How do we begin to process the tragedy and terror that flood news websites and our inboxes almost daily? How do we manage the pain, the anger? How do we embrace and connect to our community during these challenging times? In this post, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, president of Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, suggests that we pause and allow ourselves to feel the emotions we’re experiencing and provide a space for our community to do so as well.
This is a modified version of a post that originally appeared in The Wisdom Daily.
The world is simply crazy these days: trucks turned into weapons of mass terrorism, people shot in their cars for doing exactly what the cop who shot them asked, and police being hunted on the streets like animals. You would have to be crazy not to be going crazy these days. Of course, there are different kinds of “crazy.” There is “crazy mad” for example, and there is “crazy, broken-hearted sad,” for another. I am going with the second. And as awful as it is, I hope we all will, at least for now.
I appreciate the path of anger. I get how viscerally satisfying it can be, how raising a voice of righteous rage can offer a sense of power at precisely the moments when our world feels most out of control, and even how sometimes we need a measure of anger to motivate us toward make a difference in that out of control world.
I get it, because there are times that I feel it too. I get that sense that I am Howard Beale, the longtime anchorman who popularized the phrase, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” in Network, Sidney Lumet’s Academy Award winning movie. Like Beale, I want to use the opportunities I have to go on air , or simply to my bedroom window, and shout those very words. And then I try to get a hold of myself and do better.
Among the film’s many powerful insights is the danger and ultimately futility of righteous indignation. However good it feels, and however justified the cause, the “mad as hell” approach comes back to bite you, and hard. In Beale’s case, it cost him his life. And it‘s costing lives today as well.
It’s not that there aren’t things to get angry about. It’s not as if there aren’t things worth fighting for. There are! But in both cases, that’s when “crazy mad” is the most dangerous and futile approach. At the very least, ask yourself about the pivotal decisions you have made in your own life. Can you name one when the dominant emotion or guiding psychology was anger and it led you to the best possible response? I sure can’t and I doubt you can either.
So when I feel crazy mad, I try really hard to neither silence the feeling nor explain away its source. I simply try and shift from “crazy mad” to “crazy sad”- at least for a while. Believe me, I don’t always get there, and it definitely hurts more when I do, because crazy sad doesn’t lend itself to a quick action or response the way that crazy mad does. Crazy sad breaks your heart in ways that crazy mad doesn’t. But that is precisely where I think the best responses and genuine healing have a chance of emerging.
The Kotzker Rebbe, R’ Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (1787-1859), teaches that there is nothing so whole as a broken heart. We can only become whole again if we are willing to ache before we act, and that ache has to be bigger and more inclusive than it typically is at the outset. One of my rebbes, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, explains the Kotzker: We need to let our hearts break open to be truly whole.
For me, this means that, at moments like this, in our world today, we need to let our hearts break open to new ideas, and new ways of thinking about things – and that means all of us. It doesn’t seem like anything else is working, does it?
But even before we move to these new ideas and approaches, it may be that we need to be so crazy sad that there is nothing at all do but feel the sadness. Ancient Jewish mourning practice suggests that when you are really close to someone who has died, there are in fact, no words, no rituals, no ideas—there’s nothing. There is nothing to do at all except embrace your own pain—at least until those you love are buried. Perhaps now is a moment when we can turn personal piety into a model of public practice.
I am struck by this model for a number of reasons. If we actually loved those who have died, would social or political rage really be our dominant emotion? It hasn’t been for the vast majority of those who have lost loved ones in the past weeks’ most disturbing stories. What if we all challenged ourselves to relate first to the death of the person and only after to whatever meaning we might attach to the circumstances of their death? And then, only following this mourning practice known in Hebrew as aninut, we embrace the limits of whatever actions we follow to address the moment?
The time for action must come, but not before we shift from crazy mad to crazy sad – which we definitely have not done as a nation. The actions we take should flow from the wholeness that comes with letting our hearts truly break before we act, and truly break open to the insufficiency of any of our ready analyses and responses. In order to rise above Lumet’s black comedy of Network, we need to shift from shouting “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” to crying “I’m sad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” And to be clear, that is not a sadness which need paralyze us–as Jews, as Americans, or as Canadians.
The issues we face are not by and large uniquely Jewish issues but that does not mean we can’t make a deeply Jewish contribution to addressing them. This is a moment which invites us to “make Jewish a public good,” as we say at Clal.
What might it look like for Jewish Federations across North America to create brave spaces in which hearts could break open to each other? What might it mean to create within our system B’tei Midrash – places of seeking and surprise, and not just of finding and advocating – for all people? What would it mean not to stake out a particular policy response on behalf of the Jewish people, to any of the social and political issues that are so deeply divisive or explosive right now, but to offer instead Jewish thought and practice as tools for helping all of us navigate out of the hyper-polarized intellectual and emotional cul-de-sacs in which most people find themselves these days?
Like most of us, I don’t like bad times. That said, we are a people and a system that has always sought to affirm life even, and even especially, at these times. We look less for whom to blame, and more to what we could build. I hope that we will do that now, and certainly know that we have the intellectual and spiritual tools to do so, if we want to. So yeah, I am sad, but I am also hopeful. The rest is up to us.
For reflection and discussion:
- How does this piece resonate with you?
- Does your community have a space for people to come learn, mourn and share together? What can/does this space look like?
- What action can your community take once some time for reflection has passed? Have you had success in the past with such reflection?
- How can we utilize available intellectual and spiritual tools to help us build for a hopeful future? What partners within your community can you call on?
For further exploration:
- Ask Big Questions: Praying
- Facing History and Ourselves:
- On Being: The Kindness Rebellion