Rosh Hashanah Day 1, D’var Torah – Pastoral Care

Rabbi Julie’s introduction to the Torah Reading for Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 2023/5784

This morning’s Torah reading celebrates the birth of Isaac with laughter.  But soon after, the laughter of Isaac and Ishmael playing together is replaced by tears of despair.  Hagar, the maidservant, the mother of Abraham’s first-born son, is cast away into the wilderness with Ishmael.  Given only a skin of water and some bread that quickly disappeared, Hagar is overwhelmed and distraught.  She leaves the child under one of the bushes, moves away some distance, “And sitting thus afar, she bursts into tears.”

There’s an aspect of being a rabbi called pastoral care.  It can happen informally when someone casually mentions something at Kiddush or at a meeting we set up in advance at the synagogue, in a cafe, or at your home.  These days, it might start with a text or a throwaway line in an email and continue with a caring conversation in person or by phone.  This year I’ve talked to congregants about a wide range of topics including strained marriages, beginning retirement, Jewish learning goals, interfaith families, coming out, parenting, mental and physical illness, financial troubles, searching for connection, and important life decisions.   Sometimes I’m part of a circle of people holding someone up in a difficult time, and sometimes I’m the only person who knows about a particular struggle or transition.

I’ve learned that people don’t really know what to expect from a pastoral conversation.  So let me pull back the curtain.  I will listen, both to what you’re saying and what you’re not saying and help you take the conversation wherever you need to take it.  Everything you say will be confidential.  I will offer my life experience and wisdom, but sparingly and only if it’s relevant.   I will open my spiritual toolkit and offer a text, a prayer, a ritual, a blessing, or a song that might give you hope, or help you mourn a loss, or strengthen your resilience.  I will reflect back what I’m hearing, and make connections that might help you see something that you hadn’t noticed before.  And I will be with you, so you are not alone.

* * * 

When Hagar burst into tears, she was not alone.  As the Torah says, “God heard the cry of the boy, and a messenger of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy ba’asher hu sham, where he is.”

The book, Jewish Pastoral Care, opens with these words.  “We meet the people with whom we work, ba’asher hu sham (where he or she is), in whatever they are experiencing, wherever they are.  We find them ba’asher hem sham, (where they are) because we try to understand their experience through careful listening and an attempt to assess their needs.  We offer a connection to…our shared tradition; to community, and to their own spiritual resources.”

* * * 

Please consider this an open invitation to meet – either just to get to know each other better – or because you have something specific you want to talk about together.  I’m not too busy to meet with you.  In fact, this is a big part of why I’m here.   We might find laughter or tears, or a little bit of both.  And maybe, just maybe, in the words of Bill Batkay, “you’ll feel a little lighter afterwards, like an enormous burden was lifted that you didn’t even know you were carrying.”  And maybe, like Hagar, you will suddenly see a well of water that you didn’t realize was already there.


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