Hermann Gunkel, the revolutionary 19th century biblical scholar, taught us that the great spiritual inheritance that is the ancient book of the Psalms comes in a series of forms, among them psalm-of-trust that is typified by the most famous and quoted of the Psalms — number 23. It boldly proclaims that “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil” (“גַּם כִּי-אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת, לֹא-אִירָא רָע”).
Looking at Psalm 23, you might think the Book of Psalms, and maybe the whole of Judaism, is only about having trust — trust in God’s closeness and trust that all things will work out for the best. Yet, the psalms are full of other forms besides the song-of-trust, most notably forms of tearful lament that dominate the book as a whole and have given us the unforgettable image of the despairing one crying so much at night as to melt his couch in tears (Psalm 6).
I have not been melting my hospital bed in tears since I was admitted to Shaarei Tzedek hospital here in Jerusalem — a few days ago, as I write this — but I have known moments of deep loneliness and fear as I have wondered whether it will be the Holy One’s will that the doctors will be able to fix me and return me to a life before this medical crisis, a crisis where my very heart — that center of physical life that dwells in my chest — may be beginning to fail.
Yet, despite my fears, on the second morning of waking up here in the hospital, I found myself posting on Facebook:
“Alive! In the hospital, but not hooked up to any machines. Got world class doctors, and an emerging treatment plan. A long road ahead, but I think I might have a future after all. First time in a long time where I’ve truly felt I might enjoy some improvement in my physical circumstance. Feeling grateful. #AnotherShaareiTzedekMorning”
It wasn’t a lie, my friends; it was as much truth as I had to give to myself and the world, as honest as I possibly knew how to be in the moment.
But I could tell from the comments some made on Facebook that there were those who heard it as something other than what I intended when I wrote it, and I’m curious now if that’s because of a poverty in our spiritual vocabulary.
I say, vocabulary, because it’s really hard to think and act in ways that you have no words for expressing. And it seemed like people could only find words that helped them read my words in one way — as if I was expressing a Song of Salvation, a proclamation that I had been to that Valley of Death’s Shadow and had emerged whole and healthy. Crisis over, so to speak.
But in no way is my crisis over. That is my other truth. That is the other truth that is so beautifully expressed by the psalms, both as a whole and also in their individual structure; so many of them start in places of despair, in places of feeling abandoned by God, and find their way back to trust and gratitude on the way. This is life, my friends, or at least a life lived well, lived amid the way the Holy One designed the world. Faith is not living in every moment with the trust of Psalm 23 or with the gratitude I wrote about on my “Shaarei Tzedek Morning.” It is a willingness to live on the journey, in the spaces in between being rescued and being left alone. And when you can do that — maybe — a different kind of gratitude can descend upon you, a kind of gratitude that can be with you all the time, even amid pain and suffering and feeling profoundly abandoned by the Holy One. A gratitude to just have been a part of it. A part of the unbelievable beauty of it. A chance to live on the road between despair and rejoicing that is the only place from which a human can get glimpses of what’s higher, of what dwells both above and in our hearts. Glimpses that we see all the time in the faces of those around us, especially when we are helping them in their helplessness. Or when they are helping us in our helplessness. When we are summoning the perfection of the Holy One into our imperfect world.
I am not better, friends. I will maybe again post from time to time on Facebook during this hospitalization. I will maybe not. But be assured that silence from me does not mean everything is good or that it means the opposite. It is simply me trying to do something beyond just coping in the face of this challenge. I want to live throught it — for however long I am fated to be able to — with nothing but joy. I want to feel it like the cold wind in my face as my fisherman’s craft leaves safety for icy waters. I want to live with an intentionality and an eagerness for more. Even when the cardiac echo technician was hurting me by trying to push her sensor into my unyielding flesh, I got to feel joy in seeing a piece of the beauty of her, and the Holy One, in her face and body — in her clear pain and reluctance at having to hurt me, and the tension between that and her mission of helping get the hard-to-see information that would help the doctors diagnose me. She was kind. She taught me that the Holy One too is kind. Life is nothing but the kindness of HaShem.
So that is my “song of gratitude” for the early morning hours at Shaarei Tzedek tonight. We need to be able to recognize the complexity of the human journey amid illness and suffering. It is so much more than just the binary of lament and of trust that leaves us only able to offer either, “I hope for full healing for you” or “Thank, God, you were healed.” We have so many other songs to sing on our walk through this life. We need to find words for them.