By Dr. Gila Jedwab
I had a conversation with a friend this week. We talked about why I have been so worried about G-d’s feelings during this crisis. He asked me: If we, as humans can’t comprehend what G-d really is or if He even has emotions, are we held accountable to worry about them?
I answered him, “If G-d paints Himself everywhere in the Bible as having feelings, ranging from joy and satisfaction to disgust and contempt, then isn’t He giving us implied consent to deal with Him inside this realm of emotion?”
Is it feasible to consider that G-d portrays Himself as having all these emotions as a kindness to us? I say yes. They give human beings permission to feel all these wide and varied emotions that G-d says He feels and then turn around and use these same emotions to engage with Him. To make Him feel as real as a person to us. We can’t see him in this world, so maybe the next best thing is to feel Him.
But G-d goes even further. He asks us to emulate Him inside a specific emotional realm. He calls upon us to be His Reflection, which forces us to contemplate, what exactly are we reflecting?
G-d doesn’t leave it up to our imagination. He lays it all out for us. He describes the emotional spectrum to emulate in thirteen succinct terms, better known as the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy — different varieties of compassion, mercy, slow to anger, truth, and forgiveness. Even though all emotions seem acceptable to G-d, these are His preferred ones.
I think of Elie Wiesel and his intense and fiery relationship with G-d. He saw the face of G-d in Auschwitz, and he raged at it for decades. For some reason, I think G-d enjoys all discourse, even this intense kind.
I think of Moshe Rabbeinu, who argued like a defense attorney with G-d. And G-d often acquiesced to his emotional plea on behalf of the Jewish people.
So if attempting to engage G-d inside the emotional realm is fair game, what realm does G-d consider out of bounds?
The answer to this question jumped out at me during the Torah reading on Shavuot. When G-d sets the scene for giving the Jewish nation the Torah at Mount Sinai, G-d instructs Moshe on two separate occasions to set up a boundary in front of the mountain. No one can come close to this boundary or they will die. G-d is not messing around here. What does this “do not cross” line, blocked off by yellow police tape, come to represent?
I understood from this boundary that human beings are not allowed to cross into a different realm of G-d.
Although G-d seems to grant us permission to engage in the emotional realm with him, He does not want us to enter an entirely different realm — the realm of His thoughts. This is the ultimate “do not cross” line. We can never know who He is, how He got here, why He does the things He does, or why He makes the mitzvot He makes.
In firmly conveying His hard boundary to Moshe, G-d gave us a precedent, an instrument that we can make use of every day of our lives. This epic display of boundary-making is a template for us on how to set boundaries of our own.
Again Brené Brown saves the day on this concept. She converts this daunting prospect into one simple instruction, a single common-sense guideline. The procedure of boundary-making boils down to one question you must ask yourself: “Is this OK for me or is this not ok for me?’ Simple as that.
Once you have the honest answer to this simple question, you can then muster the courage to convey the practical physical steps to erecting any boundary. Once you hold the clarity of the boundary in your mind, the plan of action almost formulates itself.
Is giving your coworker a ride to work every day OK for you? If not, make a boundary. Maybe once a week is OK, maybe not. Is babysitting your grandchildren all the time OK for you? If not, make a boundary. Maybe once a week is OK, maybe not. Is lending someone money OK for you? If not, make a boundary. Maybe once a month is OK, maybe not. You get the hang of it.
The more practice we get at communicating our needs in clear language, the more kindness we can finesse while doing it. The beautiful gift you give the other person in setting your boundary is love.
How does setting a boundary make room for love? A boundary safeguards the relationship against the ugly feelings of dread and resentment. Resentment is the nasty feeling that creeps in when someone has taken advantage of your goodness. When someone has not appreciated what you have done for them and continues to ask for more. Resentment over time can kill a relationship.
What does it feel like? It feels like you want to run away every time you see this person coming. It feels like you never want to pick up the phone when you see their name on your screen.
What is the concern we have in making a boundary; what are we afraid could happen? We worry that making the boundary may cause the person to fall out of our life.
Whenever I have mustered the strength to make a boundary, over time the person ended up feeling the same relief I did. I haven’t lost anyone to a boundary yet. And if I do lose someone in my life, it is a price I am willing to pay for my mental health. I have seen many times when I make a boundary with someone, as kindly as I possibly can, we both end up feeling better.
Boundaries look different to each of us and are constantly in flux. What was OK for me last week may not be OK for me today. What is OK for my brother may not be OK for me. And that’s OK. Stay true to yourself.
Always listen for that alarm bell inside that tells you that someone has stepped one foot over your “do not cross” line. The sooner you catch this, the easier it is to kindly show them the boundary. If someone is halfway across your lawn, it is a lot trickier to get them to move back. Everyone’s lawn has different sized and shaped boundaries. Some are wide open and some are heavily guarded. Seeing the boundaries of someone else’s lawn is a life skill that needs constant grooming.
As a culture, we have vilified the emotions of anger and resentment. In reality they are actually our friends. They arrive on the scene for one purpose — to point out any breaks in your fence, places where you need to tighten up or repair a boundary. The key is to take a few minutes to thank those first friends for coming, then swap them out for a different set of friends: kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.
So this leads to the million dollar question: Why does it make me angry when people ask me to wear a mask? What boundary has been violated?
The answer is simple: My spiritual right to my relationship with Hashem feels violated.
I have worked hard at this relationship for years, to make it real and to make it like He is standing in the room with me. That’s the emunah I’m talking about — real time emunah.
So anytime I am forced to wear a mask, I experience it as a boundary breach. It simply is something that is not OK with me.
This virus came out of nowhere and asked me if I will do a trust fall into the arms of G-d or will I grab at physical things to avoid doing the trust fall?
A trust fall is a trust-building game in which a person deliberately allows themselves to fall backwards into the arms of the person behind them, trusting wholeheartedly that the other person will catch them. The more you trust the person behind you, the easier the fall becomes.
When a gracious oral surgeon I work with offered me an N95 mask in March, my knee-jerk response to him caught me off guard. I said, “Emunah is my mask.” This weird and unexpected answer mystified even me. I wasn’t even sure what I meant.
Over time, with all the writing and self-examination I have done, I have come to realize the emunah I was talking about wasn’t the blanket word for faith that has grown stale in our vernacular. The emunah I was talking about is my vibrant and living relationship with G-d. I wish I had a more updated word for that.
So when I said emunah was my mask, I wasn’t kidding, I was offended. The thought of wearing a paper mask was an insulting imitation to the real mask I wanted to wear.
This does not mean that I think the virus isn’t real. This does not mean that I don’t take extra precautions with my life and the life of others. This doesn’t mean that I don’t wear a mask when I see patients (although that’s more to protect them from my coffee breath). It just means that I wanted the opportunity to show G-d that I trusted Him to catch me no matter what. With every person that insisted I wear it and shamed me for not wearing it, my emunah boundary became even more breached.
I also want to clear another important thing up. This does not mean I am judging anyone who wears a mask. Everyone has a good and valid reason. I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of my good friends are worried that if I see them wearing a mask, I will think they have no emunah.
I know they have emunah because I understand there are different degrees of fear out there and different backgrounds of trauma. I’m not judging. If I’m being honest I’m just feeling twinges of disheartenment. They are different emotions.
I had a conversation with my sister and she helped me clarify the difference between judgment and disheartenment. While both emotions can feel hurtful, they have a different emotional origin. Once you understand this difference, disheartenment can feel like love.
Judgment comes from a place of ego, while disheartenment comes from a place of wanting to maintain connection. Judgment arises from superiority and says “you are less than me.”
Disheartenment arises from the heart and says, “I know we are exactly the same. We just make different choices.”
Judgment shuts down the possibility for connection. Expressing disheartenment bravely reaches out for conversation. We could never be disheartened in someone we didn’t love.
Going back to my mop analogy from last week, I trusted G-d to clean up the invisible mess that only He could see. I saw people all around me stiffen up, unwilling to even attempt the trust fall, frantically looking for any object in front of them to steady themselves with.
As a whole, we were so unwilling to do the trust fall that it became more enticing for us to take the two best gifts we ever got from G-d and make them the enemy. What were these gifts? Oxygen and other people.
We diminished access to both and traded them in for a false sense of control. Imagine how G-d must have felt seeing us walk around His house like His best gifts to us were no longer safe to inhale or to hold? Forgetting that emunah happens on the ground, in real time.
Imagine your kids hiding in their bedrooms and covering their face because they didn’t trust in your ability to clean your own house. I think G-d may be patiently waiting for one massive apology from us.
So I go out on a limb for G-d here. I risk looking like an idiot, a jerk, a simpleton. I am willing to take a few punches to the nose. Why? Because He is my best friend. Because He is worth it.
When these punches do come, they compel me to do important work. They are the chance to practice another aspect of boundaries that I learned from world-famous author and therapist Terry Real. He says, “Boundaries are to the soul what skin is to the body.” They show us where one person’s emotions end and where yours begin, so we don’t constantly trample on each other emotionally.
Terry writes in one of his books that there are actually two boundaries at play when it comes to the art of boundary making. An external one and an internal one.
He brilliantly illuminates this concept with an orange. The firm, outer orange skin represents the person who just crossed your external boundary. The inner white skin is what you do about it — how well you can contain yourself before you react.
Terry teaches that the anger flare from an external boundary violation does not permit the violated one to have “unbridled self expression.” You are not allowed to go crazy on another person because they crossed your boundary. You have to keep your orange juice from squirting all over their face. Your job is to relax and find a calm way to restore the boundary.
This circles back to our life mission of reflecting G-d. It is at this emotional juncture of anger that we must breathe and reach for a “second consciousness,” as Terry calls it. We can order up any one of the thirteen attributes on the menu as tools in dealing with the boundary repair.
We can reach for kindness, compassion, and forgiveness while at the same time being firm in establishing the boundary, like G-d did at the foot of the mountain. He did not mince words. He stated His needs in clear language twice, in case the first time wasn’t enough. The repercussions for not honoring G-d’s boundaries was death. Ours can be a little more relaxed than that.
Why do we work tirelessly on improving our emotional skills in our relationships with human beings? In order to experience the most intoxicating feeling — trust and intimacy with the people closest to us.
As we sharpen and hone our emotions inside the crucible of our relationships, we give ourselves refined tools for something else. We can use these shiny new tools to hammer out our relationship with G-d. The people are the practice. We can now swirl around this newly discovered emotional intelligence inside our hands, create a vortex, and spiral it up to G-d.
What does all this alignment with G-d inside the emotional realm do for us?
When we do our best to develop emotional intimacy in this dark, confusing world, there can be only one reward worth doing all that work: A VIP pass behind the yellow tape.
Maybe in the next world, he throws us the keys to parts of His mind we have been longing to explore — His innermost landscape. Maybe the direct proportion with which we loved him, clung to him, and fell into His arms here in the dark, is the amount of crystal-clear clarity He opens up for us when we get to heaven. All the answers to all the questions.
Imagine that kind of heaven. A place of intimate unity not just with the feelings of G-d, which can sometimes feel cloudy and confusing, but with the mind of G-d, which is sparkling clear and lucid. A place where everything suddenly makes perfect sense. The feeling of sweet relief is how you will know you’ve made it to the other side. It’s how you’ll recognize the place.
This brings me to the saddest part of the Torah for me. The part that chokes me up every time I read it. The part where Moshe Rabbeinu messes up and ends up hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. Hashem vehemently prohibits Moshe from entering the holy land of Israel, the only place he’s ever longed to go.
Whenever one of my kids complains to me that the only place we ever travel to is Israel, they can each recite by heart the forthcoming guilt trip they know is coming: “Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t get to go to Israel! You are so lucky!”
When I walk alone in the streets of Israel there have been times that I invite Moshe Rabbeinu into my consciousness, just to offer him a chance to walk around with me.
Back to the story. What did Moshe do to warrant this non-negotiable decision from G-d? He did not do what Terry Real taught us to do inside our relationships. Moshe did not pause, feel the whoosh of emotion, and then reach for his second consciousness. The calmer reaction would have been not to hit the rock and called the people “you rebels.”
True that the Jewish people constantly complained. True that they took for granted every kindness from G-d and Moshe. True that they needed the firmest boundaries known to mankind. True that they violated them every chance they could get.
At the end of the day Moshe is still held accountable for his reaction in the same way that we are held accountable for our reaction. We can pivot our whole lives on our reaction. Our reaction is our point of power, the sweet spot where true character change is born.
Our greatest job is to feel the whoosh of emotion flare like a firecracker inside us, and let it burn out before reacting. Then, and only then, reach for that calm higher consciousness.
Allowing our collective whoosh of fear to pass may have changed our initial reaction to coronavirus. Allowing our collective whoosh of anger to pass before reacting to the murder of George Floyd. Imagine how different that world could have looked.
The greatest gift we give our family, our neighbors, and the world is allowing the calmer you to react, and to meet any confrontation with questions of curiosity instead of flared fireballs of anger.
Why is this whoosh work so important to our soul? Mother Theresa, at the conclusion of her famous poem called, “Do It Anyway” captures the reason perfectly.
She says, “You see in the final analysis, it is between you and your G-d. It was never between you and them anyway.”
Moshe, and probably all of us, disappointed G-d in the failure to reflect G-d’s best attributes back to Him. He wasn’t judging Moshe, he was just expressing extreme disappointment. Because He wants the relationship with us.
Maybe Hashem refused to rescind His decision in order to emblazon in our collective consciousness just how important this emotional work is.
Although my guessing at G-d’s reason does dangerously cross over into mind of G-d territory, I think there is one caveat that allows people short-term, limited access: If you are using that limited access to help people relate to G-d with love instead of fear. If you portray G-d as seeker of intimacy, not as a cruel punisher, you can cross one foot over for a hot second.
Which leads me to the reason I am writing this. If we all take the opportunity to transmute our impulsive reactions into the sixth of His 13 attributes, called slow to anger, maybe we accomplish something amazing. Maybe each one of us can add to the rectification of this error on behalf of Moshe Rabbeinu.
As the chazan was chanting the dense Aramaic prayer of Akdamus on Shavuot, my only hope of understanding was by following along in the English on the other side.
One particular line caught my eye, fourth from the end. It said, “Being privileged to be seated in the foremost row.’ Having been to several Ed Sheeran concerts I understand the exhilaration that comes from being in the foremost row.
Maybe as we all correct for Moshe Rabbeinu’s mistake, pause and reach for compassion and connection over anger, we will all be worthy to witness something I daydream about all the time: For all of us to be in the foremost row together as we watch our beloved Moshe Rabbeniu take his first steps inside the Holy Land. May it happen quickly and in our days.
Dr. Gila Jedwab has been practicing dentistry for nearly two decades years. 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.