Thanking My Hashpa’ah Teachers

God and AdamHonestly, I wouldn’t know how to thank my teachers.

I don’t mean those who patiently helped me understand why reading Philo was A Good Thing (really) or introduced me to the peculiar mix of Aramaic and Hebrew to be found in gnostic Jewish texts. I have had teachers who unpacked matters of history, language, liturgy, and texts study with enthusiasm and style. It’s easy to thank them.

It is far more difficult to know how to thank my hashpa’ah teachers. They helped me learn how to stay alive to the moment, to the needs set before me. They taught me to acknowledge and work with my projections and my triggers.

They are teachers of the heart, guardians of the divine. I am deeply dependent on them.

These days, particularly. I am working with a brilliant and funny young woman. She is from North Carolina. She is not Jewish. She is twenty-three and she has been diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer.

Not long ago, she was a student of mine. She knew me as “Dr. Thiede.” Her main concern then was whether she had evidence for her class contributions, or a strong thesis statement for her papers.

I had no idea why she called me – out of the blue – almost two years after she had graduated from UNC Charlotte. She told me about the cancer; I asked her if she wanted to come and visit.

The first time we talked, she told me that she didn’t know what she believed. But, she said, she had always had “these hunches.” I asked her to tell me more.

Then I asked: “Where do these hunches come from, Sarah?” “I have no idea,” she said. “Did you ever ask?” She laughed. Then, we asked.

Before she left, I asked her why she had called me. She explained. She and her boyfriend, Eric, had been driving around Houston after she got the diagnosis. She saw a temple and thought of me. She knew I had been ordained as a rabbi and had a small congregation.

“I want you to do my funeral,” she said.

I am not “Dr. Thiede” now. Sarah is asking me to be a teacher of the heart; a guardian of the divine. I long for my teachers’ wisdom.

Rabbi Nadya Gross understands where Sarah and I are right now: Yes, it is necessary to name the threat. She comforts me: Yes, Sarah (and I) have the right to hope.

“I know you will love Sarah through this and help her connect to her eternal essence,” writes Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel. Simple, direct, a clarion call.

Sometimes I cannot predict who will become one of my teachers. Last week it was Tara, my yoga teacher, whose elegant person and beautiful, disciplined form is an inspiration. Afterwards, I thanked her for a sweet and challenging class.

“Tara,” I said, “I needed that.” “What’s up?” she asked. I explained: “I am working with a brilliant, amazing young woman in her early twenties. Her name is Sarah. She has fourth-stage colon cancer. Tara, in ten years I never worked with anyone so young.”

Tara looked at me, her face open like a flower: “What a blessing!” she said. “Because now you have the knowledge and the wisdom you will need.”

The most important work I ever did was in the spaces of fear and pain. Paradoxically, those places are also those of healing – and love.

Recently, Sarah came to see me together with Eric. I made us lemon ginger tea while they sat at my kitchen table. Before we walked into the library for our session, I noticed that Sarah and Eric were resting their hands, tapping each other’s fingertips lightly, with tiny wavelike motions.

In the library, Sarah cried. She felt like she was nearly buried in a tar pit. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t get out. I asked her to describe the pit.

Initially, I panicked with her. Then, I remembered that moment in the kitchen, her hand and Eric’s, their fingertips touching.

“Sarah,” I said. “In the kitchen you and Eric were tapping each other’s fingers.”  “That’s just something we do,” she said.  “Who invented that?” I asked.  “Eric.”

I asked: “Are you still in the tar pit?”  “Yes,” she said.

“Sarah,” I asked, “can you imagine Eric reaching to your hand, touching your fingertips, tapping lightly on them?” She could.

“If he steps backward, can you follow him, if he keeps tapping your fingertips?” Once Eric was there, she was able to get out.

I asked if she knew the Michelangelo painting on the Sistine Chapel, where God is just about to touch Adam’s finger. She had seen it herself, she told me. She had been in Rome.

“That is the touch of the divine, isn’t it?” I said. “When Eric reaches for your fingertips, he is touching you with the touch of the divine.”

I will not forget the way she looked at Eric. Or the way he looked at her.

To all my teachers: You made that moment – a moment of healing and love in the midst of fear and pain – possible.

I will continue to depend on you.

Maybe that is my thanks?

A note: This blog was approved by Eric and Sarah before posting.


Written for Sarah (with her permission)

Sarah McCurry
Sarah McCurry

She graduated UNC Charlotte in 2012. She was an irrepressible student. Precocious, and very funny. She described herself as a little wacky.

She had a droll way of speaking about herself; One day, she came to me with notes on a major project she had started for another class. She made wry comments about feeling overwhelmed.

I asked her to explain the project. I looked at her notes.

“Sarah,” I told her with mock sternness, “this is completely out of control.”

She sighed. “I knew you would say that, Dr. Thiede,” she said. “I just knew it.”

“Let’s get to work,” I said, and we did. We spent about an hour tightening up the project’s parameters, finding out what she really wanted to say, and making sure she could demonstrate that she knew a thing or two.

Sarah majored in German and International Studies and she minored in Judaic Studies. She took courses in Judaism and in antisemitism with me; she researched the Holocaust. She decided to study abroad in Germany. Before she left, I asked her to keep in touch.

One day, she wrote me this:

Germany is amazing and awesome.I never want to leave, but the reason I’m emailing you is because of an incident that has left me shaken. I don’t know how to react or why I’m so unprepared. This past weekend, two of my friends and I rode the S-Bahn into Stuttgart, and as we were nearing the Hauptbahnhof, all of a sudden this guy stands up and begins yelling (swearing) at this woman, and begins to push her and he punches her twice, saying she can go to hell with the Jews, and he ranted fuck Jews, etc.. The woman was scared and kept saying to him it’s no reason to get upset… There were about eight other grown German men… not one of them batted an eyelash, just ignored it as if it wasn’t happening. I wanted to do something, I was tiny compared to this guy and I was paralyzed with fear and rage and turned to my guy friend and told him to do something. He got up and walked back there, guided the lady to sit with us… I know we’ve studied this, and I know hatred of Jews still exists, but it left me unprepared for that, and I’m unsettled and somewhat ashamed that I sat there.… nobody did anything or said anything. I’m stunned that this could be tolerated in Germany of all places.

I don’t know what to say or why emailing you, I guess just to vent. I’m so stunned and shocked, I can’t just ignore stuff like this, but I don’t know how I’m supposed to react either. I don’t want to be personal or rude, but have you ever experienced this, if so, how do you respond?

Sarah is not Jewish. But she had learned about human horrors. She cared – deeply – about the world.

I don’t have my reply to Sarah, though my computer tells me I wrote one. But now, I know, I will keep every reply I write.

Last week, Sarah called me from Houston. She told me she had been diagnosed with fourth-stage colon cancer. Sarah is 23.

She was worried about her family and her boyfriend, she said. She had lost an aunt to colon cancer two years ago; a grandparent died of the same disease. She had flown to Houston to see a particular surgeon, a specialist of some sort. He wouldn’t operate, she told me. His advice: Try chemo and come back to see him in six months if she was still alive.

She said: “I am frightened. I don’t want to die.” She said: “I’m sorry to ruin your day like this.”

No, no, I wanted to say. You called; I answered. Two human beings, connected by the simplest of facts. Two human beings, connected.

I am not going to pretend otherwise to anyone – even to Sarah. I am scared. I am scared I won’t say or do the things that would be perfect and right. I am scared because her youth hits home: Sarah was born when I was five months pregnant with my son, Erik.

Sarah’s boyfriend’s name is Eric.

We spoke, she cried. She stopped herself crying, cried again.

That night I found an internet site on gofundme ( Sarah had put the site up when the first diagnosis had been made, just a few weeks before she called me. At that point, her cancer was third-stage. Sarah needed money to see more specialists.

I wrote to faculty members and asked them to spread the news. I am writing this for the same reason.

Here is what Sarah needs now: To try everything she can. This is her right. I will help with that.

To readers, then, if you can and feel so moved: Please visit that site and make a donation.

To Sarah: I will walk with you however you decide you need my presence. That’s a vow.

To the Ruach Ha’olam: Help me walk.