Feeling Another's Pain

As God promises to accompany Jacob into exile, we learn that sometimes the challenge of being fully present and sharing in someone's pain is greater than relieving their suffering.

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One summer, when I served as a student chaplain at Beth Israel Hospital, I was assigned to spend part of my time in the hospice wing, a place for patients at the end-stages of life.

Unlike my visits with patients in other parts of the hospital, which often centered on hopes for a quick and full recovery, the time I spent with these patients had a different quality.

They and their loved ones also had hope, but not for recovery. During many visits with dying patients and their families, I discovered that they hoped for peace and dignity in life’s last moments. Above all, I realized that the family and friends of dying patients all hoped that they would not be left to face their last moments alone, but rather would be surrounded by those who cared deeply for them.

As part of the hospice staff, I understood that it was my job, together with family and loved ones, to create a presence at their bedsides that reflected God’s companionship with all of us in times of suffering. Jewish tradition teaches that the shekhina, God’s intimate presence, dwells at the bedside of anyone who is ill (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 40a).

No One Dies Alone

During that summer, I came to understand that passage to mean that we have a responsibility to ensure that no one is left to die alone. On one level, this meant accompanying God at the person’s bedside. Being there for him or her wasn’t only an act of kindness, but also a way of emulating God’s compassion in the world: “Just as God visits the sick, so too should you visit them…” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a)

But deep down, I wondered if we were accompanying God, or rather serving as God’s representative at the bedside. It occurred to me that since all of us are created in God’s image, perhaps we are responsible for bringing that image to the sick person’s bedside in the first place.

Or perhaps God is there but not quite visible, and it’s the presence of others that enables the patient to see a manifestation of God at that moment. However I chose to explain it, it became clear to me that simply being there for one who is facing a difficult and frightening time is a godly act.

Joseph is Alive

In this week’s Torah portion, we witness Jacob, who for years has believed that his favorite son, Joseph, was dead, learn that Joseph is in fact alive and prospering in Egypt. Naturally, Jacob wants to see his long-lost son. But rather than making a short visit, he finds that it’s become necessary to move his entire family to Egypt due to famine in the land of Canaan. The idea of leaving his homeland frightens him.

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Rabbi David Rosenn

Rabbi David Rosenn is the Executive Director of AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps.