How do we control what we’re feeling in this terrible time of such great uncertainty?
My new best friend is Dr. Marc Brackett, whose book Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive has been extremely insightful and comforting. “Emotions,” he writes, “largely determine our actions.” Dr. Brackett explains that our emotional state (and we certainly have lots of those these days) determines five key areas in our lives, including “where we direct our attention, what we remember and what we learn;” decision-making; and our health, among others.
This last point was underlined for me in a short clip I saw this week of a dvar Torah given by Bnai Brak’s Rabbi Elimelech Biderman. Rav Biderman quotes Rav Yosef Chayim, the Baghdadi Chacham who writes in his sefer Ben Yehoyada of the importance of not succumbing to panic. Rav Chayim tells of when, during a cholera epidemic, a man met the angel (a mashchit) in charge of taking the souls of people of a certain town. The angel said 5000 would die. When 15,000 died instead, the angel explained that only 5000 had died of the plague; the other 10,000 had died of pachad ve-hav’ata, “fear and panic.” “Why panic?” asks Rav Biderman in his yeshivishe Yiddish (there are subtitles, don’t worry). We have a mitzvah to protect ourselves, but why panic? Hashem, he says, is with us: we need not fear. To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we have to fear fear itself.
The mishkan, as I heard from my friend Rabbi Fred Klein this week, had three sets of walls. The innermost sphere was the mishhkan itself, which housed a holy space of meeting between man and God; the second level was called the ohel mo’ed, which provided an “exclusivity of space;” the third and outermost layer was the orot techashim, skins of “seals” (or perhaps of unicorns, as the Talmud in Shabbat suggests), which served as a shield from the outside world.
We have all spent hundreds of dollars on wifi, food, supplies, and distractions. Our orot are firmly in place, and we must continue to work hard to keep them in place. I broke my kids’ hearts two days ago when they ended quarantine and I told them they could not get together with their friends. But we have to keep those protective walls up. We also each have an ohel mo’ed in each of our homes: we are exclusive. At the same time, we cannot forget those who have smaller ohalot: I have been trying to connect with friends who are hunkered down on their own or in small spaces. Each time they deeply appreciate the connection. This is not a time to be shy.
Finally, we have the challenge of creating our mishkan, which is not just our home, but the place for God to meet us, be with us, and protect us. Home is not just the place we keep all our “stuff,” as George Carlin said. It’s the place the shechina can — and will — join us.
May we all soon merit to share in each other’s company in our shared, communal mishakanim once again.
Shabbat shalom, and stay healthy.