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.