Life as a Balancing Act

Image: Woman balances on a tightrope as a hand holds the rope. (ElisaRiva/Pixabay.)

This is a time to think seriously about balance.

There are many terrible things in the news. I wrote about that in A Bitter Psalm for Our Times earlier this week, and more has happened since then.

On Twitter today, there were angry people ranting all over the place. There was some nasty gloating, too. Neither of those is going to accomplish much – it’s noise. Here’s what I propose, for those who are feeling stymied:

It’s time to strike a balance between self-care and action. These are the questions I’m asking myself, in the interest of both self-care and effective action.

  1. Am I spending energy being angry in useless ways? That accomplishes nothing. Fighting with bots on Twitter may scratch an itch, but it doesn’t effect change. Instead, I need to focus on keeping myself strong and then using my strength in useful ways.
  2. Self care is not a luxury. That includes both care of the body and care of the soul. This week I went to see my friend Delane Sims, who operates Delane’s Natural Nail Care here in San Leandro. We caught up on each other’s lives while she restored my feet and painted my toenails. Delane is a world-changer and a woman of faith, and I know that when I spend time with her, my feet will feel better and my priorities will clear up. What restores your soul?
  3. Self care includes time to hug my loved ones and appreciate the good in the world, whether in nature, or in the deeds of good people. For some of us, it means daily prayer, or exercise, or meditation, or some mix of the three.
  4. Self care allows me to take on activism in the world.
  5. Activism can take many forms, too. We tend to think of activists as people who go on marches and demonstrations, but that’s not possible for all of us. Here are some ideas from my own list of “what this disabled rabbi can do today:”
    1. This blog post.
    2. Call my senators and congresspersons with concern item each, every day.
    3. Write postcards to my senators and congresspersons, so they’ll know I’m serious, literate, and willing to spend postage.
    4. Write a letter to the editor of my local paper.
    5. Write an op-ed for a publication I read regularly.
    6. Subscribe to and read at least one newspaper.
    7. I can choose one organization that helps immigrants and use their website to be better educated, and to learn ways I can help.
    8. I can ask friends: Are you registered to vote? Would you like help registering?
    9. Send encouraging letters or emails to the people I see fighting the good fight.
    10. Encourage friends who are able to march or travel to do social justice work.
  6. I can also exercise self-care and action in what I choose NOT to do. It is important to stay informed, but I do not need to watch cable news 24/7. In fact, I don’t need to watch that stuff at all. One good newspaper or news program a day is plenty.
  7. I can choose not to argue with people. Arguing rarely changes anyone’s mind, especially over social media. Usually all it does is upset me.
  8. I can choose to make my social interactions as pleasant as possible. I can choose to be cheerful and helpful.
  9. If I truly cannot choose to be cheerful, then I can seek some help for my anxiety or my unhappiness. Perhaps I need to look into better self-care, or learn better boundaries. Perhaps I’m depressed. Whatever it is, I need to take care of myself, or ask for help.
  10. When all else fails, I can use the serenity prayer to sort things out:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Self-care is taking a little time to quietly sort through the things that are bothering me. Can I change them? Accept them? And if I cannot decide, or if I cannot see how I can possibly sort this out, with whom can I talk it out?

As disturbing as things are, they are not hopeless. There is much that can be done to relieve the suffering in this world, including our own.

He [Rabbi Hillel] used to say: If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when? –Pirkei Avot 1:14.

 

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A Bitter Psalm for Our Times

Image: B&W Photo of a crying child. (PublicDomain/Pixabay)

We live in a time when terrible things are happening to our nation and the world. Sometimes I cannot believe what I see on the news, then I talk with people who’ve been there and seen that with their own eyes, and I am forced to believe that there are babies in cages, children shuttled all over who knows where, and a nation built by immigrants led by someone who uses words like “infestation” to describe human beings.

People that I trust have personally witnessed the detention of children. They are not in “summer camp” or “boarding school.” They are held in prison-like conditions, without their parents knowing their whereabouts, and without knowing when or how they will see their parents again. Some appear to have been transported around the country to foster care, which sounds good until we realize that the foster parents have no information about the parents, or how long the separation may last. There seems to be a lack of concern at both the Department of Homeland Security and at the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as in the Oval Office itself.

Discussions about the alleged guilt of the parents is completely beside the point. The persons receiving this punishment are children, innocent children who have done nothing to anyone. To those who blame the parents, I say, “Do you know for a fact that each individual parent is a fraud?”

What we DO know for certain that such a separation from family is permanently damaging to children. We know it from Holocaust survivors who were “hidden children” or “kindertransport children” , even those who were able to reconnect with relatives, and even those who were adopted by very nice people. Without exception, the people I know who survived in that way are grateful for their survival, and feel a profound sense of loss even in old age.

It is only human to weep in the face of such trauma and such evil – but what are we to do besides weep? Many good people have been demonstrating, reporting what they know about the locations of children, calling their elected officials, and doing other good works – gemilut hasadim – acts of lovingkindness – to right these great wrongs.

Meanwhile, our Congress has been busy remaking the safety net that stands between the working poor and utter disaster. They have made use of our distraction (by the great crime on our borders) to pass a budget that gives tax cuts to billionaires while cutting  Medicare and Medicaid.

These wrongs are nothing new in history. Here is what the psalmist had to say about cruel and unjust rulers in his own time:

Psalm 58

For the leader; “Do not Destroy.” Of David. A michtam.

O mighty ones, do you really decree what is just? Do you judge mankind with equity?

In your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands you deal out violence in the land.
The wicked are defiant from birth; the liars go astray from the womb.
Their venom is like that of a snake, a deaf viper that stops its ears
so as not to hear the voice of charmers or the expert mutterer of spells.
O God, smash their teeth in their mouth; shatter the fangs of lions, Eternal One!
let them melt, let them vanish like water; may their arrows be blunted when they aim their bows;
like a slug that melts away as it moves; like a stillborn child that never sees the sun!
Before the thorns grow into a bramble, may God whirl them away alive in fury.
The righteous man will rejoice when he sees revenge; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked.
Men will say, “There is, then, a reward for the righteous; there is, indeed, divine justice on earth.”

This is an ugly psalm, with shocking sentiments. It gives voice to the anger that a good person feels when such cruelty is done by the powerful. It is also a reminder that while such evil may prevail for a while, in the end there is only the judgement of history and, for believers, the judgement of God.

If you are angry at what is being done to innocent children, know that you are in good company. But know, also, that all of us who are U.S. citizens are complicit in these evils: our tax dollars are paying for these crimes. We must raise our voices in any way we can, keeping in mind that we want to do less harm to the families, not more. In my next post I will address some specific actions we can take.

Woe to those who have done such things, and woe to those who do not care.

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, 2018

Image: “We are ALL made in God’s Image” in Hebrew and English, on a poster identifying the group from Temple Sinai, Oakland in the Oakland Pride Parade in 2016. For full picture, see the end of this article. All rights reserved, Linda Burnett.

When I think of “Pride Month” I think of stories:

I think of the queer folk at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, fighting back and starting what would come to be known as the Stonewall Riots. Click the link, or Google them, and learn your history, fellow LGBTQs. They weren’t respectable. They weren’t nice. But all the rest of us owe them for the progress we’ve made since. I was 14 and hadn’t heard the word “lesbian” yet, but my life had changed for the better, even though I didn’t know it yet.

I think of my first SF Gay Pride, in maybe 1987 . I was not yet “out,” and was terrified to come out, because as the mother of two small children I knew that there was a lot at stake. Women like me lost children to homophobic relatives all the time in those days. One court wasn’t deterred by the fact that dad was a convicted murderer: he was still seen as a better parent than the lesbian.

I think of the next Pride in SF, when I was out, and I took the kids. It was a defining moment for our family – we were not going back in any closets. Jim asked me why the guys on the Folsom Street float were dressed in leather. I told him, “They like to play dress up.” He nodded his five year old head and promptly lost interest in them, but the bear float guys throwing teddy bears into the crowd won his heart.

I think about the next few Pride marches in SF; the AIDS epidemic was raging. ACT-UP was re-teaching the lesson from Stonewall: fighting for our rights could not be “nice” because we were fighting for our very lives. I wasn’t at much risk for AIDS, but I saw what was happening to the guys, and I saw what the courts were doing to LGBTQ parents, and I knew that we were all fighting for our lives.

I think about how times have changed, and how people haven’t changed. We’re in the middle of backlash now: certain folks are trying to roll back the advances made by people of color, LGBTQ people, women, disabled people.

We must remember that we are all in this together. We must not let the  social conservatives roll back the calendar to the bad old days. “Social conservatives” sounds so nice, like sociable jam or something – but relative to us, they aren’t nice, not one bit. You may not have my rights, social conservatives. I will fight you every step of the way.

Celebrate! because they don’t want us to. Be proud! because if we aren’t, who will? And fight back, in the primaries, in the general election, whenever you have a shot at a voting booth, vote!

Judaism is unequivocal on the necessity of speaking up when something is wrong. Leviticus 19 commands that we not stand by while another human being bleeds. Hillel speaks of the necessity of speaking up for ourselves and for others:

If I am not for myself, who is for me? When I am for myself, what am I? If not now, when? – Pirkei Avot 1:14

This Pride month, let us be for ourselves and for one another and against hatred in all its disguises.

Pride Parade Sinai Group
Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin,far right, with 4 members of Temple Sinai of Oakland, including me. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.

Angry that US Agencies Separate Families? Some Things to Do.

Image: A crying child. (TaniaVdB/Pixabay)

Last week I wrote Human is Human is Human, looking at the fact that my government, to whom I pay taxes, is using those resources to punish immigrant families by separating parents from children at the borders.  While this is not the first appearance of this behavior in American history, it is reprehensible. Several readers had good suggestions for action. I’ve seen several other suggestions online. Here’s a compilation of options for those who want to right this wrong:

The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights is an organization dedicated to protecting immigrant children. Support them with donations and publicity; they don’t get a lot of attention and they do great work. ( from Slow Lorist)
Support the ACLU in their legal work on this issue.
Contact Your Elected Officials. Write, tweet, email, phone – you know the drill. Be clear, be concise, say how you feel and what you want. Avoid swear words and hyperbole, and don’t make threats. (The link will take you to the League of Women Voters page that can get addresses and other contact info.)
Educate Yourself. Two different issues have been conflated by some concerned individuals. This link will take you to an article in which the Washington Post sorts the issue out a bit. It’s a very important article.  This article from the Political Charge blog has both good information and excellent suggestions for action.
Use Social Media Judiciously. If you are a user of social media, you can help by several strategies.  First – I cannot say this strongly enough! – educate yourself on the issue. Focus what you want to say. Then when you are ready to say it, you can do these things:
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of Congresspersons and Senators who express concern about this issue. Retweet them. “Like” their messages. This accomplishes two things: it brings attention to the issue and it rewards legislators who are doing the right thing. This is one time when we CAN influence someone even if we aren’t in their district. Remember that these are the people who actually have the power to do something.
– On Twitter: We can boost the signal of particularly good messages on the subject. One of the beauties of Twitter is that we don’t have to generate content: we can save time by making good content go farther.
– On Twitter: Beware of coarse language, name-calling, etc. It does not add emphasis to what we say. Instead of calling someone a bad name, say, “I’m angry about….” Be direct.
– On Facebook: We can link to good, informative articles if we are sure they are good information. We can refrain from publicizing dubious info.
– In both venues: Boost what’s good. Ignore what’s bad, or reply with a link to better information. Ignore, mute, or block bad actors. Fighting with them excites and rewards them, and attracts attention to them, which isn’t going to help.
– In both venues: Remember that not everything we read can be trusted. The more sensational a story is, the less likely it is to be true. See what the major journalistic outfits (NYT, Washington Post, NBC, ABC, CBS, BBC, NPR) have to say before we spread a story.
These principles apply in other social media venues as well – I mention these because they are the ones I use.
I hope that something here is helpful. Let’s do what we can.
If you are interested in following me or interacting on Twitter, you can find me at @CoffeeShopRabbi. 

The Tannaim, Models for Action

Image: The kever (grave) of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. (PikiWikiIsrael)

I’ve had a lot of trouble writing blog posts lately. Part of it is that I’ve been living on the mitzvah plan, getting through one day at a time doing mitzvot. Individually, I’ve had health challenges and work challenges. And as with many of you, the stresses that come with membership in my various communities have taken a toll.

I am worried by the rise in hate speech and hate crimes. I am worried by the loss of civility that I see all around me. I am worried by the “all or nothing” attitude I hear from most of the voices I hear, the absolute unwillingness to compromise. I worry about Israel. I worry about the United States. I worry that we are entering a period of history when democracy is drowned out by fascism and corruption.

The ancient rabbis we know as Tannaim (rabbis from 10-200 CE) lived in very troubled times. They lived in the Roman province known first as Judea and later as Palestina, through two disastrous attempts to throw off Roman rule. Many of them were hunted men, and we remember ten of them every year on Yom Kippur in the prayer known as Eleh Ezkerah, “These I remember.”

Lately I feel close to those rabbis: Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir, and the others. They lived at a time when history swirled around them. They did work that has lasted for centuries: they midwifed Rabbinic Judaism into being. They assembled the Mishnah.  They made some terrible mistakes, too: Rabbi Akiva encouraged Shimon ben Kosevah to lead a revolt against Rome, renaming him “Shimon bar Kokhba,” Simon, son of the Star. The revolt ended in 135 CE with the Land in ruins and the Jews in exile.

Living in the middle of tumultuous times, they did not allow those times to paralyze them. Instead, they took action: Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai seized an opportunity to negotiate a place for a rabbinic school as Jerusalem was burning. Rabbi Akiva gave Shimon ben Kosevah his support, because he thought Shimon could lead a successful revolt. Rabban Gamaliel traveled to Rome to plead for his people with the Emperor Domition in 95 CE. Judah haNasi recognized a moment at which precious Torah knowledge might be lost forever, and broke with tradition to write down the first part of the Oral Torah, the Mishnah.

I look at what those rabbis did, under conditions of great stress and danger, and I am challenged to step up in my own time. I write postcards to my elected officials. I joined a study group on prison reform in California. I have committed to start a book group to study racism. I have amended my own coursework to better address the divisions in the Jewish world, and prepare my students to do better in their own generation. I try to keep my mind and calendar open for opportunities to do good, whether it is a little mitzvah no one will ever see or a public action, like showing up for a demonstration.

Tough times call for action. I know that you have your own worry lists. I am aware that your lives are full of challenges. Still, I implore you not to be paralyzed by the times. Find ways to make this world better, not worse. That action will take different forms for different people; we all have different strengths and abilities. But now, more than ever, it is important that we recall that we are God’s hands in this world. As Rabbi Tarfon (another tanna) taught us:

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. …You do not have to finish the task, but you are not free to give up. If you have studied much Torah much reward will be given you, for your employer is faithful, and he will pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come.  – Avot 2.20-21

If you are willing to share, I would love to hear what actions you are taking right now to make your part of the world better. It does not have to be earth-shaking; better that it is something small that can inspire me and others to continue to do our best, too.

I hope you will share your stories in the comments!

For the Questions We Have Failed to Ask, O God, Forgive Us

Image: Intersection of 4th Avenue and Main Street in Franklin, Tennessee today, not far from the place where Samuel Bierfield was murdered. (ichabod via wikimedia, some rights reserved.)

This is a story about teshuvah: mine.

I grew up in Williamson County, Tennessee, a rural county south of Nashville. Today it is filled with suburbs and shopping centers, but back then there were few paved roads and no city water. We were acutely aware of the Civil War, because the countryside was littered with minie balls and other detritus from the battles.  People make pilgrimages to visit the Carter House, which is still riddled with bullet holes.  For the most part, what I heard from adults about “the War” was the standard Lost Cause story. There was little discussion of the institution of slavery and absolutely none of Reconstruction or the years that followed.

This situation is changing for the better.  I see on the Battle of Franklin Trust website that they have recently added a “Slavery and the Enslaved” tour to recall Frank Carter and the other souls who worked the land and built the economy of the area.  At its peak, in the 1850’s, the Carter House farm made use of 28 enslaved human beings. My thanks for that information to Kristi Farrow, a genealogist with the Battle of Franklin Trust. I am glad there are many people now involved in the holy work of remembering what should not be forgotten.

Last week I saw a CNN piece about the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice soon to open in Montgomery, AL. The museum has exhibits about slavery, about Reconstruction, and about Jim Crow. There is a memorial to the “more than 4400 African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned alive, shot, drowned, and beaten to death by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.” (Quotation from the memorial website.) I realized, not for the first time, that although I was raised in a place that was absolutely obsessed with history, there was a lot of history I didn’t know about the place I grew up.  On a whim, I googled, “Williamson County Tennessee lynching.”

I got an education.

I learned that there had indeed been lynchings in my home county.  I, who had written a history for a church in Franklin, who could at one time tell you reams of detail about Franklin life in the 19th century, had no idea that there had been public hangings from the courthouse railings. I had no idea how active the KKK had been in Williamson County. I had no idea that there were many, many lynchings in the town and in the green hills of the countryside. It had never occurred to me to ask questions about any of this; I was as guilty as everyone else who has failed to ask and failed to remember. 

Farther down the Google offerings, I found another surprise: the first Jew ever lynched in the United States was a man named Samuel Bierfield, murdered in the summer of 1868 on Main Street in Franklin. The whole story, with all its complications, is beautifully laid out in The Untold Story of the First Jewish Lynching in America by Paul Berger in The Forward.

In 1868, the county was in the first stages of Reconstruction, and Bierfield was undeniably a “carpetbagger” (new resident from somewhere north, with an eye to opportunities in the postwar South) and a “foreigner.” He moved from Riga, Latvia to Toronto in the late 1850’s. In 1866 he moved south to Franklin, TN in hopes of making his way in the world. His letters back to family in Toronto reflect the ups and downs of his dry-goods store on Main Street in Franklin. On July 6, 1867 he wrote a letter to his parents about his losses due to a riot the week before, a battle between white and black citizens on Main Street.

1867 was a volatile time in Middle Tennessee. Blacks who had until recently been enslaved were now free and had high hopes for a better life. Most white men were Confederate veterans who had thereby forfeited their right to vote in the renewed Union. There was devastation all around and a great anger in many people.  Where, exactly, Samuel Bierfield fit into that mix is uncertain; perhaps it would be more true to say that he likely did not fit in at all. He had an unusual accent and he wasn’t a citizen, although he applied for citizenship in 1867. He is known to have waited on blacks in his store, which would be evidence enough for angry whites to decide that he was the enemy. We have no record that the lynching was about his Jewishness. Rather, it was more likely over his friendliness to the freed men and women in Franklin.

So why write all this on my “Basic Judaism” blog? I am writing to say that it is absolutely imperative that we all keep learning. I was so certain that I knew “all about” Franklin and it turns out that I knew only the parts of the story that I had been told.

God gave us brains. We can continue learning past age 13.  Whether the conversation is about race in America or the situation in Israel, we have to keep our ears open for the story we have not yet learned. If we only listen to the stories we like, we limit ourselves and do an injustice to others. Instead of framing things as “our” side of the story and “their” side of the story, it is time we recognized that we are in all the stories – together. When the two “sides” don’t match, maybe there is still more to learn.

So what’s my teshuvah plan? I’m going to keep learning for my own knowledge, but I won’t stop there. I’m gathering information about how best I can support education about the journey from slavery to freedom, so that the next generation will be less ignorant than I was.

For all the questions we have failed to ask, O God, forgive us! Let us go forward seeking both shalom (peace) and tzedek (justice.)

Wrestling With God: the problem of suffering

Image: Two men wrestling (skeeze/Pixabay)

A reader wrote to me:

I find myself in the middle of a trying time, and it’s put me in an odd place that challenges my thinking about life, purpose, hope, Hashem, surrender, etc, and not entirely in a good way. … Wrestling with Hashem or, well, feeling lost or abandoned, specifically, is the kind of thing I’m looking for.

 

 

Jewish tradition teaches us that every life has tsuris (trouble.) Bad things happen. Some bad things are relatively small and some are true tragedy. Some make us sad for a while, and some things leave a mark that will stay with us forever. Some people have a year with one tragedy after another, and others appear to live charmed lives but may have secret sorrows that few of their friends know about.

Some misfortunes come from nature (earthquakes, tornadoes) and some from human carelessness or cruelty. The latter can be particularly difficult when the other person justifies their behavior, or simply doesn’t care. On the other hand, when an earthquake destroys my home, how am I to understand God’s role in what my insurance company may call “an act of God”?

When these things happen, we may indeed feel lost or even abandoned by God. It may set off a spiritual crisis: what is the point of being good, if bad things will happen anyway? What is the role of God in my suffering? What can a righteous person do when everything has gone horribly wrong?

Jewish tradition offers many answers to these questions, and we are free to find the answer that best fits our situation.

Deuteronomy says that trouble comes when we have been bad; if we are good, nothing bad will happen to us. Almost immediately, though, other books of the Bible explored why it is that bad things happen to good people, and the rabbis followed up with more discussion which continues to this day.

It is reasonable, when faced with misfortune, to ask, “Did I bring this on myself?” If the answer is “yes” then it is an opportunity to learn, and to make teshuvah if my mistake harmed anyone else. We have to take responsibility for our mistakes and misdeeds.

If the misfortune is the result of human misbehavior, it is reasonable for us to seek justice. Torah has many examples of people seeking justice. Ordinary Hebrews came to Moses and later to the judges for justice. (Exodus 18: 13-24) Tamar sought justice from Judah, who avoided her. She took extraordinary steps to receive what she was due, and he eventually acknowledged that she had been right. (Genesis 38) The daughters of Zelophehad believed that a law was unjust, and appealed to Moses. God agreed that the law was unjust and corrected it. (Numbers 27)

Sometimes we seek justice and cannot find it. Psalm 58 is a cry against the injustice of human beings and institutions. It ends with confidence in the justice of God, that God will punish authorities who judge unfairly. It is a very satisfying prayer to read when one feels wronged.

This brings us to the question of what to do when it is God who seems to be unfair. If God is both powerful and good, then why do bad things happen to innocents? The Book of Job explores the question. First we have the so-called comforters, who have read Deuteronomy and insist that Job must have done something to deserve his terrible losses. Job rejects their advice, and expresses frustration with the mysteriousness of God. He demands answers of God. In reply, God gives the “Whirlwind” speech in chapter 38, asserting that God’s plans are mysteries beyond the human mind.

The Book of Lamentations offers us another model, one that is uniquely Jewish. We are in a covenant relationship with God, and we can lament our loss and our pain. Lament is the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. The voices in Lamentations acknowledge that the people of Judah did not heed the warnings of the prophets, but they grieve and complain about their suffering. A great city and a beautiful Temple were destroyed. People died. Terrible things happened. And as the voices express all of the emotions, they are confident that God listens. God has to listen, because there is a covenant. We can pray prayers of lamentation when we are suffering. We can say, “God, pay attention to my suffering! I do not meekly accept it!” In other words, we can be angry with God.

Another answer from tradition: Some of the ancient rabbis and mystics suggested that the answer to injustice lay in the afterlife. If things are not fair in this world, they will be set right in the next.

Some authorities suggest that suffering is a test. In the first line of Genesis 22, God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son. In the story, God sends an angel at the last minute to stop Abraham from killing Isaac, once he has passed the test. Certainly we can frame sufferings as a test, but it is for many an unsatisfying answer.

Other answers say that suffering teaches us things, that it is an opportunity to grow spiritually, or even that it is a special gift from God. To all that, I say a doubtful “maybe.” It is certainly possible to learn and grow from suffering. It is also possible to be destroyed by it. I would never, ever say to someone who is suffering, “You will be a better person for suffering this.”

My favorite text on suffering from the tradition is aggadah in the Talmud:

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba had fallen sick. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him, and asked, “Are these afflictions dear to you?” Rabbi Chiya replied, “Neither they nor their reward!” Rabbi Yochanan said, “Give me your hand.” Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan revived him. Later, Rabbi Yochanan was ill, and Rabbi Chanina went to see him. He asked the same question. Events proceeded exactly as in the first story: Rabbi Chanina asked, Rabbi Yochanan replied, “Neither they nor their reward,” Rabbi Chanina asked for his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan was revived. [The text then asks why Rabbi Yochanan needed help, since he had been able to revive Rabbi Chiya. The answer:  “A captive cannot release himself from prison.” – a paraphrase of Berakhot 5a

Each of the rabbis who suffers is asked if his suffering is dear to him, and each rabbi says, “neither they nor their reward!” In other words, if it is a lesson, they don’t want the lesson. If there is a reward for it in the next life, they don’t want that. If it is a test, or a gift, or whatever it is – they don’t want it! They don’t want to suffer.

Then each time, the visitor says, “Give me your hand.” And what revives them is the touch of another person. They cannot heal themselves; but in relationship with another human being, they get relief.

The answer to suffering, for me, is not about God. I think the Book of Job and Maimonides are right: I am not capable of understanding God. What comfort there is comes from the touch of another hand. I have to reach out: I have to take some initiative to connect. But when I am suffering, if I will reach out, if someone will return the touch, my suffering will be reduced.

That is why it is so important that we respond to the suffering of others when we are able. God is not going to appear in a fiery chariot from the sky to fix suffering. God has created each of us with a heart and hands that can reach out. We are here to do the work of God in the world. If we have the power to fix something, wonderful! But even when we cannot fix anything, we can be present. We can notice. We can care.

As the activists of Black Lives Matter say, #SayTheirNames. We can acknowledge suffering, we can be witnesses to it. We can have the courage to remain aware and present even when it is uncomfortable to do so.

 

This world is full of trouble. People get sick. Old age is hard. Pets die. Children suffer. Children die! Sometimes unjust leaders are in charge. Even the most powerful of us need help sometimes, for as the story says, a captive cannot release himself from prison. What we can do is reach out to one another. Sometimes we can fix things; usually what we can do is extend a hand and say, “You are not alone. I’m here with you.”

And in that moment of connection, the Holy One is there.