Who is Inscribed on Your Heart? On Making a Difficult, Strange, and Good Decision.

Last week I made a difficult decision, a strange decision, and a good decision. And they were all the same decision.

For the past year and a half I have been participating in the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at our local hospital, Providence St. Peter. CPE is an accredited training program that trains chaplains–spiritual care providers that can work in hospitals, other health care settings, prisons, elder care facilities, etc. There are CPE training centers all over the country.

CPE is divided into “units,” and in order to become a Board Certified chaplain, one needs to have earned four units. One does not need to be an ordained member of the clergy to become a chaplain, though many seminaries will require at least one unit of CPE. When I was in rabbinical school, my school did not require it, so I had never done CPE. I had always had it in my mind to do so should the opportunity arise as a way of continuing to develop in my pastoral skills. I did not plan to become a chaplain, but I did hope to use the skills in my work at the congregation.

The opportunity came a two years ago when I met the new director of the CPE program at Providence and she invited me to apply. The program consists of classroom didactics and clinical hours in the hospital, including overnight on-call shifts. Students are either residents or interns, and the educator allowed me to join as an intern and to use my congregation work as part of my “clinical hours” which made it feasible.

I originally planned to do just one unit (about 5 months) but I found the learning so rich and helpful that one unit turned into two, two turned into a third and now I was enrolled in my fourth unit. The balance of time among CPE, the congregation, my family, and myself continued to go seemingly go well. Until it didn’t.

Two weeks ago a few things happened that made me realize that doing CPE was actually causing me to be neglectful in the other areas of my life. So that was my difficult, strange, and good decision. I withdrew from the CPE program.

It was difficult because I have been learning a lot and really like the educator and the curriculum. Difficult because I enjoyed being around the hospital and connecting with patients, families, and staff. Difficult because I was part of a group, and my leaving causes disruption and a shift in group dynamics.

It was strange because I was so close to finishing. I only had 7-8 weeks left in the program, and I would have earned my fourth unit and I could have applied for Board Certification. That won’t happen now. I do have three units to my name, I don’t lose those, and I could return to complete a fourth unit at a later date. But I don’t know if and when that would happen. So I could have held out until I finished, and then have been done with the program.

And it was good because I knew it was the right decision. And upon making it I’m now able to more clearly see how in choosing to do the program, I was not choosing other things and people that I considered priorities in my life. As a rabbi I always like to say “yes” to people. And I realized that by saying “yes” to this, I was saying “no” to a lot of other things.

When I let my fellow students know, one responded with surprise, commenting that it seemed to come out of nowhere. Thinking about that made me realize it was like a dam breaking–it may happen suddenly, but it is the result of pressures that continue to build up over time. I could not see all those pressures–or I chose not to see–until they became more evident two weeks ago.

It wasn’t the Torah portion that inspired me to make the decision, and yet an image from last Shabbat’s reading certainly resonated. In that portion, Tetzaveh, we read about the description of the garments of the High Priest, the spiritual leader of the ancient Israelite community. They are very elaborate and include crowns, bells, sashes, gowns, and even special undergarments. Moses’s brother Aaron is designated as the first High Priest, with his descendants filling the role after him.

The High Priest also wears a choshen mishpat, which is usually translated as breastpiece. On this breastpiece are 12 precious stones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, and on each of these stones is engraved the name of one of the tribes. And it is worn high on the chest, as the text reads:

Aaron shall carry the names of the sons of Israel on the breastpiece of decision over his heart, when he enters the sanctuary, for remembrance before God at all times.

Exodus 28:29

Such a powerful statement. The spiritual leader of the community literally wears the names of the people they serve over their heart. The reason being so that Aaron and any subsequent leader remembers always why and on whose behalf they are in that position. They do not wear the trappings of power and spiritual authority for themselves, but for the entire community.

It is a reminder to all of us, that when we are engaged in work, in service, in our roles, we should always be asking the question, “who is this for?” or “for whom am I responsible?” And once we have answered that question, we can better evaluate whether or not what we are doing is truly in service of that answer.

I came to the realization that I don’t think I had a clear enough answer to that question regarding my chaplaincy learning and duties. Yes, the learning will be beneficial to my rabbinate and thus those I serve. And yes, it did allow me to be a spiritual presence to people in the hospital. But there were other people to whom I am more directly responsible that were not being served by it. And in many ways it became about me and my ego and what it felt like to wear the breastplate, rather than the names that were engraved upon it.

So I stepped back. Don’t worry, I can and will still visit you in the hospital if God forbid you wind up there. Those in TBH and others will benefit from the learning I gained during the program. And I know I have grown not only from the study and experience of doing CPE, much of which is self-reflective, but also from the lessons about boundaries and self-care I learned from withdrawing.

Like Aaron, I (and all of us) need to remember who is engraved on the stones over my heart. And if we can not remember, then we may need to take off the breastpiece.

3 responses to “Who is Inscribed on Your Heart? On Making a Difficult, Strange, and Good Decision.”

  1. Holly Avatar

    Powerful piece. Thank you. Holly


  2. Kathleen Peppard Avatar
    Kathleen Peppard

    This is an important teaching (and learning.) Thank you.


  3. Esther Warkov Avatar
    Esther Warkov

    An important lesson for all of us to prioritize no matter how much we want to help. It took courage to act on an authentic voice.


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