Posted in Rabbinical School

Being a Guest in Someone’s “Spiritual Home”

There is a game I learned in university called “tour of a home”. The idea is that two people talk, and each one has a turn to give a tour of their home to their partner. They are encouraged to describe the space in as much detail as possible: colors, textures, smells, or objects found. This can be done either sitting or physically walking around another space, so they have the feeling of experiencing the house. The game allows for the partners to learn about one another. Not only does one get a snapshot of the place they live/d in, but when you have a specific time period to describe something there is significance to that too. You learn a bit about something important to the other person.

I find myself in the role of “guest” often. As a guest in people’s homes, there are some rules  that are followed, both spoken and unspoken. Each house treats me differently. There are homes that I can sleep as late as I want, and I can walk around in my pajamas all day. There are homes that I know so well that I can set the table when the family is out. There are families where I am allowed only in the living and dining room, entering into any other space would be intrusive and inappropriate. There is the first time of going to a home that one has to learn the new rules and expectations.

There is something amazing about being a guest in someone else’s home. Things look and smell different than they do in my own home. You get to see things that you would not always know about the person when you just meet them. You can see the books on their book shelves, how messy or neat they are, the colors that they chose to decorate with. There is a new type of intimacy.

The laws of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) is one of the greatest commandments, and is similar to welcoming in God into one’s home. In addition to the laws of how to be a proper host, there are also laws into how to be a proper guest. In tractate Baba Batra (98b) it tells of what makes a “good” and “bad” guest:

A guest should feel that whatever the host serves and prepares is in his honor. The Gemara explains, “What does a good guest say? How hard the host worked for me! How much meat he brought! How much wine he served! How many dainty dishes he prepared! And all this he prepared for me!”

On the other hand, what does a bad guest say? “Did the host work for me? I ate only one roll and one piece of meat and drank only one cup of wine. All the work he did was done for his wife and children!”

The Talmud reminds people that to be a guest in someone’s home is an honor. That the host put in a lot of work to make sure that their home is ready and that there is food to eat. That we need to recognize the all of the physical and emotional effort it takes when hosting people.

There is another story (TB Pesachim 86b) that tells of Rav Huna who acted in a certain way as a guest, and was later questioned on his actions.

Rav Huna the son of Rav Nosson visited the house of Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, where apparently Rav Huna was not known. His hosts asked Rav Huna, “What is your name,” to which he replied “Rav Huna.” They then offered him to sit on the couch, although everyone else was sitting either on the floor or on benches, and the couch was reserved for special guests. Rav Huna sat on the couch and did not decline the honor. Subsequently, they brought him a kiddush-sized cup full of wine, which he immediately accepted and drank in front of them, but he paused once in the middle of drinking.Rav Nachman’s household, which included talmidei chachamim, felt that Rav Huna’s responses to their invitations were inappropriate and peppered him with questions about his behavior. “Why did you introduce yourself as ‘Rav Huna?’” they first asked. Is this an appropriate way to identify oneself? Rav Huna responded: “That is my name.”“Why did you sit on the couch when we offered?” Rav Huna retorted by quoting the now famous halachic adage, “Whatever the host asks you to do, you should do (see Mesechta Derech Eretz Rabbah 6:1).” The hosts continued, “When we offered you the cup, why did you accept it the first time we offered it?”To which Rav Huna replied, “One may refuse a small person, but one should not refuse the request of a great person.” The hosts then inquired, “Why did you drink the small cup of wine we gave you in two gulps, rather than drink it all at once?” Rav Huna countered, “The earlier authorities taught us that only a guzzler drinks a whole cup of wine at once and arrogant people drink a cup with three sips. The proper way to drink a cup of wine is in two swallows (Mesechta Derech Eretz Rabbah 8).” Finally, his hosts asked, “Why did you not turn your face when drinking?” To this Rav Huna replied that only a bride should be so modest; for anyone else this is not considered modesty.

Thinking about the role of chaplain in the hospital, at times I feel my role is that of guest in another person’s life. Not only am I entering into a physical space that is not mine, but I am entering into another person’s spiritual space. I feel like I am a guest in their mind and beliefs, almost like in the “tour of the home” game. It is their choice to show me around their thoughts and feelings. They weave into the tour bits of their history, other characters that play parts, stories of pain and suffering, as well as places of hope and happiness.

I think that the questions asked of Rav Huna are questions I think about when working as a chaplain. The first question that he is asked is “What is your name?” In the story in the the Talmud, the rabbis question Rav Huna’s use of the title Rav (Rabbi) when he introduced himself. What does it mean to take on the title of Chaplain or tell someone that I am studying to be a rabbi? What authority is someone giving to me?

The title of chaplain comes with a bit of authority. In some communities there is more reverence. In others it means that I have the answers or a better way of creating prayer. I think to meeting with Rose who when I said that I was the chaplain wanted me to help her with finding faith again. Or when I met with Sandra who asked for a rabbi to explain why her daughter was lying unconscious in the MICU after just having a sore throat. Or walking into the room where Betty was actively dying, and her husband George called out “our chaplain Eryn is here, come pray for us.”

There is authority that comes with the title. It not only gives allowance to enter into rooms or read people’s charts. It allows for asking deep questions or even providing spiritual guidance. It means interacting in a way that brings God or Godliness into a space. It also has the power to allow people to bring Godliness themselves. One day I was in the Neuro ICU, and went into a Spanish speaking room, although the son of the patient spoke English. I asked if he would like to pray, and after he said yes, I asked if he would like to lead so everyone else in the room would understand as well. He said yes, and then standing taller and in a booming voice started to pray. I wonder how many times just my presence has created the space for prayer.

The second question in the story of the Talmud is “Why did you sit on the couch when we offered?” Going from room to room I think about where am I supposed to position myself and how to bring myself into their space. I would always ask if it was ok with them for me to sit- be that in their room or when joining someone in a day room. I think about the comfort of the person talking, are they able to hear me or see me, and can I hear them. Are we sitting in a way that is not too physically exposing, as many of the patients are wearing little more than a hospital gown. And very practically, are we sitting in a way that is not obstructing the entrance or exit of the space.  

There are times that the conversation happens by the door, as with baby Joshua. His mother would come to the door to talk as she said “so you don’t need to put on the gown and mask”. In many rooms in the MICU there wasn’t space to sit or have a chair available, and so the conversation was done standing. In other rooms there was not always a chair available, and so I would go searching for one so I could sit and feel more present with the patient.

There is something to trying to physically be on the same level as those I am talking to. The conversation is different when we can be equals. I feel more comfortable being on the same level, not looking down on a person. I did not want to impose myself on the person.

There was also a difference of how and where I would sit. In the room with Sarit, there was a warm invitation into the room, food was offered, and there was a time of catching up like old friends. And so I would sit quite comfortably wherever there was a space. When I went to visit Josephina, and at first she told me that she did not want a visit, but as I was leaving the room she changed her mind. It seemed like she was unsure of if she wanted me, so I decided to stay standing, until at one point she asked me if I wanted to sit to which I said yes.

By sitting or standing or at least doing what the patient asks for, it is a way of them welcoming me into their physical space. In the spiritual space there is the role of listening and finding out how much am I welcomed in. What questions can I ask and how should they be asked, recognizing that I am in their space rather than them in mine.

The third question of the Talmud is “When we offered you the cup, why did you accept it the first time we offered it?”. To me this can be asked about what happens when I am in a place of intensity, not really sure if I am the right person, but I am there because I was called. I have not had the experience of being told to my face that I was the wrong person, but I have felt that I have been.

I think about this often, especially as I was always on-call Sundays 5-9, both a time and a day that the chaplaincy office was almost empty. My fear was that I would get a call that I would not really know what to do with, but as there was no one else to do it, I had to be there. It also happened to me with regards to language, as I do not speak any Spanish. One day while in the CHONY-ED a trauma came in as I arrived. The nurses sent me back, for me only to find out that they are Spanish speaking. I called the office, but none of the Spanish speaking chaplains were around, so it was up to me. I felt so inadequate, but at the same time I was there because this is my role. I tried to find with in myself tools to be able to communicate and offer caring and support, even if my own words would not work.

The fourth question of the Talmud was, “Why did you drink the small cup of wine we gave you in two gulps, rather than drink it all at once?” I look back to the past 9 weeks, and although I do not think this is the most intense thing I have ever done, it is quite amazing to see how much 9 weeks can change a person. I am no longer very intimidated about walking into a room or starting a conversation. I have said prayers and quoted verses. I ran a spirituality group. It was all done “slowly, slowly” as they say.

It took time to find my chaplaincy voice. To recognize what I am able to do. It is about finding the balance of not doing too little and not doing too much. We do not just go into a room. There is a knock on the door and letting someone know that we are there. I try to find the mood of the space or of the person and allow that to guide me as to how quickly we will get to the deep stuff. At times I can find out what is needed as I walk into the room, as with Rose who started off with “I’m low in my faith”. At other times they tell you no they don’t want a visitor, but then call you back before you can even leave the space. It is finding the right way to ask questions and to listen.

The fifth and final question was “Why did you not turn your face when drinking?” There is a time to not be modest. There is a time that as I chaplain I just had to hold that position. I could not be timid or shy. I think to the room of Max, a patient who had just died, and the staff called for a chaplain. It was the first death that I had been called to and was very unsure of myself. But I just walked in as if this was something I have always done, and started speaking to the family. Or when I was called to Jeremy’s room after the arrest pager went off. While walking to the unit from the office,  I was quite nervous as to what the scene would be. But I knew that by the time I got there I needed to be the chaplain. To be calm and willing to deal with whatever will take place.  There is a time to take on that role. People are looking for someone, and it happens to be me at that time. I need to have confidence, so that others will find places of strength.

I see my visits as a way of being a guest into someone’s space, both physical and metaphysical. I see each person taking me on a tour of their thoughts. Welcoming me into different rooms, but at their own pace. Even though Rav Huna was questioned as to why he acted in the way he did, I think that those questions can also be asked while visiting people in the hospital. Being aware that I am entering into these spaces, and thinking about the words I use and how I hold myself, as being a chaplain, I am being a guest in the inner world of the people around me. I hope that I am able to be a good guest.





I am prone to overthinking and not to sharing. I decided to start writing and see what happens. So here are some stories and life situations (sometimes words of Torah) of a 30 something single woman, who happens to be a rabbi (received ordination in 2017- so there are posts of what that experience was like), will be working as a chaplain (and worked for years with older adults), is regularly asked what city she is located in (started the blog while living in Israel, found herself working in Australia, and will be in New York for at least a year), and is just trying to figure out her place in the world.

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