William Hamilton

Heads Up

“How can you do that?” asked my friend Jodi who lives in Jerusalem. We were enjoying a late Shabbat afternoon visit in her home this past April. “How can you stay attentive without feeling collared and dragged into the sewer by people behaving so despicably?” 

Staying agile in the face of aggressors who are trying to confiscate your senses is hard. Really hard. And it seems to be getting harder by the day. Here’s how I tried to respond to Jodi. 

“It’s a really important question,” I began. “Perhaps a few things are needed: 1) your wellsprings that you can reliably tap, 2) firm ground on which you can assert firm principles, and 3) teaspoons of self-compassion for when you do become unglued and you do lose it.” We mulled over each point. I’m frankly not sure how much it helped. It’s one thing to prescribe from a living room sofa. It’s something else entirely to stay nimble when you’re sinking in quicksand. 

This week’s Torah and Prophetic portions offer some helpful tools. They do two things for us. First, they describe how it feels to stay sane while staying engaged with deranged positions. And second, the Prophet Isaiah offers the best advice of all time for how to activate this approach. 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the technique. If in the afterglow of a spiritual experience, you sense a way to collect the scattered demands of your life, to unite what is in strife, in a way that’s good for you and good for those around you, then it is probably a signpost along God’s way. It is one-ness working its magic on you. From this lens, God’s exclusivity, proclaimed in this week’s appearance of the Shema (Deut. 6:4), is less about divine market share and more about piecing things together in ways that leave you more integrated, clean, and whole. 

How do you set out on this path? A second Heschel insight demonstrates how Isaiah’s advice even works for the Babylonian ruler who is responsible for the destruction of the Temple. “At the end of my days, I, Nebuchadnezzer, lifted my eyes to heaven and restored my sanity” (Dan. 4:31). It is the same expression that Isaiah uses this week, “Lift up your eyes on-high and see, who created these”(Is. 40:26)?

Maddening mindsets can make us want to curl up in a ball. But try to recall: you miss a lot when your head’s down. Heads up isn’t only what you shout when something’s about to land close-by. It’s also a proven way to restore perspective that can pour new life into your kindnesses and fresh firmness into your principles.

A sweet Shabbat of consolation to you.

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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