Making Room for Our Fears, Opening Our Hearts
Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve
September 18, 2020 • 1 Tishrei 5781
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
Do you remember, many long months ago, the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020? In case it’s hard to think back that far, I’ll share a few highlights. Some folks responded with unusual solutions, ranging from creative to desperate to illegal. A Los Angeles restaurant started selling “emergency taco kits” that included several pounds of meat, rice, beans, and, crucially, four rolls of toilet paper. There were fights in store aisles over the precious rolls. Police even caught one person transporting nearly 18,000 pounds of the stuff in a stolen 18-wheeler.
Then there were the ordinary folks, rushing to Costco, scouring the internet, perhaps considering a columnist’s suggestion that when children find the afikoman – a hidden piece of matzah – at the Passover seder, rather than the usual small prize, we give them something far more valuable – a roll of toilet paper.
Ironically, panic buying helps cause the shortages people fear. But it’s understandable. We’re frightened. We are aware of the truth we usually push away, except in times of illness, or other crises – that life is uncertain, we don’t know what the future will bring. We want to feel secure, protected. We want to regain a sense of control.
The toilet paper panic was an early response to the shock of the pandemic. When we don’t feel safe, we try to shield ourselves, to wall off our vulnerability. When possible, it is good to prepare for threats we know may await us. Yet ultimately, we don’t know what is coming – for our country, our children, our daily lives, our health, perhaps our jobs, our finances, and certainly our earth – ravaged by more fires and storms than ever before.
The coronavirus, terrifying as it is, didn’t break our nation. It revealed what was already broken. We have left our country’s chronic ills untreated for years. Many of us have learned to live with the symptoms, especially if they don’t impact us directly. A failing healthcare system, life-threatening racism, more children without enough to eat or a safe place to live, so much unnecessary suffering, and public discourse dominated by bitterness and name calling. The pandemic has pushed us to confront the spiritual sickness, the pre-existing conditions, that surround us.
Never have we entered Rosh Hashanah more in need of renewal and a reclaimed sense of possibility. Fortunately, that is what these High Holidays are about.
At their core is a two-fold message. First, each of us is called to bring healing to the broken places in our lives and our world. Second, while we cannot choose what life will bring, we can choose how we live, how we will use our unique gifts to help bring the much-needed healing.
Our tradition gives us tools to do this.
Let’s look at what led to the toilet paper shortage: fear. Fear, which many of us are experiencing more than usual, may be the greatest barrier to choosing how we will live. When fear overwhelms us we often shut down, or push it away. We may obsess over the news, pumping ourselves with adrenaline, leaving us unable to gain perspective.
Most of us have learned from childhood to avoid or deny our fears. Our culture teaches us to be upbeat, to hide our so-called negative emotions. It leaves little space for our brokenness, whether it be fear, loss, or grief. Jewish tradition offers a more expansive, accepting, and loving view.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who taught and died in the Warsaw ghetto, put it this way: “When we feel deeply, either the excitement of joy or the dejection of sorrow, we become immediately more open and alive…conversely, when our minds and hearts are constricted, we cannot fathom thoughts that transcend our physical needs and perceptions.” (Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work)
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk taught: “There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.”
When fear arises, it demands our attention. The first question is: how real is the danger? Do I need to run, or take action? If not, our tradition invites us to make room for the fear, rather than pushing it away, going numb, or distracting ourselves.
“There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.” Closing our hearts is how we turn away from the brokenness in our world, how we get used to the pre-existing conditions the pandemic has forced us to look at.
How do we live with our broken hearts? We realize that we are not alone. Everyone who has lived in this world is at least a little bit broken. We accept the powerful paradox our tradition teaches: we find wholeness not despite brokenness, but through it.
When we acknowledge our brokenness, we step into a universe in which we are not measured by perfection, but by our willingness to repair ourselves and our world.
A broken heart may also become an open heart. “At this time of year, we are called to open our hearts to the world around us, to know the suffering that is real and to let it be the seed with which we cultivate compassion and wise action,” Rabbi Lavey Derby tells us. ("A Call to Courageous, Resolute Hope")
Taking action might seem pointless in the face of so many challenges. Maybe they are just too much for us. Yet our tradition responds emphatically: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot). It also teaches, in the words of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe: “Every person needs to know that you have great value. Not an imagined value, in that you ‘consider yourself special’…there was never a person like you, nor will there ever be a person like you throughout history.” (Alei Shur) His point is not that you have to take on more than you can, but that you have unique strengths to offer the world. We need you!
Whether getting out the vote, calling an isolated friend, joining the efforts against racial injustice…chances are that your actions will make a difference. Even if you never know their impact, you will be shaping yourself and your one precious life through the ways you choose to respond.
Finally, we need to have compassion, or, rachmones, as this core Jewish value is called in Yiddish: kindness, empathy, forgiveness …our world needs them more than ever. We can draw on our experiences of heartbreak to become more compassionate to others, and to ourselves.
When people are suffering, they are rarely at their best. It may be hard to look beyond their harshness, closed mindedness, or whatever disturbs us the most, to see the pain underneath, but chances are it’s there.
Many of us are distressed with ourselves because we are literally unable do what we “should,” whether it’s helping children learn through online schooling, doing our jobs at the same time, making enough to support ourselves and perhaps our families when our jobs disappear, offering the love and companionship needed by people we can’t see or touch in person.
We need rachmones for others, and for ourselves.
Over these ten days, from now through Yom Kippur, and in the future as well, may we accept and honor our fears, so we are less controlled by them, and by the ways we push them away. May we cherish our broken hearts, hearts that may also be ready to open, if we treat ourselves with compassion. May we bring our strengths into the world, knowing that we cannot do it all, but we can surely do our part.