Before becoming a hospice chaplain, I did not know that one the highest honors of this role would be attending and serving our veterans, the men and women who have served us.
The places they’ve gone, the people they’ve seen, the history they have made, astounds me each and every moment I spent accompanying and listening to them.
A tall 94-year-old sailor who spent five long tours in a cramped submarine in the South Pacific. A military photographer who saw it all and shared the war with us through the lens of his camera. A sailor who spent time in Hawaii while his severely damaged destroyer was being repaired. An Air Force veteran who began his spiritual journey picking up a pamphlet laying at the end of a freezing metal runway one dark night in Korea.
Their tales were not purely of luck and survival. One Seabee told me how he bulldozed an airstrip on Saipan next to a cliff over which whole families, men, women, and children had just thrown themselves, choosing suicide to avoid being eaten by approaching enemy soldiers.
As hospice chaplain, I escorted a Vietnam veteran who had been in such suffering that he considered suicide before accepting hospice palliative care. The care he received in hospice allowed him and his wife many more months of high-quality pain-controlled living and loving together.
I have come to understand that choosing hospice care is not “giving up,” “surrendering,” or “sentencing a loved one to die.” Hospice is so very much more. Hospice is life, not only a gift to loved ones who have gone through and contributed so much, hospice is a gift to all of us who remain to honor them and pass on their astounding stories.
Lastly, as a Jewish chaplain I have come to appreciate the Jewish value of tzedakah (justice, or charity) in a whole new way. The mitzvah of giving tzedakah is fulfilled when we’ve passed on to others that which we received from God. My hospice chaplain’s experience teaches me that sharing a life well lived, passing on our life-won experiences to others, fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah.
Pinchas Paul Zohav is an ordained rabbinic pastor in Tucson. He serves as Jewish community chaplain for the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s Northwest Division and works as hospice chaplain for Harbor Light Hospice.