As Kohellet wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes:
Just wipe it up.
As Kohellet wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes:
Just wipe it up.
It is with profound sadness that I write this post. There is no right or wrong way to cope with the murders at Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh. I’ve seen lots of wonderful emails and posts from leaders in the Jewish community, with suggestions on what to do for kids, as a leader in a congregation, etc. But I have been struggling on how to react as a person. Here are my thoughts as they unfolded on Saturday, with a suggested Mussar practice.
It was surreal to pull up to the synagogue where I facilitate two Mussar groups and see a police car parked in front. There was another police car parked behind the synagogue, near the main entrance. Surreal, but not a surprise. Word of the shooting at Tree of Life *Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh had already hit the news. When something like this happens, we need to protect ourselves.
We spoke of it on both groups – one person said they were not sure they were going to come, but upon hearing the news “I made sure to be here.” This is what we do – we show up in times of grief.
The full horror of the murder of my Jewish siblings did not hit me until later in the day. I am in shock and mourning, as is the whole community of Jews and our allies.
The soul trait of Loving-Kindness (Chesed in Hebrew) teaches that comforting mourners is one of the highest and most sacred acts in Judaism. But how exactly do we mourn when we do not know the dead personally? What if I don’t want to visualize my own beloved sanctuary drowned in blood?
A friend of mine died unexpectedly a few years ago, and I’ve seen first hand how shattering it was to her husband and children. Must I dwell upon the survivors of the 11 who were murdered?
My denial gone, I sit feeling shattered. But still, how do I mourn?
I offer a mussar practice to help us through.
Allow yourself to feel sad. I didn’t feel sad the morning I first heard the news. I didn’t feel much of anything. I used to fear that I was low in the soul trait of Compassion because I did not feel in situations like this. Now I understand that I have too much Compassion, and shut off to avoid being flooded. Now I know this is a normal response to trauma.
A spiritual response to mass murder is to inhabit the feelings that arise. Skipping sadness is dangerous, and opens the door to the evil inclination influencing our actions in ways that make things worse.
So, I am choosing to let myself feel sad. Here are a few ways we can do this together.
Rabbi Ira Stone teaches that the mission of Mussar is “bearing the burden of the other.” In a time like this, we need to hold each other up. We need to bear and be bourn.
Mussar is a practice of personal growth and spiritual transformation. Is it too early to think about growth and change? Yes and no. Before we get to growth, we need to pass through sadness. We practice Mussar so it can be there for us in times of crisis when we need it. We aspire to grow and learn each day, even on the worst days.
We have endured a lot as a people, and will endure more as we continue to pray for peace and a just society. I trust our tradition that coming to grips with sadness is key way station on the path of wholeness, and holiness.
Next Post: Practice Gratitude After Tree of Life?
I’ve often said that my soul traits follow me around, but this is ridiculous. I am currently leading three Mussar groups, and my personal practice was out of sync with all of them. But after a very intense discussion about the soul trait of Loving Kindness in one of the parenting groups, some instinct told me to start on Loving-Kindness right away. We practice Loving Kindness by helping other people without the thought of reward even if they do not deserve it.
Mussar teaches that the world is built on acts of Loving Kindness. There are a few classical examples of acts of Loving Kindness, that include burying the dead, clothing the naked (usually interpreted as taking care of the poor), and visiting the sick. In each case, we are doing something that is uncomfortable, and we are not in a position to get anything in return.
Just a few days later, my cell phone rang when I was getting a decaf almond milk latte at Peets. It was my stepmother. “Oh no,” I thought. “She never calls my cell phone.”
As I feared, the news was not good:. My dad had a stroke.
My parents are divorced, and I lived with my father growing up. Suddenly this man who had raised me is weak on one side of his body, and is having trouble speaking. I feel numb in the moment, and very helpless living on the other side of the country. I wander in the street outside Peets, asking my stepmother to pause as the train blares its way into the station. It is surreal. Then I talk to him on the phone. He speaks with energy, and obvious mental clarity, but I don’t understand the words coming out of his mouth. They are slurred. Very slurred.
To be honest, I was confused about what I should do. I live in California, he lives in Syracuse. The emergency wasn’t so dire that I had to leave immediately. With my wife was in Europe, I needed to take care of the kids. I talked with my stepmother about when to come out. Our initial conversations were very much in head space – “practical considerations” about when I could be most helpful. This week, next week, the following week… Each had it’s advantages when I could be there to help with various things.
Then I sat down to journal that night, and a quiet voice spoke to me. It said “visit the sick.”
“Visit the sick” has no time qualifications attached to it. It purely exists within heart space.
And I knew what I had to do.
The voice of someone in my father’s generation came to me – “I don’t need an ancient Rabbi to tell me the right thing to do.” True. Mussar does not tell us the right thing to do. We already know it most of the time. As Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler put it, Mussar helps the heart understand what the mind already knows. Whether we like to admit it or not, the heart is in charge. The heart is stronger than the head.
So off I went to Syracuse less than 24 hours after my wife got back in town. I thought a lot about Maimonides rules for visiting the sick. They include:
I am back home now. He is doing ok, but the road ahead is long. It was a hard trip, but not nearly as hard as as I thought it would be. Time flowed differently for me the last few days. I spent a lot of time just sitting, just being there.
These rules give me something to hold on to. And they remind me of a greater truth – we visit the sick to preserve human dignity, to sanctify life, and to honor the Divine Spark in all of us.
It has been a crazy busy month for me, mostly in a good way. Today I sent off the final corrections for The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, which goes to the printer July 1. September 8th will be here before we know it! This book launch has a lot of meaning for me, and I continue to struggle a bit with concerns about the outcome. I fear success and failure equally. It is a great week for me to be practicing Trust, for Trust reminds us that we cannot control the outcome, and most things work out well.
I was moved to write today after reading a wonderful article by Marjorie Ingall in Tablet Magazine called “How To Be a Better Ally.” It lists 11 ways to be a better ally to the LGBTQ community, inspired by the tragic events of Orlando. It is so cool to see Jewish checklists for being a Mensch.
Many of us are not sure how to be helpful, supportive, or empathetic in the face of tragedy, even more so towards a minority and oppressed community. For example, Ingall suggests that post Orlando, to “call your LGBTQ friends and family.” She quotes someone who explained how surprised she was “how much it has mattered for my straight friends to reach out and see how I’m doing.” As a result, I reached out to a gay couple close to me to check on them, and they were very appreciative.
Ingall’s list reminds me of a list created by the medieval philosopher Maimonides explaining how to visit the sick. Visiting the sick is a commandment, but it isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Lets face it – it is intrinsically uncomfortable for many people to go to a hospital. We do not want to be reminded of our own frailty. And, we often are not sure what to say or do. Maimonides put together this practical list over 800 years ago, explaining the right way to visit a sick person. His suggestions include:
Visiting the sick is a core part of practicing Loving-Kindness. Remember that we practice Loving-Kindness through acts to sustain others without expecting anything in return. Ingall’s list of ways to be an ally also falls into the category of Loving Kindness. For example, she writes “don’t expect a cookie for being an ally.” You are there to support someone else’s humanity. There is risk in being “out” as an ally, which is why it is an act of Lovingkindness.
In summary, we are not born knowing how to act in every situation. The more outside of our experience, and the more intrinsically uncomfortable the situation, the more we can benefit from lessons and guidance on how to act like a Mensch, a person of outstanding character.
I love lists like this. Sometimes if feels like I need to make every socially awkward mistake until I learn. I am very happy to have a checklist with pointers to prevent me from stepping in the dodo.
Know any good checklists for being a Mensch? Please share below or on the American Mussar Facebook Page.
It has been a rough week. A good friend of mine who also happens to be one of my Mussar students passed away over the weekend. She was about 50 and has two teens at home. It was sudden and unexpected, and her husband, kids, mother, and the rest of us are quite devastated.
Her husband and I are friends; we’ve talked a few times. It is so hard to know what to say to someone who has just lost so much. “How are you?” doesn’t seem like a helpful question. Legacy Connect offers many short articles that cover how to handle a variety of situations. (Read them here.)
Caring for the dead and comforting the bereaved are two important acts of Loving Kindness. While caring for the dead is something we generally leave to professionals these days, comforting the bereaved is something we can all do. When I was putting the finishing touches on The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, I came across an article by writer Anita Diamant, who shared her struggle to comfort a friend who lost a baby. Here is what I wrote
“Diamant described being “in mourning” as a parallel universe where being in the shadow of death is not a metaphor. Her friend told her that every gesture of support, even if it was a phone call or email to say “I’m sorry” counted for a lot because it gave her a connection to the living world. Diamant described her struggle not to try to cheer her friend up as she held her hand while she cried. While I have not been in those exact shoes, I know what it feels like to want to cheer someone else up. In part, it is because we want to feel better. It is really heavy to be there with someone who is in such terrible pain. Diamant’s act of selfless Loving-Kindness leaves me in a kind of helpless awe.”
I thought of Diamant’s words often this week, as I just tried to be there. This week I was in Diamant’s shoes, and as I was with the grieving husband. I just listened. Other times, I also needed support, and was grateful that I had people listening to me as I shared my grief I’m thankful that I have so many friends willing to be there with me, to listen without judgement and without giving advice.
Mussar teaches that there is no escape from the ups and downs of life. We do not have the luxury of retreating and hoping it all goes away. We show up, and do the best we can. It’s nice to have some teachings and guidance along the way. At the end of the day, we all need each other. With the right people at your back, we can live each day like it might be our last, not in frantic haste, but in mindful presence, getting the most out of every moment.
If you are thinking of joining us on our Mussar journey, a good place to start is with the Soul Trait Profile Quiz. Click here to take it now.
 Anita Diamant, Pitching My Tent, (New York: Scribner, 2005), 104-106.