Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - Confronting Despair

Rosh HaShanah Day 2 - 2021/5782

Confronting Despair

One of the most enduring images in rabbinic literature is that of our Matriarch Rachel, weeping for her children - the nation of Israel. Rachel was the beloved wife of Jacob, the woman Jacob had fallen in love with at the well and the woman whom Jacob was forced to work for 14 years in order to marry. We remember the story. Jacob had tricked his twin brother Esau and their father Isaac into giving him the preferred blessing before Isaac died. Esau threatened to kill Jacob for his conniving and Jacob ran away to his mother’s family in Haran. Upon arriving in that village, he saw his cousin Rachel and was immediately smitten. He asked to marry her and Laban, Rachel’s father, said of course as long as Jacob would agree to work for him for 7 years. Jacob agreed and then Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Rachel’s older sister Leah. After agreeing to work for Laban for 7 more years he was able to marry Rachel. 

Rachel is portrayed as an innocent and tragic victim in the Torah. She is a beautiful woman, the love of the hero Jacob. Like Rebecca and Sarah before her, Rachel was infertile. Only after seeing her sister give birth to 4 children, her maidservant give birth to 2 children and Leah’s maidservant give birth to 2 children - all fathered by Jacob - was Rachel able to conceive. She gave birth to Joseph and managed to become pregnant once again only to die in childbirth. Jacob buried her where she died, outside of the city of Bethlehem where her tomb stands to this day. 

Because of her tragic story in the Torah, the prophets and later the rabbis, as they do with other figures from the Torah, embellish it for more global purposes. Rachel, like the other patriarchs and matriarchs, is a person who becomes eternal in scope. Their life stories became intertwined with the story of the entire Jewish people. The mothers and fathers of our people become the embodiment of our people. Our pain is their pain and our joy is their joy. 

Our haftorah this morning gives us such an example. The prophet Jeremiah, who lived nearly 1,000 years after Jacob & Rachel, witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile. Jeremiah described Rachel crying for her people. ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙ נְהִי֙ בְּכִ֣י תַמְרוּרִ֔ים רָחֵ֖ל מְבַכָּ֣ה עַל־בָּנֶ֑יהָ מֵאֲנָ֛ה לְהִנָּחֵ֥ם עַל־בָּנֶ֖יהָ כִּ֥י אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃ - A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15) Why does Jeremiah picture Rachel crying? Because the route that the Jews were forced to take out of Judah to Babylonia took them directly past Rachel’s tomb. As Jeremiah tries to comfort the people of Israel in their time of tragedy and crisis, he imagines the great figure of Rachel crying for her children. When the people feel abandoned, when the people feel that no one cares about them, when the people feel lost and without hope, Jeremiah imagines their Mother crying with them. As they are forced to march past her tomb Jeremiah imagines that the people hear Rachel crying and sobbing. The people’s pain is being felt, their anguish is being heard.

Though the fields of psychology and psychiatry are modern phenomena, the prophet Jeremiah was remarkably astute concerning the emotional needs of the people. Jeremiah lived in a time of great upheaval. He witnessed lives being shattered and the religious center of the people  - the Temple - destroyed. Such devastation on both a personal and communal level would be terribly difficult to overcome. People would have been left in despair and agony for lives and homes lost. People would have been left struggling to see a reason to live. People would have been emotionally wounded, perhaps beyond repair. It was up to the prophet to provide a context for the destruction. It was Jeremiah’s task to make sense of the chaos, to explain why the events were happening. And it was up to Jeremiah to provide comfort and hope.

Jews in every generation have looked to the Torah and the Prophets for guidance. Those biblical books were never meant just to be history books. They weren’t understood to just explain how people lived and how people believed in God centuries ago. The Bible is always understood to be timeless. The message, though written at a particular time - as Jeremiah describes the exile to Babylonia - also applied to subsequent generations of Jewish suffering. Isaac’s near martyrdom on Mt Moriah served as inspiration to the rabbis who were tortured by the Romans, to the Jews who were slaughtered by the Crusaders, and to the Jews in the Nazi concentration camps. Abraham and Sarah’s family dynamics serve as a model for all married couples for all time. Jeremiah’s use of a weeping Rachel provided comfort for the Jews of Israel when the 2nd Temple was destroyed by the Romans, when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, and when Jews and all peoples were affected by plague and war. 

Clearly, we can commiserate with the Jews described by Jeremiah 2,500 years ago. We too, because of COVID, because of humanitarian crises around the world, because of global warming and climate change, are feeling lost and in despair. Our stress levels have increased dramatically and that has caused us to feel anxious if not depressed. An article in the August 9 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association - Pediatrics, indicated that “in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic...1 in 4 youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms, while 1 in 5 youth are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.” Those rates are double what they were before the pandemic. Though the CDC found that rates weren’t as dramatically increased in adults, they increased nonetheless. A stunning 36% of adults experience some form of anxiety all the time, and during the pandemic that percentage has increased to 42%. Johns Hopkins Medicine’s website explains that “People with anxiety often have thought patterns such as: Believing the worst will happen, Persistent worry, All-or-nothing thinking, Overgeneralizing (making overall assumptions based on a single event) and exhibit anxiety behaviors such as: Avoidance of feared situations or events, Seeking reassurance, Second-guessing, Irritability and frustration in feared situations, and/or Compulsive actions.” 

Let’s digest those numbers. 4 out of every 10 people in America feel and or exhibit some of those symptoms of clinical anxiety. 4 out of 10 of us persistently worry, try to avoid stressful situations or feel that the worst is about to happen and start second guessing decisions. That is an incredibly high percentage of the population and it reflects how precarious we see our lives today. Life is already challenging in terms of making a living that will provide for our families and pay the bills. Life becomes more challenging when stressors are added such as health issues, safety issues and world-order issues. We are living in dark and threatening times and it is no wonder that many of us, our family and friends are experiencing these mental health issues. 

Recently on NPR’s All Things Considered, DC primary care physician Dr. Lucy McBride was interviewed by Ari Shapiro. They were discussing the delta variant of COVID-19, the reinstituting of some restrictions that had been lifted a few months ago and how that has brought back stress into our lives. Her first bit of advice was: “Make sure that you are looking to experts, including your trusted primary care provider, for nuanced advice to help marry broad public health advice with your unique situation. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for human behavior in a pandemic. So, we really need to drill down into what it is that gives us a sense of safety and security, what it is we need to feel protected from disease and despair in tandem, and that is going to look different for each person.” It is imperative that we recognize that we are dealing with anxiety and that we need to seek help. That recognition is crucial as the beginning to developing a strategy to navigate the stress and anxiety.

Dr. McBride went on to say: “We're wired, we're hypervigilant and we're tired; so many decisions, so much information. We need to realize that this is normal and that we need to give ourselves a little latitude and grace as we navigate these complex times. When we're exhausted, when our guard is down, that's when we're more prone to excess anxiety that's out of proportion to reality.” Our routines have been tested, and life that we took for granted has been turned upside down. It’s normal that we are struggling to find our balance, to find our equilibrium again. It takes time and we need to help each other.

Finally, Dr. McBride said: “we also need to realize that COVID is here for the duration. It's not about eliminating risk; that's just not on the menu. But what we need to do is, just as we have to modulate fears so that we protect ourselves without driving ourselves crazy, we need to manage expectations for what life is going to look like once we have this virus under better control.” As with any new situation - new job, new home, the passing of a loved one - it takes time for us to get used to the new reality. We remember, and sometimes long for what was as we realize that we will never have that again. In order to move forward we need resources and strategies not only to survive, but in order to thrive.

Which brings us back to Jeremiah and our haftorah this morning. Jeremiah brilliantly developed a strategy to provide hope in the midst of despair and comfort in the midst of chaos. The people of Israel witnessed God’s house destroyed. The people of Israel witnessed loved ones and friends killed by Babylonians. The people of Israel were forced to leave their ancestral home. The land of Israel, once flowing with milk and honey, was now flowing with blood and tears. The people marched past ruins and tombs, death and destruction. Yet, Jeremiah wanted the people to hear a voice emanating from the grave. He wanted them to hear Mother Rachel crying for them. He wanted them to know that they were not alone in their despair. 

Not only did Jeremiah insist that the ancestors were crying with them, he believed that God was crying with them too. He quotes God as saying at the end of the haftorah: הֲבֵן֩ יַקִּ֨יר לִ֜י אֶפְרַ֗יִם … זָכֹ֥ר אֶזְכְּרֶ֖נּוּ ע֑וֹד עַל־כֵּ֗ן הָמ֤וּ מֵעַי֙ ל֔וֹ רַחֵ֥ם אֲֽרַחֲמֶ֖נּוּ נְאֻם־יְהֹוָֽה׃ - Is not Ephraim My precious son?...I remember him with affection. Therefore, My heart yearns for him. Surely I will show him compassion.” In the midst of the turmoil and crisis, Jeremiah wanted to instill faith. Despite the traditional biblical theology that Jeremiah expresses, that God caused these events as punishment for Israel’s sins, Jeremiah staunchly insists that the people maintain faith in God. There is no other way to survive than to believe that God still loves them. 

Jeremiah expressed a basic yet profound human need. When the earth shatters, when life crumbles, when the path forward is uncertain, we need stability, we need a firm foundation. God, faith, traditional values serve as the bedrock on which to reframe our lives. In every generation Jews have cried out to God for help and support. When Rabbi Akiva was tortured to death by the Romans 1800 years ago he recited the Shema. When Jews were massacred by the Crusades the Rabbi of Mainz wrote the Unetaneh Tokef prayer that we will recite shortly. When Jews were being rounded up and murdered by the Nazis they sang ani ma’ameen - “I wholeheartedly believe”. In the midst of horror Jews have always found peace with God. 

We too are here today looking for refuge and comfort. Despite COVID still raging around us, we gather here to recite these ancient words. Despite the uncertainty in life today, we gather to proclaim the certainty of our faith. Despite the anxiety we feel, we are determined to find relief in the presence of our beloved and compassionate community. Together we will endure. Together we will get through this. Together we will proclaim to one another - לשנה טובה תכתבו - may we be inscribed for good in the book of life.