Healing as Metaphor

Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler
January 25, 2013
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I haven’t written a word yet, and already I can tell you that this is not the blog post I intended to write. When I was fully engaged in the life of illness and laboring in the work of recovery, there is little I hated more than well-meaning friends (and even strangers) offering what they imagined to be words of comfort: this will make you a better rabbi. I still find these words theologically offensive. But I can’t deny that they are true.

There’s a line in a song by Carrie Newcomer I’ve always loved: “when I get healed, I’m gonna be a healer / that’s just the nature of those things”. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, or that God only gives us what we can handle. I do believe that we can learn from our deepest and most painful struggles, and, sometimes, these wrestlings can make us better.

I suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm when I was 26 years old, halfway through Rabbinic school. I underwent eight hours of open-cranial brain surgery (but not before I demanded that someone read me the Psalm that asks, “I look to the mountains, from where will my help come?”), five weeks of inpatient rehabilitation, five months with my mother living on my couch to help me to cook, bathe, answer the telephone, and to press me to perform the endless cycle of physical therapy home exercises every day. Rather than Bible, Midrash, History, Talmud, and Liturgy, I studied occupational therapy, vision therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, psychotherapy, cranial-sacral therapy and practiced getting out of my wheelchair to use a walker and then to learn to walk with a cane.

I finger-painted profanity, cursed God, groaned when a classmate offered to put a note in the Western Wall to pray for my healing, and laughed ironically when my friends held hands around my hospital bed, tears streaming down their cheeks, in a healing circle.

I found solace only in the Book of Job and cherished the wisdom of crying out in pain, screaming at the God who Creates Everything. Job wisely asks, “Though I speak, my pain is not assuaged; and though I forbear, what am I eased?” But the Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, acknowledges, “I learned to speak from my pain”.

Ultimately, Ecclesiastes feels most true to me: “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”. In my case, there is a time for fury and a time for gratitude.

My professors at HUC were the greatest of my life. But the aneurysm was my graduate school. I learned Bible and Talmud and Liturgy and Theology from my hospital bed, in the physical therapy office, and on the acupuncture table. I know what I need to know as a rabbi because of how I’ve navigated through my own healing: how to sit with discomfort, with silence, with not knowing; how to be patient with the long process of healing (seeing healing as a verb, not a noun); how to allow the natural course of the developmental process to unfold its stages of grieving, healing, reconciling, and struggling. I’ve also learned how to fight for my health, how to work through a seemingly insurmountable challenge, to live through wanting to die.

In the Talmud, Brachot 5b, a wise and respected sage who has fallen ill is asked, “are your sufferings welcome to you?” The sage answers, “Not them, nor their reward”. I hear in these words echoes of words I’ve heard throughout the past five years, this will make you a better rabbi.

Though neither my sufferings nor their rewards were (or are) welcome to me, I cannot deny that I am learning from them, nonetheless. In my rabbinic work, I encounter Jews with disabilities (some not unlike my own), I sit beside friends suffering the worst losses of their lives, facing illness and death, I see bad things happening to good people. And I am in love with the Torah as a source of healing wisdom (sometimes). For the first time since the aneurysm, I’ve restarted a dialogue with Shabbat, traditional ritual and prayer after many months of angry silence. When people ask me why bad things happen to good people, I know the weight of the question because I have held it with both hands. I find myself drawn to chaplaincy, to hospitals, to people wrestling with unthinkable pain, with full awareness that there is little I can do but offer to walk beside them. I know what I don’t know, what I can’t know, what it is impossible to know. And I, like Rainer Maria Rilke, live the question now.

I recently read the classic book, Illness as Metaphor and loved it. I loved the internal contradiction of understanding illness as a metaphor and, simultaneously, knowing that the premise is faulty. Illness is illness. And illness is metaphor. Both are true. As Carrie Newcomer reminds me in her song, “it’s just the nature of those things”.

Still, I never seem to want to take sick days (even when I have the flu); I hoard them like only a survivor might understand. More than I care to admit, I await the next tragedy, the next trauma, the next reason to need more help from doctors, specialists, and therapists than I can even imagine. I live every day balanced precariously on the edge of safety. And I know this, more than any certificate or graduate course, makes me a rabbi.

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Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler works at the Aitz Hayim Center for Jewish Living in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois. She also serves as the Director of the Berit Mila Program of Reform Judaism. She received master’s degrees from the University of Judaism and from Harvard Graduate School of Education and was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion in 2006, where she found deep meaning writing and researching her Rabbinic Thesis on the Book of Job: "Talk to Me: (Or, When More Bad Things Happen to Good People)." She is married to Rabbi Amitai Adler (also an S Blog contributor) and this year became Michael Zachary Joel Adler's mother.

9 Comments

  1. Thank you for this powerful post.

    Midway through my rabbinic school journey I had a pair of strokes. (We still don’t know why.) My injury and recovery were not as severe as yours sound like they were — but I suspect there’s some common ground between our experiences.

    I really resonate with this: “Though neither my sufferings nor their rewards were (or are) welcome to me, I cannot deny that I am learning from them, nonetheless.” Yes. Me too.

    Thanks for writing this. Shabbat shalom / Tu BiShvat sameach.

    Posted by
  2. Although I am neither a rabbi nor ill, in the last 18 months I have undergone extensive surgery (12 hours) followed by many weeks of recovery, additional surgery, and an incision wound that continues to heal to this day.

    Like you, I did not invite this scenario into my life, but also like you, I have learned so much…about strength, about memory, and about the empowerment that comes with changing the course of a life–especially when it is your own.

    I wish you both continued strength, healing, wholeness and a Shabbat shalom.

    Posted by
    JanetheWriter
  3. Never understood why people would say, after years of infertility, I would appreciate my children more, for the struggle. So the one who came to us with less struggle, what, could just step out into the street, but those other ones, sure, they were more precious to me!? All through those years, I found solace in moving forward, not stopping, not trying something else, just MOVING. Clearly a coping mechanism. Back then, I wasn’t as involved in Jewish learning…but I would think that Job would have made sense to me. No answers. God wasn’t doing this to me to make me a better, stronger, more loving mother. I was going to be that anyway, why else would I be wanting children so badly? No, I told people, and myself, that God is the way you get through the bad stuff, not the source of it. I do find comfort in ritual more than I used to, making a parenthesis around me, for even a few hours. Thanks for expressing this, Julie, very well said.

    Posted by
  4. I just love the image of ritual being a parentheses that surrounds you. Delicious. I send love…

    Posted by
    Julie Pelc Adler
  5. Beautiful piece, Julie. Thanks. And I hope you’ll write more about this. There’s so much to be learned. I loved this: “My professors at HUC were the greatest of my life. But the aneurysm was my graduate school.”

    Couple questions: When you say in the first paragraph “I still find these words theologically offensive,” I wonder why? I mean, I could understand that if someone said, “God caused this aneurysm to make you a better rabbi.” Maybe it was just the idea of people trying to make lemonade from lemons when you weren’t there yet.

    Also, I’m curious whether you connected with Job before or after — or was it just in the midst of your most difficult days.

    Shabbat Shalom.

    Posted by
    Tom Fields-Meyer
  6. I don’t remember your groaning when I offered to put that note in the Western Wall for you!!! I’m glad so many of us are part of your healing journey.

    Posted by
  7. Tom, these are great questions. I’ll try to (briefly) hit them all here… but I’m glad to have a longer conversation offline, too.

    “I still find these words theologically offensive” refers to the presumption that God gave me the aneurysm so that I’d become a better rabbi. Often people don’t come out and say that, but they imply it either with tone or in context that “everything happens for a reason”. I get that this helps many people find suffering to be more tolerable, but I think it’s offensive for anyone to say it to the sufferer. It’s for him/her to come to on their own, and to claim it as theirs. I see that the difference is slight, but it’s meaningful. Saying it to someone else is offensive (I think) but saying it about oneself is Viktor Frankel meaning-making….

    I never really connected with Job beforehand (to my knowledge, or, at least on a conscious level…) but years later I was going through old papers and projects from my first year of Rab school and found that I’d written a paper on Job then. I hadn’t remembered doing so, but I guess I was drawn to him/his story even before the aneurysm…

    Posted by
    Julie Pelc Adler
  8. David,
    You were in Israel and couldn’t hear the groan. It was there. Sorry. But I love you for wanting to put a note in the wall. I loved you then and I love you now. It’s the thought that counts, right?

    Posted by
    Julie Pelc Adler
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