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Who’s Got Mercy? Dealing with the Rachamim Conundrum

Intro

Do you ever feel like you’re constantly scrambling for approval from the people around you or even from the universe itself? Yeah, me too. Today, I’ve been thinking a lot about “Rachamim,” Hebrew for divine mercy. You know that phrase we say, “כי אם לך ה’ חסד” (But Yours, O Lord, is the kindness). Sounds good. But man, sometimes it feels like that mercy is playing hard to get, especially when the chips are down.

I understand if you ask, “Why does it seem like some people get all the breaks?” Or “Why can’t things just work out for me for once?” We’re all carrying our burdens, and it’s not easy, especially during the Yamim Noraim, when it feels like we’re under a spiritual microscope. I struggle with these thoughts, too, a lot. So, how about we make a pact? Let’s stop this never-ending comparison game we play in our heads. Let’s try to find that elusive Rachamim, not just from the world but for ourselves and for each other.

We could all use a little mercy.

The Trigger

So, we’re talking about divine mercy. I know it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes the idea of “Rachamim” can be triggering, especially if we’re already feeling down on ourselves, feeling unworthy, or shouldering guilt. Trust me, I’ve been there too. You’re flipping through the Machzor, and bam! It hits you. All this talks about divine grace, and you’re thinking, “Do I even deserve any of it?”

First off, none of us is alone. We all have our moments of self-doubt and questioning. Second, we deserve mercy, love, and all the good stuff in life. Don’t let those low moments make you think you deserve less. It’s super hard, I know. We get wrapped up in the script we’ve written for ourselves, where we always need improvement.

So, what if we switch it up? What if we start by showing ourselves a little mercy first? Let’s cut ourselves some slack, and remember, we’re all a work in progress. Acknowledging our worthiness for “Rachamim” may be easier to feel it from the world around us, too.

Separating what we do from who we are can sometimes be a walk in the park. I struggle with this myself. Like, if I mess up, does that make me a failure? We must remember that actions are not the sum total of our worth. We are so much more than the mistakes we make, you know?

Let’s chat about divine mercy, this whole “Rachamim” thing. We often feel like it’s some reward, right? If we’re ‘good enough,’ we’ll be granted some heavenly brownie points. But what if we see divine mercy as just, well, pure understanding and acceptance of who we are, flaws and all? Imagine being loved and accepted for who you are, not for what you’ve done or haven’t done. I find that perspective so freeing.

We have to remind ourselves that Hashem, or whatever we understand as the Divine, isn’t there to keep a tally of our rights and wrongs. It’s about embracing us entirely. So maybe, as we go through these High Holy Days, we can work on extending a bit of that Rachamim to ourselves and others. Let’s remember that we don’t have to earn the right to be loved or understood. We already have it just by being our authentic selves. So let’s do our utmost to hold onto that thought, especially when the going gets tough.

Conclusion

Reading the Machzor can be a trigger fest for many of us – for some, not even realizing it just because we’re obeying tradition with minimal understanding.  It’s not just you or me; some sections can make people feel like they’re reliving their worst moments or most profound fears. The heavy emphasis on judgment, sin, and the need for mercy can stir up raw emotions or triggers embodied in our central nervous systems. It can be much more intense for those already vulnerable than folks usually talk about and just remain in denial.

It’s easy for others to say, “Oh, it’s just a book of prayers,” but the reality is that it touches on deep, personal things that we may not be ready to face. So, let’s acknowledge that, and give ourselves the room to feel what we’re feeling, without shame. You’re not alone in this; I feel it too.

Let’s take this Rosh Hashanah as an opportunity to be there for ourselves and each other. Let’s try to find the beauty in the tradition while respecting our own emotional boundaries. Because at the end of the day, we’re all just doing our best to navigate this complex, often painful journey, and that’s okay. Shanah Tovah, and here’s to being real with each other.

About the Author
Stuart is a co-founder of the Nafshenu Alenu mental health educational initiative founded in 2022. He currently serves on the Board of Visitors of McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University Medical School. He serves as Chairman of the Board of OGEN – Advancement of Mental Health Awareness in Israel; chairman of Mental Health First Aid Israel and a partner in “Deconstructing Stigma” in Israel. He is on the Board of Directors of the Religious Conference Management Association. He has counseled over 7,000 individuals and families in crisis
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