Approaching our last week of DLTI
Another wintry journey to DLTI

The PaRDeS of pastoral care

Anton Boisen, the founder of Clinical Pastoral Education, taught that the pastoral interaction is an encounter with the human document. Jewish tradition centers around the encounter with God manifest in a written document. From that point of intersection, Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman spins a four-tiered way of looking at interpersonal encounters based in a very old Jewish mode of textual analysis.

There's a very old story in Tosefta Hagigah 2:3 about four rabbis who entered an orchard -- in Hebrew, פרדס / pardes, which is the source of the English word "paradise." (You can find the story cited here; it also appears at the beginning of Pardes: the quest for spiritual paradise in Judaism, a lecture by Moshe Idel.) One of the four men dies; one goes insane; one loses his faith; and only one remains unscathed. This is a story about an encounter with ultimate reality, which is both exalted and dangerous.

In the Zohar, Rabbi Moses de Leon maps the story to a four-tiered system of textual analysis. Pshat is literal interpretation, remez is allegory, drash is homiletical or ethical interpretation, and sod is the mystical understanding that ties it all together. The initial letters of those words spell PaRDeS, and these four levels of interpretation are the orchard into which we enter every time we learn.

Rabbi Friedman takes those four familiar levels of interpretation and applies them to the pastoral care encounter. As she writes, "[t]he individual encountered by pastoral caregivers is as complex, multilayered, rich, opaque, and in need of explication as any sacred text." Wow.

Pshat is the level of fact. Most of us, in beginning a pastoral encounter, ask about the facts of the situation at-hand: to whom am I ministering? What's happened? When and where did it happen? What's going on? This is useful information, and it can inform how a caregiver relates to a person in need of care. (For instance, imagine two women on the OB/GYN floor of a hospital, one of whom has just given birth to a healthy baby and another of whom has been obligated to undergo a hysterectomy. Totally different situations requiring totally different care.) But pshat information is surface stuff. It can only take us so far.

Remez means "hint." In the realm of Torah study, remez means allegorical interpretation; when it comes to the Torah of lived human experience, remez stands for emotion. This is the level where a pastoral caregiver listens and responds to feelings. There are all kinds of emotional hints in any encounter: body language, visible comfort or discomfort, all of the nonverbal cues we give each other when we interact. This is the level where one may reach an intuitive sense of a person's feelings of guilt or acceptance, anxiety or hope, anger or love. Of course, it's a bad idea to decide one knows what a person is feeling; better to offer what we think we're seeing ("It seems to me like you might be feeling...") and allow the person either to agree or to steer us into a better understanding.

Drash, which means "interpretation," is the level of meaning in an encounter. "Just as midrash endeavors to dig out the meanings buried in a text," Rabbi Friedman writes, drash "requires listening to the person's narrative to mine the meanings he or she finds and their connection to larger sources of meaning." The big question here is, what does all of this mean? This is a place where one might find oneself offering teachings from the texts and narratives of Jewish tradition and history; it's also where "the willingness to explore the role of faith, prayer, observance, and community can be the most distinctive gift of the Jewish pastoral caregiver, for they are all doors to meaning."

And the deepest level is sod, which means "secret." This is the soul level. Is this an I-Thou encounter for me as a caregiver? Do I see this person as a spark of the divine? Am I aware of God's presence in the encounter? These are some of the questions I might ask.

The parable of the four rabbis who entered the orchard is a story about facing overwhelming realities. I suspect anyone who's ever worked her or his first night on-call at a hospital can relate to the rush of fear that says, "what if I walk through the door into something I can't handle?" Yes, there are risks in this work. We might jump to conclusions, which can be destructive to our patients. Or we might be driven mad or to loss of faith like Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuyah were.

Alternately, we might find ourselves so immersed in the pastoral caregiving experience that we lose sight of how to really step away. Rabbi Friedman writes that "[t[here is a sensation of electrical charge, which can be exhilarating, but this can also make it hard to return to the mundane. How do we buy groceries, help children with homework, or watch mindless TV when our souls are still caught up with the most powerful spiritual encounters?"

The first time I served on the chevra kadisha I came away feeling this kind of charge. I remember so clearly stepping out of the funeral home, my face wet with tears, and being so overwhelmed by the quality of the early evening light that I had to sit in my car for a few minutes, just breathing and shaking, before I could pull myself together and drive away. That was my first real encounter with death, and it left me feeling electrified and a little bit unreal. Hospital work did the same thing, sometimes.

I think the same kind of intense emotional charge can arise in more "ordinary" pastoral care encounters, too -- even just sitting down with someone to talk about how they're doing, if I'm really present to the encounter and to the face of God manifest there. But Rabbi Friedman's right that it can be tricky to leave that exalted place and return to mundanity. Our ordinary lives aren't usually configured for that kind of experience or that kind of energy.

I think she's right that our interpersonal encounters are inevitably as multilayered as our texts are, and that we owe our meetings with one another the same respect and attention that we give to our study of Talmud and Zohar and Torah. For me, then, the challenge becomes: with a near-infinite library of written texts to study, and a near-infinite library of human texts with which to engage, how do I strike the right balance between them, without forgetting to make a little bit of time for myself?


This post is a response to the essay "PaRDeS: A Model for Presence in Livui Ruchani" by Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman, published in Jewish Pastoral Care: A Practical Handbook.

Technorati tags: , , .