What makes this night different? The story of a hospital room Seder

That the doctor and I washed our hands shortly after arriving in the room wouldn’t seem unusual to the casual observer. Scrupulous hand-washing is common in hospitals. What might have piqued an outsider’s interest was the patient washing his hands. I held a basin over the bed as he carefully poured water from a cup three times over each hand. Any doubt that this wasn’t simple hygiene was erased when the patient began to recite a blessing.

Levi had come in two days previous for fairly urgent cardiac surgery. His long-term prognosis was fairly good, but his convalescence would have him in the hospital and physical rehabilitation for at least a couple of weeks. He’d spent the previous day in and out of post-surgical “anesthesia fog.”

On admission, he had a long beard and side locks. In bed now, having needed to be prepared for surgery, he was clean shaven with medium short hair. Tonight was the second night of Passover, a time to gather with friends and family and celebrate G-d’s delivery of the Jewish people from the bondage of slavery to the joy of freedom.

Community | What makes this night different? The story of a hospital room Seder

In my years as a chaplain, family gatherings and meals that strain the confines of hospital rooms aren’t uncommon. I’ve seen Thanksgiving dinners and birthday parties. I’ve even officiated weddings in hospital rooms complete with cake and guests. But the bondage of COVID-19 has made it necessary for us to limit visitors in the hospital. Levi’s family —if he had any, was not able to visit him, even for the Seder.

As a Lutheran chaplain employed in a Catholic hospital, I’m used to Jews and members of other minority faiths viewing me with indifference or even suspicion. What could I have to offer? Was I here just to proselytize? Centuries of history give legitimate rise to these questions. The role of the hospital chaplain as a healthcare practitioner who aids patients of all backgrounds with both spiritual health and physical health is still poorly understood by most people. Levi was the rare exception. Prior to his surgery he welcomed me into his preoperative room.

Our conversation before his surgery concluded like this:

“I’d like you to keep visiting me, but please: I don’t want to hear anything about Jesus.”

“Have I mentioned Jesus so far?”

“No.”

“Then that won’t change. I would like to pray for you before they take you back. Will you endure my less than stellar Hebrew?”

Levi agreed and I read the Mi Shebeirach from my phone. Hebrew is required in many Christian seminaries, calling mine rusty 16 years after graduation would be an understatement. Levi told me that my pronunciation was fine, but that I sounded Sephardic. He invited me to visit him, the next day, after the operation.

When one is a chaplain, cultivating relationships with other religious communities is a must. Consequently, the local Reform Rabbi and I are good friends and the Orthodox Rabbi and I are friendly acquaintances. Working with them, I was able to obtain the basics for a Seder Plate, a bottle of wine and some shmurah matzo. We also found a complete, but minimalist Haggadah.

One problem remained: I’m not Jewish. I’m critical of my Christian colleagues who hold Seders in their churches without any participation from the local Jewish community. I’ve been to many Seders and the story is powerful. That said, the Seder is not my ritual to conduct. So, I sent an email to a Jewish colleague, a hospital administrator, asking if he could help facilitate a Seder for a patient.

Community | What makes this night different? The story of a hospital room Seder

That’s how we came to be here on the second night of Passover: a Lutheran chaplain in a clerical collar, an off-duty physician in his gym clothes and -the only one actually reclining- a patient in his bed. Washing our hands; praying; drinking wine; retelling the ancient story of liberation; singing Dayenu; eating sandwiches of matzo, horseradish and charoset; and finally proclaiming “next year in Jerusalem.”

Of course, for Levi, “next year outside the hospital” or even “next year, at all” would be blessings. At our Seder, I became acutely aware that Levi would not be free of this surgery anytime soon. Not only would rehabilitation take months, but likely permanent lifestyle changes would also be needed too. Medical bills can linger for years, especially affecting the lives of older people with fixed incomes.

In the week since that Seder, I’ve become convinced that the Seder is not solely a memorial to the past; It is a call to the present. G-d’s justice seeks freedom from oppression. Much of the American health care system has become oppressive. Even hospitals like mine which seek to mitigate the injustice are still forced to work within the confines of larger systems. Experience tells me health care America is oppressive. The Seder tells me G-d abhors oppression.

I saw Levi again on the seventh night of Passover, Friday evening, to bring him Shabbat candles, matzo, and wine. His prognosis was good and he’s since been discharged. Hopefully next year he will celebrate a more traditional Seder. Necessity has required much invention in health care this year. Perhaps this is why so many religious rituals are repeated. Whether in Jerusalem or not, by next year we will have learned something from this year and be ready to be taught anew.

Community | What makes this night different? The story of a hospital room Seder

Jeff Crim is a hospital chaplain from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

What makes this night different? The story of a hospital room Seder

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