Beyond the synagogue: Prayers with the seriously ill

Beyond the synagogue: Prayers with the seriously ill

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman
Rabbi Jonathan Perlman

In my work as a multifaith chaplain for Forbes Hospice, I’ve encountered many elderly people who have become disconnected with their home church or synagogue.  Some of them are ill, but many are persons who just do not have the energy beyond a doctor’s appointment or an errand to sit for an hour or two in prayer and meditation.

Many houses of worship neglect loyal members to whom spirituality was always important. It doesn’t have to be this way.  When I am able to visit with them on a weekly basis, it is often the first time in years that they are able to talk about their spiritual journey and reconnect to the religion in which they were raised.

People with serious illnesses are often frightened or depressed about the inevitability of their own death and we have deep conversations about hope, acceptance and gratitude. We also pray together. We create holy space.

In this week’s parsha, the Torah introduces the idea of a holy space, called the mishkan in Hebrew.  Although there are four parshiyot dedicated to describing its architecture and construction, the clothing of kohanim and their investiture, the Torah makes clear that this desert holy of holies is temporary. As the Torah reminds us in Deuteronomy, the mishkan will be retired for a different kind of holy structure in “a place where God will choose” (Deuteronomy 14:25) once the people settle Israel.

The holy Temple doesn’t get built until nearly 1,000 years after they enter the land.  It is destroyed and rebuilt within 500 years and then destroyed again nearly 500 years later.  Though the long-held wish and desire to build a third Temple remains for 2,000 years, the Jewish people are content to build synagogues in their communities, which preserve a remnant of the ancient world.  

So what then is holy space in Judaism?  And the answer is: since the time of the mishkan, we regard holy space as significant, but temporary.  Both Jacob and Moses identified holy spaces that existed outside the holy land of Israel, a ladder and a burning bush, retrospectively.  We come to the conclusion that holy space can be found anywhere according to the sanctity that people discover there.  The verse “make me a sanctified place and I will dwell among you” (Exodus 25:8) expresses the idea of the holy as dependent on the perception of the people in a normal reality.  A clearing in the woods can be holy.  A campground can be holy.  One’s living room can be holy.  

Our elders who have been nurtured by the synagogue can continue to create holy space at home.  They do not have to lose their connection to religion even if they can no longer be physically present.  As it says in the Talmud (Avot 3:6), even two who sit and engage in Torah are thought of as “they who revere God who spoke with one another, and the Lord listened and heard.” (Malachi 3:116) Synagogues who engage in acts of chesed and friends who know a person in need can bring Torah to someone who is too sick to come to the synagogue.  They can bring a meal for Shabbat.  They can sit and pray with them. People who are frail or sickly should not think that they are in an inferior state just because they are physically incapable of getting to and sitting in the synagogue. We can bring the holiness to them even if it means bringing a Torah and reading it aloud to them.

I remember when I was in rabbinical school, there were many students who would gather each Shabbat morning in the apartment of our esteemed teacher and leader, Dr. Louis Finkelstein.  We created a synagogue in his living room!  Even after his death, the Finkelstein minyan continued to meet in different places outside the walls of a synagogue in his memory.

The hope and promise of a migratory people is the holy place on wheels.  It is for this reason Mount Sinai is never identified geographically.  We eschew such permanence and seek the extension of community worship wherever a temporary place can be found.

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)