“When in doubt, show up.” These simple words are the heart of Rabbi Jason Weiner’s essay, and appear in the online version of Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education. Rabbi Weiner shares his experience of the journey he traveled to defining his rabbinate as spiritual caregiver, illustrates what it means to “show up” in people’s lives, and the impact that act can have. As I reread his essay, I began to think more broadly about the power of his message. Even if we’re not suffering from a medical condition, does the relentless pace of life and its attendant turmoil subtract from our spirituality? And with the right training, can rabbis help people reclaim their spiritual selves? Please share your thoughts at https://www.facebook.com/rabbihayimherring. You’ll also find six additional online essays and archived discussions on everything from “disrupting” the rabbinate to the application of “adaptive leadership” theory (Heifetz and Linksy) to rabbinic education. And please also share your responses to the book, too!
Showing Up: What I learned but didn’t know during rabbinical school
By Rabbi Jason Weiner, BCC
In rabbinical school, I learned, “if you visit your congregants when they are sick, they will only remember your best sermon, whereas if you don’t visit them, they will only remember your worst sermon.” A mentor of mine disagreed, stating “If you visit them when they are sick, it won’t matter at all what you say in your sermons!”
Initially, I found this idea very comforting. Simply being there for people seemed far easier than preparing sophisticated, inspiring, original sermons on a weekly basis. On the other hand, since my pastoral counseling classes taught me to refer complicated cases to professionals, I assumed their more sophisticated interventions would profoundly benefit a congregant’s life. After all, if all I knew how to do was just to “show up,” I couldn’t help feeling sorely inadequate. Furthermore, I didn’t really understand the “just show up” principle – which runs counter to everything I am as a person and as the professional I wanted to be – and I wondered how I could possibly put it into practice when the occasion arose. It was only when I became a rabbi and began putting this theory into practice that I started to appreciate its profundity.
In one of my first weeks on the job as a congregational assistant rabbi, the senior rabbi was out of town and one of our congregants passed away. I officiated at the funeral in our synagogue, but once it concluded and the family headed to the airport to escort the deceased to Israel for burial, I didn’t know what to do. Was I supposed to drive to the airport to see them off or had I already done my job? I had to make a decision quickly and had no one to ask. I remembered the principle of “when in doubt, show up” and proceeded to the airport. Once I arrived I simply stood with the family until the deceased was taken away, and then wished them a safe flight. Some weeks later, the family came to me and expressed their deep appreciation and gratitude for my being there in their time of need. Although I thought I had done nothing, I began to more fully appreciate the wisdom of “showing up.”
Similarly, soon after I began working as a hospital chaplain, one of our congregants was admitted as a patient. I made sure to stop by every day. Sometimes we engaged in conversation and even prayer, but the vast majority of days I did nothing more than say hello. A few days later, at our synagogue, I overheard this congregant tell a friend, “That rabbi was wonderful for me in the hospital. He took incredible care of me.” Incredible care?!? Most of our visits lasted less than a minute. Even when the visits lasted longer, I had nothing profound to say. All I did was listen to him talk. It became clear to me that showing up, listening, and caring, make an enormous difference. In some cases, it actually makes all the difference. Especially when you, as clergy, represent holiness, tradition, and God to many people.
This teaching is also well-entrenched in traditional rabbinic sources. The Torah states that Yitro instructed his son-in-law, Moses, to admonish the people to “make known to them the way they shall go and the deeds they shall do.” The Talmud parses out the teachings embedded in every word of this verse. For example, “make known to them” means that the people must have a livelihood, “the way” refers to doing acts of kindness, and “that they shall go” refers to visiting the sick. The Maharsha, one of the classic Talmudic commentaries, expresses surprise that “they shall go” implies visiting the sick, and explains that this teaches us that to “simply go there, without doing any specific action, fulfills the mitzvah.”
The great Tzaddik of Jerusalem, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, frequently provided assistance to those suffering from mental illness. Specifically to people who needed support beyond what their physicians could offer. Rabbi Levin’s good friend, Professor Halperin, head of the neurology department at Hadassah Hospital, would frequently refer mentally ill patients to the rabbi, and time after time Reb Aryeh succeeded in helping them. On one occasion, Professor Halperin asked the rabbi, “Tell me, what is your secret? What do you say to these people with sick minds and emotions whom I send you?” “I just listen patiently,” replied Reb Aryeh. Professor Halperin noted, “Listening is a wonderful method of healing. This is an important rule in psychiatry.” Reb Aryeh countered, “But I do not stop at listening alone. I also reveal a touch of empathy, of sharing in their troubles, and these sick people sense it and respond.”
As a chaplain, I frequently encounter patients or families who have just suffered a loss, received a devastating diagnosis or experienced a trauma. There is frequently an impulse to reassure them that “everything is going to be okay” and attempt to find a practical way to relieve their pain. However, instead of encouraging false hope or trying to fix things, I have learned that sometimes, people need to grieve, and the best thing I can do is allow them to do so, while offering a non-anxious, compassionate presence. When done sincerely, this approach can communicate the single most important message of caring. Without trite platitudes, we can help people feel that we are with them in their pain, helping them realize that they will ultimately get through it. Although everyone wants to be a hero, “just showing up” and feeling the pain of others takes infinitely more courage and is much more difficult than imposing a “one size fits all” solution on deep wounds that cut directly into peoples’ souls. Giving advice or gifts often provides nothing more than a band aid on something that merits much more meaningful attention.
Learning this lesson has allowed me to develop the strength and courage to truly be there for the people I serve – to be with them, by their side, not imposing my goals or insecurities on them. Although some may think that sitting with people and feeling their pain is inaction, it is often the most empowering intervention we as rabbis can provide. By letting people recognize they are not alone in their pain, but they have been heard and valued, they can then be empowered to take whatever action is most meaningful to them. There are, of course, times when a rabbi will have to take the lead and be directive, but this is best accomplished only after truly understanding the needs and values of the congregant. While this can be accomplished through various tools, such as reflective listening and reframing, the ultimate goal is to simply be the best possible listener we can be.
A most beautiful story about Rabbi Moshe Feinstein has helped me further in internalizing this teaching. A woman who was sitting shiva was inconsolable. One evening, Reb Moshe showed up to be menachem avel (comfort the mourner). When he arrived, everyone stood up and cleared the room to give him privacy with the distraught woman. A number of minutes later, he exited the room, and all of the visitors returned to find the mourner’s tears dried for the first time during her entire shiva. Everyone was in awe. Did the great sage know the magic words to comfort this woman in desperate need? After a few moments of relief, someone got the nerve to ask the woman what words of wisdom Reb Moshe had shared that brought her such meaningful comfort. The woman looked at the group and explained, “he sat down, didn’t say a word, but tears welled up in his eyes. He continued to sit with me and silently felt my pain.” She went on to explain that Reb Moshe was the first person who didn’t attempt to make her feel better with trite sayings or focus more on his own discomfort than on hers. He then got up and left. Reb Moshe didn’t say a single word to this woman. It was his ability to sit with her and be fully present with her in her pain that brought her the comfort she sought. It can take a lifetime to truly inculcate this lesson, but we are all capable of practicing these behaviors, and our congregants are certainly worthy of this response in their times of need. I learned all about this approach in rabbinical school, but I could only come to know the simple truths, the profundity and transformative capacity of “just showing up,” of presence and of empathic listening, when I had left the classroom and began to experience the profound dramas of our daily lives.
 Exodus 18:20.
 Talmud Bavli, Bava Kama 99b-100a.
 Maharsha, Bava Metzia 30b.
 Raz, Simcha. A Tzaddik in our Time: The Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Jerusalem, NY: Feldheim, 1977, p. 138.
Rabbi Jason Weiner is Senior Rabbi and Manager of Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai medical Center, Los Angeles and a graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, 2006.