Once upon a time there was a young rabbi who, inspired by the Rosh Hashana spirit, decided to walk across town to blow shofar for hospital patients. His intentions were pure and sweet, and he hoped that his visit would usher in a better year for the downtrodden. With great trepidation he entered the intensive care unit which he understood to be reserved for the sickest of the sick. He approached the bedside of a patient who he knew to be Jewish and prepared himself for the shofar-blowing ritual.
This young rabbi had only been to the hospital a few times before and realized just how uncomfortable he felt in this strange environment. It was as if he was a visitor on the Starship Enterprise! The brightly lit hallways with uniformed workers rushing about, the strange beeping monitors, the frenzied activity; yes- he was really in a different world.
Anyway, he had a soul-lifting mission to carry out: the blowing of the shofar. It is said that shofar sounds mimic the cries of the soul and can break boundaries. A quick glance at the patient confirmed to the rabbi that only the mystical sounds could reach this person. Drawing in his breath and closing his eyes, he let out the first, then second sounds of the shofar, allowing all the electronic buzzing to fade from his consciousness.
Suddenly, his lofty meditation was interrupted by a human voice behind him. It was a nurse, and she was tugging on his suit jacket.
“Mm hmm?” the rabbi did not want to break his blessing with mundane words.
“Sir, I wanted to know if this is a ritual for the dead. This patient has been deceased for half-an-hour.”
From a theological viewpoint, the rabbi did a great thing. Jewish mysticism describes the soul as “a part of G-d Himself,” constantly striving to go back to its lofty source. Certainly this newly departed neshama benefited from the pure shofar sounds. After all, it is the shofar cry which causes the Jewish soul to reach out to its creator.
On the other hand, a medical professional would hold the rabbi to a higher, more critical standard. After all, he unwittingly blew shofar for a dead person. This is an inexcusable error and shows on a lacking in medical-spiritual education.
With that in mind, I have developed the following tips for anyone who is planning to visit a hospitalized patient:
The most important thing to focus on when visiting a hospitalized patient is the patient himself. Remember that the body houses the soul and feels the sickness. While we care about the soul, we must focus on the body as well.
You are not the only one who feels out of place. Patients are not in their natural environment and feel awkward too. It is up to the visitor to set the mood. Try to hide your discomfort with the setting and act natural. At the same time, be careful not to overcompensate by being “jolly.”
Be respectful of the staff and go out of your way to communicate. They are the ones who care for the patient and may provide critical information that can influence your visit. It is the job of nurses to advocate for their patients (think of them as the gatekeeper) and they can be your best allies or worst enemies. Just remember that they, too, care about the patient.
Be mindful of laws concerning patient privacy. It may be necessary to register with the volunteer department before visiting patients.