LISTENING WITH AN OPEN HEART
Back in San Diego,CA after nineteen years—it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to pursue what is part of the fabric of my identity—being a rabbi and a listener.
Over the thirty-eight years of being a rabbi, I have had the privilege of being allowed to participate in the lives of people under various circumstances: at time of joy and celebration, and at times of trial and uncertainty, as well as those inevitable moment of loss and grief. In everyone one of those moments, I gained an insight into myself that I am still ruminating on. That insight is one of coming to terms with what I do best, which is being there for others and listening to them with an open heart. This kind of listening is not just hearing what a person is saying, it is as well participating on some level in the emotions of that person and yet remaining alert to the reality that I am there for him or her—not for myself. To be sure, I derive a tremendous satisfaction from being connected to others, otherwise I would not be able to be present and attentive. So it is with an insight that has grown with time and continues to touch me ever deeper as I add on years to my life, that I look forward to listening with an open heart to people who are ill and those who are approaching the end of life.
I still remember my first days as a student chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center while a rabbinic student in New York. I visited a room where a nine or ten year old boy was lying in bed. His parents sitting beside him keeping watch. I don’t recall how long he had been in the hospital, but it was a long time. His parents, bleary-eyed, opened up to me, and all they knew about me at that moment was that I was a Jewish chaplain; they poured out how their lives had come to be consumed by attending to their son who suffered from cancer, with all of the uncertainty that that reality entailed. I listened, I learned: sometimes you just need to be there – present – to be of comfort to people. This is what I have tried to cultivate throughout the years as a rabbi and a human being – a sensitive ear that makes a virtue of listening and being present.
That hospital room was the beginning of chaplaincy for me many years ago. Years later as I was building my new congregation here in San Diego—Congregation Dor Hadash—I became the first Jewish chaplain for the Sharp Hospitals. That opportunity enabled me to crystallize the recognition that I could make a difference and help people who were in physical distress and emotional turmoil. I was not put off by the machines, the tubes and the smell. I walked into the rooms of patients and found them, by and large, receptive to my presence as a rabbi and chaplain. I understood over time that “If there are no atheists in fox holes,” there are even fewer ones in hospital rooms.
Coming back to San Diego, CA holds the possibility of returning to hospital or hospice chaplaincy to listen and comfort, and to practice the art of virtuous listening. After all, I want to be able to claim that my stay in this world made a difference, at least in some small way. Is this not the reason that we live? I hope so!