Isn’t it true that cancer brings home the reality that you’re not forever and so you ask yourself, what happens if I die? Have I been the person that I’ve always wanted to be? How are people going to remember me? Joseph answers these huge existential questions every single day. He’s a rabbi who does some unbelievable work in a hospice helping people who are facing cancer to bring out life and make peace with it. Here are some things we cover today:
- Universal questions about life and death
- Surprising path to forgiveness
- What happens after we die (according to Judaism)
- The right way to say sorry (and why we mess it up)
- How to reconcile heritage and modern life
- Why every new day is a second chance
- and much, much more!
Joe: Joseph, I’ve just read up on all the incredible work that you’re doing in the hospice, how did you get started?
Joseph: I was a congregational rabbi for about 16 years. I found in the course of doing that work that I was spending a lot of that time in end-of-life care. I was really drawn to the people that were so much in need. There was a lot of vulnerability to that end-stage time period, end stage illness, both from the patient’s perspective as well as the family’s perspective. I’ve really spent a lot of time in the hospital holding people’s hands, just really helping them reconcile relationships that they wanted to reconcile before they died.
After 16 years of doing this over and over again and really feeling like I was making a meaningful impact, I decided to do this full-time. In the summer of 2014, I joined the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network here in Detroit. The work that I do every single day, we manage almost 200 patients a day that are facing end-of-life illness. Some in Hospice care, some not yet in Hospice care, some in palliative care.
Treating them, their pain and their symptoms, getting them all aspects of help from social work care, to spiritual care, which is what I do, to bringing the music and art and all kinds of different enrichments that will uplift their dignity.
Joe: Joseph, that’s so fantastic. I don’t have words to describe it. Cancer is such a really tough time for someone, you’re confronted with so many things, you’re confronted with ultimate questions about life and death and your place in the world. I guess do any themes come up over and over that you see it for yourself?
Joseph: Yes, a lot of times, I think a common theme, a common thread, is people are really reflective about the life that they lived, the values that they lived. If they have children or not even children, but family members, nieces, nephews, do they pass those values onto their loved ones? That’s a big piece in terms of values and did they live their values? That’s number one theme. Another theme is the reconciliation of relationships. Are there relationships that need to be reconciles or at least an attempt at reconciliation before they leave this world, so that they can leave this world with a sense of purity of mind and spirt and soul? It’s also a time for honesty too.
A lot of times, what I find is family members don’t want to admit that their loved one is dying because of course, it’s very hard to deal with emotionally, psychologically. What I find is that more often than not, a person that’s dying wants to be honest about it, so that they have a chance to say goodbye. Giving that person an opportunity to say goodbye, together their family, together their friends, together to say goodbye is really an important meaningful ritual I think that transcends religion, I think it’s part of the human spirit.
A lot of people die suddenly and don’t have the opportunity to say goodbye. If you have an extended illness, a lot of times, you do have that opportunity. I think honesty around that is very powerful and is also a theme that I see quite frequently.
Joe: That’s so profound, Joseph. You also touched on reconciling relationships. What advice do you have on that front? How do you go about doing that?
Joseph: That’s a very a great question with a complicated answer. What I say is, the best way not to have to worry about reconciling relationships, is not to hold any grudges in the first place.
Joe: That’s tough.
Joseph: It’s tough, it is tough. It’s very tough. People wrong us, and we respond to that. we feel offended, we get angry. I think that one of the things, even before end-of-life situations, is if there’s a way to give other people the benefit of the doubt. Really, to think, they did not mean to offend me, they’re having a bad day, this is not about me, this is about them. To really live our lives that way where we are not putting ourselves in situations to be abused or mistreated, but to give people the benefit of the doubt. If they do it again and again and again, then obviously it changes the scope of a situation.
The best way not to have to worry about reconciliation at the end of life is to try to maintain those relationships throughout life. That being said, that’s not always possible. It’s not always possible to reconcile relationships at the end of life, as well. There are many families that I’ve dealt with over time and I’m sure will deal with in the future, where family members don’t come to the funeral and don’t have nice things to say.
It’s obviously a very sad situation because you want to try to be able to create a sense of peace, a sense of harmony in a relationship. One of my teachers once said, and I think it’s very true, what you don’t have in life, you don’t have in death. To the best of our ability, to live our best lives in relationship with one another and to try not to hold grudges, or if there is something that’s bothering us, to deal with it right away. Ultimately, it will make the end a lot more peaceful.
Joe: That is so true, Joseph. I know you also touched on living through your values and being true to yourself. How do you go about doing that?
Joseph: I think a lot of it is self-awareness. A lot of it is about how well do we know ourselves? How well do we know what we stand for? What we believe in? Do we live that? Are they in line with one another? Each and every day, are we living our best lives? Are we living the way we want to be living? If not, why not? I think that’s just a piece of it, obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that.
Joe: Yes, absolutely. Joseph, many young people have a difficult time reconciling their heritage and modern life, what advice do you have on that front?
Joseph: Well, I think that all world religions have some values and some morals and ethics that speak to people at every age. Sometimes rituals that I know don’t, but because they feel like, that’s the rituals of yesteryear, those are the rituals that people have been doing for years. They don’t relate to me. What I would say, as well, why don’t they relate to you? Is there a way that you can redefine that ritual or redefine that teaching, so that it speaks to you? Also, there’s power in doing what our ancestors have done for generations and generations.
One of the other things I do as Rabbi, a lot of, is I do a lot of weddings. While I’m on the end-of-life most of my days, my work days, I do a lot of weddings on Sundays or Saturday nights after the Sabbath is over. When I meet with the young couple, we talk about some of the ancient rituals that even just around wedding that have been done for generations. A lot of times, when I explain those rituals and ask them, what do they mean to you?
How can they speak to where you’re at in your life? They really take some time to say, “Do you know what? I’ve never thought about this.” That can relate to this or maybe the fact that my grandparents or my great-grandparents did this actually has more meaning than I realised. I think a lot of it is about education.
Joe: Yes, exactly. I guess some of those things are obscured by certain experiences in life that don’t really serve us.
Joe: Yes, fantastic, Joseph. What does, according to Judaism, what happens after we die?
Joseph: There are a lot of different theories, unfortunately, nobody has really come back to tell us. I wish that wasn’t the case, but most thinking in Jewish circles centres around our physical body dies and our physical body is buried, ideally in the ground. When we come into the world – let me step back for one second – when we come into this world, we believe that God puts into a body that’s been born a soul. While we’re alive, that body and that soul are together. In the process of getting ill and getting ill toward the end of life, so an end-of-life illness, what’s happening is the body is getting sicker and the soul is pure. Nothing is happening to the soul. The soul is what makes us who we are.
The way the body is made is that it’s going to wear out. If you think about death, really death is that our body has at some point been exhausted or let us down or been injured or whatever it is, but it’s our body ultimately that passes. We believe that in the process of dying and in death, our physical body expires, our soul is released back into the cosmos, back into the universe, our soul lives either in a world of souls for the next stage of that non-bodily existence or that soul can come back into the physical world and go into another body.
There are probably souls that have lived in many bodies in the physical world. There are also souls that live in a world of souls, some go on to be angels, and really that’s at the discretion of god. We really do believe that this physical world that we live in together is not the end. It is part of a continuum of life, just different aspects of life.
Joe: That’s a pretty empowering statement, isn’t it?
Joseph: I think it’s incredibly empowering in a lot of ways. When I say to family members and they say, “Rabbi, what do we believe?” I lay it out the way I laid it out for you, and I want them to figure it out for themselves in terms of their theology, but what’s powerful, I think most powerful about it is that means that there is the potentiality of seeing loved ones again, of seeing the souls of loved ones again. To say that we are reunited with those who have gone before and that they just went onto the next world sooner than we did but that it’s not the end. We do believe also that souls that have been together in one world congregate around one another in other worlds, in other non-physical worlds. To me, that’s incredibly comforting and I think that to provide comfort, look, if it’s not true, I guess we’ll find that out eventually, but if people are comforted by that belief, I don’t see anything wrong with it.
Joe: Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. Joseph, in terms of if we look at world religion, is there any common ground when it comes to end-of-life and what happens after death?
Joseph: I think the common ground more than anything else, and I’ve done a fair amount of studying of different religions and of lots of friends who are clergy and other faiths. A lot of it comes along the lines of legacy. We all want to leave a legacy. We all want to be remembered. Nobody wants to be forgotten, everybody wants to be forgotten and for people to believe that their life had value.
I think whatever we believe in terms of this life, what we believe about what happens in the future life, I think there’s a common human element that we all feel, which is that we want our lives to have meaning. We want our family members and our friends to have been inspired by us, to have been touched by us, to have been maybe even changed for the better because of something we said or did along the time. We want to have an impact, I think that goes literally across all religious lines.
Joe: Yes, absolutely, Joseph, that is so true. Also, with cancer, obviously, that’s incredibly impactful on the person who’s potentially facing end-of-life or going through treatment, but it’s also incredibly tough on the caregiver and they don’t really get enough attention, do they?
Joseph: Caregivers, I believe, are god’s angels on earth. Whether it’s a family caregiver or a private duty hired caregiver, a nurse, a doctor. We are blessed to have people around us that literally care, care deeply. Unfortunately, caregiving takes its toll in a serious way on caregivers and really has the potential even to shorten the life of a caregiver, depending on how long, studies show, depending on how long they’re doing this caregiving. Caregivers definitely they do it out of love, they do it from their heart by in large, some do it out of obligation, as well. I think caregivers are often overlooked and caregivers really need to be celebrated and appreciated and recognised for the amazing love and care that they provide.
Joe: Is there anything do you think a caregiver can do to help themselves, because it’s tough on them as well and sometimes I guess they forget to do something for them, too?
Joseph: Yes. I think if there’s any way for the caregiver to work out a system, whereby, they can get away from a few hours here and there to exercise or to read a book or to do what inspires them. It can be all-consuming, and it can be all-consuming very quickly. To pay private caregivers is not an inexpensive venture at all. Not every situation allows for that, but in an ideal situation, if there can be a team of caregivers so that everybody gets a break, that would be the best situation imaginable.
Joe: Yes, absolutely. Joseph, what about someone who’s maybe going through cancer and maybe they don’t have the support that they would like to have in their life from people around them? What advice do you have on that front?
Joseph: I would Google or go online and look for cancer support groups in their area. Unfortunately, cancer is rampant, I only pray that there’s a cure in my children’s lifetime. I know they’re working furiously on trying to find a cure for cancer, but in the interim, I think something like cancer or any kind of illness that is a serious type of terminal type of illness has the capacity to rock your world in a way that you never ever imagined. Even if you’re feeling good and doing well. I think life in general is extremely complex and hard to go it alone.
Through Synagogues, temples, mosques, community centres, to Google cancer support groups, they’re all over the world now. I think to try that out and see how that helps or the impact that it can have is something that is important for cancer or for any kind of illness that a support group would be helpful.
Joe: Yes, that makes so much sense, Joseph. I know we touched on reconciling relationship. I want to dig into that. Sometimes we hurt those people that we love, is there any way to makeup and maybe say sorry?
Joseph: I think that sorry is a very powerful word if used properly. We all know from kids that their parents tell them to say sorry and they say, “I’m sorry” and they’re not really sorry. They say it because they want to have dessert or whatever, they don’t want to have their iPhone taken away. What does it mean really to be sorry? I think that the Jewish definition of an apology is very powerful because the first thing, of course, you need to do, is you need to recognise what you did wrong, which is hard for a lot of people. A lot of people don’t want to think about what they did wrong. We all do wrong. We all make mistakes. We’re all fallible. God didn’t make us perfect. Only God is perfect, God didn’t make us that way. We need to recognise that from time to time, we fall short, we make a mistake. In Judaism, the Hebrew word for sin or making a mistake is Het and Het means literally like in archery, you’re always trying to hit the bullseye, but you don’t always hit the bullseye, sometimes you miss the target.
To make a mistake in Judaism is, it’s not catastrophic. Depending on what it is, obviously, but usually, it’s not catastrophic. It means that you missed the mark. In archery, when you miss the mark, what do you do? You try again. You try to hit the mark the next time. We can do that, we have the ability to try again. Before we try again, we have to go to the person that we offended, the person that we hurt in a humble, sincere, authentic way and say, “Listen, I missed up, I am so incredibly sorry that I hurt you in that way, that was not my intention.” Again, every situation is different, but I’m hoping it was not my intention, you know? Sometimes it is.
Expression that I am really sorry, your relationship, our relationship, our friendship means something to me, and I don’t want to lose it, I don’t want to sacrifice it, can you please forgive me? That is the process that you through in terms of a sincere apology. The apology only is valid, the apology only takes affect when you’re in the same situation the next time and you act differently. You’ve changed your actions, so you don’t make the mistake the second time that you made the first time. That’s when your apology, even though you’ve apologised, that’s when your apology really is cemented, because you learned from your mistakes.
If we could all learn from our mistakes, think about how much better the world would be. If we would take responsibility for what we do wrong, learn from our mistakes and try to do better next time. Look, we’re going to mess up somewhere else, but that’s okay, so we learn, and we learn, and we learn, do you know what? That’s what life is all about. We should be learning new things about ourselves, about each other every single day.
Joe: Yes, that’s very powerful, Joseph. I think that goes back to the earlier theme when you were talking about honesty.
Joseph: Yes, absolutely. I think about, again, going back to the notion of the couples that I counsel, I do a lot of counselling and as well as the families I deal with too, at the core of every successful relationship is a sense of honesty and the bond of trust. If there’s honesty and trust at the core of a relationship, that relationship is going to endure.
Joe: Yes, that’s very profound, Joseph. I read a really touching quote on Twitter when you were talking to a 100-year-old woman and you asked her, what is the best part of being your age. She answered, “No more peer pressure.”
Joseph: Yes. I got a kick out of that, as well. I’ve heard that before, so I don’t necessarily think that was original, but if you think about it, to live to be 100 is quite an achievement. The truth of the matter is, those that live to that age often outlive a lot of their friends. In fact, I was just with a woman recently who has a whole new group of friends 30 years younger than she is because she outlived all of her friends. Peer pressure, if you think about it, peer pressure causes us to do things that we might not necessarily do. You’ve got to be careful of peer pressure.
Joe: Yes, that’s right because you talked about leaving a legacy, but I guess you don’t want to live up to somebody else’s expectations, you want to live up to your own beliefs and your own values and your own expectations in life.
Joseph: Absolutely. I think you want to be your best self to your values and what matters to you, your moral, ethical approach to life. The other thing is that I say to people, too, is that in terms of expectations, just in general, that if you lower your expectations, and you don’t hold other people to such a high bar, more often than not, you will be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes the issues that we get into with one another is because we hold each other to these ridiculously high expectations. Expectations often have the power to disappoint us, we can be disappointed because people don’t live up to what we think they should be doing. If we lower expectations, we can be pleasantly surprised and that can also help the relationship.
Joe: So true, Joseph. I loved your quote also on Twitter, when you said that no matter how hard we try, we make mistakes. One of the most liberating teachings in Judaism is that each day, we get a second chance. What does that mean to you?
Joseph: Well, I think that, again, one of the teachings of Judaism that inspire me and there are a lot that inspire me, but the idea that, again, it’s not about perfection, it’s not about getting it right, like I said before, it’s about learning and growing. Every day, we should be growing personally, we should be growing emotionally, we should be growing spiritually, growing psychologically, we’re growing physically whether we like it or not, some of us are growing up, some of us are growing out, whatever it is. It is about growth. It’s about personal growth. For the most part, if we make a mistake and we take responsibility for it, we do get a second chance.
If you think about it from a biblical perspective, Moses came down with the ten commandments and he saw the people worshiping the golden calf and he broke the tablets, he didn’t have god’s permission to break the tablets. Thankfully, god gave him a second chance, God allowed him to come back up the mountain and get a second set of tablets. I think that’s a profound metaphor for we all have the opportunity to get a second chance, to do better, and each new day gives us the opportunity to start again, to start afresh, to do better.
Joe: Yes, that’s fantastic, Joseph. Can you please tell us about your book and how did it come about? How can someone go about finding it?
Joseph: Sure. As we said at the beginning of our time together, I’ve been drawn toward end-of-life care, one of the things that I did when I was in school as a rabbi, training to be a rabbi is I wrote a poem called: Never Long Enough. The poem was really a reaction to what I had seen in homes after somebody had died, where a family member or friend, well-meaning, usually it was a well-meaning friend or acquaintance, would go up to the mourner, offer their condolences and then say something like, well, at least you had them for 80 years. My feeling was, well, I wanted them for 90 years, or I wanted them for 100 years. What do you mean at least I had them for 80 years?
My feeling was that 80 years, okay, that’s great, it’s never long enough, we never want to lose the person that we love. We never want to say that it was love, that that 80 years was enough, and I didn’t need anymore. We don’t feel that way, we bond with people and we develop deep relationships with people. I wrote this poem called: Never Long Enough. Which is really a reaction to that. The other things I would hear in a Shiva house is that they’re in a better place. Some people might believe that. That’s their choice to believe it. I don’t want to go in and tell a mourner that the loved one who died is in a better place, because as a mourner, I would say, well, a better place is here with me.
I wanted people to be more cognisant and more careful of the things that they say. They don’t mean to be hurtful, I don’t believe they mean to be hurtful, but we don’t know what to say when somebody’s died. It leaves us speechless to a certain extent. Everybody wants to come up with the most brilliant thing to say, so that they can instantly heal the person who is bereft. There are no brilliant words. The brilliant words don’t exist. What exists is, you go in and you hug someone, you hold their hand, you give them a kiss, and you bring them my book. My book is, not only my book but a book with my co-author, Dr. Michelle Sider, who’s an amazing artist, who illustrated this poem. It’s really all about helping people remember their loved ones and realise that everybody is on their own timeline when it comes to mourning.
It’s not about it being over in the period of days. You go to pick up the phone a month later because you used to call your loved one every day. This is really a book that gives permission to people to mourn at their own pace and to embrace the memory of loved ones. The book is called: Never Long Enough. It’s available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
Joe: Well, that’s incredibly touching and thank you so much, Joseph for your time. Thank you so much for what you do in the world.
Joseph: Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you today and, again, I appreciate the opportunity to dialogue.