By Gila Jedwab, DMD
Disclaimer: I am not a medical expert nor a rabbinic authority. On an average day, I am a girl fixing teeth who enjoys writing about G-d. What I write is less about advice and more about sharing a mindset. This mindset I spend hours writing down can be summed up in a single sentence.
HASHEM IS REAL. More real than anything you can see. The biggest bummer is that we can’t see Him. The only vessel left at our disposal is to feel him.
All Moshe Rabbeinu ever craved was to see the face of G-d. G-d decided to show Moshe only His back. Imagine the torture of being so intimate with someone and being denied a glimpse of their face. That’s how important faces are to relationships.
I always contemplate one interesting thought: we are missing a lot of information. At one point, we knew all the secrets of the universe. Then, at birth, Heaven wiped our hard drive clean. We are here to recover and reclaim fragments of Intel from wherever we can.
If anything I am talking about inspires you, keep reading. The second it starts to bother you, stop. This is America. You don’t have to read or believe anything you don’t want to. You can even write your own opinions against mine. And it’s all good. It’s called freedom. It is a gift that I will never take for granted, ever again.
Thank you to the Gordons who give me room to exercise this freedom. They graciously offer me a corner of their publishing real estate to speak my piece. I am grateful that they understand what Free Press means. A body of publishers not controlled or restricted by government censorship in political or ideological matters.
This freedom bestowed by our country reminds me of a similar gift bestowed by G-d. It is called Free Will. We all have it. We all inherit this inalienable birthright, written into the constitution of our soul. Free will is the ability to choose anything for yourself. From the color of your socks to the flavor of your religion.
G-d promotes Free Will and evidently so does the Governor of South Dakota. In an interview with Laura Ingraham, Governor Noem declared, “Every South Dakotan has the opportunity to make a decision that they are comfortable with … those who want to come and join us, we will be giving out free face masks if they choose to wear one, but we won’t be social distancing. We are asking them to come and be ready to celebrate the freedoms and liberties we have in this country.”
Part of me is seriously considering moving to South Dakota. I’m sure they have a Chabad over there. South Dakotans seem to remember how to live free. They trust people, trust G-d, and celebrate life. The trifecta of Independence that America was built on.
Human beings were created with another category of liberty. A psychological one. A choice that swirls around inside our emotional sphere.
According to Elizabeth Kubler Ros, “There are only two emotions to choose from, love and fear. There are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it is more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time.”
Fear displaces love, and vice versa. There is only room for one at a time inside your heart.
I went to shul last Shabbos for the first time in five months. It felt brand new. To quote Larry Gordon from last week’s paper, “You see, you learn something new every day, sometimes even more than half a century later.”
I noticed a word in Shema that I have glossed over for 40 years, and that morning for the first time, I saw it. It was the word Yifteh, as in, HiShamru Lachem, Pen Yifteh Livavchem. Yifteh jumped off the page at me. I needed to understand it better. Immediately. What secret was this word keeping from me all these years? I searched Artscroll for the translation. “Guard for yourselves, lest your heart be … seduced.”
Seduced? Whoa. I looked around. I was not expecting to find that juicy word. This word sat me up. Tiny volts of electricity zapped across my synaptic clefts. My mind got to work. What is G-d trying to warn me about here? Who are these charmers coming to seduce my heart?
I distilled it down to a simple equation: The heart is what filters emotion. There are only two primary emotions. The heart can be seduced by only one of these two creatures at a time, love or fear, never the two at once. Which one is Hashem trying to warn me about here?
Then I counted how many times the word Love is mentioned from the Ahava Raba through the end of Shema. Ten times. Fear was mentioned once. If love is promoted at a 10:1 ratio by G-d, then it probably isn’t love that G-d wants us to protect our hearts from. It is something else. We need to stand vigilant at the gates of our heart against some other intruder. We must stop another stealth enemy slipping his way inside. His name is Fear. And he is a Seducer.
When the Bible talks about Yir’as Hashem, I prefer the translation of Awe. Awe is an offshoot of love. Awe is a concentrated version of love. The heart needs no protection from that emotion either. Awe and Love open the heart and relax the body, fear shuts them both down.
Why does G-d beg us to protect ourselves from Fear? Because fear is the greatest universal health risk. Chronic fear suckers its devastating tentacles to every system of the body. A quick Google search will bring up all the research. Chronic fear contributes to ulcers, IBS, cardiovascular damage, decreased fertility, accelerated aging, brain damage, Alzheimer’s, and even premature death.
So when the Torah asks us to guard our health and our souls, what is it really asking us to do? Something simple yet challenging. The Torah is asking us to guard our eyes and ears from the input of frightening things. The 11th commandment: Do not let the scary stuff in.
Whenever something starts to scare you, notice the subtle changes in your body. Your heart starts beating a little faster, breathing gets shallow, palms turn sweaty, pupils dilate. This is your body begging you to Turn. It. Off. Walk away. Hang it up. Reject any form of negative input with all your might. Push it away. Be vigilant. This is your life we are talking about.
Blocking fear has another health benefit. It lifts the brain fog and allows you to think more clearly. Shielding yourself from fear preserves your sanity and the sweetness of your days.
I was thinking, we can use our face covering for double duty. We can slide it up or sideways to block our eyes or ears whenever agents of fear attempt entry through those portals. Your mouth may not be the only vulnerable orifice these days.
It stands to reason that any email, newscast, or Facebook post shared during this time that tallied death tolls or described disease perpetuated a chronic fear/panic state in the population. Could this onslaught of bad news be considered a rodef to your good health? That’s an important question.
The Maharam Padua says that during a time of illness, people who are afraid are more in danger than people who aren’t. The Maharil, who lived in Germany in the 1300’s, is quoted as saying that during a time of plague, you are not supposed to sit shivah, based on the Shulchan Orech. He explains why. When you see a person sitting shivah, you get afraid. Fear itself makes for a matzav sakanah (a situation of danger.) Better not to mourn in public during these times. It only adds to the already heightened state of fear. (Heard from a shiur given by Rav Doniel Osher Keinman).
Anything that adds to the fear, adds to the danger. These rabbanim may have been way ahead of their time on this concept. Science and biology are just beginning to lend credence to the powerful mind body connection. The dire toll fear and panic can exact on the body.
In short and plain language, fear can make you sicker than the disease itself. All the effort at prevention, public awareness, and prediction along with all the graphs, charts, and worst case scenarios broadcast to our collective fascination may have worked against us. They may have seduced people’s vulnerable psyches towards fear and invited the cascade of symptoms that go along with it. It may have turned a normal reality into a self-fulfilling prophecy of pandemic proportions.
This is the Shema’s imperative. The most effective way to preserve your good health is this. Guard against the Seduction Of Fear. Fear can be as alluring as love. They both get our hearts pumping. We cannot bring our entranced eyes to look away. Simple curiosity descends into morbid fascination. Not many people can resist that prolonged twist of rubbernecking.
Bessel Van Der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist, has named this phenomenon, “addiction to trauma.” He correlates the size of crisis showing up in your adult life to the size of trauma you experienced in childhood. He hypothesizes that some adults may seek out the intensity of fear they felt as a child, as a way to “self-medicate.’ As a way of keeping the ‘drug level’ steady. People usually have no idea they are doing this.
To paraphrase Dr. Van der Kolk, he postulates that trauma survivors become dependent on maintaining a state of emotional hyperarousal in the same way a cocaine addict needs a hit. The trauma experienced as a child becomes a sort of gateway drug. Children develop a biological need to recreate and even increase the ‘pleasurable’ feeling of fear into adulthood. As tolerance to the endorphins released from fear increases, the external stimulant must increase as well in order to mount a stronger response. The traumatized child thus unwittingly becomes a fear dependent adult, unconsciously addicted to that intense release of fear hormones into the bloodstream.
In other words, fear was your childhood home and you never moved out. It takes a lot of strength to abandon the familiar. Especially when what feels bad to most people, feels good to you. Just taking the time to understand this concept, can be the beginning of healing. This was a huge insight for me.
I know myself. I am very sensitive to the emotion of fear. I can’t watch Game of Thrones or even Fauda. The violence makes me on edge, so I guard my input. I read and watch only the things that make me laugh, love, and/or get hungry. Mostly reruns of Seinfeld, Super Soul Sunday, and Beat Bobby Flay.
We all grew up with some kind of fear and I try to build a new emotional home for myself every day. I wish there was an emotional version of 1(800) GOT-JUNK. Where they could pull up and haul out the dusty, crushed boxes of trauma from my attic.
I take a strong survival cue from my dog Skeeter on how to deal with fear. When he heard all the fireworks going off last night, he came over to where I was writing. He pressed his trembling body onto my leg. I held him tight and within five minutes he was calm. Dr. Van der Kolk wrote a whole book about how to heal trauma through comforting the body. Though massage and through yoga, not just talk therapy.
There are many different ways to guard your input and to self soothe. For me, I stopped reading the harsh comments about my articles as soon as they made me feel unsettled or afraid. That is a huge part of guarding my input. What are ways you can guard your input?
I talk less to people who trigger me. I never watch the mainstream news. I listen to spiritual videos that seduce my heart back to love. I do yoga. I make prolonged loving eye contact with dogs and small children. I listen to doctors and thought leaders that share my point of view. These are my personal ways of fulfilling U’shmartem Es Nafshoseichem. I hope they can inspire you to find your own.
We also need to pay attention to the little souls entrusted to us. We don’t want them picking up all this fear from us. Our kids are watching our every move.
My husband ran to pick up my son’s medical forms at the pediatric office last week. He came home and said the most profound thing. “If I was a kid, that office would have terrified me.” All the plexiglass, makeshift chair barriers, and covered faces. Does this make the world feel safer to a 7-year-old? It felt surreal and apocalyptic to my 45-year-old husband.
We need to stop and imagine the perspective of the fragile psyches of our most impressionable. How children’s delicate systems are so raw and so wide open to sensing fear. How desperately they rely on our facial cues and nuances for reassurance. How masks can deprive them of those subtle reassurances, when their tentative eyes turn upwards in search of a smile they cannot see. Let us not hardwire our kids for the same fear that we may have been. Let us not introduce them to this addiction. This gateway drug. Let’s do better for them.
I have an internally sourced way to protect myself from fear. It is available to me 24/7. Whoever knows me, knows what I’m about to say. Here it comes. I talk to Hashem. The more I talk to Him, the more He answers me.
Last Friday, I asked Hashem to send me one rabbi that agrees with what I have been saying here. A few hours later, spontaneously, my uncle put his cell phone on speaker so I could hear his friend, a local rabbi, expound profusely on his unconditional support for what I am writing about.
Hashem protects me and even gives me a glimpse behind the scenes from time to time. I had an e-mail exchange with another rabbi who disagreed with me. He explained to me how he was protecting me without even knowing me personally. Now that is a miracle of Hashem. Hashem used a person who disagrees with me to protect me! That is sh’mira and a’havat chinam at their finest.
I want to thank anyone who took the time to reach out to me in support or in disagreement this past week. I appreciate all feedback. The haters and the lovers. It all combines to make life interesting.
I want to publicly thank Hashem that He hasn’t made this pandemic as bad as was originally predicted, despite our awakened and enlivened fears. That is a kindness of biblical proportions. This salvation deserves our humble acknowledgment. Last week’s Pirkei Avot (5:9) mentioned how important it is to be Modeh Al HaEmes.
At the end of shul, one line in Adon Olam was also brand new to me. It knocked me off my feet. B’yado Afkid Ruchi. “Into His hands I entrust my breath.” I got lost for a minute contemplating how much beauty that one line holds. Adon Olam ends off with a line that escalates into an operatic high note. As a teenager, I used to sing it loudly inside my father’s cozy chapel at the Jewish Home. I harmonized in unison with all the 80-year-olds. Nowadays, I hold that reverberating note inside my cranium to shoo away any fear that slipped past the sentry guards of my pericardium. “Adon-Li, V’Lo Eeeraaaaaaaa — G-d is with me and I will not be afraid.” I sing this on a loop to calm myself all the time. It’s never quite as satisfying as the Jewish Home version though.
I pray for G-d’s continued protection over all of us, may we be privy to see behind the scenes footage of G-d’s great redemption from all this madness. Where the final act is G-d wiping the tears, and the fears, from all our faces.
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.