Rabbinic Wisdom

Back in the late 1980s, I had the distinct pleasure of serving in a lay chaplaincy role at an Orthodox Jewish nursing home, tending to the spiritual needs of the Catholic residents. It was an amazing place to work, and the Rabbi who served as the overall chaplain was a walking Jewish encyclopedia who freely engaged me in dialogue about everything from Trinitarian theology to Talmudic debates on the meaning of Sabbath rest. He was a character.

I remember especially one day — a Sunday — when he engaged in a hilarious exchange with a resident named Golda about her absence at the previous day’s Sabbath services. It went something like this:

Rabbi: Golda, why weren’t you at our Shabbat services?

Golda: Oh, Rabbi, you know, I’m a good person, I believe in God in my heart. That’s enough.

Rabbi: Golda! What are you saying? Believing in your heart is enough? You’re a Jew! We don’t have cardiac Jews! We do our belief in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the Synagogue, with all our heart, soul and strength — not just in our heart!

I was bent over laughing.

Chosen

Chaim Potok

But it was another comment by this Rabbi that really struck me and stuck with me. As I was reading at the time Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, I asked him what being “chosen” meant to him as Jew, and he remarked,

Yes, we believe we are a people specially chosen by the Lord our God, Blessed be His Name. But some chosen-ness! Four thousand years of suffering and slavery and hardship and exile. Being chosen is for us to bear a great burden for the world, for Him.

I was speechless. At the time, I had never thought like that about the Jewish faith, or about my faith. I had always thought of being chosen or being called as meaning one is “special” or “favored” in God’s eyes, but certainly never understood it as being set apart in order to bear others’ burdens. It lit up a whole world of insight for me. So-chosen, I thought, were the Jews, was the Messiah, and are those of us who, in Christ, claim a share in His identity as the Chosen One of God who bears our burdens.

Suffering the Call

This reminiscence linked my memory back to two quotes that I will share in closing:

The intellectual & artistic delights that God gives us are visions & like visions we pay for them; & the thirst for the vision doesn’t necessary carry with it a thirst for the attendant suffering. Looking back I have suffered, not my share, but enough to call it that but there’s a terrible balance due. Dear God please send me Your Grace. — Flannery O’Connor, from her Prayer Journal

I can’t express in words — the gratitude I owe you for your kindness to me — for the first time in … years — I have come to love the darkness — for I believe now that it is part of a very, very small part of Jesus’ darkness & pain on earth. You have taught me to accept it as a ‘spiritual side of your work’ as you wrote — Today really I felt a deep joy — that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony — but that He wants to go through it in me. — Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, circa 1961, in a letter to her spiritual director

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