By Dr. Gila Jedwab
The Way In
With all the upheaval in the world, I doubt I need to point out that the world is in total chaos. The unemployment rate, food pantry lines, increased child and spouse abuse, shuttered businesses, just to name a few.
During this time of stillness, people experienced many beautiful connections and transformations. This served a purpose, helping people take inventory of their lives.
But look at us now. I want to cry when I see images of people in South Africa waiting on food lines that go for miles. When I hear about friends’ businesses that are closing. Worrying about the repercussions on the mental health of our children. Seeing videos of people at each other’s throats. After all of our efforts to prevent death, the only thing we all ended up in together is one huge mess.
I ask myself, if we live in a universe of cause and effect, what was the cause of all this heart breaking?
This mess didn’t get here by itself. We won’t do humanity a service by not looking back and wondering how we took this awful turn and arrived inside a world turned upside-down. As Socrates said, “an unexamined life is not worth living.” It is our collective responsibility to start doing some examining.
What hit me hard at the beginning of the madness was how panic turned common sense on its heels and swiftly left the building. In our valiant effort to stop death, we ended up shutting down life. Maybe life didn’t like being shut down. Maybe we angered life. Maybe all life really wants to do is live. Maybe in return for the hard shutdown, life handed us back chaos.
From the very beginning, for reasons I don’t fully understand, I was never afraid. I was angry at the loss of my ability to make a living, my personal autonomy and at the world for going along with it.
I was also angry for G-d. I haven’t been able to express this third reaction in a way that makes me feel satisfied. So I’m going to try one more time here, with an analogy. A good analogy can really make the lightbulb go on.
The frustration I kept expressing to my husband in the beginning was this. Why is the world trying to control something invisible and airborne? It made zero sense to me.
We can’t see it and it’s in the air. Do these things seem like ours to control? The futility struck me hard. It looked to me like human beings started taking dangerous steps outside of the boundaries of human control and into G-d’s territory.
We should put our best efforts into hand washing, special care of the elderly, and other common-sense measures of prevention that we have used in the past with other viruses. Maybe even ramp up those steps a little. But to lock down and mask up an entire civilization seemed like a gravely flawed miscalculation. To me, the drastic measures looked like a rapid descent into madness.
I ask myself: What was the seed of miscalculation that we saw early on in the news that got amplified into the global upheaval that we are now seeing on the news?
What was the error in judgment that manifested this vast collateral damage in our neighborhoods and all around the world?
When we confess our wrongdoings on Yom Kippur, if you look at the translation, they are mostly sins of the heart, misguided emotions.
What dominant misguided emotions can we trace back to the beginning of this disaster? Arrogance and perfectionism. The first one set the second one into motion. The arrogant mandated a set of ever-changing rules that drove the innocent, obedient people into the abyss of perfectionism.
Arrogance is an easy character flaw to spot. Most of us know arrogance when we see it. It looks like someone who always thinks he knows better than you and isn’t open to criticism or self-doubt.
Arrogance looks like intractable and infallible experts standing at a podium projecting worst-case scenarios from hypothetical projections. It looks like someone unwilling to amend his opinion to reality or to the educated opinion of others. Whenever you hear the word “expert,” be on the lookout for arrogance. Every one of us has more to learn about everything. Nothing wakes up someone’s ego more than being called up to the podium as an expert.
Here comes the analogy: If this virus were a massive spill on the floor, we could have done our part in helping G-d clean it up, but instead we grabbed the mop from Him and shoved Him out of the way. We are now trying to grab hold of a world spinning out of control. Are these two things connected? I think so.
Some call it karmic payback. I call it cause and effect.
All the debates and blame shifting that we see cropping up in the news are just mini versions spawned from that original arrogance: the power grab from G-d. After that initial grab took place, we all just started grabbing the mop from each other instead of from G-d. Arrogance begot more arrogance.
People were suddenly convinced that they knew best about how and when to open parks, beaches, and businesses. Those people were feeding the gremlin of that original arrogance, after midnight. By blindly following arbitrary rules, we inadvertently kept feeding another gremlin — the gremlin of that initial helplessness. Every time we ignored our own intuition and followed more arbitrary rules, hundreds more feelings of helplessness sprouted up and began running around. Will the kids go back to camp? Will the world ever be the same? Will people come back to my business? Helplessness begot more helplessness.
What if, at the beginning, we reached inside our soul for trust and levelheadedness? What if we headed off the original helplessness by questioning the original arrogance coming at us?
I daydream about what that could have looked like. I long for that kind of peace and security, where each man can be trusted to follow his soul’s inner guidance. “Blessed is the man that will trust in G-d, G-d will be his security.” An inner security that would have begotten more outer security.
I’d like to expand on my mop analogy. We all have to agree on one thing in order for this analogy to work: That this world belongs to G-d, and we are His guests who stopped in for a visit.
Now, imagine you have a best friend from birth, a friend who’s always been there for you, always had your back. This friend graciously invited you to a party over at his house. Imagine that during this party, there was an upsetting spill on the floor, but it’s a spill that only your friend could see. None of the other guests, including you, are able to see it. Imagine that as your friend is slowly cleaning the invisible spill, you aggressively grab the mop from his hand because you don’t trust him to do a good job. It’s nice to try to help out, but you can’t really do a good job because you can’t really see where the mess is, so you’re just haphazardly swiping at everything. Now imagine something worse.
Imagine you walk around, forevermore, afraid to touch anything in his house. You carry your own Lysol wipes everywhere you go and wipe down every single surface that the spill might have touched, keeping a blanket over your face, afraid that the air in his house could make you sick. The same air that used to be his greatest gift to you now makes you a nervous wreck.
Worst of all, you warn all your other friends and family that your best friend’s house is no longer safe and they all need to take the same precautions, and you shame them if they don’t. Imagine how mortally insulted your best friend would be with you walking around like he doesn’t know how to manage his own house, or worse, like he doesn’t even exist. Then you add insult to injury by making small talk with other partygoers about summer plans and food shopping lines while your host is standing there horrified.
How much regret would your host have for inviting you over in the first place? Imagine the permanent damage and estrangement that would take place inside your friendship.
My biggest worry during this pandemic was this. Have we hurt the feelings of G-d? Did we shove Him aside at his own party? Is He standing in the corner completely mortified? And if He is, is there anything we can do about it?
Brené Brown is a brilliant researcher on emotion. She goes into a lab and attempts to measure, record, and decipher data on the hardest thing to capture — human emotion. Brené gives words to emotions that have eluded the grasp of neat language.
She defines perfectionism in a way I never heard before. She says that perfectionism is the belief that if we look perfect and act perfect, we can avoid shame, blame, and judgment.
Perfectionism is the struggle to try to live perfectly, so no one can blame us, shame us, or judge us. Because that stuff hurts.
LL Cool J liberated me from the pull of perfectionism with one simple sentence. He said, “What other people think about me is none of my business.”
All that’s on me is to stay in my lane and do the right thing, without glancing to my right or left for outside opinion. Anyone else’s opinion of me is not really about me. It’s information about them and how they see the world.
Perfectionism has also seen a shocking magnification during this pandemic. Many people have doubled down on their perfectionism. The disinfecting of boxes and constant wiping, gloving, and masking. If there was ever a chance to understand the experience of OCD, it is now.
Because of this magnification of perfectionism, an interesting reversal has happened. The things perfectionists are most terrified of experiencing they ended up inflicting on other people. They turned the flashlight of those three feelings outward. They beamed everyone in their path with the blinding light of blame, shame, and judgement.
Why did they do this? It’s an understandable human coping mechanism. In order to discharge the uncomfortable internal feeling of losing control, people turn the feeling outward and exert control on everyone around them.
During this pandemic the feeling of losing control went through the roof. Frightened people inadvertently subjected people around them to some of the worst kind of judgment, shame, and blame I have ever seen.
They looked at the people getting together to pray and at mothers with their kids in the park and screamed, “Murderers!” Grand-scale shaming. Zero empathy.
Judgment abounded on both sides between the ones trying to exert control and the ones resisting the control.
Why do we all resort to these primitive reactions? It makes us feel better in the moment. But in the long run they feel awful.
Can we do better than this and reach for a higher response? I believe, with practice, that we can.
Last week, a man in the supermarket embarrassed me. He yelled loudly at me for stopping to talk to a friend and not having my mask on properly. His fearful need to control his environment met face to face with my need for oxygen and freedom, and it wasn’t pretty. I was able to see his yelling for what it was, a discharge of fear and uncertainty. I was able to muster up something else Brene taught me about.
The Way Out
I mustered empathy.
I saw him as someone who may have been touched by trauma in his life. Maybe his mother died when he was young or maybe he lost a child to a disease. I saw him as a scared little boy behind that mask and I was able to understand his fear. I looked him right in the eye and said, “I’m sorry you are afraid.” I fixed my mask and kept walking. In any confrontation, it is always the more aggressive one who is more afraid. Being curious about fear helps me not to retaliate with my own fear.
The question becomes how far I have to go on my end to alleviate this man’s extreme fear. I don’t know. I hope to ask Brene one day; maybe she knows the right balance of compassion and personal autonomy.
If we want to climb ourselves out of the massive crater we dug here, we need to do one thing. Backtrack and figure out the reversal of those original emotional mistakes.
Any idea for redemption imagined inside the original fearful emotional state will only add to the chaos. Any idea imagined from within a peaceful state will bring effortless solutions. Like Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking used to create them.”
I was talking to my friend on the phone. Her husband is a pediatrician. She told me he is fielding constant phone calls from patients about safety in resuming normal life. She told me that he tells people, “I don’t know the right answer.” To me, this is gold. With every honest answer he gives, he is restoring humility back to a world that turned too far into arrogance. He is not pretending for even a second to be an expert. The “experts” thought they knew the answer to everything and look where that got us. With every humble answer this doctor gives, he is empowering people to check in with themselves, handing them back the rights to their own common sense. Every humble conversation he has with his patients is healing the epidemic of arrogance and the epidemic of helplessness. He is restoring balance to the world.
There are two emotional skills that Brené talks about all the time. She has written entire books on them. I will try my best to sum them up in a few sentences.
- To be able to see the world as others see it.
- To be non-judgmental.
- To communicate your understanding of another person’s feelings.
- Taking the risk of opening your heart towards someone else without knowing how they will respond.
I had no idea how that guy in the supermarket would respond to my attempt at empathy; he could have punched me in the face. Thankfully, he didn’t. He just walked away muttering to himself. I met his yelling with all the kindness I could muster and it felt really vulnerable.
Vulnerability is not knowing the outcome but making an effort towards connection anyway. You may get shut down or punched. But the risk of being vulnerable is worth it. It opens up the possibility for most worthwhile reward, authentic human connection.
Many people find the risk of extending their heart to someone too painful to even try. I totally understand the need to protect your heart. There is safety under that armor. But what waits on the other side of lifting off that armor is the most mutually comforting thing. One soul catching the glimpse of another.
The better we get at using reparative emotions over damaging ones, the quicker we solve problems. G-d uses the power tools of emotional bravery to fast-track recovery. Every time I catch myself turning to blame, shame, or judgment and switch gears towards empathy and vulnerability, I help the world get back on track. Sometimes the best practical solutions are the spiritual ones.
The Way Up
What is the point of cultivating all these right emotions, especially during a pandemic? It is so much hard work. It feels endless. Why even try? One practical answer is that it’s to neutralize the chaos and restore peace.
Another answer might be this. Working on our emotional skills invites the opportunity for something magical to happen — true connection with human beings.
Is that the end goal, or is there something even higher than that?
Maybe there is an eternal reason to do all this hard emotional work. Maybe we hammer out vulnerability, empathy, and humility with other people so we can learn how to get it right with G-d. Maybe other people are the dress rehearsal and G-d is the opening night.
Throughout the Bible, G-d paints himself anthropomorphically, both physically and emotionally. He describes Himself as a real person, with hands, fingers, ears, and eyes. He also expresses delight, satisfaction, anger, and frustration. He sprinkles all these human emotions throughout the Bible.
Why does the Al-mighty need to portray Himself with emotions? It makes Him relatable.
Why does he want to be relatable? So we can play emotional volleyball with Him.
Intimacy happens when we share trust and vulnerability. Maybe that’s the point of this whole game. To learn these skills with people and then use them with G-d. Maybe that’s how we win at life. Maybe the earthly intimacy we work hard to develop here with G-d expands on the other side to become our share of heaven.
That’s why perfectionism in religion can be so detrimental. It clogs up that channel of connection with the fear of doing it wrong. Perfectionism abounds inside many religions. People become so afraid of what G-d thinks of them that they never look Him in the eye.
Arrogance is even more dangerous than perfectionism; it completely occludes the connection portal with G-d. Arrogance suffocates the possibility for intimacy with people and it does the same with G-d. When you think you always know better, you don’t stop to listen to the heart of the other person or to the heart of G-d. G-d speaks about His heart all the time in the Bible. I don’t want to be the one to suffocate it.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, in his book Jewish Meditation, introduced me to this idea of intimacy with G-d. He writes that the emotions we generate towards people help us conjure them towards G-d. People are the practice.
Rabbi Kaplan says, “One can ponder the love one feels for another person and enhance the emotion…One can take this intensified love and direct it towards G-d” (Page 23).
We do the work with people so we know how to do the work with G-d.
The Most Risqué Analogy Ever
The opening line as we began the book of Numbers caught my eye.
“G-d spoke to Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first of the second month, in the second year after their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying.”
Why is G-d marking time from the Exodus of Egypt? Why not start the clock from Creation? And why is He so long-winded in the way He describes time. He could have just as easily stated the date, plain and simple.
Then I thought about all good love affairs and couples that are crazy in love with each other. They have so many anniversaries it makes you want to raise one eyebrow at them. But if you ask them to pick only one anniversary, it would probably be the moment they displayed unquestionable exclusivity with each other in front of all the world—their wedding. If you catch them in a particularly googly-eyed moment, they will count the years in days and months, too. Then you might have to raise both your eyebrows at them.
G-d chose to count his wedding date with us from when He rescued us from slavery in Egypt, not from Creation.
It was when he became our Husband.
This topic zapped my brain back to a time many years ago when I read a book that changed my life, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, by Steve Harvey. The man is a straight-talking genius.
He explained men to me. He said that the way a man shows his love for his chosen woman, the way he claims her, comes down to three P’s. He professes, he provides, and he protects.
In every analogy of G-d and the Israelites, G-d is the man and the Jewish people, the woman.
So it makes perfect sense for G-d to choose His most amazing rescue mission as his wedding anniversary. It was the time when G-d professed to the entirety of creation that we are His woman, now watch Me as I protect them from the chasing Egyptian army, and watch how I will provide every need they have in the desert.
The only thing G-d asks in return is for a different set of three things, which Steve Harvey brilliantly explains.
There are three things men want in return for the three P’s they give us. They want their woman’s support, loyalty, and physical intimacy.
Support. Steve explains that support comes down to gratitude and appreciation. He says, “We’ve got to feel like we are king …Trust me, the more you make us feel like we are special, the more we’ll give in return.”
Loyalty. Steve explains that men feel loyalty and love as one and the same. When you choose your man through thick and thin, when life is hard and when life is easy, that is how he feels your love. Steve says, “If your loyalty is real and unimpeachable, that man will kill concrete for you.” G-d sets aside His first two commandments for loyalty; I’m pretty sure it’s just as important to G-d.
Physical Intimacy. G-d’s mitzvot are often physically demanding. Maybe that physical engagement somehow means just as much to G-d.
Then I randomly flipped to the haftarah because a friend mentioned last week that he reads it every week. I felt guilty that I had been neglecting it. There it was (Hoshea, 2:1–22), the most risqué analogy yet. The analogy that no one can ignore because there’s a harlot in it. G-d in His infinite wisdom knew He would have our full attention at the word harlot. The text describes a time when the Israelites went off course, betrayed G-d and worshiped idols.
Sentences jumped out at me that strangely sounded a lot like Steve Harvey. “Let her remove her harlotry from before her face.” We let G-d down in the loyalty department.
“She did not realize that it was I who gave her the grain, and the wine, and the oil.” We let G-d down in the appreciation department.
“I shall make her end her New Moon, her Sabbath, and her every festival.” We let G-d down in the physical engagement of mitzvot department, so much so that he no longer wanted them from us.
G-d says he will give us another chance. Even though we violated everything a man needs in a relationship, He says, I still want you back.
“Therefore, behold! I shall seduce her and lead her to the wilderness, and speak to her heart. She will call out there as in the days of her youth and as on the day of her ascent from Egypt.”
G-d is trying to win us back. How does he entice us? He uses our anniversary date, the exodus from Egypt. He takes us back to the glory days. To a time when we were young and G-d professed, protected, and provided in front of the world. He uses the anniversary date to wake up our hearts, to remind us of the commitment we made to each other back in the heady days of our young love affair.
“The desolate valley will be a portal of hope; she will call out here as in the days of her youth.”
G-d wants to open that same portal of intimacy we had when we first got married. Each mitzvah done with the holy emotion of love opens a portal of transcendence to G-d.
“You will call me “my husband,” you will no longer call me “my master.”
This may be the most important point of all! No decent man wants to be feared like a master — he wants to be treasured like a husband. Maybe the mistake we made when we first married G-d was that we feared Him too much. We saw everything He did as punishment, and it got in the way of true intimacy. Maybe G-d seeks an intimacy born of love, not fear. Maybe that’s why we went astray to begin with. Maybe G-d wants a second chance for us to get intimacy right.
He then declares His new vows, “I shall marry you to Me forever … with righteousness and with justice, with kindness and with mercy. I shall marry you to Me with fidelity. And you shall know Hashem.”
When the Bible says the word “know,” it usually refers to physical intimacy. The sweetest intimacy in the relationship will be restored. This time the marriage will be built on love, not fear. And that’s how it will last forever.
The Bible is chock full of stories and analogies. I wonder about this all the time. Why not just write down the rules and hand over an instruction manual to life. Wouldn’t that have been so much easier?
Maybe it is written this way so each one of us can find our own story inside. In finding your own story, it can illuminate your reality in the sparkling way that only an analogy can.
G-d longs for real, loving intimacy with us, so practice your emotional skills on people, especially during a pandemic, and then use them on Him. Analogies give the gift of clarity. Feel free to come up with your own analogies to help the abstract feel real to you.
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.