“I feel like I can’t breathe,” a friend tells me after yet another list of fallen soldiers hits the news. And I know exactly what she means. Haven’t we all felt this way, at some point or another since October 7th? Haven’t we all felt as if our lungs were shut closed, as if the walls were falling upon us, as if there was simply no room at all for air, inside or out?
King David gave voice to this feeling in a particularly harrowing moment in his own life’s story, as recounted in II Samuel 24. Angry at David’s decision to count his subjects despite the prohibition on censes in the Torah, God sent the prophet Gad to tell David that he must choose a punishment out of three horrifying options: “Shall a seven-year famine come upon you in the land, or shall you be in flight from your adversaries for three months while they pursue you, or shall there be three days of pestilence in your land? “
Faced with this unbearable choice, King David cried out “Tzar li me’od” – “It’s very narrow for me.” Three simple words, yet they perfectly capture a feeling I am intimately familiar with millennia later. How often have I read the news recently, or hugged grieving friends, or watched loved ones going back into danger in their uniforms, and thought — it’s too narrow, I can’t breathe, there’s no way out?
I have the sense that this feeling is a mental manifestation of what living under siege might be like. After all, the Hebrew word for siege, “matzor,” comes from the same root as the word “tzar” – narrow. 2,609 years ago today, on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Tevet in the year 587 BCE, the Babylonian army surrounded ancient Jerusalem. As I fast today to commemorate that day, I wonder what our besieged ancestors felt when they heard the marching feet and watched the gleaming swords and machinery drawing close around them. Did they think of the food in their stores, and how long it would last for? Did they imagine the hunger pangs to come, the suffering of their loved ones? Did they look at their friends and families, and wonder who would survive the hunger only to fall by the sword?
We are not in the same helpless position. We are not under siege. But our moments of “tzar li me’od” breathlessness come when we feel hopelessly besieged by reality, much as King David felt hopelessly besieged by God’s decree. And this hopelessness, this siege state of mind, is dangerous. It can so easily lead to helplessness and passivity — for if we experience reality as if we’re trapped within it, if we feel as though we do not have the power to affect it, why would we even try?
* * *
Since October 7th, I have learned various techniques to snap out of such “siege state of mind” moments, when a news item or an upsetting experience steals my breath, my sense of control, my will to act. These techniques range from breaking my fixation on the immediate new cause of my distress (for example, by counting sounds, smells, and other sensations) to asking myself questions that remind me of what I do control within each moment. But while these and other tools helped me, it was King David’s story that I kept coming to for inspiration time and time again. Because even though David initially submitted to God’s verdict and accepted pestilence as punishment, something changed later in the story. After witnessing his people’s suffering, he shook off his helpless resignation, and demanded a fourth option: “I alone am guilty, I alone have done wrong; but these poor sheep, what have they done? Let Your hand fall upon me and my father’s house!”
What was it that helped David break the siege state of mind? What was it that pushed him past his own initial acceptance of reality, and into challenging God himself?
The answer, as I understand it, is two-fold. On the most immediate level, David found a way out of his feeling of helplessness when he witnessed other people’s suffering. Where his own distress led to resignation, other people’s pain galvanized him into action.
This shift hints to a deep truth: while sadness can induce passivity, compassion often comes hand in hand with a desire to act. When we raise our eyes from our own experiences and allow ourselves to notice other people, compassion has the power to lead us past the imaginary walls constricting our breathing and movement and sense of agency and self, past the siege that takes place in our minds.
I have thought of this truth often since October 7th. In my most hopeless, helpless moments, I made myself look around me and notice other people’s needs. In caring for them, I found a path out of my internal siege.
But this is only half the answer. David could have noticed the people’s pain without thinking that it was within his power to bargain with God for their deliverance. When the king who preceded him, Saul, went through his own hours of distress on the eve of his final battle, the people’s fate did not have the power to snap him out of his state of resignation. Saul knew that he could not defeat the enormous Philistine army that had prepared to fight him. He initially sought council from God in vain, and even turned to forbidden arts and had a medium raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel to guide him. When Samuel rebuked him, Saul exclaimed “Tzar li me’od,” just like David after him. But once Samuel informed him in unequivocal terms that he and his people would die in the morning, Saul accepted defeat. His men’s fate wasn’t enough to motivate him to seek a different path, a different answer. He led his people into battle and died a hero, and many of his men died by his side.
So what was it that made David different? What was it that helped him translate his immediate and visceral response to his people’s suffering into another application to God?
I believe that while David was shaken out of his helplessness by other people’s pain, it was his lifelong habit of turning to God for help that paved the way for his actions in this moment. In moments of distress, we all revert to whatever paths and habits we have already built within ourselves, and use whatever emotional muscles we exercised the most. Saul was in the habit of asking different people for council, as he did in approaching Samuel’s spirit through the medium, but he was not in the habit of asking God for help. By contrast, what path, what habit, could be more natural for David the Psalmist than earnest prayer?
When our soldiers go into battle, they cannot magically conjure weapons beyond the ones they brought into the engagement with them. When we go into battle against our moments of internal siege and panic, the tools in our arsenal are the ones we have placed there in the advance.
* * *
When everything gets to be too much for me, when the losses and the dread and the exhaustion make me feel as though the sky is falling upon me and I can’t breathe and it’s too narrow for me here in this moment, I revisit David’s story as a reminder to snap out of my spiraling emotions by paying attention to other people’s needs.
But I revisit it also in my calmer, even happier moments, as a reminder to nurture the sort of habits that will serve me in good stead when I next find myself in a moment of crisis. I know that the key to having such skills at my disposal when needed is to nurture them it when they are not.
So I journal regularly. I exercise. I ask myself grounding questions every morning. And I pray. I pray even when I wonder who’s listening. Because I want to keep every channel open, active, ingrained into my muscle memory, ready to serve me when I panic, when I’m thrown into a siege state of mind. I want these channels to be ready to liberate me back into action when I feel helpless, ready to help me to choose initiative, motion, life.
We have a long way ahead of us, and many challenges we cannot even foresee. We can’t afford to sink into a helpless state of mind.
May we all find ways to battle our internal sieges, and lend our strengths to our people’s fight.