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Got To Face It to Go through It
Kol Nidre 5784
I hope you had a meaningful Yom Kippur! As I did with one of my Rosh Hashanah sermons, I’m sharing this sermon that was delivered orally at my pulpit in Kansas City for those who are interested.
“We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
We've got to go through it!”
This refrain comes from the children’s book “Going on a Bear Hunt,” which has become a part of many people’s childhoods, including mine, since its publication.
In Michael Rosen’s beloved children’s book, a family of five and their dog set out to hunt a bear. Along the way, they come across long, wavy grass; a deep, cold river; thick, oozy mud; a big, dark forest; and a swirling, whirling snowstorm. At each obstacle, they repeat their mantra:
“We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
We've got to go through it!”
Talk about resiliency! The bear hunt family faces these obstacles head on, going through each of them together. They don’t turn around and go back home, and they don’t try to take a shortcut.
While this refrain is what has stuck with me over the years, I need to be honest with you. The message I just shared is not where the book ultimately leaves things. After making their way through all of the obstacles, the family is chased by a bear all the way home. The book concludes with them declaring: “We’re never going on a bear hunt again!”
While the initial purpose of the family’s mission involved seeking out danger, something I’m not here to suggest from the bimah, the refrain of the story focuses on how they encountered challenges along their path. I think the message of going through difficult things is an important one. But the family’s refrain misses a crucial step: Before we go through challenging moments in our lives, we need to face them. We need to take time to process and orient ourselves. Rather than pretending nothing is wrong, rather than saying there is a hardship but that we’re “fine,” we need to be real. If we are not honest with ourselves [w.c.] about how we feel when confronted with life’s “bears,” it becomes a lot more difficult to face them.
While I wish for all of us a sweet new year, for each of us and our loved ones to be inscribed in the Book of Life, I know it is inevitable that we, as individuals and as a community, will experience challenges along the way. How can we counter the urge to metaphorically run when things are scary, or when the going gets tough?
Step One: Recognize this urge is a deeply human instinct. In doing so, we can give ourselves some patience and compassion.
Enter the star of Yom Kippur afternoon: Jonah. Jonah had his fair share of experience running away. Tomorrow afternoon, we will read the entirety of the Book of Jonah. One of the shortest and most story-like narratives in the Prophets section of the Tanakh, the Book of Jonah recounts how, when called upon by God to go to Nineveh and prophesize their destruction unless they change their ways, runs away on a boat from Jaffa to Tarshish.
It can be easy to make fun of Jonah: Did he really think he could run away from God?! While I’m not here to suggest we dodge our sacred responsibilities, I do think it is important that we take a moment and empathize with Jonah. If we really think about it, that’s not so hard to do. I mean how often have you known there’s something you really should do, or need to do, and your first instinct was to run as fast as you could in the opposite direction?
Recently, I chose to participate in a professional development program that required a lot of emotional vulnerability. Even though I enthusiastically chose to be a part of it, I found myself feeling an urge to leave when things got even more vulnerable than expected. Fortunately, I stuck it out and learned more than I ever would have in a single class or from an individual book. Even when we know something would be good for us, it can still be hard to face it head on.
For those of you who are therapists or social workers, you might be familiar with the phrase “fight - flight - freeze.” To briefly say a word about the “flight” phenomenon – From an evolutionary standpoint, we as humans have a biochemical response when our brain picks up on threats – or perceived threats. Our heart rate and blood pressure can shoot up, our immune and digestive functioning can be impaired, we can become hypervigilant. This is all well and good when facing an actual threat (physical or emotional), as this internal response is what cues us to flee, but when we are not truly in danger, things become a bit more complicated.
Whether or not he was responding to a perceived threat, Jonah certainly had a habit of fleeing when things got at all difficult. Once on the boat and en route to Tarshish, it is Jonah, not the other sailors, who comes up with the idea for the sailors to throw him overboard. The plain meaning is that Jonah knows he has run away from God and God has made the seas turbulent on his account. However, just because Jonah knows God is angry does not mean he is ready to face the situation. One somewhat contemporary commentator from the 19th century Russian Empire, the Malbim, suggests that on the contrary, Jonah dove into the water not just to calm the seas but to further avoid answering God’s call. He did not ask the sailors to turn around. אין אני רוצה לשוב ולא ללכת לנינוה “Heave me overboard,” that is to say, “I do not want to go back and set out for Nineveh.” Jonah is someone who constantly runs away, even when there are other options.
This summer, from turbulent waters flooding Morocco to wildfire smoke from Canada reaching New York, punctuated by days of unprecedented temperatures in Kansas City and across the country, the extreme weather events of the Bible do not seem so far-fetched. The current climate crisis that we are living through might not be a message from God to go to Nineveh, but it is certainly a message we cannot ignore. We must make space for the overwhelm, fear, anger, and so forth that come up when we are faced with this reality.
Allowing ourselves room to process is necessary in order to come to terms with the scale and stakes of climate change, or, really, when facing any moment of crisis. Sometimes, when we feel intense emotions, it can be tempting to divert our attention from whatever is making us feel deeply in the first place. Yet this doesn’t make our problems go away, and it won’t help us face those problems, either. In fact, avoidance, even with the best of intentions, can sometimes have adverse effects. When Jonah went down to the hold of the ship and slept through the turbulent waters, his avoidance overrode his instinct for self-preservation, teaches Joy Ladin, a contemporary Jewish poet. The stormy waters were meant to serve as a wake up call. Though we cannot let life’s challenges become all-consuming, we must make space for our emotional responses. Consciousness itself will not solve climate change, but it will help us face the difficult days ahead.
It is a deeply human instinct to want to run away, to go back to the way things were. As much as I’d like to never have trouble breathing from wildfire smoke again, or never experience insecurities in a group learning setting, I know that it is not so easy as saying I just won’t go on a “bear hunt” again. When we close ourselves off to the world, we become like Jonah’s biblical parallel, Noah, relatively alone in our boats while the rest of the world crumbles.
So whether you take it from me, or take it from Jonah, know you are not the only one to have had the urge to avoid something difficult in your life. Having this compassion for ourselves, rather than beating ourselves up, will make it easier to reflect upon and God willing change our behavior. (This goes for anything we’re working on this Yom Kippur, by the way.)
Step Two in facing the “bears” in our lives: Look for role models.
Whether you draw inspiration from Jonah ultimately going to Nineveh, grumbling aside, or find yourself draw to more contemporary examples – people who applied for that new job even though they didn’t meet 100% of the qualifications, those on the front lines of climate activism, loved ones navigating a difficult illness -- know you are not in uncharted waters. Here’s just one example: Julia Watts Belser, whose new book Loving Our Own Bones just came out last week, wrote in an article this past July about how people just now starting to confront the climate crisis can learn from disabled people.
Watts Belser points out that disabled people are among the first people to be impacted when there’s climate disruption. She quotes disabled poet Naomi Ortiz, who says that disability acclimates people to venturing into “vulnerable unpredictability.” When people with disabilities go to a new place and are not sure if there is a wheelchair ramp, or go to pick up their medications at a drug store where people might have COVID or the flu, they face uncertainty in scenarios that healthy people sometimes take for granted.
Speaking about the experience of “vulnerable unpredictability,” Watts Belser writes, "This is crucial wisdom. As wildfires, extreme heat, and other climate crises become part of the ordinary fabric of our days, our plans are going to have to become more provisional.” As our daily lives become increasingly disrupted by major climate shifts, we will need to be more adaptive, more flexible. Along the way, we will need to learn how to listen to our bodies. Disabled people’s lived experiences have required them to develop these skills. As we ourselves continue to grow in this area, we can look to and honor disabled wisdom.
Identifying role models and learning from their example can help us discern ways we want to grow to meet the current moment.
Step three: Find community.
While certain things, like climate change, affect us all, there are many hardships in our lives that are unique to our personal situation. However, that does not mean we must confront these things alone. On Yom Kippur, we pray in first person plural: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu. We have abused, we have been unfaithful, we have stolen. There is a way in which we can confront difficult things in a community that is different than we might have on our own. Not absolving our responsibility, but gathering strength from one another.
In these difficult moments, and also more broadly, engaging in community is beneficial. Brad Stulberg, who writes about mental health, recently said in the New York Times, “Researchers have found that people who go to religious services repeatedly are healthier and live longer…The longevity benefits don’t owe themselves to what specific god participants were praying to, but to the fact that they felt obligated to show up regularly in a community setting.” and he wrote all of that without any encouragement from me or Rabbi Glickman! That’s because no matter your relationship to prayer, to observance, to Israel, to justice, being in community provides nourishment. In addition to the many ways to “do Jewish” in shul – learning, meditating, cooking, singing wordlessly – being in a multi general community with people who have a range of beliefs, identities, and passions is an increasingly unique opportunity.
Yes, sometimes, when we get overwhelmed or feel vulnerable, it can be tempting to stay at home, or to not share your problems with other people, either because of embarrassment or out of concern that you will be a burden. Please, if I can offer you anything this Yom Kippur, let it be an invitation to be here with us, in whatever way you need to be.
So this year, let’s try recognizing our humanity. Let’s identify the role models in our lives. Let’s do the work of facing life’s challenges together, in community.
Really living is not running from the bears in our lives, or confronting them with foolish overconfidence. It’s about pausing, facing the current moment, and then going through the muddy, messy reality that lies ahead.
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