The Torah teaches us the truth that the journey called “life” is filled with the gifts Hakadosh Baruch Hu sends our way, which offer us a great deal of joy and nachat. These include the obvious components such as family, friends, communities, accomplishments and possessions, to name a few. Yet, in the process, some also become accustomed and entitled to receiving this “free ride” of bounty, the gifts from Hakadosh Baruch Hu and our loved ones that give us nachat and pleasure. As a result, when a challenge is dropped at our doors, it is not unusual to feel punished and react with panic and fear, asking ourselves: “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” On the other side of the coin, there are those, who feel undeserving of these gifts, leaving space for feelings of “anticipatory anxiety” and worries about illness or other disasters that could abort the wonderful life they are experiencing.
There are many reasons for the culprits of anxiety and depression to come upon us, and in those times it is important to seek the advice of experts in the field. Yet, there are also spiritual antidotes that can act as preventative measures, helping us to focus on the positive aspects in our lives, when negative emotions overwhelm us. As covered in the four-part series of “Appreciating the Bitter and the Sweet,” we addressed the first very important first step in dealing with just about every challenge one may face. One can look at the space between the “now” (life filled with the restrictions of COVID-19) and the “then” (life after COVID-19), and fill that space with emunah and bitachon that Hashem will eradicate this pandemic k’heref ayin, in the same manner He placed it at our doors. He can do this because He is the architect of the world, the sole creator of every aspect of this world, and can manipulate His creations at will. The alternative view is to leave the huge space between the “now” and “then” empty. This, however, would allow all the negative feelings of anxiety, depression, fear, hopelessness and helplessness to seep in.
It was just a few days ago that we entered Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the 30-day trajectory of preparation for the Yomim Nora’im. Our rabbis teach us that this is a propitious time for fulfilling the charge of “Kedoshim Tihiyu”/Thou Shalt Be Holy. To achieve this, all we need to do is tap into the treasures in our own backyards, our tefillot, mitzvot, the life lessons gleaned from our parshiot, as well as the Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov celebrations that teach us to demonstrate our appreciation toward God and others; and at the same time, teach us how to put a positive spin on the challenges Hashem drops on our doorsteps.
Moreover, while the world is super focused on the antibodies and the development of a vaccine against the physical threat of COVID-19, the above-mentioned Torah treasures are perfect antidotes against the spiritual contaminants floating around in our host culture; and these are the strategies that can slowly but surely protect us against the ills of society, reflected in the ease with which our culture accepts indiscretions, immorality, and breaches of loyalty in marriage and business partnership. This is because we are so accustomed to justifying our actions via the mechanism of self-defense. In stark contrast, on a day-to-day basis our Torah offers us lessons in our weekly parshiot, as well as 613 mitzvot, that keep us grounded on the path of the “right” and the “just.”
In Rabbi Efrem Goldberg’s analysis of Parshat Shoftim, he touches upon two of my favorite pesukim (Shoftim: 16:20 and 18:13). In the first pasuk we learn about the charge of: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…”/“Righteousness, righteousness, you shall pursue so that you shall live and take possession of the land Hashem, your God, gives to you.” In responding to the seeming redundancy in the pasuk, the rabbi references numerous commentaries that offer explanations in how to accomplish this feat. Unfortunately, the media is filled with examples of how mankind tackles the issue of “justice for the downtrodden,” but accomplishes this in an unrighteous manner by rioting and looting. While this may be an extreme example that our people would never consider, yet, unfortunately, many Shomrei Shabbos Jews manage to excel in the art of rationalization. This too often results in a huge chilul Hashem, desecration of God’s name, when these indiscretions are publicized in the media.
Most recently we accomplished this by publicly violating the parameters that would protect us from this terrible pandemic. As a result, our long-time enemy, the reality of “Eisav soneh et Yaakov,” anti-Semitism, is given the opportunity to rear its ugly head. Indeed, we are once again our own worst enemies, despite the truth that the Torah says “no!” in this pasuk and throughout our Torah. While these examples may be extreme, the core of the mitzvah is also applicable to everyday matters when we fail to treat each other with love, compassion and empathy, and use the excuses of anxiety and all the other tensions during these times to rationalize our behavior. In fact, the Torah teaches us in so many ways that there is never an excuse to do so, and we must be wary of losing one’s perspective in this matter. It is for all of the above reasons that the Torah doubles up on the “tzedek” that we need to afford in our interactions with one another. This is especially salient during this pandemic when large families are isolated together in their homes, and there is a huge dose of tension in the workplace, as well.
Rabbi Goldberg also directs our attention to a gemara in Sanhedrin (32), which offers another take on the double language. Our rabbis explain that the wording implies two manners in which righteousness can be achieved: “Echad l’din, v’echad l’p’shara,” one through “absolute justice” and one through “compromise.” Rabbi Goldberg points out that by definition, “p’shara” is not following the strict letter of the law; it’s all about sacrificing for the sake of shalom, peace, particularly in the household. We saw this in the case of Yaakov Avinu, who took the high road by making all the concessions in resolving his feud with Eisav. This is one way of staying true to that which is “right” and “just,” and at the same time, following the letter of the law.
Indeed, during these difficult times, when parents are working in makeshift offices in their homes, and simultaneously helping youngsters with their Zoom classrooms, everyone is overburdened and overwhelmed. This can lead to loneliness, even in an overcrowded home; and most often, it is the young mother of a large family who takes the greatest hit. This is when the path of p’shara can be a true chesed.
There is no better time than today, when it appears so hard to feel that Hashem is in our midst helping us, to carry out the charges of “Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha.” This is because it is exactly during this period of isolation, distancing and quarantines that impact on our psyche, and result in feeling punished or abandoned by Hashem when we crave His closeness more than ever. Yet, we can accomplish this feat if we breathe in the strong dose of emunah, follow the example of our Torah and real-time role models, such as those in our lives who survived the Holocaust and remained “Tamim im Hashem.” These individuals continue to teach the import of this value and the extent that people will go to achieve this status despite the circumstances they find themselves in. If we avail ourselves of these opportunities, the likelihood that we bring Hashem into our lives, no matter the circumstances, will increase exponentially. In doing so, we will surely fill the empty spaces in our hearts, heads and souls, with the knowledge that Hashem is with us all the way! What better way to begin the requisite period of preparation for the first and most important spiritual journey of the year.
Renee Nussbaum is a psychoanalyst with training in imago and EFT. She can be reached at [email protected]