Only the Lonely
By Rabbi Dr Jeremy Collick
After more than 11 weeks in various hospitals I am, hopefully, on the way to recovery. It has been very strange being “on the other side of the bed”, so to speak, after 35 years as a congregational rabbi.
Visiting people who were unwell, disabled and unable to get out, or approaching the frontier of this world, filled up more than half my working life until ill-health forced me to retire two years ago.
I was never sure that my visits made a real difference to those I was trying to comfort but, after all, it is what rabbis do. And, of course, our tradition encourages us to visit the sick; it is something that God Himself did when Abraham was recovering from his brit milah in the Torah. For the rabbis, visiting and comforting the sick was a great mitzvah and even helped to take away some of their pain.
And it is true, it is lonely being a patient. Even though so much is happening, it can be a very lonely time. Visitors do help – family, friends, rabbis and even the occasional Roman Catholic chaplain made the time go a little quicker. As did my wife’s constant infusions of hot chicken soup.
But it’s not just visits that have helped me to cope. At the Royal Free and at other hospitals in London a group of people have got together to perform a wonderful mitzvah. The charity is called Ezra Umarpeh and provides a Jewish room with wonderful hot Shabbat meals under Kedassia supervision, for patients and their families, together with challah, grape juice and even battery powered Shabbat candles transporting us, if only for a short time, back to reality and normality.
It’s not just that sense of physical isolation, of loneliness, of somehow being cut off from day-to-day life that we may hate. When we suffer an enforced break due to illness, death of a loved one or simply retirement from a busy professional or business life, there is a sense of despair and the feeling that we mean less to those around us and maybe even to God.
In hospital it is so easy to become institutionalised, to suffer the many indignities we undergo and to become, in the attitude and speech of well-meaning medical professionals “the patient”, a number and an illness category rather than a human being. And maybe, sometimes, we even become disconnected from God. Those who are regular shul-goers, or even irregular ones, can miss the feeling of reaching the Holy One surrounded with the ritual beauty of Torah, the ner tamid and the hustle and bustle that are part of our services.
We can find peace even in the midst of great pain and anxiety
Of course, we can and do pray by ourselves. We can find God and some peace even in the midst of great pain and anxiety. I find great comfort in davening alone at home or in hospital, though I have long since lost faith in the idea which we sing about in Ki Hineh Vachomer during the High Holy Days, that just like the potter who strikes his pots to strengthen them, so God tests only those who can withstand and grow from the pain, and not those who’ll crack.
So for me, after the joy of human company and a plate of chicken soup, the final mitzvah to counter that sense of isolation is, perhaps, the most contentious.
When I was rabbi at Edgware Masorti Synagogue, I was asked many times whether we could or should livestream our services. While we gave it quite a lot of thought, in the end, we decided not to go ahead with the idea.
There are halachic challenges to broadcasting services live as well as social and communal issues about the importance of minyan and praying (with the occasional conversation!), not to mention shmoozing at kiddush, all of which are part of the Shabbat experience. And, of course, the question as to whether people would be tempted to tune in at home as an alternative to going to shul.
However, having been in hospital for so long, the worst day of each week, without doubt, was Shabbat; few visitors, no TV and no services. After much heartache, I used my laptop to be part of the Shabbat morning service of a Conservative synagogue in Chicago and spent an incredible morning transported back to my world, to Shabbat and the wonderful feeling of being a part of what we Jews do. I then switched to West London Synagogue’s service with its sense of calm and peace – not my style but beautiful nonetheless.
The halachic issues for the shul are easily overcome – a fixed camera focuses on the shaliach tzibbur or the ark on a time-switch. The benefits to housebound congregants or those in hospital are incalculable. Adding a sense of community and Shabbat joy – and I could comment on the rabbi’s sermon to my heart’s content!
The halachic issues facing the user are more complicated and I will need to look up the teshuvot available.
In the meantime, however, my answer to the question as to whether we can or should stream our services online is a resounding “Yes”.
Rabbi Dr Jeremy Collick is the former rabbi of Edgware Masorti Synagogue. Everyone at Masorti Judaism wishes him refuah shlemah – a complete and speedy recovery.