Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, April 6, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
This past week I was at the conference for Rabbis who Serve Small Conservative Congregations in Wilmette. It is a conference that my colleague David Krishef in Grand Rapids and I created 8 years ago and this was the fifth conference that we organized with help from the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. This year 15 rabbis from all over the country came together to hear from rabbis and educators and therapists speak to us about issues that affect our work. We always have at least one session on self care and this year we brought back Mary Jo Barrett an expert in healing therapy who has done extensive work with rabbis in the field to talk to us about compassion fatigue. Compassion Fatigue is a display of chronic stress resulting from caregiving work.
Dr. Barrett explained that compassion fatigue occurs to anyone in a helping profession – be it clergy, or social workers, doctors, nurses, therapists or individuals who care for loved ones. Compassion fatigue does not befall a care giver because they are not doing something right, it is a necessary byproduct of giving regularly of one’s self. In fact, Dr. Barrett posited that if one is in a caring profession or situation and does not suffer from compassion fatigue, the individual is properly not caring properly.
What is important for caregivers is to be aware of such fatigue and knowing the skills to respond positively. Dr. Barrett spoke about energy domains that each of us carry with us. There are five Energy Domains – Emotional: which comes from love and joy, but can also be derived from an understanding of sadness; Intellectual energy which comes from developing our cognitive abilities and interests; Physical: coming from proper exercise and diet; Sensual which can include our diet, but also aesthetics as in music and art, and of course through touch; and Spiritual which is not just about prayer or meditation but is derived from our sense of meaning in the universe.
When we give of ourselves, when we care about individuals, or causes, or the world at large we expend energy. And like a car that requires fuel to move, when we express energy through our love and concern, we naturally deplete our reserves. Some people don’t pay attention to the fuel tank until it is empty and end up pushing the car to the gas station. That can be harmful. The goal is to watch the fuel gauge so when we notice we have half a tank we do things to refuel.
She offered 5 essential ingredients for healing our energy depletion, and this is true for everyone.
1. Attachment and connection – we need to build and rebuild relationships with others and connect to a set of values that provide a meaningful vision.
2. Safety and Empowerment – we need to create boundaries in which we feel safe within our relational roles
3.Value – people need to feel that they are valued for whom they are
4. Skills – are knowing ways to respond behaviorally to moments when we are energy depleted – mindfulness and communication skills assist us.
5. Hope – to believe that we can create workable realities.
What struck me in listening to Dr. Barrett about healing is that this morning’s Torah portion offers an example of healing for both afflicted and healer in which many of these essential ingredients for healing are in place.
This morning we read about tzara’at, this odd, idiosyncratic illness that has no clear symptomology to any known disease. It affects the skin with rashes, burns and discoloration. The famous teaching about tzara’at by the rabbis is that it is caused by motzi shem ra, evil speech. And truthfully all biblical characters who are attacked by this disease are guilty of this sin. However, as Dr. Yitzhak Feder of Haifa University points out in the Torah tzara’at is clearly unique for three specific reasons: 1. Despite the reaction of ostracism from the camp, the Torah never suggests the metzora is displaced out of fear of contagion. “You shall put the Israelites on guard against their uncleanness, lest they die through their uncleanness by defiling My Tabernacle which is among them.” It is concern with defilement of God’s presence. Secondly, the Torah never specifies a causal connection between the illness and sin, that is what later generations attempted to do. And finally there is no healing ritual. The ritual that we will read about in next week’s Torah portion is observed after the person has been healed. Dr. Feder suggests this was yet another example of how the Torah deemphasized alternative cosmic power sources and fought against paganism.
But the de-emphasis of judgment in the acquisition of disease and the role the priest plays in connection to the metzora while they are forced to leave the camp points to the essential ingredients to healing we have just outlined.
Nancy Wiener and Jo Hirshman in their book Maps and Meaning write about the role of the Levitical Priest in this situation: “the Levitical priest oversees rituals whose purpose is to develop a proper relationship with God for the people afflicted with this disease. The priest also helps people see themselves differently not only behave differently for having been brought into relationship with the Other. In this way the roles of priest and pastor blend. In his role as pastor the Levitical priest enters into an intimate relationship with the Metzora. The key is his presence, which crosses a physical and spiritual boundary.”
The priest in the care giver in this scenario. And he participates in a healing process even if the disease never lifts from the victim. As care giver the priest engages with the metzora to give attachment and connection, despite the afflicted’s ostracism the priest visits and studies the illness. The boundaries that are created around the metzora may be a safety zone – Jacob Milgrom speculated that the extreme measures taken in the case of tzara’at were because the victim looked liked he was dead with sores and scabs all over his body. You look like a zombie and people may attack you. But the priest crossed that physical and spiritual boundary in order to empower and value and give hope to the sufferer.
Visiting these individuals, outside the camp, separated from loved ones, suffering from raw and open wounds, the priests must have suffered as well as they tried to give hope and comfort these unfortunate people for whom there was no obvious cure. How did the priest deal with this depletion of energy through his heart wrenching acts of compassion?
With the same essential ingredients – being part of a special community of priests allowed him to attach and connect with others who could sympathize. His special role allowed him to create unique spaces in which he participated in specialized rituals that gave him a sense of meaning and value. And he only worked in the Temple in two week blocks.
The Torah’s detailed discussion of skin disease is a curious one. Seeking to understand it, our ancestors attempted to define the illness as a moral transgression in order to warn Jews against improper speech. Academic Scholars have sought to place the illness under a microscope to determine what connection this affliction had to other Ancient Near East cultures or to understand its place in the sacrificial cult of Ancient Israel.
But the Torah might have a different message for us in our modern overstressed, undercared for society, in which despite having advanced in medical technique we still refuse to make sure health care is accessible to all, in which we work harder for less remuneration, in which the speed of productivity has not given us more leisure but less. The Torah may have foreseen the dangers of a society that does not care for itself or its care providers and offered us a message of how to care and express compassion in a structured way to allow both afflicted and care giver to heal.