You always remember your first.

Your first crush, your first kiss, your first time driving a car.

This summer, I am doing a chaplaincy internship at a hospital. I have been around a lot of life, a lot of healing, and surprisingly few instances of death and patients at the end of their lives. I have sat in the hallway, waiting as a family said goodbye to their grandmother as she was taken off of a ventilator and died, which meant my job was to wait and be a comfort to the family.

But you always remember your first.

I remember the first time I was in a room with a dead body (my grandfather), and I remember the first time I was with someone when they died (my grandmother).

And I will always remember my first patient who died.

He was admitted to the ER the night before I got my assignment to my floor. It turns out that he had melanoma which had metastasized all over, a terminal diagnosis in his case. He had received this diagnosis almost a month prior. But he did not want to bother anyone, so he stopped communicating with his family. A week before his admission to the ER, his parents came out from the east coast and surprised him. They found that he had barely eaten anything since his diagnoses. He had come to terms with his prognosis. They had not. A week later, he fell and ended up in our ER. Another chaplain saw him, and suggested I follow up.

That began his three week stay at the hospital. In those three weeks, the whole team saw his mother go through a process of grief the likes of which I had never seen. I also was exposed to many aspects of the hospital I knew existed but never imagined. We met with the ethics team. We dealt with setting up, and then stopping, a transfer to another city. We had social workers on the case, and nearly every part of the team played a role.

I only had a few interactions with him. I kept trying to see him, but it never worked out. The first time I tried, the mother blocked me and just needed someone to talk to, so I provided that punching bag for her. Other times I visited he was sleeping. Once, I visited him, he peeked out from under his beanie, saw me, and while he declined a visit then, when I asked if he wanted me to come back, he nodded and smiled. The last time I visited, he did not want me to visit, and did not want me to come back. I respected that and wished him well.

He ended up holding on for longer than we figured he would. I think, though, part of that is due to the stress around his stay. There was always something going on. First his parents wanted to transfer him. Then when that did not happen they wanted to place him in hospice. Then they put up a fight about that. And at the end of the day, I truly believe that if someone asked him, "What do you want to happen?" and someone had carried out his wishes, he may have died with a little more peace in his heart. The team even remarked one day at our daily meeting that it seemed like he was holding on to something. We could only guess what that was.

From what I was told, there was sadness and some anger when he died. It is hard to determine who his family was truly angry at: the hospital team, the process that led to this point, God, their son who hid his condition, or something else altogether. Grief is powerful. And each case is different. Each person mourns in a different way. My first patient taught me to be a compassionate listener and, perhaps more importantly, to pay attention to a patient's wishes.

My first patient died Monday morning at 4 AM.

Zichrono livracha - may his memory be remembered for a blessing.
This post also appears on my blog at The Times of Israel.

Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagila v'nism'cha vo - This is the day Adonai has made, c'mon, let's rejoice and be glad! (Psalm 118:24)

Thank God for this day!

Thank God!

Thank God for the Court's decision. Thank God for Justices Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagen for upholding the 14th Amendment, that "[No State shall] deprive any person of life, liberty, or property ... nor deny to any person ... the equal protection of the laws."

Thank God for people like Jim Obergefell, Edie Windsor, and every other plaintiff who put themselves in public and on the line on behalf of the greater good.

Thank God for the lawyers who took up those cases and advocated for them and all people who desire marriage equality.

Thank God for community leaders. And thank God for faith leaders like Rabbi Denise Eger who taught us that our faith is not meant to deter marriage equality, but informs our determination to see its existence.

Thank God for allies. No fight worth doing should be accomplished alone.

Thank God for Matthew Shepard, and every victim of homophobia. The pain we felt inspired us to continue and fight for this sacred cause.

Thank God for Prop 8. For all of the pain it inflicted during its enactment, the process of its being overturned helped turn the tides of public opinion and paved the way for today's joy.

Thank God for the kindness and compassion of everyone who played a role in making today happen.

Thank God for marriage equality!

Thank God justice has been done!
D'var Torah Korach - “Korah, Charleston, & the Image of God”
Delivered June 19, 2015 at Congregation Kol Ami

In the Creation story, we read that God created humans, “בצלם אלהים - in God’s image.” One summer at camp, two counselors were gossiping about the attractiveness of another staff member. “What can I say,” one said to the other, “some people are just more b’tzelem than others.” They laughed, and went on with their day.

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, a Levite named…Korach leads a rebellion against Moses. Korach and 250 chiefs of the Israelite community rise up against Moses. They take their worship tools and rally the whole community against Moses and Aaron. God is so infuriated by this rebellion that the earth opens up and swallows Korach, killing not only Korach and his household, but all of the chiefs who rebelled against Moses’ leadership.

Perhaps it is my reading, but this seems like a drastic over-reaction. But let us look closer at what is going on.

The portion begins, “וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח - So Korach took.” What is curious is the text does not provide an object - so what did Korach take? The Rabbinic commentators provide plenty of ways of approaching this question. One says that Korach “took himself,” as a way of creating separation for the ensuing conflict. Others say he “took” advice from others and then separated himself from Moses’ leadership (Radak), he “took” people by persuasion to join him (Numbers Rabbah), he “took” 250 men and stood before Moses and Aaron and confronted them, or, perhaps, Korach took it upon himself to act in the name of the rebels. Stanley Wagner and Israel Drazin, two modern commentators, note, “Each of these interpretations pictures Korach as an enlightened man questioning the reasonableness of Moses’ legislation or judicial pronouncements.”

In short, perhaps Korach was saying, “look, some people are more b’tzelem than others - some people are more in the image of God than others. And I am more b'tzelem than you.” Korach thought that he could take it upon himself to correct a perceived ill in the world. Rather than try to work out his differences in some other way, he forcefully confronted Moses and Aaron, told them that he was better than they were, and he met his untimely end.

Nine others met their unfortunate, untimely end this week, by no fault of their own. Reverand Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharon Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance and one other Bible study student were gunned down at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina Wednesday night. They were murdered by a man who thought the way to question the legitimacy of a person or group’s practice is through violence and pain and death. 

He thought that some people are more b’tzelem elohim than others. 

Unlike Korach, though, he didn’t take himself. 

He took life. 

Each of us is created b'tzelem elohim - in the image of the Divine. Our free will allows us the opportunity to choose to act with goodness. Indeed, Rabbi Eger's favorite quotation from the Bible says, "What does God require of you? Do justice. Love engaging in kindness. And walk humbly with your God."

As we mourn with our friends in Charleston and around the world, let us recommit ourselves to recognize the Divine within each of us. 

Let us recommit ourselves to do justice. 

Let us recommit ourselves to engage in acts of kindness. 

And let us recommit ourselves to walk humbly, humbly together.

When I reach out to you and you to me,
We become b'tzelem elohim
When we share our hopes and our dreams
Each one of us, b'tzelem elohim

Sing Dan Nichols' B'tzelem Elohim"