For quite some time, I had been feeling very unsteady, as if losing my balance…not physically, but spiritually. It seems to have been a combination of fear and uncertainty: fear for the future and uncertainty as to spiritual direction.
Perhaps it had come about due to the ongoing isolation, masking, quarantining, the toll of ill and dying from COVID. Maybe it was watching the ongoing political and social divisions, spilling over into violence and mayhem in our streets, threatening to tear American society apart. Perhaps it was seeing Israel, led, not by states-persons, but by petty politicians, fighting over scraps of political seats, as at a feast, paid for by its own citizens, who are never invited to join.
Or maybe it was triggered by observing my beloved Reform Movement, so caught up in putting oxygen masks on the world, that it had forgotten a fundamental personal survival lesson: “Always place your oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help others.”
Whatever combination of all, some or none of the above, I felt I had lost my center, my identity, as to who I was and in what I believed.
Eventually, I realized that not only was internalizing these crises having no effect upon the situations whatsoever, but I was in danger of losing myself in the process. It was then I remembered the sage advice drummed into the ears of anyone who has ever flown: “Always place your oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help others.”
Rabbinic tradition teaches when in doubt, study Torah and in the process, answers may well come, and so they did for me, and they were threefold in number. They were familiar to me, for I had read them before and even used them in sermons, but in the chaos and noise of life, I had let them slip away.
The first answer I relearned was from a teaching of Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin, Belarus (1738-1792): He asked his students: “What was the most grievous sin a Jew could commit?” They answered: Idolatry? Murder? Leaving Judaism for another faith? Each time the rabbi shook his head, and so they kept guessing. Finally, the rabbi quoted to them Deut. 14:1a: ‘You are children of Adonay your God.’
Forgetting that we are children of God, is the greatest of sins.
In the chaos and noise of life, I had allowed that beautiful truth to slip away.
The second answer I relearned was from Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, Poland (1783-1841). He taught that there are two elements in the construct of a complete Jew: Tikkun Olam, Perfecting the world and Tikkun Neshama- Perfecting one’s soul.
By means of Gematria (the numerical values of Hebrew letters), he presented the following mathematical/spiritual formula: The numerical value of “Olam” world, is 146: “Neshama” soul, is 395, totaling 541, the same numerical value of the word “Yisrael” Israel, 541.
To be a complete Jew, requires a delicate balance, a concern and need to not only help repair our broken world (Olam), but to also desire to repair that which may be broken in our soul (Neshama). Ignoring, or over-emphasizing one at the expense of the other, not only causes an imbalance in our Jewish selves, but turns Judaism into either a social action agency or a narcissistic, self-absorbed entity.
In the chaos and noise of life, I had lost that balance and allowed it to slip away.
The third answer I relearned was through a teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, Ukraine (1772-1810). When asked how a Jew could have faith today, he replied: “Having faith today is not in our thoughts, beliefs, nor in theological statements. Rather, it is through our actions.”
And with that, he proceeded to write the Gematria for two Hebrew words: “Emunah” Faith, equalling 102 and the word for children, “Banim”, also equalling 102. Looking up, he then, very slowly said: “Having children is living proof in having faith for our People’s tomorrow.
Do I continue to fear for our future? How can I not, but my fear has been tempered by these life lessons:
Remembering that, regardless of the chaos and noise that may be out there, we are children of God, not widgets to be manipulated nor pawns to be sacrificed, but have been created for a purpose and not by accident.
Remembering that our obligation is to try and help our world, as well as ourselves, strive toward wholeness, regardless of what social media or talking heads may say.
Remembering that we show our faith in a Jewish future, by lovingly caring, nurturing and teaching everything we can, to our children and grandchildren, the next generation of Israel.
Will any of these lessons calm the chaos and noise of the world? No, they won’t. But, paraphrasing the late Bette Davis: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride,” and remembering to secure our own oxygen masks, breathing the pure air of Torah, with its life-sustaining lessons, will allow us to fly through the storm raging around us and safely reach the other side.