By Dr. Gila Jedwab, DMD
A friend of mine who lives in Israel messaged me on Facebook. She said that she went to pray at the Kotel last week. She told me there was security restricting the amount of people praying at one time. She sent me a picture of this sad sight. As she approached the Kotel and saw the long lines and the distance between the people, she cried. She confided to me that the saddest part was how quietly this scenario slipped in as the new status quo. The complacency broke her heart. To her, no one seemed to be questioning the sad reality of these new norms implemented at our precious Kotel. To quote her words, “We know that Aharon stopped the mageifah with the Ketoret so why isn’t anyone telling us to say the Pitum HaKetoret on a daily basis?” I heard her desperation.
The Kotel is world famous for masses huddled together. Where prayers are mumbled so close to each other that they merge into one. There have been times when I have stood so close to the woman praying next to me at the Kotel that I have felt her body heaving and her sobs in my own throat. My own prayers fell away and all I could do was ask Hashem to please help this poor woman whose body was near mine. I miss those days, where I didn’t secretly wonder if she had antibodies.
What has happened to me? Then it hit me. Society has become so busy with the practicalities of maintaining physical health that we seem to have left mental health out. We have become so focused on Clorox and Purell without noticing what that focus has done to our sense of well being.
I noticed the subtlety of the verse that says, “vnishmartem al nafshoseichem.” I realized it doesn’t say “et gufeichem.” Maybe in our hyper focus on health of the body we have neglected vitality of the spirit.
In my quest to feel good in life, I have learned one important principle. The vitality of our physical health derives itself from the vitality of our spiritual health. It has always been refuat hanefesh mentioned before refuat haguf.
Internal spiritual wellness is a guiding force for every cell of the body to find its way back to health. It is well known that a healthy, unfettered heart upregulates all our best immune responses. These two systems do not run independent of each other. Body and soul run in tandem. Never one without the other.
Whenever we single out physical health so dramatically, it can marginalize the other types of health. Having a sound body is important but having a sound mind and soul cannot fall by the wayside. Care of the soul should not take a backseat to care of the body. Mostly because only one of those things is eternal.
At my son’s high school graduation last week, the principal’s speech touched my soul. He told the story of an American soldier who helped liberate a concentration camp full of child survivors. The horrified soldiers hurried to make the starving children a pot of soup. As the emaciated children stood on line patiently waiting for this precious food, one soldier noticed a small boy at the back of the line. Their eyes met and locked. The soldier felt terrible that he wasn’t able to speed up the line for this little boy. So instead he walked over and gave him a big hug. What happened next was the part of the story that made me cry. The rest of the children saw this and took themselves off the soup line. They formed a new line in front of that soldier so that they could each get a hug too.
What this story tells me is that children instinctively know that their soul’s health is vital for their survival. It also tells me something incredible about that soldier. He knew to put the care of the soul of another creature above his own physical concerns. He could have been afraid of typhus or cholera or any number of diseases that these children could have given him. But that generation knew something that this generation may have forgotten. It is cruel to withhold physical care and affection out of fear of contracting disease. Just ask any poor soul put into isolation at a hospital. Healing is much more of a struggle from that lonely place.
As I grow older and hopefully wiser I have figured something out about the phenomena of closeness. Closeness with people feels good. But closeness with G-d feels even better. The tighter I tether my rope to G-d, the more I feel the emotion we are all chasing right now. The bliss of unshakable security.
How can we experience closeness with G-d? I can feel Him best through the five physical sensations He gave me. When I smell the fresh morning air outside on my backyard deck, taste icing from the graduation cake, look up to see the sky on fire at sunset on the Long Beach boardwalk, or hear thunder (or was that fireworks?) rumbling outside, I feel Him.
I sometimes imagine His breath so close to mine that I can feel it on my cheek. King David gave me the idea to try this. He said, “To You, says my heart, Seek my Face! It is Your Face I seek” (Psalms, 27).
King David dreamed about coming face to face with G-d. Breath to breath. This helped me understand that G-d becomes Most Real to me through the pathways of my senses. I whisper to Him all the time, ‘Thank you for everything. I know You got me.”
I trust that my life and His life are eternally inseparable. We are forever intertwined. This is why I have changed the word emunah for myself. Instead of saying the word Faith, I plug in the words ‘Relationship with Hashem.’ And it fits in perfectly every time. My brain works better with this new, more concrete translation. It’s an amazing trick of language.
My relationship with Hashem involves one thing only. I talk to Him about everything, all the time. This looks a lot less crazy with an earbud in.
With Hashem near me, I can move freely in this world, confident that we can never be separated. G-d promises to never let us go or destroy us. (Devarim, 4:31) Rashi explains this word “yirapecha” to mean, G-d will not loosen His hold on you, ‘from holding onto you with His Hands.’ Even Rashi imagines G-d with Hands.
G-d also says in Sefer Devarim that we’re shown all the mind blowing miracles of Exodus in order to know One thing inside our hearts and inside our souls. That One thing is this: “That Hashem, He is the G-d. There is None Other Besides Him.” “Ki Hashem, Hu HaElokim. Ein Od Melvado.”
G-d constantly adjures us to trust Him. This is for our own benefit. Trusting Him helps us to slowly release the vice grip on some of our human tendencies.
Our primal defaults towards Fear and Control. Once I internalize and visceralize my relationship with G-d to the point where I can feel His kindhearted Presence standing in the room with me, I can feel what it means to let go and let G-d.
This pandemic woke up two sleeping giants. One giant named Fear and his other brother, named Control. Whenever you see Fear appear on the scene, you can assume Control is not too far behind. Fear does his best work when Control comes in as back up.
In life, there is a short list of things we have a small measure of control over. Your smile, your eyeballs, your mood, your reactions, your faith. That’s about it.
There is a much longer list of things we cannot control. Some of those things are: Other people’s behavior. Other people’s beliefs. Other people’s health. Invisible particles floating in the air. Your hair on a frizzy summer day.
Trying to control these things will only lead to endless amounts of frustration.
Whenever fear and control show up to the party, chaos jumps in too. The best thing to do when you see those two tough guys rolling up is to bring in a different set of reinforcements. Trust and Surrender.
These two equally powerful guys show up and remind us how little in life we actually control. They invite our very Real G-d back to the party to help put those other two Giants back to bed.
Korach and his followers had underestimated something huge. G-d’s Real Relationship with Moshe Rabbeinu. As a result, they were swallowed alive. Shockingly, there were still some Jews that continued to complain after witnessing that horror.
What was Moshe’s immediate plan to try to wake them up? Moshe had Aaron run around the camp burning the incense used in the service of G-d at the Temple. This seems like a strange plan. Why did Moshe think this would work?
Maybe because Moshe understood the anatomy of the brain. That the olfactory lobe is closest to the amygdala and the hippocampus, the two memory centers of the brain. Maybe Moshe knew that smells ring bells. Maybe he knew that our other senses of sight, sound, and touch do not pass through these memory centers. Only Smell does. Only smell can instantaneously snap a memory back. And Moshe knew he had no time to waste here. He needed the shortest route home.
Maybe Moshe hoped if they would smell G-d in the air, this would fast track their memory. The memory that G-d is the most Real Relationship in their life. The One in charge of all things. Maybe this olfactory memory would help them stop complaining and start trusting. Maybe zapping them back to G-d through smell would be the quickest way of saving their lives.
Maybe we should consider what my friend recommended and add Pitum Haketores to our daily prayers for a while. Maybe that prayer could serve as smelling salts and remind us that G-d is still in the air.
May we all be zocheh to travel easily to Israel again and pray in huddled masses together at the Kotel. May we see the geulah b’rachamim come down quickly for all our senses to behold.
Dr. Gila Jedwab has been practicing dentistry for nearly two decades. She graduated from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in 2000 and completed her residency in general practice at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her dental practice is in Cedarhurst.