Pinhas: On the redemptive power of Jewish traditions

Numbers 25:10-30:1

Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

Some 10 years ago, as a very green hospital chaplain with little experience to guide me, I learned a very important lesson. As the rabbi in a large Methodist hospital, I was called to visit a woman in deep need. She had just undergone serious abdominal surgery and would need to be in the hospital for a long time. I assumed she would be seeking help in understanding and coping with what was happening in her body.

As it turned out, the woman wanted something very different from me. It was Chanukah, and she desperately wanted a chanukiah (nine-branch candelabra) for her hospital room. I returned sometime later with an electric chanukiah, the only kind we were permitted to use in the hospital, and as I entered the room, the patient began to weep.

I was puzzled. I would not have been surprised by a flow of emotion about her surgery, her fear, her prolonged hospital stay. But a flood of tears about a simple electric chanukiah?

The woman had been estranged from Jewish life for many years. Her relationships with her family had grown strained, and she had lived alone for a long time. She had despaired of finding light in her Judaism.

Then a most unlikely thing happened. She found herself in a Methodist hospital during Chanukah, being visited by a friendly rabbi. Her heart broke open, her Jewish soul found light in a plastic chanukiah. She wept because, as she lay in her hospital bed with her body healing from surgery, her soul began to heal, coming home after a long, lonely journey.

I remember this woman vividly, 10 years after we spent a couple of hours together, because she was one of my first teachers about the healing power of Jewish ritual. In recent years, I have begun to understand what she taught me.

In the view of some commentators, this is precisely the teaching of this week's parashah. We find ourselves at a unique point in the Jewish calendar. We have just passed Shiv'ah Asar B'Tammuz, the 17th of Tammuz, the day when tradition has it that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans, thus initiating the destruction of Jerusalem.

In three weeks we will observe Tisha B'Av, the ninth of Av, the day when the Temples were destroyed and numerous other tragedies befell our people. The rabbis called this three-week period bein hamistarim, "in the narrow or tight places." This is a time of mourning, as we commemorate the many occasions of suffering that our people has endured.

Just as we have entered this national grieving period, Jews around the world gather this Shabbat to read Parashat Pinchas, the portion that contains the catalog of sacrifices to be offered in the temple throughout the Jewish year. As regular shulgoers readily recognize, this is the portion to which we return again and again throughout the year, in the Maftir reading for each holiday, detailing the holiday observance in the ancient Temple.

This Shabbat, we absorb a taste of all of the holidays of the year, all in one sitting. According to some commentators, "this portion is placed here, at the start of the bein hametsarim period, precisely for this reason: now, in the midst of mourning, to give us a taste of the joy of the festivals, just when we need them most.

How is it that the joy of a religious festival can serve as a response to grief, trauma or illness? Some of us expect, as I did in my initial contact with my friend long ago at Methodist Hospital, that in times of loss and deep need, we will necessarily be absorbed in our own sorrow, our own fear, our own struggle. This is often so; illness and loss often bring a narrowing of focus. With limited physical, emotional and spiritual energy at my command, all I have goes straight to my personal place of need.

But there are those moments when the ancient words and practices can bring me out of my own sorrow into a realm of spiritual light. Like my friend with her long-yearned-for chanukiah, immersing oneself, even for a brief moment, in the life of mitzvah — long enough to light a candle, to say the Shema at night, to say "thank you" upon awakening in the morning, to make a call of support to another person in need — brings one into the stream of life.

To taste of the joy of the hagim (holidays), as our parashah invites us to do this week, is to step for a moment into the stream of eternity, to step into the stream of that which cannot die, which cannot succumb to illness, which is stronger and longer-lived than any of our pains, any of our fears, any of our struggles.

May this parashah remind us of the power of Jewish ritual to bring healing into our lives, and may it be for blessing for us and for all. Amen.