Tag Archives: anxiety

Angels for Anxiety – Vayyetze 5780

I had a captivating conversation this week in the context of an ongoing interfaith discussion in which I participate called the “Priest-Rabbi dialogue.” We meet two or three times a year, a group of about 10, evenly divided between Catholic and Orthodox priests and Reform and Conservative rabbis, and we generally discuss matters of theological interest. The initial subject of Thursday’s meeting was trans-substantiation, which is the Christian concept of the wine and bread used in some church rituals that are understood to turn into the body and blood of Jesus.

Now of course, we Jews also use wine and bread in our rituals, but for us they are symbols of the luxury of Shabbat (and Yom Tov holidays), symbols that set apart the 25 hours of Shabbat as being sanctified time. But this led to a fascinating back-and-forth about what we consider holy – time, objects, places, and so forth. One could make the case that in Judaism, there are really no holy objects or places, only sanctified time (we can argue that one over kiddush – literally, sanctification of the day – if you’d like). Likewise, while for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, relics – bones and body parts of dead saints – are considered holy and in some cases necessary for the building of worship spaces, to Jews that is anathema.

The discussion sparked my thinking about angels, which feature heavily in Parashat Vayyetze. After waking from his vision of angels, Ya’aqov says (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16), “Akhen yesh Adonai bamaqom hazeh ve-anokhi lo yada’ti” – “Surely the Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!” In other words, the presence of angels here, whether in a dream or not, gave Ya’aqov the sense that it is a holy place. He dubs the location “Beit El,” or Bethel, the house of God – the angels indicate God’s presence.

I must say that I have been fascinated by the angel passages in Bereshit for quite a long time. Avraham and Sarah are visited by angels multiple times; Lot offers up his daughters to the evil men of Sodom, rather than let them have his angelic guests; an angel saves Yitzhaq’s life; Ya’aqov has two run-ins with angels, and the next one will be when he wrestles with one, who renames him Yisrael, the one who has struggled with God. Midrash has angels there at the creation of the world; when God says, in first-person plural, “Na’aseh adam betzalmenu,” “Let us create a human in our image,” the midrash envisions the Qadosh Barukh Hu / Holy Blessed One as consulting with the heavenly court of angels.

And we continue to invoke them over and over. How many of us sang, last night, “Peace unto you, O ministering angels”? (I.e. Shalom aleikhem, mal’akhei ha-sharet.) How many of us sing Had Gadya on Pesah, during which we recall the Mal’akh haMavet, the Angel of Death? How many of us see the wings of the keruvim, representing those on top of the Aron haBerit / Ark of the Covenant up on the wall behind me?

Over the ark at Congregation Beth Shalom

And how many of us noticed the angels in the first berakhah this morning in Shaharit, the morning service, who are calling to one another with the words from the prophet Isaiah (6:3):

וְקָרָא זֶה אֶל-זֶה וְאָמַר, קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ ה’ צְבָאוֹת; מְלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ, כְּבוֹדוֹ.

And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! The LORD of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!”

… and the words of Ezekiel (3:12), who describes the great noise of the angels’ wings beating against one another as they say,

וַתִּשָּׂאֵ֣נִי ר֔וּחַ וָאֶשְׁמַ֣ע אַחֲרַ֔י ק֖וֹל רַ֣עַשׁ גָּד֑וֹל בָּר֥וּךְ כְּבוֹד־ה’ מִמְּקוֹמֽוֹ׃

Then a spirit carried me away, and behind me I heard a great roaring sound: “Blessed is the Presence of the LORD, in His place.” *

And then we repeated those lines in the Qedushah, when we recited the Amidah aloud, only this time, we were actually acting like angels, standing with our feet together as if they are fused (Ezekiel 1:7), and lifting ourselves up heavenward.

(Actually, I recently learned from Dr. Reuven Kimelman, a scholar of Jewish liturgy who teaches at Brandeis, that we are actually imitating angels who are imitating humans! But that’s another story.)

But you probably did not notice any of those things, because we do them all the time without thinking about them.

Judaism is saturated with angelology. And I think the reason we have not focused on them is that, well, they’re kind of hard to explain. And, as heavenly beings, they challenge somewhat the idea of the unity and supremacy of God, in the monotheistic ideal. And, let’s face it: we’re all rational, and angels are not. The two centuries of history of the contemporary movements in Judaism have leaned heavily into rationalism, and thus Jewish angelology and Jewish mysticism were jettisoned. And, frankly, the whole idea seems vaguely Christian.

But to come back to Ya’aqov, on the run, being pursued by his angry and possibly violent brother Esav, the angels in his dream, climbing up and down that ladder on missions to and from Earth, are reassuring. They are an indicator that he’s OK, that he’s on the right path. Sure, he has deceived his father Yitzhaq to get his blessing, aided and abetted by his mother Rivqah, but that was the way it was meant to be from the outset. He must be in an anxious, uncomfortable place.

And yet he is in Beit El, the house of God.

Let’s fast forward to the present. My guess is that nobody here has seen an angel, at least as far as we know. I have no idea what an angel looks like, except that maybe some of them have fused legs, and that some of them (ofanim) are wheel-shaped, and some of them (serafim) must appear as though they are burning, and that keruvim (cherubim, in “English”) have wings. I don’t think I have seen any of those things. Maybe they are not meant to be seen, but rather merely imagined. Or dreamt about.

But meanwhile, we are living in anxious times. We are daily assaulted by the misdeeds of our fellow humans. 

  • Great political division
  • Disinformation campaigns
  • Racism and other forms of hatred
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Mass shootings in every imaginable context

I must say, the world is an increasingly scary place, especially for the Jews. But then I remember that this is why we have Judaism: when life is challenging, our tradition is a source of comfort and strength. When we mourn, when we fear, when we celebrate our freedom and our enlightenment and our striving to be better people, we rely on our customs and texts and wisdom for framework. And, almost everywhere we look in Judaism for that framework, we find hints of angels.

So I’ll let you in on a little secret: they are here. One midrashic opinion understands that our words of prayer are carried to God by angels.

When Ya’aqov awakes from his dream and understands that the presence of angels indicates that God is “bamaqom hazeh,” in this place, we too must understand that the heavenly court is right here with us, even right now. And this is a reminder that we are in the right place, the place of truth and justice. The place where God’s will is fulfilled. The place where all is good in the world, even when circumstances tell us to be anxious, to fear for our present and our future.

What do we say to those who are in shiv’ah, the deepest period of mourning during the first week after burial? Hamaqom yenahem etkhem. May God comfort you. But the euphemism for God here is maqom, place. We say literally, “May The Place comfort you.”  Wherever we gather, God is in that place. Maybe God even IS that place, marked by the presence of angels.

  • Whenever we comfort those who mourn, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we work for the benefit of the wider society, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we support those who are needy, God is in that place.
  • Wherever and whenever we pursue acts of qedushah / holiness, God is in that place.
  • Wherever we study the words of our ancient tradition, God is in that place.
  • Whenever we express gratitude for what we have, God is in that place.

Look for the angels. You will not see them, but they are there. They are all over the place. And their presence bamaqom hazeh, in this place, indicates that God is with us as well. I hope that this presence will bring us all some comfort in anxious times.

The Shabbat window at Beth Shalom

Shabbat shalom!

* It is a common scholarly opinion that the word “barukh” in this verse should be emended to “berum,” so that the verse should instead be understood as not recording words that the angels are saying, but that the sounds of the wings beating against each other create a great noise “as the Presence of the Lord rose from where it stood.” This makes a lot more sense in context, and does not change the fact that the angels feature heavily in this passage in Ezekiel. It does, however, render apparently incorrect the doxology that Jews have used in prayer for thousands of years.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 12/7/2019.)

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Welcoming Ourselves, or, the Stranger Within – Vayyera 5778

This is a parashah that is chock full of good material, but I must concede that the episode to which I always return is the story in the beginning of Vayyera where Avraham welcomes a trio of traveling strangers into his tent. He runs to greet them. He brings them water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet. He brings them food. He literally waits on them.

Avraham Avinu the father of our tradition and our people, the progenitor of the entire monotheistic world, the one whom we invoke at the beginning of every Amidah – teaches us to welcome the stranger. Yes, we know that they are angels, but Avraham does not. He sees unfamiliar people walking by, and he reaches out and grabs ’em.

Now how do you think that makes the visitors feel? The Torah does not record their reactions, but I can tell you this: when I have been a stranger in a strange land, I am always grateful for the help and care of locals. The postal clerk in Jodhpur, India, who not only sold Judy and me stamps, but also took us into a back room of the post office to give us a table on which to write our postcards, supplied us with glue (which apparently Indian stamps lack), and even gave us his address so that we could stay with him if we ever returned to Jodhpur. The nice gentleman who stopped to help me fix a flat by the side of a highway late at night in a rural part of upstate New York, and even offered me a sandwich. The Israeli Bedouin who invited a friend and me, while we were hiking near the desert town of Arad, to actually sit with him in his tent and drink water and tea and to schmooze with him in Hebrew.

Bedouin Tent Wiki images

(As an aside, tomorrow is our annual New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, when we invite in those who have joined our community within the last year, bring them up onto this bimah, discuss what brought them all here, and give everybody a sefer Torah to hold while we recite Tefillat HaDerekh, the prayer for those who are starting a new journey.)

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks back when I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about anxiety. Apparently, we are living in a time in which there are more and more people, and particularly teens, who are living with severe anxiety. The article cites statistics about the growing rates of anxiety; about a third of adolescents and adults live suffer from an anxiety disorder. Almost two-thirds of university undergraduates report feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year.

Man at bridge holding head with hands and screaming

Perhaps you know somebody like this – I do. Anxiety is a very serious disorder. While we all have moments of anxiety, for most of us they pass. But for people with disorders like this, life is a daily challenge of trying to manage one’s constant fears.

Nobody knows, of course, what causes anxiety, or why the rates are increasing. But we all know the contemporary exacerbating factors: things like the pressure that high-achieving teens feel in school, our addiction to social media, threats of terrorism, and so forth. You might think that privileged teens would have lower rates; actually, rates are higher among the affluent

Left untreated, anxiety does not go away. But there is a disagreement about how to treat it: some say that the way to reduce anxiety is to remove the stressors; some say that greater exposure to the things that arouse their fears helps the anxious person learn to cope.

But I am going to suggest a different approach.

Now, I am not a psychologist, and in no way is it my intent to trivialize this challenge by glibly offering ancient words to soothe the contemporary soul.

But as one who can speak from personal experience, that third way is the framework of Jewish tradition.

What does Judaism offer? What is that framework?

Family togetherness, a holy purpose to life, communal support in times of joy and grief and everything in-between, slowing down for Shabbat and relating to others, the critical thinking that comes from talmud torah, learning our ancient wisdom – these are all things that give us a healthy framework, one that might help us feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious.

And here is the final thing that our tradition offers, and this comes back to Avraham’s welcoming the wayfarers into his tent. Judaism reminds us that we must not only welcome the stranger, but that we also must welcome ourselves in.

What on Earth do you mean by that, Rabbi?

Most of us have a fairly lukewarm relationship with our tradition. That is, we are tentative about entering too deeply into the actions, about throwing ourselves bodily into our customs and rituals. I mentioned this briefly a few weeks back, on Shemini Atzeret. Most of us like to maintain our reserve, our cool, academic distance from the curious customs that we have inherited from our ancient ancestors.

In the middle of the 20th century, changes in our society led to a revolt against the old order. Some of the ways in which our society changed were good: the struggles for civil rights and the equality of women and men, the breaking down of many traditional barriers.

But the baby went out with the bathwater. For most of us, the framework that religion provided disappeared. Many of us grew up thinking that people who were committed to religious tradition were unthinking sheep. Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, documents the distancing from Judaism by the Baby Boom generation in particular in his book with Steven M. Cohen, The Jew Within. They discuss the elevation of the “sovereign self” in place of traditional religious involvement.

As a result, there are many of us today who are not quite sure of what to do in the synagogue – how to behave, when to stand up or sit down; many of us wonder how on earth the person leading services could possibly have gotten to the bottom of the page so fast. And all the more so with Jewish traditions that we practice outside the synagogue.

But engaging with our tradition, “practicing” Judaism, is not merely about being an expert davener, or fulfilling every iota of Jewish law and custom. It is about all the meaningful aspects of holy living: the primary mitzvah of engaging with our holy texts, through which we learn to acknowledge the holiness in all our relationships, maintaining our sense of wonder and gratitude about the world.

And, rather than think you may not be “good” at “doing Jewish” because you can’t mumble the second paragraph of Aleinu fast enough, think instead about this: Have you, over the past week, say, done something to bring honor to somebody around you? Did you teach your child the value of doing charitable work? Did you help resolve a conflict between friends or neighbors? Did you spend an unhurried, pleasurable meal with your family? Have you thought twice before uttering an unkind word?

If so, welcome. Welcome yourself to our tradition, to that framework. We’re glad to have you aboard. And we need you to welcome yourself, because those who have not welcomed themselves in, who have not actually opened the metaphorical door of Jewish life and walked through it, cannot really welcome others.

Structure of Welcome Emails

Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, goes out of his way to welcome strangers into his tent. And when these same strangers, who we know to be divine messengers, give the news to his wife Sarah that she will give birth to a son at age 90, she laughs. Was it anxious laughter? Perhaps.

Maybe she was not quite ready for the news. Or maybe she was not ready to welcome the strangers in, because she had not yet welcomed herself.

A final note: on Thursday, I attended an interfaith program for clergy and community leaders at the JCC, entitled “Faithful Responses to Strangers, Immigrants, and Refugees.” One of the speakers, a Muslim woman who immigrated to Pittsburgh from Sudan, spoke about her experience in getting to know her neighbors. They were not forthcoming in introducing themselves, so she hatched the plan of inviting herself over to their houses to get to know them. Her friends said, “No, you can’t do that. Americans don’t do that.” But she ignored them, and more or less went door-to-door, welcoming herself into her neighbors’ homes – really the opposite of what Abraham did. And it worked! She is now very close with her neighbors, none of whom are like her, and prouder than ever to be an American.

Don’t be a stranger! Open the door, and welcome yourself into our tradition. Be a part of our framework. It’s a gift that you can give yourself and your family. You’ll be glad you did.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, November 4, 2017.)

 

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