Like many of us in the Diaspora, I am holding multiple realities right now: I am both unsettled and focused, enraged and fervently calm, I am in love and in loathing at the same time. While I sometimes feel as if there is no name for this state of being, I find myself returning to the notion that this is all entirely Jewish. While we struggle, we still celebrate. While darkness reigns, we bring in the light. When given a choice, we always, always choose life.
As the weeks of the war carry on, it becomes exceedingly clear that all of this is a marathon and not a sprint. And we — the Jewish people, and especially Jewish communal professionals — don’t have the luxury of burning out anytime soon. I’ve heard similar tropes from people: they’re exhausted, experiencing existential fear, and basically downtrodden. They may be starting to look away, feeling helpless and hopeless. They may want to return to “normal” life, however we define that. Frankly I don’t believe we are entitled to those privileges of avoidance and depletion right now. There is simply far too much at stake here. Thankfully, as with all challenges in life, Judaism has afforded us guidance as to how to attempt to manage this tragic and epic moment in our collective contemporary experience. And these are approaches we can actively take control of (yes, we do have some control left, even in this bleak harvest season). Join me in considering the efficacy of these Jewishly inspired experiments.
Sh’mirat HaNefesh: Take Care of Your Soul
In the immediate days following Black Shabbat, I felt as if I had to follow every news thread, see every photo, and take in every ounce of emotion spilling out of Israel. It felt like a responsibility, an obligation. As the arc of this war has continued to unfold and we’re in week five now, I realize that in order to show up as fully as I can — for the Jewish people, for my local community (Jewish and non-Jewish), for my family, and for myself — I need to set boundaries. I can only look at headlines at certain times. I won’t look at the new CCTV/surveillance videos or the footage of hostages. It’s not because I am turning a blind eye to what is happening. It actually is a way to protect my spirit and my being from secondhand trauma. It has been said that Israel is a nation of PTSD at this point. So what I can do, from where I sit in the world, is to stay as strong in my mind as I can — to be clearheaded and compassionate. So I can support those from afar who are suffering in much different and more substantial ways than I am. This may sound incredibly basic (and even some may perceive this suggestion as infantilizing, so bear with me here) – but are you (yes, you) setting boundaries with your consumerism of the news right now? Be honest with yourself. We have to monitor what we take in so we can be effective in what we can give out.
Off my phone and out in the real world, I have been talking to friends — a lot. I am reaching out to people more often than usual — with questions that have no answers, with emotions that seem uncontainable, and with an angst that I am unfamiliar with. We fall apart, we stitch ourselves up again, and most importantly, we are together at a time when isolating in our homes and on our phones has become all too easy. I can’t do this alone, and we aren’t meant to do so.
Shmirat HaGuf: “Guard” Your Body
I have never felt as committed as I do now to moving my body, on a daily basis, because that movement is medicine for my broken heart. My thoughts are cyclical, my cortisol levels are high from stress, and I feel the excess energy running through my body. I have to shake it out (like Florence & the Machine told me to do). Even more so, doing so is a fulfillment of a Jewish mitzvot, Shmirat HaGuf — literally translated to “guarding the body” — as mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy. We read the verse (4:9), “Guard yourself and guard your soul very carefully.” We have to take care of the house our soul lives in, so we don’t fall into ruin. With so much falling apart in the world around us, let’s keep our physical selves sacred.
I’m not here to sound like I am on a soapbox, but I am here to implore you to consider all this rather carefully because I truly do believe this is how we can do our part: we need to be getting back to the basics during this time of substantial tragedy. Treat yourself as you would a precious child, as silly as it may seem. Set a bedtime and stick to it. Put your phone down at least 30 minutes before you go to bed. Exercise as often as you can. Those endorphins are our friends. And at the risk of sounding like your Jewish mother (although I am in fact someone’s Jewish mother, thank Gd), eat well. Focus on whole foods, and don’t let your blood sugar run amuck because that wild ride will only exacerbate the emotional rollercoaster we are on right now.
(I see you and your kids’ Halloween candy. I will tell them if you sneak a mini Snickers. Yeah, I will.)
Hakarat HaTov: Find the Good (and Devour It Whole)
I’m not going to claim that I am the first person to mention the importance of gratitude. But with great sincerity, it has been proven time and time again by people far more medically qualified than I am that being present to that which is good, whole, and rich in our lives is absolutely essential. There is so much we would be very down in the dumps about right now – and I fall prey to that sometimes too. That said, we cannot get stuck in that rabbit hole for too long. This right here is a moment, an opportunity to revisit that which fuels you – to rediscover an old hobby, to get outside and put your bare foot onthe earth, to listen to music with no purpose other than your own delight.
To get more textured here in my own life, this is what I notice happening lately: I run my hand over my wooden dining room table, and it feels luxurious. In an era when thousands upon thousands have been displaced in Israel and Gaza, I find that merely sifting through my closet feels like an act of excess. My fridge is full of fresh food, my cell phone is full of numbers of people I could call who actually could support me, and my bed is outfitted with clean crisp sheets (the sweet joy!): these are abundances I cannot take for granted.
On the artistic front, I have found great solace in writing again — just when I had thought I was over it for the time being. And I have afforded myself the gift of sharing that writing — without overthinking it, without too much self-consciousness, trusting that it will land wherever the wind carries it. It has been a way to reflect profoundly within myself and to hold hands with others across time and space.
None of this is easy, but I would argue it is as simple as the sunshine. While on the one hand, I am merely a speck of dust on this earth, I also truly am an irreplicably unique human being – and it is my – our – collective obligation to take excellent care of ourselves right now. One of the strongest forms of resistance to the darkness in the world, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, is to live with goodness in your heart, to live healthfully, to live Jewishly – and to bring as much light as you can to all that you do. As we change the clocks back and Kislev is on the horizon, we certainly need it.