Give Me Your Hand

It is a privilege to study, and an even greater privilege to study at Abraham Geiger College in Berlin with inspired and inspiring people. March was a very busy month, with a couple of block seminars (a single course taught from 9-5 every day for a week!) and a couple of weekends without a trip back to Belgium. But one of those courses made the effort worthwhile.  Rabbi Dr Markus Lange – a young rabbi from London working in hospice care – introduced us to some of the principals of Jewish pastoral care.

He introduced us to a ‘healing rabbi’ from the Talmud (Bavli: Berakhot 5b), Rabbi Yochanan, who was known not only for his physical prowess and good looks, but also for his ability to heal.  He didn’t work miracles. All he did was ask for the hand of the sick person and hold it. This was enough to bring healing. This was enough to take them out of the isolation imposed by their illness and reconnect them with the community they missed.

I was always inclined to think that my words would be the most important part of a pastoral visit or, say, a shiva, words that I hoped would comfort the recipient long after I left.  It made me feel afraid that I would not have the right words to say, or that I would say something inappropriate. But Rabbi Yochanan’s ‘touching hand’ reminded me that it’s usually a lot simpler, and it’s not always in the head where words hold sway, but can also be in the body, a simple gesture of reaching out that reconnects someone who feels separated, isolated.

Rabbi Markus also talked about sitting with people who were beyond words or conversation. Instead, he would hold their hand and sing a verse or two of Adon Olam or Shalom Aleichem. More powerfully, he would sometimes hum a gentle niggun and they would join him. This had the effect of reuniting the sick person with a very specific community, their Jewish community.

Many of us joined Anneke Silverstein to learn some new niggunim before services a couple of weeks ago and to use them during services. One of them was a healing niggun and we used it when we prayed for the sick of our community. It made them very present to us.  Music – and uniquely Jewish wordless niggunim – have the power to unite us as a community when we gather to pray and to connect us to each other, and when we are sick they can take us from our isolation and connect us with our Jewish community. We need more niggunim, Anneke!

Brian Doyle
IJC Rabbinical Intern