A small piece of stained-glass Judaica hangs in my window—a fiery mix of reds, oranges, and yellows. As the sunlight streams in, the glass casts flaming pools of color onto my desk and books, a brilliant yet watered-down version of the burning bush Moses saw deep in our Jewish past.
That story of wonderous revelation is an incredible moment to consider. Faced with a miracle, Moses stands in total awe of a God heretofore unknown to him. God then tasks Moses with nothing short of saving his entire people, and Moses reveals a very human emotion: fear. Mi ʾanochi—“Who am I” (Exodus 3:11) to do such a thing?—he asks. Mah ʾomar—“What will I say?” (Exodus 3:13)—he begs. To save and care for an entire nation is no small thing.
Some tasks, especially the important ones, are intimidating; we worry we aren’t up to them. Just as Moses doubted himself and his abilities at the burning bush, we, too, can doubt ourselves. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) was one such task for me. I had been looking forward to it since I began rabbinical school, but I found myself quite nervous to begin my year of CPE. The weight of this work felt particularly heavy to me. I was anxious to shoulder the responsibility of caring for people during their moments of great personal stress or challenge. I, too, was asking, Mi ʾanochi—“Who am I” to do this? Mah ʾomar—“What will I say?” How can I help?
An answer can be found, just as the question was, in Moses’s journey. Moses may have been given a great and special responsibility, but he was not alone. When God saw that Moses was afraid, God promised to stay by Moses’s side (Exodus 3:12). When Moses was still nervous, God appointed Aaron to work beside Moses and shoulder the burden with him (Exodus 4:10). Just as Moses was backed by God and Aaron, we, too, are joined by others in this sacred work. Our HUC teachers and mentors, classmates, and on-site supervisors have all invested in our training—I walk with them as I engage in this sacred and holy work. And, in my moments of worry, as I face new situations and strive to find the right things to say, I also think back on the comfort God offered to Moses, and to us today: ʾEhyeh ʿimach—“I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12).
CPE work can be hard. Comforting a family after they’ve lost a loved one, supporting a lonely patient through a long-term hospital stay as COVID keeps their friends and family away, speaking with a nurse after their patient has died despite all their best efforts—these are the deeply meaningful and challenging conversations we have. We also get to celebrate with families and hospital staff as long-term patients complete their recovery and head home. We congratulate new parents; we rejoice in successful outcomes. We aren’t just there for the bad stuff, we are there for the entire human experience—for the good, the bad, and everything in between. This work may be hard, but it is also some of the most rewarding work I have done to date in rabbinical school.
Working at my CPE placements—the Jewish Hospital and the Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care—has been a truly special opportunity to learn and grow as a rabbi in formation. The work is deeply personal, emotional, and educational. As I stretch and grow within and for these communities, I glean new skills and competencies I can use in my rabbinate.
When Moses becomes scared, God says, ʾEhyeh ʿimach—“I will be with you.” After months of CPE, I believe this is the model upon which our CPE training rests. As providers of pastoral care, I have learned that we are not tasked with having all the answers, of always knowing the perfect things to say. The task, at its core, is to be with people on the journey of life—to support them, to talk with them, and to witness alongside them the heartbreak and beauty that life offers them. We are learning to walk a sacred path of service, and it is a privilege to experience and do so.
Caitlin Brazner is a fourth-year rabbinical and education student at HUC-JIR Cincinnati. She currently serves as a student chaplain at the Jewish Hospital and the Daniel Drake Center for Post-Acute Care.