Holding onto Sanity and Sanctity in the Flood of 5784
“Rabbi, what am I supposed to feel right now? Some moments I just want to cry, others I'm so filled with love and pride.”
“I can't think straight. I keep refreshing the news like I'm waiting for someone to make sense out of all of this.”
“My wife and I were planning on going out for our anniversary. Should we push it off as we mourn for those who were murdered? Or continue as planned for the sake of our own shalom bayis?”
“Does continuing to smile and celebrate show our enemies that they cannot stop us? Or are we being selfish by thinking of ourselves in such a desperate time?”
The past two weeks have introduced us a host of questions that we thought we would never need to address. A host of confusing emotional quandaries, and heart wrenching halachik shailos that have been brought to poskim in Eretz Yisrael.
How are we supposed to live with both Simcha and sensitivity in a such a complex and painful world?
Our generation is not accustomed to contending with the enormity of these questions or emotions. For the past few decades, our Yiddishkeit has focused largely on steady, incremental growth, on warmth and positivity – all to great success.
Our experiences since Simchas Torah are new to anyone born since the Holocaust. It has been many years since we felt the existential horror of a pogrom. But it has also been many years since we have experienced such national unity. We are not used to oscillating between such tragedy and such transcendence, and the whiplash is jarring, painful and confusing.
But for better or worse, as Jews, we are uniquely positioned to address our current reality. In many ways, the past two weeks invites us – or rather, forces us – to draw strength and perspective from the most ancient wells of our tradition. We are being pulled into a historic moment and aside from learning to cope with the here and now, we will need to prepare ourselves for what is still to come.
Make Time for Heartbreak
The first skill to learn is making deliberate time for Heartbreak. Not sadness, heartbreak. As Rebbe Nachman (שיחות הר”ן מא) explains:
לֵב נִשְׁבָּר וְעַצְבוּת – אֵינוֹ עִנְיָן אֶחָד כְּלָל... וְהָיָה טוֹב שֶׁיִּהְיֶה לוֹ לֵב נִשְׁבָּר כָּל הַיּוֹם, אַךְ אֲנָשִׁים כְּעֶרְכְּכֶם יְכוֹלִין לָבוֹא מִלֵּב נִשְׁבָּר לְעַצְבוּת. עַל־כֵּן צְרִיכִין לְיַחֵד אֵיזֶה שָׁעָה בַּיּוֹם שֶׁיִּהְיֶה לוֹ לֵב נִשְׁבָּר, דְּהַיְנוּ לְהִתְבּוֹדֵד וּלְשַׁבֵּר לִבּוֹ לְפָנָיו יִתְבָּרַךְ, אֲבָל שְׁאָר כָּל הַיּוֹם כֻּלּוֹ יִהְיֶה רַק בְּשִׂמְחָה.
Broken-heartedness and depression are not at all the same... It would be very good to be broken-hearted all day long. But for the average person, this can easily degenerate into depression. You should therefore set aside some time each day and isolate yourself to express your broken-heartedness to God for a given time. But the rest of the day should be joyful.
Wallowing in sadness and depression removes our ability to grow, learn and make a difference in the world. But one cannot ignore the pain inside of ourselves or the fresh tears of our friends and family. So make time for it.
For generations since the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, tzadikim would seclude themselves every night at midnight to say Tikkun Chatzos. They would carve out time to fully experience the weight of their own loss and brokenness – and then emerge ready and prepared to reengage with a renewed sense of purpose and Avoda.
Perhaps we are not all ready for Tikkun Chatzos quite yet; but it's powerful and valuable to carve out time to feel. All too often, we attempt to cope by running from the pain, the images and the videos; only to feel guilty of insensitivity. So let's allow ourselves a few moments every day to cry. We owe it to ourselves and the 1400+ families sitting shiva. We owe it to those Jews who have no one left to sit shiva.
The pain is real. Give it a time and place. When we allow ourselves the time to collect and reflect on our experiences and exposures, we are a little less desperate, less broken.
Living in Two Worlds
Once we have made the space to feel our pain, the most important skill to learn and practice is emerging from it. The Ba'al HaTanya (ליקוטי אמרים כו) explains that falling into despair and brokenness is a sure way to fail in battles both physical and spiritual:
בְּרַם, כְּגוֹן דָּא צָרִיךְ לְאוֹדוֹעֵי כְּלָל גָּדוֹל: כִּי כְּמוֹ שֶׁנִּצָּחוֹן לְנַצֵּחַ דָּבָר גַּשְׁמִי, כְּגוֹן: שְׁנֵי אֲנָשִׁים הַמִּתְאַבְּקִים זֶה עִם זֶה לְהַפִּיל זֶה אֶת זֶה, הִנֵּה, אִם הָאֶחָד הוּא בְּעַצְלוּת וּכְבֵדוּת – יְנוּצַּח בְּקַל וְיִפּוֹל גַּם אִם הוּא גִּבּוֹר יוֹתֵר מֵחֲבֵירוֹ, כָּכָה מַמָּשׁ בְּנִצְחוֹן הַיֵּצֶר, אִי אֶפְשָׁר לְנַצְּחוֹ בְּעַצְלוּת וּכְבֵדוּת – הַנִּמְשָׁכוֹת מֵעַצְבוּת וְטִמְטוּם הַלֵּב כָּאֶבֶן, כִּי אִם, בִּזְרִיזוּת – הַנִּמְשֶׁכֶת מִשִּׂמְחָה וּפְתִיחַת הַלֵּב, וְטָהֳרָתוֹ מִכָּל נִדְנוּד דְּאָגָה וָעֶצֶב בָּעוֹלָם.
Truly this should be made known as a cardinal principle, that as with a victory over a physical obstacle, such as in the case of two individuals who are wrestling with each other, each striving to throw the other—if one is lazy and sluggish he will easily be defeated and thrown, even though he be stronger than the other, exactly so is it in the conquest of one’s evil nature; it is impossible to conquer it with laziness and heaviness, which originate in sadness and in a heart that is dulled like a stone, but rather with alacrity which derives from joy and from a heart that is free and cleansed from any trace of worry and sadness in the world.
Perhaps one of the greatest recent examples of transcending sadness comes from a meeting of the Piascezno Rebbe, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (whose Yahrzeit is this week), and the Koziglover Rav, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.
Dr. Henry Abramson cites this episode in his book “Torah from the Years of Wrath”, pg 238; a moment that occurred in the Schulz shoe factory in Ghetto, as recording by Hillel Seidman in October 1942:
Sitting beside the anvil for shoe repairing... is the Koziglover Rav, Yehudah Aryeh Frimer, once the Dean of Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin. He is sitting here, but his spirit in sailing in other worlds. He continues his studies from memory, without interruption, his lips moving constantly. From time to time he addresses a word to the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the author of Hovat haTalmidim, who is sitting opposite him, and a subdued discussion on a Torah topic ensues. Talmudic and rabbinic quotations fly back and forth; soon there appear on the anvil— or, to be precise, on the minds and lips of these brilliant scholars — the words of Maimonides and Ravad, the author of the Tur, Rama, earlier and later authorities. The atmosphere of the factory is filled with the opinions of eminent scholars, so who cares about the S.S., the German overseers, the hunger, suffering, persecution and fear of death? They are really sailing in the upper worlds; they're not sitting in a factory on Nowolipie 46, but rather in the Hall of the Sanhedrin…
These two giants traversed the vast chasm between the depths of Hell and the highest peaks of Heaven. Perhaps this is more than we can expect from ourselves. But in our own way, we can certainly begin training; each of us on our own level. Can we escape to a place of truth and meaning for an hour each day? Can we escape for a minute? Can we work on shutting out the noise and the lies and tethering ourselves to the world of Truth for a few moments every day?
The Baal Shem Tov (נח טו) famously explained that this is the secret of Hashem's command to Noach: צהר תעשה לתבה – Make an opening for daylight in the ark:
“Make an opening [tzohar] for the ark [teivah]: let the word (teivah) said in Torah or in prayer radiate light (matzhir)!
We can certainly hold onto sanity and sanctity in the raging waters of today. But it will require the discipline to care for our own emotional needs, the empathy to care for each other, and a deep desire to emerge from the flood with the power to rebuild the world. Most importantly, it will require an unwavering connection to the world of truth.
Hashem should help us to bring His light in this world of confusion until He illuminates the world, in the words of the Siddur each day:
אוֹר חָדָשׁ עַל־צִיּוֹן תָּאִיר וְנִזְכֶּה כֻלָּֽנוּ מְהֵרָה לְאוֹרו – Shine a new light upon Tzion, and may we all soon be privileged to enjoy its radiance.