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The Turkey Prince

“These are the things that people eat the fruit of in this world but the principle remains for the world to come, and these are them: honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving kindness, attending a Beit Midrash morning and evening, hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, welcoming a bride, attending to the dead, devoted prayer and making peace between two people, but the study of Torah is equal to them all.” [Based on Shabbat 127a]

This text, based on a line from the Talmud, is said daily in the morning service. It is the text chosen to follow the blessing over the reading of Torah. That is, following reciting the blessing over studying Torah, at which point any text could be chosen to be studied, this text is the one specified by the Jewish tradition. This is no coincidence. Torah is meant to be a vehicle that leads one to acts of loving-kindness, and this Talmudic text outlines specifically the acts that summarize good, ethical behavior. Like Hillel teaches to the convert, “What is hurtful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary, go and learn it,” (Shabbat 31a). Torah, a living body of literature to be studied over and over again, is itself not read for personal edification; Torah does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, its study is explicitly meant to lead one to a life filled with righteous acts.

Present on this list of deeds is “visiting the sick,” known by the Hebrew “bikur holim.” In its most basic form then, the chaplaincy in a hospital setting is a fulfillment of the Jewish obligation to visit those who are sick: to speak with them, be with them, provide for them, and help to cheer them up. It is a rote obligation enacted in deference to the tradition’s call.

Eight months ago, as I presented my first verbatim, this explanation was sufficient for me. I remember looking my supervisor straight in the eye and saying that this explained my theology of pastoral care. “Why do you do it though?” she asked. “Because it is a commandment,” said I. “But why do you do it?” she prodded. The conversation went in circles from there.

I was unversed in a nuanced understanding of what I was actually doing with patients. Were I merely visiting them, I would walk in with a smile and some cookies, talk to them, try to cheer them up and then leave. I would be as rote in my offerings to the individuals confined to hospital beds as the tradition suggests the acts performance should be: nothing more, nothing less. In many months of visiting patients, my theology has evolved significantly.

It began when I took the time to reconsider the I-Thou philosophy of Martin Buber. A year ago, as I studied his work in seminary, I found deep trouble with the God image the Jewish philosopher painted: it was too relativistic and, seemingly, flimsy; too personal, not communal enough. I still struggle deeply with his image of God. Yet I learned quickly in my work with patients, through our many didactics and the reading of Social Intelligence (Daniel Goleman) of the applications of the I-Thou philosophy to human-human interactions.

Looking at the chaplaincy through this lens opened up worlds to my young eyes. It allowed for the possibility that I am doing more than merely “visiting the sick.” I go into their rooms to be with them, to walk with them in their struggle. I feel with them, share with them, sit with them. In doing so, I help them feel less alone in their pain, I help them to bring meaning to their trial, I help to make it all make a little more sense.

So that original text, the Talmudic list of ethical obligations, no longer fits. I still read it each morning out of that feeling of rote obligation, but no longer do I attempt to graft this ancient Jewish text onto the modern institution of chaplaincy. Pastoral presence is too different.

For some time I was left feeling somewhat devoid of a Jewish context within which to understand my work. I had figured out why I do this – as a person – but had not yet found a compelling Jewish source that underpins my work. I searched and searched, but could not find the text that I sought.

And then, out of nowhere, I was related the following story. In a moment of lucidity it all became clear. This is the theological underpinning of my chaplaincy work.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the late-18th century Hasidic rebbe, taught:

Once the king’s son went mad. He thought he was a turkey. He felt compelled to sit under the table without any clothes on, pulling at bits of bread and bones like a turkey. None of the doctors could do anything to help him or cure him, and they gave up in despair. The king was very sad. Until a Wise Man came and said, “I can cure him.”

What did the Wise Man do? He took off all his clothes, and sat down naked under the table next to the king’s son, and also pulled at crumbs and bones.

The Prince asked him, “Who are you and what are you doing here?”

“And what are you doing here?” he replied.

“I am a turkey,” said the Prince.

“Well I’m also a turkey,” said the Wise Man.

The two of them sat there together like this for some time, until they were used to one another. Then the Wise Man gave a sign, and they threw them shirts. The Wise Man-Turkey said to the king’s son, “Do you think a turkey can’t wear a shirt? You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey.” The two of them put on shirts.

After a while he gave another sign and they threw them some trousers. The Wise Man said, “Do you think if you wear trousers you can’t be a turkey?” They put on the trousers. One by one they put on the rest of their clothes in the same way.

Afterwards, the Wise Man gave a sign and they put down human food from the table. The Wise Man said to the Prince, “Do you think if you eat good food you can’t be a turkey any more? You can eat this food and still be a turkey.” They ate. Then he said to him, “Do you think a turkey has to sit under the table? You can be a turkey and sit up at the table.”

This was how the Wise Man dealt with the Prince, until in the end he cured him completely.
This story, grafted onto my work in the chaplaincy, is not meant to make light of the serious and real pain felt by the many patients with whom I interact. Rather, the state of the whimsical and insane prince is meant to serve as metaphor for the reality of our patients: they find themselves in a very lonely place, where their world is turned upside down and different from everyone else’s. What they need, what we can provide, is a way to make sense of their struggle, to help provide them with meaning, and to allow them to come out from under the table – turkey or not.

The methodology to providing this service is key. One who enters a patient’s room, who looks at the patient sitting there underneath the table from up above and expects to bring them out, is doing that patient a disservice. That approach does not validate the patient’s struggle, does not allow them to feel joined. Rather, the chaplain must go underneath the table and be with the patient – feel their pain with them – to begin to help them to find ways to live up from underneath the table.

The wisdom of Reb Nachman’s story is that the wise man alone is willing to go where the prince is – emotionally – to be a turkey with him. He alone is willing to be ridiculous, to set aside social standards and expected behavior and just be with his patient precisely where the patient needs him to be. He is, like the medical literature describes of the proverbial chaplain, a clown of sorts, ready to pull out of his hat an act to fit just this moment; prepared to be goofy or absurd or embarrassed if need be to help this other.

That is a Buberian act – one which can only be done in an I-Thou manner. This can only be accomplished if the patient is no longer a patient – no longer an it – but, rather, another human being with whom I will exist in relation – a Thou. It involves going to the place where the patient is and, if they want to be brought somewhere, helping them in that transition.

So chaplaincy and pastoral care, though they do fulfill the basic Jewish obligation of visiting the sick, are actually much more. They are a professionalized means of helping people – being with other human beings – in their most difficult and painful times. Pastoral care is the most human of acts, a virtuous attempt to aid other people, no matter how difficult their struggle.

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