It was a revelation to both of us when I said it.
“These mental health challenges are no different than your chemical dependency. You take medication every day to help keep you sober, and it works. And you’ve stayed in therapy for years because you need the continued reminders and re-centering. The medication is one more piece of that puzzle — so you can remember to use the tools you learn in therapy. This illness is never going away — but if you do what you need to do every day it doesn’t need to control you. The trauma that happened to you, and you’ve had a lot of it, isn’t going to ‘un-happen,’ but you can get to a point where you remember it as past, instead of reliving it like it’s still happening.”
These were all things I knew but connecting it this way for the person I was speaking to the other day made it more real, more sensible, than it had ever been before.
Three years have passed, as of today, since my co-worker Rich Gottfried, my mentor Jerry Rabinowitz, my bus-stop buddy Cecil Rosenthal, and eight other neighbors and friends were killed in the terrorist attack on our community at the Tree of Life building. At the time of the attack, other synagogues around the country, including mine, were in the middle of reading one of the most challenging passages in the Torah, the binding of Isaac. Returning to that text this past weekend opened a lot of old wounds even as it provided opportunities for closure for others.
According to tradition, Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the akedah, and the next time we see him he is 40. The midrash leaps into the void and asks, “Where did he go for those three years?” I have my own ideas, but you’ll have to wait to read the book. For now, let’s go with the tradition that says he went to learn at the academy of Shem and Ever, the son and grandson of Noah. Which raises another question: What did he learn in those three years?
I can’t answer for Isaac, but asking that question led me to ask: What have I learned in the three years since this catastrophe?
The conversation above gave me the answer. Everything in our world that is dear to us, the things that seem like they are forever, the people who are always by our sides, the systems (biological, societal, or technological) that hum along from day to day unnoticed, is actually held together by thin threads, just one glitch (or germ) away from coming apart at the seams. And every day, we do work, hard, important, unnoticed work, to stop that from happening.
My favorite line in the morning service comes just after the Barkhu, the call to prayer. It is the line, Ha-mehadesh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit – “Who renews the work of creation every day, continually.” It makes me think of a God who is the polar opposite of the Deist, “blind watchmaker” deity that the Founding Fathers believed in. Their God made the heavens and the earth, turned the crank a few trillion times to wind the mechanism, and left it run without lifting a finger to this day. The vision of God we get in this line of prayer is intimately involved, constantly refreshing and recreating the universe so that it does not wink itself out of existence — and in the process giving us a gift each and every day we are blessed enough to wake again.
If you’ve read my work before now you understand that I run on the idea that we are tasked with modeling our behavior after God’s behavior. Here, too, that rule holds. We have to be constantly engaged in holding our lives, our relationships, our world together. That applies to the mundane, like cooking dinner, doing laundry, paying bills or putting gas in the car, as to the worldly important, like defending the right to vote or improving the environment (by, er, not putting gas in the car and walking instead). It applies to our health, to eating well, to exercising, and to getting enough sleep, and to our mental health — to monitoring our social media use, tuning in to our emotions, and allowing ourselves spiritual and mental space to recharge.
All too often, we see ourselves slip on one of these tasks, and face the consequences. Sometimes the price is not having clean socks, and sometimes it is a Category 5 hurricane. Sometimes we sprain an ankle, other times we are diagnosed with a cancer, a heart attack, or a nervous breakdown.
Our social environment is no different than our physical one. Three years ago, I did not worry about my safety or my health while praying in synagogue. Today I cannot help but worry about both. I cannot help but notice, and thank, the armed security guard at the door — or the unarmed maintenance staff who check the notebook to make sure all the attendees over 12 are vaccinated against COVID19. I cannot help but check my mask to make sure it hasn’t fallen off my nose, and I cannot pooh-pooh my 9-year-old’s runny nose and bring him along without a second thought.
The truth is that our secure, warm environment of a few years ago didn’t just happen. It was the product of years of struggle, dedication, dumb luck, and incredible good will, and absent even one of those things could have looked a lot different. Our good fortune in the public health arena was a credit to the incredible progress in the science of vaccination and sanitation — and was not universally shared by those who are often neglected by progress, either in this country or abroad in poorer countries. Only by renewing that work each day did we merit (sort of) continuing to enjoy that fortune.
A year-and-a-half of working in a pandemic has come not only with incredible medical challenges, but also with the fraying of every system we depend on: phones, internet, supply chain, medical records, having adequate staff — not just my own health center, but the entire system. It wasn’t a healthy system to begin with, and many have argued that it is only thanks to the incredible inborn masochism of clinicians, nurses, and allied health professionals that we were able to make it work at all.
One of the many tragedies of the shooting was losing people like Rich and Jerry who did that God-imitating work of sustaining this fragile system because they knew people depended on it, who didn’t let it fail and continued to ensure that people’s teeth and thyroid, gums and guts, sealants and souls got the care they needed and deserved. The lesson of these turbulent three years has been that everything breaks down — body, mind, soul, society — and when it doesn’t, it’s because of the effort we put in to keep it from doing so. I’ve finally begun to learn not to scream about, “Why can’t things just work?” when they stop, and begin marveling that they work at all to begin with. Just the fact that we exist is pretty miraculous; that we usually can go to worship and gather without getting sick or getting shot even more miraculous; that we sometimes have people as special as the ones we lost that day is maybe the greatest miracle of all.
Learning this lesson has also helped me understand another mystery of Torah. The Shabbat before Purim, we read a few lines from Deuteronomy urging us to “Remember what Amalek did to you … blot out the memory of Amalek – don’t forget.” So what is it – remember, or don’t remember?
Amalek were the tribe who pursued the Israelites in the desert and picked off the stragglers – they preyed on the weak. It was in opposition to behavior like that that the Israelites were commanded to look after those people, to ensure that they were protected, not hunted.
We might have thought, in our pre-10/27/18 world, that we had succeeded in blotting out the memory of Amalek. But Amalekite behavior doesn’t disappear. It has to be actively remembered, and be continuously blotted out wherever we see it, or it will return to take the lives of our friends and neighbors.
The problem with all of this work of maintaining and sustaining, whether it is a safe society, a stable environment, or a health person is that it is exhausting. We are bone tired, all of us, and on days like today more than ever. When the alarm goes off and it is dark (and at the end of October, before daylight savings ends, it is always dark when my alarm goes off), it is nearly impossible to even get out of bed. But the mere fact of my eyes being open, and having covers to hide under, means that Someone has been busy keeping the universe from flying apart while I slept (or attempted to sleep). When I turn on the lights, I see the line from the prayer, framed on my bedroom wall:
Ha-mehadesh bekhol yom tamid ma’aseh bereishit — “Who renews the work of creation every day, continually.”