The Center for Pastoral Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary was established in 2009 with the goal of teaching seminary students (Jewish and non-Jewish), rabbis, and ordained clergy of all faiths the art of pastoral care. Studies at the center combine rigorous academic courses with the transformative learning process of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE).
Accredited by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education to offer Level I, Level II, and Supervisory CPE, the Center for Pastoral Education at JTS turns day-treatment programs for the mentally ill, nursing homes, hospitals, senior housing, hospices, and congregations into virtual classrooms.
The work of the center is possible thanks to the generous funding of the Charles H. Revson Foundation and the Booth Ferris Foundation.
The Center for Pastoral Education meets all ACPE standards, and ensures that students are informed in writing of all policies, procedures, rights, and responsibilities that pertain to them as participants in ACPE programs at JTS.
It is perhaps no coincidence that almost all of our CPE time this summer has occurred in the midst of the weekly Torah cycle's focus on Bemidbar, perhaps my favorite book in the Torah. Bemidbar is a book about the wilderness, a book about the journey that occurs between where we came from and where we are going. Its God is not the God that creates the universe and orders it just so, nor the God that is intimately involved with one particular family line, shepherding individuals toward their destinies. This God is not the God that acts as a mighty liberator of Exodus, nor the God that appears in awe and spectacle to deliver divine revelation. And it is not the God of Leviticus, setting up intricate and elaborate communal systems of holiness. Rather, the God of the book of Numbers can be difficult, angry, and punishing, but also deeply present, sustaining, and visionary. This is a God whose will seems iron, whose judgments feel harsh—and perhaps inscrutable to the people of Israel—but who ultimately is working toward the fulfillment of a divine plan, and who offers the hope of a better future. It is the difficulty and complexity of this vision of the divine that attracts me to Bemidbar as a source for a theology of pastoral care—it provides a model for a people and a self in crisis, not at a destination but on a journey.
Bemidbar follows Va-yikra, a book of order and structure, doing things in a particular way to get a particular result—the correct sacrifice, offering, incense, or ritual can wipe away impurity and maintain God's presence in the midst of the camp. Bemidbar too begins in a similar way—for 10 of the book's 36 chapters, the text describes the setting up of the camp, the order of the march, and the sacrifices that were made upon the completion of the Mishkan. This intensive structuring and ordering of the camp stands in strong contrast to what lies outside the camp—simply, a desert with occasional oases, a few resting places along the way, and enemies standing between the Israelites and their destination. The building and ordering of the camp allows the Israelites to create order in the midst of a chaotic, empty surrounding. And at the center of this effort—literally and metaphorically—is the Mishkan, God's dwelling place.
But it is immediately after the Israelites get the order to march (at the end of chapter 10) that things begin to fall apart (at the beginning of chapter 11). I've seen this both in my clinical work and in my group's internal processing: clients and chaplains construct systems for themselves—ways of being, of managing their spiritual and emotional needs—that are as intricate and elaborate as any of the descriptions of the Israelites' camp, and which function to maintain stability and order, and perhaps even a sense of holiness and purpose. Just as each tribe has its place in the marching orders and each Levite clan has its task in the operation and transportation of the Mishkan, so too my experiences, and the various experiences and emotions of my group, function to create a consistent worldview and perception of ourselves. Yet, it is as soon as we take our first step on any of our lives' journeys that this system begins to fall apart. The Torah describes this process succinctly, in the three verses immediately after finishing the description of Israel's marching orders: "The people took to complaining bitterly before YHVH. YHVH heard and was incensed: a fire of YHVH broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp. The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to YHVH, and the fire died down" (Num. 11:1–3). We sense that our carefully constructed worldview has begun to fall apart, and the disruption can erupt into a crisis. And, even if we manage to resolve the immediate issue, we realize that things are not working out as they are supposed to.
What is God's role in all of this? In the narrative, God seems to play two major roles. One is as the sustainer—the entire story would be impossible if not for God's constant feeding of the people with manna. God's constant, generally unremarked-upon, sustaining presence allows for their continued existence, a fact that the people seem to forget or resent: "The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘who will feed us meat?' We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!" (Num. 11:4–6). The other role is as the punisher—God punishes the people for their ingratitude, their cowardice, their lack of faith, their rebellions against Moses and the priesthood, their whoring, and their idolatry. The punishments become so severe that, eventually, the people cry out, "Lo, we perish! We are lost, all of us lost! Everyone who so much as draws near YHVH's mishkan must die. Alas, we are doomed to perish." (Num. 17:27–28). The way they've learned to relate to God is as a tormentor, a destroyer—drawing close to God's dwelling place leads to death.
How does this God provide any hope for those of us looking to provide or receive spiritual care? First, a theology based on Bemidbar acknowledges the full spectrum of relation to God, as our sustainer and our tormentor. But it does this in the context of a journey that has as its endpoint a place of hope and fulfillment, and in which much of the punishment comes when the people fail to keep their destination in mind. This is not to say that God punishes us for losing hope or not having faith—rather, that it is the task of the spiritual caregiver to provide that sense of hope for people experiencing a difficult trek—to remind them of the Promised Land in the distance, and their ability to inherit it with divine help. Hopelessness is perhaps the great enemy of the book of Bemidbar, an enemy so great that even Moses succumbs to it, receiving the ultimate punishment for crying out in anger and doubt, "shall we get water for you out of this rock?" (Num. 20:10). And God, even while punishing, stands for hope and the Promised Land.
Yet the theme of hope is complicated. For the generation of slaves who left Egypt, there in fact was no hope. Less than halfway through the book, the people receive their death sentence: "none of the people who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers; none of those who spurn Me shall see it" (Num. 14:22–23). The reality of their suffering cannot be overlooked. But, perhaps their suffering can stand for the gut-wrenching processes required to actually heal from trauma and suffering. After the dramatic, miraculous Exodus two books earlier, one might have thought that the worst was over, that the people were free. And yet, the actual journey had barely begun. As spiritual caregivers, we've had the immense gift and challenge of seeing our clients and each other in the wilderness, with starts and stops, with massive setbacks and equally dramatic breakthroughs. And yet, perhaps this process must eventually end in the death of our old self and the birth of a new; a self born from our old self to be sure, related to it and carrying its memories, but new all the same. And this process, while eventually healing, can feel traumatic—like a plague (Num. 25:8–9) or a fire (11:1–3), the earth swallowing us whole (16:31–32) or the bites of poisonous serpents (21:6–8), or a war (14:45). The things that God asks of the people and of us—and the things we ask of each other and of our clients—can perhaps feel insurmountably difficult. Yet perhaps, just as the experience of suffering in Egypt allows us certain empathy—"The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am YHVH your God" (Lev. 20:34)—so, too, the suffering we experience on our journey of healing can itself prepare us for entrance, as a transformed person, into the Holy Land.
Giving up on our old methods and strategies for dealing with suffering—allowing our enslaved generations to die off—can be terrifying. We don't know how else to be in the world. In seeking ways to avoid suffering, we can cling to many forms of avodah zarah. In the case of Bemidbar, it is the "whoring with the Moabite women" by which the people "attached itself to Baal-peor" (Num. 25:1–3). In so many ways, I see in myself the tendency to turn toward outside sources of fulfillment in times of distress and depression. The truth of my essential self-worth, of the reality of hope for a better future, of my nature as a being made in the image of God . . . sometimes these things do not feel like enough. We seek other sources of validation or other pleasures to fill this gap. We worship parts of ourselves, rather than recognizing that it is our full selves—not any particular part—that are worthy of love. In the theology of Bemidbar, God works to allow these parts of us to die out, too, to make room for a self that can truly inherit the Land.
Though so much of this theology feels violent, there is another model available in this theology. The book of Bemidbar is called Numbers in English for a reason—there are two censuses in the book, one near the beginning and one near the end. Commenting on Numbers 26:1–2, which says "Take a census of the whole Israelite community from the age of twenty years up, by their ancestral house, all Israelites able to bear arms," Rashi cites a parable of a shepherd who, after wolves have ravaged their flock, counts the remaining sheep. So too, even after God punishes, God demonstrates His love and protection by taking stock of the people. This model might perhaps be more helpful than a model based purely on the dying out of the old generation and preparation of the new. In fact, a large part of the spiritual journey involves looking inside and taking account of one's self in a compassionate and loving way, especially in times of difficulty. We've experienced this "inner census" in our own group, as we both count ourselves and are counted by each other, and have done the same with clients. It is fitting, then, that the literal translation of "take a census" in the verse is actually "lift up the head"—that even through the pain and emptiness of the wilderness, compassion, introspection, and an honest accounting of what is happening inside of us can cause us to "lift our heads."
Finally, there is the question of stability—Bemidbar is very much a book about the in-between state, about a mobile group of people who never seem to be at ease, who are rebelling and dying and straying, constantly in trouble, hungry, or thirsty. So, too, I often think about others—and myself—as constantly dealing with some form of suffering that is either on the surface or deeply buried. But is it possible that people can find a way to live in balance, without suffering or instability? I find myself digging, looking for the quality of suffering in my clients and in my group members, the ways in which their camps are not quite right, in which a crisis is brewing just beneath the surface. Perhaps I do this because I see this in myself. Does a part of me want to agitate them into having their carefully built systems fall apart, so I can see the instability beneath them, and so that they can build stronger systems afterward? If that is the case, this theology might exacerbate that tendency. Because a theology built around Bemidbar by definition cannot capture what it means to be outside the desert and in the Promised Land; it can only point toward it as a hopeful destination.
• Read the article "Pastoral Education Edges into Mainstream," published in the Jewish Week.
On April 23, the Center for Pastoral Education and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary hosted this public panel with Saul J. Berman, Suzanne L. Stone, and Burton L. Visotzky.
The full panel is available here on YouTube: