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

stress-image

Stress Free Chanukah?

This is going to be a very short entry…

Why?

Like many of you, I’m pooped. This is always a busy season. Between work responsibilities (heading out tonight for a rehearsal!), mommy responsibilities (went to two school concerts and a debate meet over the weekend!), life responsibilities (the garage door is fixed!), and general worries, stresses, and plans that are taxing me and my husband, I’m ready for a vacation.

Trying to “fit in Chanukah” during this time can be an additional stress. Since Chanukah nearly never falls when my kids are out of school and I am on a break from my work, we have to somehow find a time to light the candles between all of those other life responsibilities that are not going to stop just because it’s Chanukah. At a time when we yearn for the opportunity to sit around the fireplace, watch the candles burn, give each other gifts and consider the “miracles” of our lives, instead we are tearing through the tradition at lightening speed on our ways to other things.

Sound familiar? If it does, do you feel guilty? I know I do. But let’s stop. Let’s try to not to judge ourselves. Let’s forgive ourselves. Let’s forgive ourselves for not making latkes from scratch, or remembering to get soufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), or having the presents wrapped, or forgetting where we stored our menorahs, or for always getting wrong which direction the candles go. Let’s not let Chanukah add to the weight on our shoulders. Let’s put down our bags and just do our best.

Okay, as I write this, I am getting ready to light candles for this second night of Chanukah, which we will do a little early before I have to go to work. It isn’t convenient, but beyond the desire to keep this tradition because it’s tradition, I need a few minutes to put the rest of the world away.  Even if it is for only 5 minutes, maybe I can really look into the gorgeous flames of those candles and lose myself in the miracle of their existence. Maybe I can breathe in the warmth and remember to take that goodness with me on my way. Maybe I can remember that many of my worries are not so gigantic when I consider the battles others have had to fight in history and still fight today. Maybe I can say the blessings and remember that awe is at their core, and allow myself to experience a tiny sliver of that awe. Maybe I can enjoy this quick moment with those I love, even if our relationships aren’t perfect. Do you think I can? I’m not sure, but I’m going to go give it a try. Will you?

Oh, and while we’re at it, when we see all those images of people celebrating winter holidays while surrounded by family and friends, enveloped in love and support, enjoying this season together, being just so darned, impossibly happy, let’s not let that stress us out either. If that isn’t how our holiday season goes, so be it. I promise you, we aren’t the only ones. 😉

I wish you all a Happy Chanukah (or whatever holiday you observe). Let’s be kind to those around us this winter season, but let’s also not forget to be kind to ourselves… even if we drop the entire batch of latkes on the floor right before dinner. Maybe with all of that extra energy we don’t spend judging and stressing and worrying, we can do a little more to make this world a step closer toward perfection.

B’shalom (with peace)

Diane

P.S.  By the way, I am writing this because I feel guilty, not because I’m so above it all. 🙂