William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Bookmarking feelings

“I remember saying to myself at the time ‘you better remember how that felt’”.  Consultant Simon Sinek found himself under rocket attack years ago on a US Air Force base in Iraq. Missiles were crashing within meters of their building. “You get me on that next plane home!” he shouted. Being so cross and commanding was totally out of character for him. But he was terrified that he was going to die. He recently recalled that, after he was out of danger, he made himself promise he’d remember how that grip of dread felt. Bookmarking it might make him more empathic in the future to panicking fears in others.

As we settle into this year’s Seder, we might do well to try and recall how hard it was last year to recline freely. People were being infected and dying alone in hospitals everywhere. None of us knew for sure how to stay entirely safe. None of us knew who would live and who would die? Who by plaque and who by loneliness?

Former feelings can be hard to get re-acquainted with. Some, like pain, humiliation, and sadness, are the sensations you least want to reclaim. But when ‘knowing how it feels’ makes you more sympathetic to what another person is going through, then it makes you more tender.

Bookmarking a feeling is a choice. It’s unlike a scarring trauma that never goes away. And our tradition knows a lot about the importance of making that deliberate choice.

In her superb book of Jewish rediscovery, Here All Along, Sarah Hurwitz makes a profound observation about the circumstances when the Children of Israel are first taught not to mistreat strangers. It’s when our ancestors are still powerless, exposed to wilderness aggression, hardly in a position to oppress anybody. Why does God implore us “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having been yourselves strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9) at such a time? Hurwitz wisely posits that “the Torah seems to understand how quickly former victims can become indifferent to current ones.”

Consider making this year’s Seder differently unique by bookmarking memories of acute feelings you have felt under the domain of COVID’s limitations and losses. As you do, may you deepen your sensitivity to those current feelings in others. Then, perhaps, give one more look at the Seder table of contents — implements that help us tell and taste our founding Exodus story — and consider how such bookmarking may just be at the heart of the Seder’s essential project.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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