When I train Jewish hospice volunteers, I ask them to reflect on a moment when they were in need and someone was present for them. I don’t specify anything else about the interaction, yet volunteers always recall something similar. One man shared his story of a bicycle accident, and of the stranger who sat silently with him on the curb until the ambulance came. A woman spoke of her grandmother knitting in the corner of the hospital’s delivery room throughout her three-day-long labor. When I ask for their reflections, nobody tells stories about getting advice (no matter how helpful), or about someone taking heroic, life-saving actions (no matter how important). Rather, the stories are mostly about silent companionship.
This word, “companion,” comes from the Latin “com” (“with”) and “panis” (“bread”): It means someone with whom you share bread. The Hebrew phrase for this concept is “levaya” (“accompaniment”). This concept is so central to how we think about death and dying in Judaism, we use the same Hebrew word for “funeral.” In Jewish tradition, we don’t bury our dead; we accompany them.
There are four key moments in Jewish tradition when we are required to accompany one another: when we are seriously ill or dying; after the chuppah (wedding canopy), when partners are on their way to yichud (time alone); when we welcome a new baby at birth; and when guests are leaving our home. Any of these transitional moments has the potential of leaving one isolated, and our tradition teaches us to address this with companionship. We can neither fix suffering nor safeguard joy, but we can ensure that no one is alone.
As a rabbi who tends to the dying, I think about the concept of accompaniment a great deal. However, it became a personal and urgent matter for me in 2014, when I was ill and housebound and out of sync with other people’s lives. In my estrangement, I cast about for companions from within Jewish texts.
I found one in the book of Ruth, which opens with the death of Naomi’s husband and their two grown sons. Naomi has lost her family, her identity, and her faith, as well as her economic and physical security. She is a stranger in a strange land, having been driven by famine from Bethlehem to Moab (known as the land of Amalek, the archenemies of the Jews). Bitter and alienated, Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem alone — “but her daughter-in- law, Ruth, cleaved to her.” (Ruth 1:14)
The Hebrew word used here for “cleaved” is davak, which means “to stick.” Sometimes, when we are sick, grieving, or nearing death, we cannot offer reciprocity in relationships. In the book of Ruth, Naomi offers no words of praise, gratitude, or invitation; even so, Ruth sticks with Naomi. We need to understand that “levaya” is not a modern relationship based on equality. Instead of demanding reciprocity, it offers justice to the most vulnerable by recognizing that we all need connection, even if we are unable to offer anything in return.
By the end of the story, Ruth has accompanied Naomi home. She has married Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman, and she has given birth to a child. Ruth’s son will be the ancestor of King David, who represents the lineage of the Messiah and the healing of the world.
While the book of Ruth begins with the heartbreak of an individual set against the background of an intergenerational trauma, its story offers intergenerational healing through accompaniment. Ruth is not able to fix Naomi’s suffering. But her unconditional accompaniment and love for her mother-in- law alters both of their lives, heals the next generation, and, eventually, in the dream of this text, brings healing to the world.
Rabbi Elliot Kukla serves San Francisco’s Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, where he codirects Kol Haneshama: Jewish end-of-life /hospice volunteer program, a joint program with the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living.