Erev of Rosh Hashanah 5782
There’s a Hasidic story of a rabbi who is walking down the street, minding his own business, when a woman he did not recognize runs over to him, screaming at him. She begins to pummel him in the middle of the road, cursing him, until suddenly, she stops, and bursts into tears. It turns out, she had mistaken the rabbi for the husband who had abandoned her years ago. The rabbi, after picking himself up off the ground, forgives her; she was not attacking him, after all, but her former husband. And then he says something interesting: how often, he muses, do we strike out at the wrong target.
In listening to this story, we might imagine the scenario as preposterous. Who would attack the wrong person? But think of how often do we do exactly that, striking out with fear and anger at our friends, our family, the people around us trying to help and support us? In the last two months, but especially as the Delta Variant has reared its ugly head, I’ve seen a torrent of anger from folks simply exploding in every direction, out of the blue. In recent weeks, I’ve seen food truck owners curse at and yell at customers, congregants who, when asked to put a mask on at the door, or asked to fill out paperwork, explode at the volunteer trying to check them in for Friday night services, and we have seen school board meetings shut down due to threats of violence from anti-maskers, disrupting proceedings up and down the state. Anger unfettered, undirected, and explosive. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too.
Where is it coming from? The reality is, I believe, that it is not actually directed at any person; it’s directed at our circumstances. I’m sure the last thing any of us wants to talk about was the last 20 or so months, and how painful they were, or to recount the myriad curses that befell us since March of 2020. But we cannot seem to escape it. Those of us with children watched many of them thrive without having to deal with social pressures and anxieties, while many more crumbled, feeling isolated and alone. We became increasingly isolated and got used to services on our iPad and televisions, attending funerals via Zoom, b’nai mitzvah celebrations replaced with small family gatherings, drive-thru sukkahs, and gatherings in folding chairs in driveways. We were creative and innovative and found ways to be loving and supportive while struggling with our own anxieties and concerns, and we’re now exhausted. And just when we were supposed to be over it all, to be gathering for a New Year, a fresh clean slate, we find ourselves back in that place of anxiety and sadness again. We find ourselves suffering increasingly from trauma, more specifically from moral injury.
What is moral injury? It’s something we usually associate with first responders and soldiers and others who work in professions with the potential for terrible outcomes. As Jonathan Moens wrote in The Atlantic back in June, those who suffer moral injury are those who must make split-second decisions on a regular basis, decisions: who do I treat first? Do I shoot at this person? Who do I rescue from a burning building? Often, folks in this position find that their moral core is injured: “residual feelings of shame, guilt and disorientation after having violated their own ethical code.” Often, Moens writes, “moral injury manifests as feelings of betrayal at the leaders and institutions that forced them into making these decisions in the first place.”
Now, most of us are not soldiers or first responders or medical professionals, but over the last 20 months, how many of us made decisions that questioned our moral core? To not visit a loved one due to fear of spreading the disease. To keep children home, even as it hurt their social well-being. Or, to send children to school and practice, only to agonize over whether we made the right decision? To travel or not travel? And how? Did we do the right thing? How can we know? As so many have commented, all our choices these last 20 months have become fraught and exhausting. And just as we thought we were emerging from the trauma, how many of us found ourselves snapping right back to where we were six or ten months ago?
Whose fault is it? Who do we blame? Anti-vaxxers? People who took too many risks? Politicians and government officials? Ourselves, for foolishly thinking we were out of the woods? To some degree, yes. But the reality is there no one to blame and everyone to blame. We are in an evolving pandemic, and as such, have a limit to what we can control. And without someone to blame, someone to direct all our vitriol and anger toward, we find new targets, sometimes the very people who, under any other circumstance, we might trust to support and love us.
How do we heal from moral injury? It’s a different kind of trauma; and in this case, all of us are suffering from it, even those we would turn to for help. How can we help each other move forward, so that we don’t find ourselves lashing out, socially isolated, damaged?
Neil Greenberg, a psychology professor at King’s College in London, cited in that same article, suggests that we need “to try to help people create a meaningful narrative about what happened. Doing so involves helping people realize that, in most cases, they are not to blame for what happened. “It’s a story that doesn’t end up with it all being my fault, or being the boss’s fault,” Greenberg said. “It ends up with: No one asked to be in this situation.””
Our tradition would affirm this: after all, ours is a narrative of shared experience and shared struggle. Yes, it’s cliché to talk about this idea of Jewish suffering: it’s the bar mitzvah dance number from the TV show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, as the rabbi, played by Patti LuPone, reminds everyone doing the hora to remember that we suffered. I get it, and most of the time, I cringe away from that Jewish idea of shared suffering. But if we reflect carefully on our narrative, we realize that the idea has a purpose: take care of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. How often does our Torah invoke that idea, that our own national experience of slavery and exile should not lead to hostility toward others, nor isolationism, nor chauvinism, but rather compassion, and justice, and love. We know what it’s like, we’ve been there, we shared in it together, so now let’s be there for one another, Jewish or not. That is the point we must reach this Rosh Hashanah if we’re going to heal from our moral injuries. We suffered together, even if that suffering was experienced apart. We had to make sacrifices, and agonizing choices. We have, together, spent nearly two years being anxious. None of us asked for this. All of us have done the best we can. And we need to extend that same kindness, that same grace, to one another as we struggle through together.
Tonight, we begin a new year, and with that, the opportunity to start fresh, with a clean slate, to push past the old curses and embrace, perhaps, new blessings. Tomorrow, as we prepare to take the Torah out of the ark, we will invoke God’s Thirteen Attributes, beginning with God being full of compassion and loving-kindness—full of grace. We have had a lot of time this year to think about what is most important to us. I am not so naïve as to presume that this time of reflection somehow makes up for our collective struggle, but how can we not, in our collective reflection on these last 20 months, see and acknowledge each other’s struggles, and extend our own compassion, our own loving-kindness, our own grace to one another? How can we not help one another heal from the injuries we’ve suffered?
It will not be easy; that rage, the byproduct of our helplessness and grief, will remain right there, in the catch of our throat. Let us, then, resolve in this new year, to remember that ours is a shared narrative, that we have shared in our struggles, and that we can share in our healing as well. May this be so. Amen.