November 26, 2019

The Thanks-givers

Robert Lichtman Chief Jewish Learning Officer

We are thanks-givers. Our very name, Yehudim (Jews), refers to Jacob’s son, Judah, one of the few remaining tribes from which most of us are descended. Judah’s name was conferred by his mother, our matriarch Leah, who said, “Thank God, for this child.” Judah’s very existence each and every minute of each and every day was a public expression of thanks to God. And we are the children of his children.

As Jews, as thanks-givers, we have developed countless customs and rituals to express thanks. Blessings of thanks for beautiful flowers. Blessings of thanks for being in the presence of wise people. Blessings of thanks for food. Blessings of thanks for saving our ancestors and us from disaster. The first breath that we take every morning is uttered in thanks for the return of our holy soul that enables us to enjoy and to enhance the world.

But for some of us, giving thanks is no longer so easy to do. Here is an experience recounted by one of our Greater MetroWest chaplains. It might be difficult for you to read, as it was for me, but here it is:

Most of my older clients describe themselves as ready to die when the time comes. However, a few of my oldest and increasingly physically limited but not cognitively impaired clients talk about their wish to die now and their distress that God does not take them. They have outlived spouses, children, and grandchildren. They are experiencing pain, weakness and increasing dependence, despite living alone in their own homes. I do assess for suicidal intentions, which they do not have, and they continue to care for their needs, accept help in the house, take their medications, and see doctors, etc. When they raise the topic of wanting their lives to be over, and their anger at God for not letting them die in their sleep, I listen and do not try to shut them down, as they report everyone else does. I explore their feelings, wishes, and what is still meaningful, and I validate their distress at continuing to wake up each morning. They tell me that is something they appreciate in my visits.

I’ve experienced this in my own family. I did not understand it then and I do not understand it still. But I accept that this is a heartfelt wish for some.

The story shared by our chaplain has a precedent from about 2,000 years ago when a sage named Choni, after having slept for 70 years, awakens to a world in which he is bereft of family and friends. He, too, prays not to wake up the next day, saying, in effect, “I crave community, or I may as well die.”

One of the things we do as a Federation is: We Build. We say this means that we build Jewish community. But it takes a gut punch like this to help us understand what building community truly means at its core. It’s not about institutions. It’s not about buildings. It’s about weaving meaningful connections from one person to another to another to another. It’s having a vision and a commitment that no one in our community will ever feel so alone.

Federation cannot do this alone either, because – really – what is Federation? We are the sum total of all of us. So, on this Thanksgiving, to everyone reading these words, we thank you.