- Rabbi Nanus
- Yom Kippur
EREV YOM KIPPUR SERMON 2021
Rabbi Susan Nanus
In March 2020, when we first went into lockdown, I handled it pretty well. I stayed inside, had my food and other necessities delivered, or went to the supermarket very early, during “senior hours,” not just with a mask, but also a scarf wrapped around my face and bright pink plastic gloves on my hands. When I wasn’t teaching online or conducting services, I cleaned out my closets, rearranged my drawers, organized my books, went on solitary walks and faced-timed my family and friends. Since I no longer had any help, once a week, I did all the household chores. And when people called to ask how I was doing, I would answer, “Good! I’m doing fine.”
By summer, I was not quite as organized. Drawers were messy again, books were piled everywhere, the laundry was now done as needed. My sleep was horrible – every night around 2 am, I would wake up and compulsively read the New York Times and the LA Times on my Ipad. Now, I was tired a lot of the time, sleeping later, often getting into bed after dinner, and binge-watching Netflix, Acorn, Britbox, Amazon Prime. I knew I was numbing myself, but I didn’t care. And still, when people called to ask how I was doing, I would answer, “Good! I’m doing fine.”
By last December, when hospitals had no beds left and ambulances were lined up in parking lots, I was spending hours on my couch weeping over Facebook videos of stray puppies being rescued, soldiers coming home from overseas to surprise their families, and deaf babies getting teeny tiny hearing aids, hearing their mothers’ voice for the first time. I had no energy and compulsively worried about my health. Every morning, I would spritz perfume on my wrist to check if I still had my sense of smell. I took my temperature five times a day. Chocolate was my new best friend. And when people called to ask how I was doing, I still answered, “Good! I’m doing fine.”
Where did we learn that it is embarrassing not to be fine; to need help? Where is it written that we are not supposed to be fragile, vulnerable, anxious, or sad? Who decided that if we need something or somebody, we’re weak; that even if someone offers to do something for us, we can’t accept because that would be an imposition? Why do we believe we’re supposed to handle everything ourselves – and lie through our teeth when we say “I’m good! I’m doing fine.”
Who decreed that we are not allowed to be human?
That is not the Jewish way. Those are not our texts. This is not our teaching.
Suffering is human, as the poet of the Psalms expressed so emotionally:
Be gentle with me, Adonai, for I am so wretched.
Heal me, Adonai, for my very limbs are trembling with terror.
I am so weary of moaning. I flood my bed with tears every night.
How long, Adonai? How long?
Depression and despair are human.
2500 years ago, the Book of Lamentations declared --
My heart is in anguish,
Outside the sword deals death
Indoors, the plague.
When they heard how I was sighing,
There was none to comfort me.
Loneliness is human.
Lo Tov heyot ha-adam l’vado.
It is not good for a person to be alone, says God in the very first parashah of the Torah.
When something in our lives is broken, something or many things are not working, we have come to believe that it’s shameful to admit it.
On Yom Kippur, we say Al cheit she’chatanu – for the sin that we have committed – and then we list how we have hurt others - - but what about how we have hurt ourselves, damaging our own hearts and souls by blaming, condemning and even hating ourselves for simply being human?
Last year, the Temple staff called all our congregants to see how they were doing during the pandemic. I personally called over two hundred people. In every single phone call, I heard the same thing. “I’m doing just fine, rabbi, thanks for calling.”
You know what I thought? Wow, they’re handling this so well, but I’m struggling. What’s the matter with me?” I realize now that many of those people were not being truthful. I understand why. They didn’t want to come off as needy or burdensome – but you know what the result was? I felt even worse!
I can’t help but compare this experience to when I wrote a Shabbat message about how I had really hurt my back and discovered a new appreciation for the blessings of daily miracles.
To my utter surprise, I got at least a dozen emails from congregants saying, “Rabbi, I’m going through the same thing!” “Rabbi, I’ve been there, and back pain is the worst!” “Rabbi, here’s what worked for me.” And they sent me all kinds of helpful suggestions.
I felt supported, I felt cared for, I felt that I wasn’t alone, and I felt better! But there are two caveats. First, this was a physical ailment and we are comfortable talking about illness of the body. Secondly, I shared. I let people know that I was having a hard time.
But when it comes to emotional challenges, to depression, anxiety, fears, or stress, it’s a different story. Most of us suffer alone and in silence. We’re not comfortable talking about it. Or we mention it in passing – and then quickly change the subject. As if it’s our fault. As if we did something wrong.
The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that right now, one third of Americans are suffering from clinical depression and anxiety. That is 110 million men, women, adolescents and children – which may very well include you, me, our family, our friends,neighbors, or colleagues….
So many of us are traumatized by the endless sickness and death, by grief and loss and fear and separation, by financial stress, and relentless caregiving. And if we’re not traumatized, many of us are exhausted -- trying to work and take care of our children and/or our aging parents. Tending to our newborn babies without the usual support system of grandparents, siblings and friends. Worrying about school or finding our first job. Enduring the daily ache of living alone, eating alone, sleeping alone.
Al cheit she-chatanu – for the sin we have committed by pretending, by hiding, by stigmatizing the most sensitive and vulnerable parts of ourselves.
What would happen if we called someone whom we know cares about us and said, “I’m feeling down, and I just want to hear a friendly voice?”
What would happen if we called someone and said “I’m feeling lonely, do you have time for a walk or a cup of tea?
What would happen if we took the first step and asked someone for a little help? What would happen if we opened up and told the truth about how we’re feeling? Might we feel better? Might we actually be doing someone else a favor by giving them permission to open up as well? Might we find out – just like I found out when I wrote about my back – that a lot of people are going through the same thing, and that we can offer each other empathy, sympathy, and support?
A couple of weeks ago, I called my sister, who is my go-to person to vent about things. She and my brother-in-law happened to be in the car, so she put me on speakerphone. After they listened sympathetically - which was really all I needed - my brother-in-law said, “Sounds like you could use a massage. When was the last time you had a massage?” I laughed and said, “I can’t remember. Maybe two years ago?”
My sister said, “ Okay, that’s it. We’re buying you a massage. I want you to call and make an appointment today. The massage is on us!” Now, here’s the funny thing. I’ve been so busy with the High Holy Days that I still haven’t made that appointment, which I will -- probably this weekend. But the fact that they offered made all the difference in the world.
Of course, sometimes, we need professional help and a massage is not going to do the trick. But there are many other times when we just need another person to hear us, to see us and to understand.
In Zimbabwe, one in four people suffer from depression and anxiety, but there are only 13 psychiatrists and 16 clinical psychologists in the entire country. Alarmed and worried by this crisis, one of the psychiatrists, Dr. Dixon Chibanda, came up with a unique prescription. He trained 400 grandmothers to sit on public park benches and listen to people’s problems. The wise women are there every day, and anyone can approach them to pour out their hearts, after which the sufferer and the grandmother together try to come up with a plan to make things better. These benches are called Friendship Benches and have been so successful that they have been created in many other countries.
There is a story in the Talmud about a famous healer, Rabbi Yochanan, who is one day healed by his friend Rabbi Chanina. The Talmud asks why Yochanan couldn’t just heal himself. Responding to its own question, it then answers, “A captive cannot free himself. ”
We have to share, we have to ask, which is not always easy. We have to be vulnerable. We have to be willing to take a chance and sit down on a metaphorical Friendship Bench.
Judaism is about supporting each other and being there to help each other; about reaching out when we are in despair or distress, and reaching back with comfort and compassion. We are not supposed to suffer alone, be sick alone, bury our loved ones alone, grieve alone or celebrate alone.
The highest and holiest mitzvot we have, teach us to take care of each other in our time of need. So, think about it this way -- when you ask for help, you are giving someone the opportunity to perform a beautiful mitzvah.
Al cheit she’chatanu – for the sin of not reaching out.
Al cheit she’chatanu -- for the sin of feeling shame for not being able to do everything on our own.
Al cheit she’chatanu -- for the sin of being afraid to say I need a hug, I need a laugh, I need a meal with you, I need a friend.
For these transgressions and more, Adonai, Salach Lanu - forgive us, and let us forgive ourselves.