- Rabbi Nanus
- Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah 5784
Rabbi Susan Nanus
Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles
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 a cleaning lady, 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 when people called me to ask how I was doing, I would answer,
“Good! I’m doing fine.”
By the time we entered our second year of Covid, when hospitals had no
beds left and ambulances were lined up in the 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 and listening to 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 and 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 me how I was doing, I would answer,
“Good! I’m doing fine.”
Well, things have certainly gotten better since then, there’s no denying
that. But despite the vaccines and boosters, the reopening of our schools and
businesses, the congregating of crowds in public places, many of us of are still in
emotional lockdown. Many of us are still wearing masks of false bravado and
quarantining our despair.
Where did we learn that it is embarrassing to need help? Where is it
written that we are not supposed to be fragile, or vulnerable or anxious or sad?
Who decided that if you need something or somebody, you’re weak? That even
if someone offers to do something for you, you can’t accept because that would
be an imposition! We’re supposed to handle everything ourselves – keep a stiff
upper lip, stand on our own two feet, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and
lie through our teeth and say that “I’m good! I’m doing fine.”
Who decreed that we are not allowed to be human?
That is not our tradition. 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 parshah of the
Being frail and flawed is human and one of the reasons that the High Holy
Day season, that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are so powerful and
transformative. This is the time that we are supposed to examine how we
behave in this world, where we have failed and I also think, where we have
succeeded, the emphasis being on our treatment of others.
But what about our treatment of ourselves? On Rosh Hashana, we are
required to perform Teshuva – to make amends and ask forgiveness from the
people we have hurt or harmed during the past year. But what about the hurt
and harm we have done to ourselves, damaging our own hearts and souls by
blaming and condemning and even hating ourselves for simply being human?
Perfection is not possible. We know this intellectually, but emotionally,
we continue to beat ourselves up. I have come to the conclusion that where the
Torah that says, Love Your Neighbor as Yourself , there should be a footnote
which adds, “And Love Yourself as Your Neighbor.” Because most of us are lot
more forgiving of others than we are of ourselves.
We have this idea, this unrealistic notion that we that we must hide our
pain and deny our brokenness – because let’s be honest, that’s what it is –
something in our lives is broken, something or many things are not working, and
for some reason, we have come to believe that it’s shameful to admit it.
Perhaps that is why our sages wrote a midrash describing how even
before the world was created, God created Teshuva – repentance and repair.
Because God already knew that human beings would be fallible, that we would
be flawed and imperfect.” In fact, according to another midrash, only angels are
perfect and that is why, despite their complaints, God did not give them the
Torah, but gave it to us instead.
During Covid, the Temple decided that we should call all our congregants
to see how they were doing during the pandemic. I personally called over two
hundred people to ask how they were holding up or if they needed anything. 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, what’s the matter with me? They’re
handling this and I’m struggling. This must be my fault.” 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 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 this time, I
felt better! But here are two caveats. First, this was a physical ailment and we
have finally become 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, to anxiety, to
fear, or stress or it’s a different story. Most of us suffer alone and in silence. It’s
all a big secret. 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
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
people – men, women, adolescents, children in this country alone. Which may
very well include you, me, our family members, our friends, our neighbors, our
To be honest, I think that statistic might be low. So many of us have
become exhausted by years of illness and death, by grief and loneliness, by
financial stress, failed relationships, and relentless caregiving.
I think we’re probably all somewhat depressed. And because we are often
so reluctant to talk about it, it grows and grows until it spills over, not just
hurting ourselves, but those closest to us. Not just by withdrawing and cutting
off from them, not just by taking out our anger and frustrations on them, but
also – and this may be even worse – by making it clear that it is not acceptable
to speak about our feelings or share what is really going on.
The Book of Proverbs says: “If there is anxiety in man’s heart, let him
quash it.” The Talmud explains that this means a person must share his
concerns with others, because only this will lower his disquiet.
In Ecclesiastes, it says, “Two are better than one, for if they should fall,
one can lift up the other.”
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? Or better still, a glass of wine?"
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 and
sympathy and support?
Of course, sometimes, we need professional help. But there are many
other times when we just need another person to hear us, to see us and to
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 very 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 and 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 they have been so successful that they have been implemented in
many other countries.
To be helped, we must reach out, which is not always easy. We must
allow ourselves to be vulnerable, acknowledge our need, and go and sit on a
metaphorical bench. But first we must stop blaming ourselves and shaming
ourselves for wanting a helping hand.
We hear so much about the importance of self- care. Perhaps this Rosh
Hashana, we should also think about self-Teshuva.
The steps are clear:
Recognize that we have been too, not just hard, but harsh on ourselves.
Realize that this negative, harmful way of thinking only makes things
worse and do our best to stop it.
Make amends by accepting our humanness and understanding that
even our brokenness has value because it helps us to understand and even help
repair the brokenness of others.
And finally, making a commitment not to repeat this soul-damaging
behavior in the future.
Judaism is filled with traditions of community. We are not meant to
pray alone, be sick alone, bury our loved ones alone, grieve alone, celebrate
alone or suffer alone.
As we enter this New Year, we make a promise to be better, to be more
kind, compassionate and caring to others. This Rosh Hashanah, let us make that
same promise to ourselves.