The Very Odd Couple

One circumstance even more intimidating for me as a chaplain than offering pastoral care to other clergy is to do so for Holocaust survivors and their family members. I imagine it must be daunting for Jewish burial society volunteers as well. The “prime directive” for chaplains is to say little and listen a lot, but in the presence of Holocaust survivors I have to make sure I do not take refuge behind that rule rather than use it for spiritual healing.

“Spiritual healing?” Are we kidding ourselves? Surely it is presumptuous of us to think we can offer that to people who have faced absolute evil.  I feel absurd talking with them about such things as God and the sources of evil unless of course they are the ones who bring it up. Who am I, so unschooled in evil with my petty experiences of sorrow? I remember a phone call I had with a deceased Holocaust survivor’s sister who I will call Madge. The subject had surfaced somehow in reference to her brother about how Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) accounts for the existence of evil. The gist of the explanation is that when elements of existence are out of balance, then what is normally wholesome gets distorted into evil. When Madge dismissed that as “rubbish,” I certainly was not going to argue the point or even explore it to gain a deeper understanding of why she felt that way. Just as trying to make sense of the Holocaust is absurd, it felt ludicrous to bring in any theology surrounding it. She was expressing anger, and my job was to accept and affirm her emotion, nothing else.

What also gives our efforts to comfort Holocaust survivors a false note is what their very existence implies: they suffered, and we have had it so easy (“Survivor guilt” is the term for this feeling, as when a child dies but the parent lives on in perfect health). We may have felt that God is present in our own privileged lives, which may feel like nothing more than a conceit on our part given God’s lack of presence with Madge let alone with her brother.

We cannot offer comfort in the midst of our own discomfort. We cannot give answers to unanswerable questions. But the paradox that can lead to spiritual healing is to acknowledge the lack of it in people like Madge. We help by not helping, as a Kabbalist might say. When we make no pretense of offering answers to their laments, when we do nothing more than hear their distress and not attempt to ease it, the very act of making ourselves vulnerable and entering their overburdened world is precisely what renders it more bearable to them.

–Reprinted from my guest post entitled “The Very Odd Couple.” This appeared in the blog “Expired and Inspired” (hosted by the Jewish burial society Kavod V’Nichum) in the online Los Angeles Jewish Journal December 17th, 2014

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Additional note: It is especially fitting to post an article at this time related to the Holocaust; January 27th, was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp Auschwitz.


2 thoughts on “The Very Odd Couple

  1. Marc Wong says:

    Good article.
    I am a big proponent of listening and counseling. By “listening”, I mean using everything we have to place someone else’s speaking, thinking, and feeling needs first. By “counseling”, I mean using listening to open up more thoughtful and sensitive discussions; using our own experiences and understanding of the human condition to add appropriately to the conversation.
    But what happens when someone had endured suffering beyond what we can fathom? It would be patronizing to ask them to think and feel more deeply about their experience. It would be presumptuous to try to add anything to the conversation. What’s left then is simple, unadorned listening.
    I believe Paula J. Caplan also advocates mostly quiet listening when veterans speak of the horrors they’ve experienced in war. Sometimes less is more.


    • Indeed, less is more. The rule for expert listening especially in these intense case,i.e., to listen as quietly as possible and to say as little as possible, is simple to state but “unspeakably” hard to obey. But those listeners who can do so are offering the sufferer a rare opportunity to express anything they want unabridged and unimpeded.


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