In Springtime of the year 586 BCE, the armies of the Babylonian empire laid siege to the city of Jerusalem. The city’s destruction, the burning of the Holy Temple, the exile of its people, would soon follow. All the while, the prophet Jeremiah sat in prison, accused of treason. For forty years, Jeremiah had warned of this. For forty years, he castigated his people, warning that if they failed to fulfill their obligations to God, catastrophe would surely follow. For forty years, he rebuked them and implored them, trying to persuade them to become a city worthy of God’s presence. And now, as the catastrophe was imminent, he sat forgotten and alone in prison.Then, teaches the Bible:
Really? The apocalypse is about to begin...the end of the world....And God is suddenly a real estate agent? Really? And what kind of deal could this be? Who buys property in a city under siege, about to be destroyed? But Hanamel came with the offer, and Jeremiah complied. He bought the property. And God instructed him:
And now Jeremiah understood. His people needed no more warnings, no more rebuke. Now they needed hope. They needed to know they were not abandoned. For forty years he had preached tzedek, the rule of God’s justice. Now he was called to preach hesed, the blessings of God’s love. For forty years, his prophecy was driven rage at the moral failings of his people, by fear of the very catastrophe that was occurring outside, and sadness for the fate of his people. Now it was time to turn from rage and fear and sadness to hope and to faith. Buy the land, commanded God. Invest yourself in hope.
We’ve seen global pandemic, economic catastrophe, social upheaval, political turmoil, environmental disaster, rising hate. Seems like the apocalypse. You can’t help but wonder if God is trying to tell us something. The answer is yes, the same thing God told Jeremiah. God is asking us to invest in hope.
Remember what the supermarkets were like at the beginning of the pandemic? We were afraid.
We ran to snag cartsful of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, baking flour.
It was disconcerting to see empty shelves in a suburban market. And no one knew what the next day would bring.
But if you looked up the market was still full of all kinds of food. We couldn’t see that.
And as we grabbed the last package of paper towel or the bottle of Lysol from the shelf, we couldn’t see that we had edged out our own neighbors.
That’s what fear does.
Fear is a defensive reflex. ... a physiological response to a perceived threat.
It was programmed into us by millions of years of evolution to help us survive danger.
Fear kept our ancestors from being eaten. Fear keeps us from getting mugged on a downtown street.
Fear protects us. But fear can become a habit, a way of life. And then it becomes a trap.
Fear restricts our perception. Literally...it redirects the blood from the parts of the brain responsible for creativity and imagination, to those governing our defenses. We see only what’s before us. We can’t imagine alternative solutions, alternative routes to safety.
Fear isolates us from one another.
Fear responds to an environment of scarcity. It perceives the world as a competition for scarce resources. And everyone we meet is a competitor.
Where there is fear, there is never any peace. The competition never ends. There is never enough.
Fear always brings its siblings: Anger. Self-pity. Cynicism and Sadness.
When I realize that I’m helpless, that the world is beyond my control, I lash out in anger. Anger is a drug. It provides a rush of energy, of adrenaline. It offers a momentary fantasy of power and control. But like all drugs, it has a terrible withdrawal.
Then I sulk and complain, endlessly rehearsing all my grievances.
When finally I can no longer escape from my situation of powerlessness, I grow passive, depressed, and despondent.
The mystical tradition called this mochin d’katnut, the smallest versions of ourselves.
Fear and anger and self-pity are natural responses to catastrophe, to loss. All of us have felt this these past months. And if we stay with them, they will leave us bitter, empty, exhausted and sad.
There is another way, what Jeremiah taught us -- the way of hope. But hope is of a different order.
Fear and anger are natural reflexes. They erupt spontaneously. Hope comes from another place.
Hope requires a decision to accept our situation, stand up and move forward, even if we are unsteady and unsure.
How do we move from fear to hope?
SWIMMING LESSONS. LET GO OF THE EDGE. TRUST ME.
Begin with a deep breath. You have, you are a neshama. In Hebrew, Neshama means soul, but literally, it means breath. Breath opens the constriction, slows down the metabolism and changes the way we look out at the world.
Breath connects inside and outside. It banishes the fantasy that I am somehow self-contained, self-sufficient. In breath, physiology and spirituality meet. Spiritual practice begins with breathing because breath opens us, unknots the anxiety, and makes room for reflection, for imagination, for joy.
In Genesis, God creates us with a breath. As long as we have breath, God is within us. Here’s the most remarkable expression of this. In the Bible, God has a proper name. It’s spelled Yud Hay Vav Hay. But we aren’t allowed to say it. We say “Adonai” which means “my master.” The secret pronunciation of God’s name has been hidden for 2000 years, so that today, no one knows how to say it....except me. I’ll share it, but you have to promise not to tell anyone where you learned this. I could get into trouble. How do you say God’s name? Our ancestors left a clue. One of the last lines of the book of Psalms reads:
Every breath is praise to God. So how do we pronounce, Yud, Hay, Vav, Hay? Breath. Good. Keep doing that.
The very flow of life within us is the greatest miracle. A reminder that we are part of something greater. You are a vessel of that creative power in the world. And when you forget that, when you feel defeated and exhausted, just take a breath.
Step two. According to the Jewish Law, a Jew is obliged to say 100 blessings a day. A hundred times a day, we stop to say thank you. We stop and acknowledge all the miracles that keep us alive in this world. I once taught this to a class of kids. They protested, who has time for that? Who has time for a hundred thank you’s a day? And one little girl in the back of the room answered back, how many times do you say “I want” each day? Try saying thank you each time. She’s right.
Step two is the cultivation of gratitude. Gratitude shifts our attention from the bottomless desires for all we want, to the cultivation of appreciation for all we have. It changes the way we see the world.
The most fundamental question we can ask ourselves, taught Albert Einstein, is whether or not the universe is friendly or hostile. The way we answer this question, he observed, will determine our destiny.
Gratitude counts up all we have and teaches us an ethic of abundance. All we have has come as a gift to be cherished and appreciated and shared.
I don’t remember much about my Bar Mitzvah. I don’t remember more than a few words of my parsha, or what the rabbi said to me, or what I wrote in my Bar Mitzvah speech. But I do remember quite vividly the Bar Mitzvah that took place in our shul the week after mine. That boy, my classmate and friend, had lost his father to cancer just weeks before. His family decided to go ahead with his Bar Mitzvah. After reading his Torah portion, he stood before us and spoke about his gratitude. He shared gratitude for the time he spent with his dad between the bouts of chemotherapy, for the support and love of his mother and sister, for the kindness of the community. I remember that speech clearly, and I remember how he stood composed and resolute before the congregation as all of us wept. We wept for the sadness of his loss, the depth of his love, and power of his gratitude to heal. We wept out of wonder that a boy, just 13 years old, had discovered life’s greatest secret.
The human condition is terribly fragile. That’s the lesson of our holidays, especially this year. There is only one remedy for this fragility -- our gratitude. Gratitude is the only thing stronger than fear. A few years after 9/11, the New York Times published an astonishing document -- transcripts of phone calls made from the Towers in the last minutes before they fell. People who knew they were trapped, took up their phones for one last call. I don’t need to tell you that no one called their broker. They called parents, spouses, children, friends, to say ... thank you, I love you, I bless you.
If you do nothing else this holiday. If none of the prayers and none of the words do anything for you, at least this... Call someone who has been a blessing to you, and say thank you. Call a family member, call your ninth grade teacher, call your soccer coach and just offer thanks. Something will astonishing will happen, I promise you. You’ll make them cry. And then you’ll find yourself filled with an exquisite spirit as if love just poured into you. Make the call.
Step three. Shneur Zalman, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe taught his Hasidim, there are moments in every religious life, even the most pious when we lose faith. We lose connection with the divine, lose our confidence in the future, lose our vision. What do we do? We do one act of Hesed, one gesture of selfless goodness, gentle kindness, and you will feel the presence of God in your hands. Reach out to someone who is lonely. Feed someone who is hungry. Heal someone who is sick. Bring peace to someone who is anxious. One act of Hesed, and you will know God is real. Rabbi Schulweis taught us that God is not believed, God is behaved. The word God is not a noun, but a verb.
It is the power of a deed of hesed, of goodness, to ultimately dismantle fear, to transcend the confines of the narrow self, and to allow hope to grow within us. This is what the mystics called, mochin d’gadlut, the biggest version of ourselves. Taught Abraham Joshua Heschel, only through a selfless deed can we discover the true capacity of the self.
DAD’S STORY. SAVED HIM
Years ago, we have a member of VBS who was a survivor of the Holocaust. He told me a story about his experience in the camps. One winter he got very sick. Sick prisoners were typically taken out and disappeared. So the men in his barracks covered for him. They held him steady during the line-up, and hid his coughing from the guards during the night. When his fever grew worse, the men tore their bread in half and shared their rations. Rations, meager and stale, were all the stood between life and death in the concentration camps, but these men shared their rations. At last the fever broke and he began to recover. That night, he whispered his thanks into the darkness of the barracks, and from the darkness there came a voice, No, son, thank you. The chance to give is all we have left to remind us that we are still men. Thank you, son.
Wrote Viktor Frankl, the great psychiatrist, of his experience in Auschwitz-:
We who lived in the concentration camps can remember those who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread...They may have been few in number but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from us but the last of freedoms..the freedom to choose our spirit in any circumstance.
Over the lintel of the original Bratslaver synagogue in Europe were inscribed the words, “Jews -- it is forbidden to despair!” How was that possible? We Jews know more catastrophe, more tragedy, more destruction than any people on earth. How did we survive? How did we stay faithful, loving, hopeful?
How did we resist the slavery of fear, the bondage to anger? We invested in hope, just as Jeremiah taught us. We traded fear for hope. A daily habit of acts of Hesed, a hundred expressions of gratitude each day, cultivating neshama ... Wherever we were, even in the darkest of moments, and the most evil of circumstances, we knew we were not abandoned. Adonai li v’lo eerah, God is with us, God is within us, and we are not afraid. Lo avda tikvateynu, we will not lose hope. Not now. Not ever.