Archive December 11, 2019

One Small Step

There’s a talmudic tradition that when a person takes their first steps in the morning, they should recite the blessing, “ha-meichin mitzadei gaver” – “who prepares a person’s steps.”[i]

Recently, I learned a new understanding of this prayer, and a new occasion on which to say it.  When one is uncertain, afraid, or overwhelmed, ha-meichin mitzadei gaver is a prayer to be shown where to place one’s feet next, to have a clear path appear.  In the traditional instance, the word gaver means “person,” but here it suggests to me gevurah, strength or fortitude.  “Blessed are you, God, who prepares a sure path, who makes my steps sturdy.”  I also think of the verb le-hitgaber, to overcome.  “Blessed are you, God, who shows me the way to overcome.”

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Cutting Ties

I spent the morning of October 27, 2019 taking down my sukkah.

Not my sukkah, but this is what a sukkah looks like. From

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.”

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Here We Sit Again

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.     

רב לך שבת בעמק הבכא

והוא יחמול עלייך חמלה

רב לנו שבת בעמק הבכא

והוא יחמול עלינו חמלה

הצער הוא עמק, הבכי הוא בקעה

ובקעת דמעותינו עוד עמוקה

הפצע הוא פתוח, הנפש פגועה

ומי יגיד עכשיו שרב לשבת בה?

שצף קצף הסתרת פניך

ובאותו הרגע הכל כבר השתנה

בחסד עולם גלה רחמיך

ולא נשב יותר בעמק הבכא

One Thing I Ask

If you could only ask me one question, what would it be?

It sounds like a party game, a conversation starter designed to get people talking at a speed dating event or a team-building exercise.  But sadly it’s the way most people’s encounters with their healers go these days.  For all practical purposes, there is a “one question per visit rule.”  Better make it a good one.

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The Same Joy

Update: Video of the talk is now available online, beginning at 18:18 of the video. Watch the entire clip to see the evening’s other excellent speakers, Rabbi Shira Stern, speaking about “Finding our Resilience by Owning Our Grief,” and Professor James Young, speaking on the process of creating memorials for traumatic events.

Remarks from a “FEDTalk” given at the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, September 5, 2019.

It was the morning of March 17th.  48 hours earlier, a co-worker had alerted me to the horrible terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand.  I had been in a fog ever since.  The young Syrian man across from me stared at the floor and told me, “I watched the video online – he wasn’t showing any emotion.  He was shooting people like it was a video game.”

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Facial Recognition

I catch a half-smile, a hesitant wave, and a curt nod, and I realize I am supposed to recognize this person.  I return the gestures, but my memory refuses to be jogged.  Finally, they approach me close enough for conversation, and say, “Dr. Weinkle, how are you?”  After caring for a few thousand people in the course of my career, I cannot hold all the names and faces in my head any longer.  “I’m so sorry,” I reply, “please remind me of your name.”

The double-edged sword of “recognizing faces”

If only I had chosen to be a judge.  According to the Torah, they’re not supposed to recognize faces – it says so right in Deuteronomy 16:19, when Moses is explaining the meaning of “judge the people with righteous judgment.”  Among other things, he says, “thou shalt not respect persons,” meaning not to show favor to a rich person because of their status, or to a poor person out of pity.  Equal treatment under the law is the meaning of righteous judgment.  But the Hebrew phrase that he uses to say this is lo takir panim – literally, “don’t recognize faces.”

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Surviving Sinai:

Modern day Exodus stories, and what happens when they are “over”

I speak in metaphor a lot. One of my favorite ones is using the Exodus from Egypt as a metaphor for healing from illness. The idea is that illness is a narrow place which does not permit a person to be truly free. Only by way of a long, difficult journey does a person leave the land of illness and its constraints and arrive in a new, hoped for place of wellness and plenty.

Two weeks ago I had to code switch. I met several people who had literally left Egypt and relived the journey of the ancient Israelites, looking for a place that was wide enough to allow them to breathe freely. Lest you think I’m putting my own gloss on someone else’s story, I mean to say that these individuals crossed through the Sinai desert. They made the crossing on foot and under attack from all sides, from a modern day Amalek of torturers, rapists and extortionists.  Their destination was the modern Israel.

One of them, a young Darfuri man named Usumain, took the analogy a step further.  He recalled being in Egypt, having already rejected Libya and Chad as suitable places to remain after fleeing for his life from the conflict in Darfur.  One night he was watching television and saw a program on Al Jazeera that told of the history of the Jews, including the Exodus from Egypt, and up through the genocide of the Holocaust.

“That’s me,” Usumain said to himself.  “I am running from genocide, and I am in Egypt.  But there’s no way I can wait forty years, I must go to Israel now.”

That was eleven years ago, when he was fourteen years old.  I met a 25-year-old Usumain in Tel Aviv this month, strolled with him through the streets and had lunch with him.  During those couple of hours, one thing became clear: there is a mirror image to my metaphor.

I’ve been relying on the Exodus metaphor as a road map to healing since the day my mentor, Rabbi Larry Heimer, introduced me to the idea.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s chapter, “Judaism as an Exodus Religion,” is one of the founding documents of my personal philosophy of medicine.  This encounter with Usumain turned that concept on its head – the Exodus from Egypt can also be an experience from which one needs to heal.

Ancient or modern, a person who embarks on that journey faces thirst, starvation (see Numbers 20 for just one of the numerous Biblical examples of both), dangerous enemies (Numbers 22:2 and onward for the story of Balak, King of Moab, and the sorcerer Bil’am who was sent to curse the Israelites, or the stories of Og of Bashan, Sihon of Emor, and the people of Amalek attacking the weakened stragglers in the Israelite caravan) and despair.  Families separate; Usumain’s mother and sisters remained in Chad, while his brother sought asylum in the US.  Among the ancients, some Israelites preferred the known devil of slavery in Egypt to the unknown of a God taking them out into the wilderness.  Some die in the wilderness – Miriam, Aaron, Moses, the entire generation of adults who came out of slavery, and in Usumain’s group of 12 refugees alone, 3 fellow travelers shot dead by the Egyptian army trying to cross into Israel.

Arriving in the “Promised Land” does not bring the journey to a close.  One doesn’t just get to drop anchor beneath a vine and fig tree and live in peace and unafraid, as the prophet said.  One arrives at a destination where they don’t speak the language, where they are unwelcome, and where poverty and starvation are still a potential outcome.  Another Exodus, to another possible promised land, may be just around the corner.  Ironically, I met Usumain in South Tel Aviv, near a neighborhood called Neve Sha’anan, “the tranquil dwelling place.”  I couldn’t help but think instead that for Usumain, the commonly used Hebrew phrase, “ein sha’ananim b’Tzion” – there is no tranquility in Zion – is more applicable.

Tranquility is hard to come by elsewhere in the world as well.  Metaphorical Sinai crossings in other parts of the world also end in sexual assault, death from asphyxia and heatstroke in a truck-turned-oven in the Sonoran desert, or in a cage in the supposed “land of the free.”  Usumain chose Israel as his destination in part because he didn’t want to end up drowning on a raft in the Mediterranean, like so many African refugees before and after him.

Cynics in wealthy countries from Central Europe to the US have suggested that the migrants should have sought asylum in the first country they came to, as if this would somehow solve the problem (perhaps it would – it would save the wealthy nations from having to acknowledge how fortunate we are).  A laughable notion: should Sudanese refugees seek asylum in Chad, one of the two or three poorest nations on Earth?  Should the Congolese refugees that left in 1994 expect a homecoming in Rwanda, a country that had literally months before been torn apart by a genocide?  Refugees fleeing Somalia in the 1990s and 2000s ended up in refugee camps in Yemen – I wonder how their asylum cases would be going right about now? 

Usumain’s story ends well; he is one of a very few to gain official refugee status from among the Sinai survivors.  Thousands of others are still in limbo.  But even when the political drama reaches a conclusion, there is an internal drama of nightmares, anxiety, depression and flashbacks that continues.  It is not unique to the Sinai refugees, be they men from Darfur or women from Eritrea, but it is a further reminder that an exodus is both a journey to healing and a journey from which one must heal.

I left lunch with Usumain and soon found myself having coffee with Aeden, one of the Eritrean women I just mentioned, at the Kuchinate Gallery[i] a short distance from Neve Sha’anan.  Kuchinate is the Tagrinya word for “crocheting,” and that is what happens at the gallery.  Women like Aeden support themselves and their children by producing baskets in a traditional style, which the gallery buys from them no-strings-attached and sells to keep the doors open, the lights on, and food on the table for the kids in the afternoons. 

But Kuchinate, I learned, is about more than livelihood.  It is its own form of healing.  In a culture where unloading your troubles on a stranger with an impassive face is a laughable idea, the gallery brings together women who become fast friends and can confide in each other about the horrors they have experienced.  Both the work, and the comraderie that it creates, are their own form of therapy that may be more relevant than all the CBT in the world.  Among the Nepali-speaking refugees I care for, there has long been an idea that “a friend is a psychologist;”[ii] Kuchinate allowed me to watch this saying in action in another culture from another continent.

There’s also a lot of self-healing going on at Kuchinate.  The gallery’s director, Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, joined with an Eritrean nun that everyone calls Sister Aziza to produce a book, A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture,[iii] written in English and Tigrinya with culturally relevant drawings and blank pages for notes, that walks a survivor through the process of healing moment-by-moment, helping them to feel safe, conquer basic fears like agoraphobia, and combat anger, depression and despair.

There are 60 million people in the world today estimated to be in the midst of writing their own Exodus narrative.  It is a public health crisis on the same order of magnitude as HIV/AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.  Both the social services and the mental health services in almost every one of the “promised lands” these Sinai-crossers are striving toward, not to mention the places many of them languish in the meantime, are underfunded and overwhelmed.  It will be because of individual resilience, and because of the embrace of intimate friends like Kuchinate, that they will someday be able to complete their journeys and recover from their travels.  Day to day, I strive to provide that embrace in my work.  I invite you to join me.


[ii] Liana Chase and Ram P. Sapkota.  ‘‘In our community, a friend is a psychologist’’: An ethnographic study of informal care in two Bhutanese refugee communities.  Transcultural Psychiatry 2017, Vol. 54(3) 400–422.

[iii] Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn and Sr. Azezet Habtezghi Kidane, tr. Mebrhatu Baraki and Kebedom Mengistu, ill. Karen Brockman.  A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture.  Tel Aviv: UNHCR, 2016.

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