowded environment
like that means never being alone.
Someone is always present to watch over them, keep them from harming
themselves, and sit with them when they become confused, afraid or sleepless.
In America, that thick blanket has been pulled away. Even in densely packed city neighborhoods,
the walls between apartments and colder weather mean that those refugees now
have to go out of their homes looking for connection, and the families that
they live with must travel “far” from home, even if just a bus ride, to find
work. They are alone at home for hours
at a time, not understanding how to go places, or what to do when they get
there, or how to use the modern appliances (including gas stoves!) in their
homes. In isolation, they forget things,
become afraid, and fall ill. With time,
their family members earn enough money to leave the city and move to a suburb,
if only a few minutes’ drive away, and they are even more isolated.
This dependence on closeness is not obvious, especially to a
Westerner so steeped in “America=Good; refugee camp=bad.” In the previous post I referenced, I
suggested asking every person I provide care to what their achat shaalti
is – what is the one thing that they need most, or are most worried about, right
then. After thinking about the clipped
connections, and the sea of used cable ties now covering my deck, I have a
second question to ask: what is your sukkah made out of? What are the connections that keep you safe,
the resources you turn to in hard times, and the places you seek comfort? For that matter, who do you share your
unbridled joy with?
If the answer is, “I don’t know,” then the next question
should be, “How can I help you build one?”
It is late Friday afternoon. 364 days ago, blissfully unaware of the awful events that would take place the next morning, I went to welcome the Sabbath Queen with joyous music, resounding off the walls, floor and ceiling of the lobby of my synagogue. You can read the story of that night, and the day and month that followed, in my earlier post “Sitting In the Valley of Tears.”
That night, October 26th, 2018, I imagined that the words of Lecha Dodi could heal a soul broken by unimaginable horror, unable to reintegrate despite years of distance from the event. In the year since I have had occasion to wonder whether I myself don’t find them to be mocking me.
And so I share these words with you now. I am beginning to feel I can sing again, and someday soon they will have music. They hurt me to write, they are a chore to read and a burden to sing, but the song must be written and sung. May they serve you well, and may they help to strengthen the memories of my 11 friends and neighbors.
“You have sat long enough in the vale of tears;
God will have compassion on you.”
We have sat too long in the vale of tears.
God will have compassion on us.
Sadness is a valley, crying a wide rift
And the rift of our tears is still deep
The wound is open, the soul injured
Who can say now we have sat long enough?
In a moment of haste You hid Your face
And in that same moment everything changed
With eternal lovingkindness reveal Your mercyThen we
will no longer sit in the vale of tears.