Nearly 20 years ago, in my first year working as a rabbi, my colleagues and I at Northwestern University Hillel confronted a crisis: an engineering professor who was a known Holocaust denier gave an interview on Iranian state TV in which he praised the then-president of Iran for “getting it right” about the Holocaust. The event generated headlines and quickly snowballed into a full-blown media news cycle.
For me, fresh out of rabbinic school, I remember how my body felt: anxiety in my stomach; tight in my chest; adrenaline that made my fingertips tingle. There were students to worry about, parents who wanted reassurance, the local and national Jewish communal organizations who all wanted to “help out,” the reputation of our campus to manage. I was overwhelmed.
So I picked up the phone and called a mentor, Michael Brooks, who by that point had been the director at the University of Michigan Hillel for decades. “I need some help,” I told him. Michael gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received, a lesson I continue to use and teach in my own work on a regular basis. “Whenever I have a crisis,” he said, “I ask myself three questions: 1) What’s the problem? 2) Whose problem is it? 3) What opportunities does the problem present?”
In effect, Michael taught me a mindfulness practice. First, pause. Create some space. Your mind has likely already spun a narrative without you even knowing it. So bring some mindful attention to it and ask some fundamental questions about the narrative: Is this really a problem? Is it really your problem—or, what aspect of it is actually your problem, and what aspects might really be best, or even only, addressable by others? And after all that: Is this really a catastrophe? There may, and in fact probably are, opportunities within what appears to be a problem—opportunities for improving things and making changes. If you can pause and shift your questions, you give yourself the space to change the nature of the problem itself—and your relationship with it.
I find myself thinking of Michael’s lessons frequently these days as we confront so many narratives of crisis, from mental health to the state of democracy to the fate of the planet. Frequently I find myself experiencing those same sensations I did during that professional crisis long ago: tightness, anxiety, adrenaline. Unlike 20 years ago, now the snowball effect comes not only from cable news, but from social media, which creates the sensation that virtually everyone I know sees the same crisis I do—so it must be a crisis! That can quickly lead to resignation (“That’s it, we’re screwed”) and paralysis (“The problem is too big anyway. We’re screwed—again.”) And then I wind up in a vicious cycle of hopelessness, disempowerment, and despair.
This Shabbat comes the week before we observe the ninth of Av, the day on the Jewish calendar in which we confront our most profound national crises as a people. It is referred to as Shabbat Hazon because of the passage from Isaiah chapter 1 that is read traditionally in synagogues this week.
Isaiah’s message, like that of virtually all the prophets, is one of truth-telling: Yes, there really is a crisis! Recognize it—see how terrible things are! And: Be clear about what the crisis is. All our rituals—Shabbat and sacrifices and holidays—are empty gestures if they don’t ultimately manifest in increasing justice and reducing suffering in the world.
Learn to do good.
Devote yourselves to justice;
Aid the wronged.
Uphold the rights of the orphan;
Defend the cause of the widow. (v. 17)
The problem, according to Isaiah, is that the ancient Israelites—and, by extension, we who read and remember this episode at this time every year—have become disconnected from the truest reality, namely that we are beings imbued with the Divine image and, as a result, alive and in relationship with the earth, with beings both human and non-human. We are capable of extraordinary power, and we have been corrupted by it. The prophet’s demand, which is the demand of this time, is to do the deep soul-searching and spiritual accounting that will bring us back into those relationships in healthier, life-sustaining ways.
As we might say in the world of mindfulness, that demand is also an invitation. Or, in Michael Brooks’s terminology: The crisis is also an opportunity. While on Tisha b’Av we hold the space to grieve, to feel and express despair over what we have lost, ultimately the mood of the day changes in the afternoon, and turns toward the possibility that exists on the other side of catastrophe. Jerusalem—real or metaphorical, or both—can indeed be rebuilt. While the long history of Jewish life is one of crisis and suffering, it is also one of possibility and renewal.
May this Tisha b’Av be a time of seeing our crises clearly and responding to them together.