5777: Coping with a year of rage
We hear the word “high” a lot during the High Holy Days — and it’s not just because we live in pot-friendly California.
This time of year is supposed to elevate us, lift us up. It’s so integral to the mission of the holidays, and it’s embedded into the choreography of the service: The ark is opened and we rise; the shofar calls us to stand and wake up; the fast on Yom Kippur alters the chemistry of our brains. Prayer itself promises to bring us “higher and higher,” inching us closer to the profound mystery at the heart of the universe we call God.
Everything about this 10-day annual ritual titillates us with the promise of spiritual intoxication: If we take the holidays seriously enough — if we repent, return, forgive — Jewish tradition tells us we can change our lives; that everything we thought lost is still possible. Begin again, we’re told. It’s a new year.
But for so many of us, the task of getting high this year seems especially hard because this last year was so full of personal and global anguish. How do we reclaim a space for the spirit when life can be so profoundly dispiriting?
Most of the major events of 5777 have given us reason to worry, rage and fear. We lived through the most polarizing election in our lifetimes, followed by the installation of an equally polarizing administration. We learned about Russian subversion of our democratic process. We endured nuclear threats from North Korea and the rising threat of economic imperialism in China. We watched the Syrian civil war and genocide spread into its sixth tragic year. We divided ourselves over Israel, agonizing about the challenges it faces within and without. We witnessed terror in Europe.
And, most recently, we watched with utter helplessness as the wrath of nature devastated American cities and communities, and as DACA was rescinded, putting the futures of hundreds of thousands of young immigrants in limbo. All of this courtesy of the constant churn of the 24-hour news cycle that knows no Shabbat.
For these reasons and others, we feel drained. Can prayer and community have any impact on healing these wounds? And what if the very polarizing politics we wish to escape appear in our rabbi’s sermon?
For those of us who already are politically engaged, philanthropic and working with great devotion to fight injustice in this world, we hope the High Holy Days will pour some light onto the canvas of our aching souls.
Just before Rosh Hashanah, I asked Rabbi Mordecai Finley, the spiritual leader at Ohr Hatorah in Venice who teaches and counsels through the prism of psychology and philosophy, how we can move from a year of rage, grief or simply exhaustion to a period of spiritual elevation.
His answer was surprising — and kind of Buddhist.
“Every philosophical system that takes morality seriously detaches wisdom from emotions,” he said over warm apple pie at Sophos Café, the Italian-coffee hangout that serves as the lobby at his shul. (I had to put aside my extreme satisfaction with the pie to understand his point.)
But aren’t you angry about what you see happening in our country, or in the world, I asked?
“I don’t get that emotional [about it],” he said. “Anybody who is that upset [over politics], I’m wondering how efficacious their spiritual practice is to begin with. When people say to me, ‘It’s been the worst year ever,’ I say, ‘1862 was a bad year for our country [it was the Civil War and the Union was losing]. 1942 was a bad year for the world.’
“There are those who love divisiveness and get all emotional. It’s a choice you make. I’m among those who find [President Donald Trump] repugnant, but if I talk to somebody on the other side, I don’t bring that into the conversation. I say, let’s have rational conversation based on moral values. For people who say politics is personal, I think they like to be angry.”
Finley admitted that different people seek different things on the High Holy Days. Some people want and need to vent about politics.
“It can feel extremely satisfying when your leadership vents what you’re feeling,” Finley said. “But when people are venting, they don’t want to process. My congregation is populated by people who want an oasis during the High Holidays. I’ve asked, ‘Would you like me every week to rehash the new litany of Trump’s latest outrages?’ They say, ‘No, we get that from The New York Times.’ They’re after personal depth and transformation. They want leadership there.”
Finley believes that for most of us, the way to a better world is through higher consciousness, by cultivating what he calls “the higher self,” or the soul. And the best way to test and exert the functioning of our higher self is through interpersonal relationships.
“There’s a moral framework in which we live that for most people, the first place they experience it is interpersonally,” he said. “You’ve been hurt by others; they’ve been hurt by you. That’s the first thing we have to deal with.”
It’s a lot harder to take on the problems of the world if we’re suffering at home. So for those of us who are grieving, heartbroken, angry or stuck, the holidays are a time to examine and refine our most sacred relationships.
Simple acts of being kinder, more generous and more compassionate can make our broken world a little brighter and bring us higher — indeed, closer — to God.
Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.