Jewish Guide for Stressful Times

Al sheloshah d’varim        Upon three things

ha-olam omeid.                  The world stands.

Al ha-torah,                          Upon torah,

V’al ha-avodah,                  And upon prayer,

V’al g’milut chasidim       And upon acts of loving kindness.

—Pirkei Avot

These are stressful times. Whether you are fearful about the future or regretting the past, whether your stress stems from politics or health issues, whether your worries are about your parents, your children, yourselves, or the planet (or all of the above), it seems few of us are relaxed these days. We don’t know which way to go, which way to turn, what to fund, what to sign, whom to support, and whom to condemn. We are lost in a sea of news and social media, all while needing to keep up with the strains of every day life. No matter what we read on Facebook, Twitter or the New York Times, there are still sick children and parents.  There are still groceries that need to be purchased, homework that needs to get done, bills that need to be paid, and career woes that need to get solved. Lately, it seems many of us wake up in the middle of the night finding we’ve been grinding our teeth and sweating through uncomfortable dreams as our subconscious works through its agitations. We find ourselves a little more testy, a little less patient, and a little less thoughtful.  We feel afraid and alone.

But Judaism offers a simple statement that can carry us through, if we listen, one day at a time…

Upon three things the world stands. Upon torah, upon prayer, and upon acts of loving kindness.

In some ways, this quote from Pirkei Avot is all we need to guide us. It won’t solve our problems, but it is a three-step road map to action and to inner-peace if we follow it, and for now, that will have to do.

My old Rabbi and mentor used to talk about big T Torah and little t torah. Big T is for the text of the Torah scroll itself. Little t moves beyond those Five books of Moses to all forms of learning, teaching and study of wisdom, Jewish and otherwise. So, the world first stands upon knowledge: spiritual, scientific, social, political and personal wisdom. The world stands upon learning our personal truths and the truths of the universe.

How does this relate to feeling stressed and out of control? Let’s all choose one element (I suggest just one to start when we are feeling like there are so many issues to face) of what is worrying us, and learn, study, and understand that issue. Let’s get the facts (oy, please let’s not be part of this “post-fact” world we keep hearing about!), rather than rely on hearsay or headlines or word of mouth. Let’s gather truth, and whether these truths are about the world’s problems or about what a doctor or teacher may have reported about a loved one, let’s make sure we are as armed with wise, factual information as we can. That’s step one.

Ready for step two?

According to Pirkei Avot, the next thing the world stands upon is prayer… well, only sort of. The Hebrew word for prayer actually means “work” or “labor.”  So, this means that the world doesn’t only stand upon prayer but stands upon our efforts. It means the actions we do can be prayerful.  So, let’s act! Let’s put some effort towards improving the situations about which we just educated ourselves. This may mean going to meetings or therapy, donating to a cause, or marching, demonstrating, or volunteering. You decide what the right action is, but they key is that there is action. The key is doing. Let’s not sink into a sense of defeatism over what crushes us, but get up on our feet, “pray with our legs,” and get out there, even if the action itself seems small… even if our efforts will only make a difference to ourselves, knowing we gave it our best shot. 🙂

Finally, we are told the world stands upon acts of loving kindness. G’milut is actually a giving, it’s charity. And chasidim? Boundless kindness and love. G’milut chasidim is giving away boundless kindness.

So here we are at step three. While we are improving our knowledge, and going into action, let’s try to remember to be full of endless kindness as we do. After all, a big part of the knowledge we seek is to understand what and whom we don’t already understand. So, let’s look into opposing eyes with openness. Let’s face dissenting voices with strength wrapped in grace. Let’s stare into the depths of illness and issues and fear, holding ourselves tall. Let’s allow our power to filter through kindness with every encounter, no matter how difficult it is. Remember what our first lady said, “When they go low, we go high.”

Knowledge… Effort… Boundless kindness… Three simple Jewish ingredients for spiritually surviving trying times. This road map won’t solve everything, but we will be bathed in truth while marching toward resolution with grace in our hearts. Maybe that is enough for us to gain control over what appears to be out of control.

So, the next time we feel ourselves spinning, let’s remember this post. Let’s learn, act, and do our best to offer boundless kindness as we take it one step at a time, one day at a time.

B’shalom (with inner-peace),
Rantor Diane


Open Prayer, Gun-control, and the American dream

Tomorrow my daughter becomes a Bat-Mitzvah.

We are holding the service outdoors, here in Los Angeles, in one of the canyons. My daughter will chant Torah and lead us in prayer under a patch of oak trees, with sunshine filtering through the leaves and the breezes of early summer caressing our faces. We will be surrounded by our closest family and friends. It will be moving. It will be glorious. It will be a safe place to pray.

I have the feeling that the good people of Charleston, South Carolina, who chose to spend their Wednesday night studying in church, felt similarly. Maybe they weren’t under oak trees, but they had no reason to believe they were heading into a war zone. It was to be a time of study and prayer and community. It was to be a safe place to pray.

How do we connect to the Divine if we feel we have to constantly look over our shoulders in case danger were to come near? How do we drop our children off at elementary school if we believe we have to look critically at each passerby? How do we go to the movies, visit friends, simply walk down the street if we live in fear?

What happens to the American Dream?

Whether we are Democrat or Republican or Independent, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, White, Black, or Asian, or any combination of the above, don’t we all want to go to our places of worship and offer our hearts to our personal visions of God without fear? Don’t we all want our children to never have to see frightening images on the 6 o’clock news about another senseless death? Don’t we all want to have the freedom to speak freely, walk freely, love freely, without fear of the barrel of a gun? What does it take for us all to be on the same page? Wasn’t Sandy Hook enough? Isn’t Charleston enough? Does someone have to pull out a gun on a group of white republicans in order for EVERYONE to take notice?

In an article in the Washington Post, speaking of Obama’s comments after this most recent tragedy, it said, “There were two emotions evident in President Obama’s statement Thursday about the murders of nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., the night before. The first was anger — at the fact that he was, once again, addressing the country in the wake of a mass shooting. The second was more along the lines of resignation — a head-shaking weariness about the almost-certain fact that this latest shooting would do little to move the needle on gun control legislation.”

But President Obama, I still remember, and I still believe in these words from your “Yes We Can” speech:

“… we will remember that there is something happening in America, that we are not as divided as our politics suggest, that we are one people, we are one nation. And, together, we will begin the next great chapter in the American story, with three words that will ring from coast to coast, from sea to shining sea: Yes, we can.”

Tikkun olam is the Jewish expression for the repairing of our world. In it’s original Kabbalist meaning, it is the releasing of bits of Divine light which are trapped in the negativity of the world by our performing mitzvot (meaning commandments, but often understood as good deeds) which set the light free. Releasing this light repairs the Universe and makes it whole again. It is time to release the light trapped inside this issue for once and for all and bring some much needed repair to our world.

It’s not too late. It’s never too late.