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Dealing with Intensity



In the essential debate about whether the holidays are early or late, I’ve always said they are on time. Rosh Hashanah is always 1 Tishrei, Yom Kippur is ten days later, and so forth. I find comfort in the predictability of the calendar.


Indeed, when we compare the Jewish holidays with when they happen on the secular calendar, they can be seemingly early–think of when Rosh Hashanah is adjacent to Labor Day–or seemingly late–this coming year, Rosh Hashanah begins on October 2.


There is wisdom in the Jewish calendar. The month of Tishrei is jam-packed with holidays. We seemingly dash our way from the New Year, through the Day of Atonement, into Sukkot, and come out on the other side dancing with our Torah Scrolls at Simchat Torah. The cycle of Tishrei has a specific energy that is both excellent, if not a bit intense. Then, a week after Simchat Torah, we get a break with the Hebrew month of Cheshvan.


Cheshvan is also known as Mar Cheshvan, the bitter month of Cheshvan, because except for Shabbat, it does not contain any special holidays. Rabbis and Jewish professionals delight in Cheshvan, because it represents the release from the intensity that Tishrei has. Years ago, Rabbi Gordon gave me a t-shirt that reads Rabbis ❤️ Cheshvan.


However, this year, we’ve received the bitterness of the month without the typical release I have come to expect. It has been more intense because of the tragedy and terror in Israel, the strikes and impending war in Gaza, and now the challenges we face as American Jews. Threatened with anti-Israel rallies and rhetoric in our local community, which cause us to pause and reconsider how we keep one another safe here at Hevreh and in other public spaces, with more and more unpleasantness on college campuses, with the ability to scroll non-stop through a stream of heartbreaking images from both sides of the conflict: the world is not at ease.


We have not been at ease for some time. Fear of getting COVID, the war in Ukraine, troubles with our democracy–we have been progressively increasing the pressure on one another, and I sense it is becoming even more uncomfortable in this month of Cheshvan.


Which worries me. There is more than enough going on around us to give us reason to wring our hands.


And so, I’ve been wondering: What are we to make of living with intensity? It can be managed. We have to cope somehow. Handling the pressure surely is a spiritual art form.


Intensity is a strange thing. Sometimes, it comes from within; one might consider oneself an intense person. Other times, we put pressure on one another. In my former congregation in Newton, one of the administrative assistants had a plaque on her desk that read Your Urgency is Not My Emergency. She also had the original poster that’s become so popular: Keep Calm and Carry On. We can magnify the load we are already carrying. Some may do it knowingly, but often–considering that life is with people–we pass off our stresses so quickly by osmosis.


So whether it is our own situation, the affairs of others that glom onto us, or the state of the world today, what are we to make of living with intensity?


This week, with Parashat Lech L’cha, we begin the story of Abraham and Sarah. Their narrative is undoubtedly one of intensity. From the time that Avram hears the call to lech l’cha m’artzecha, to get up and go from his father’s house through all the various trials until Sarah’s death, Abraham and Sarah’s story never lets up. We even refer to what they experience as the ten trials of Abraham, as if all they encounter is one Divine test after another.


Tradition teaches that Abraham and Sarah are tested to show their faithfulness and to prove that God only gives a person what they can handle. There is a famous midrash about Abraham. We know so little about his background, and why God chose him to be the progenitor of Monotheism. So, to explain this, the Midrash analogizes Abraham to objects. Abraham will be tested, and God knows that Abraham will only be strengthened in the process. Just as flax becomes softer and develops a sheen with beating, just as a potter knocks a vase against a table to test its integrity, so too does God test Abraham.


Indeed, our struggles are great instructors. We learn to cope with the stressors that come our way, helping us to put those sorts of pressures in proper perspective.


Yet, the unfairness of the tests stands out. An insistence on intensity seems to be misplaced. I do not like the saying that God only gives us what we can handle. One confronts challenges not because God wants to see one’s worthiness. God does not want us to suffer for the sake of faithfulness. I cannot pray to a God who desires my suffering at all.


Yes, we suffer. It is evidence of the fractured world in which we live. But God does not dole out hardship based on our spiritual makeup. As I said last week, I believe God cries with us when we cry. Our fractures are God’s; our hardships are unpleasing to God, too. Our lives are not made more meaningful, and we are no more sacred or worthy because we live under pressure.


Intensity, though, does play a role in defining one’s spiritual efforts. It takes dedication, focus, and practice to get close to God. The person who exemplified this was the Bratzlaver Rebbe. One way to describe a spiritual life is a desire to achieve a mystical unity with God. In chasidic circles, this becomes known as deveikut, the attempt to cleave yourself to God.


This sort of spiritual pursuit is self-annihilating, though, which in and of itself goes against the Jewish grain. We Jews are a communal people. We pray in community; we celebrate holidays and milestones in community. So, it is antithetical to think that it takes private intensity to find yourself in a deep relationship with God. As my Talmud teacher, Rabbi Michael Chernick, once put it, “The search for a constant sense of oneness with the Creator is so emotionally draining that it finally wears out the devotee both physically and mentally.” 1 The Bratzlaver Rebbe, who both taught and pursued deveikut, died in his thirties, presumably from exhaustion and overexertion. “[In] trying to maintain a constant state of devekut… The man immolated himself in the esh okhlah," God’s consuming fire.2 While unity with God may be available, it is like an asymptote along a curve; we are never expected to arrive at that desired point. Our intensity should never cause us to sacrifice the other desires that emerge from a life well lived.


Intensity is not a badge of honor; busyness is not the goal, nor is putting ourselves to spiritual tests required to be like Abraham or Sarah. Intensity is a byproduct blended out of who we are and what is happening around us. It is the heat that comes from friction.


Which is why one of the ultimate gifts of the Jewish people is a balm to intensity.


Consider Shabbat. Let’s rename it the Festival of Anti-Intensity. We labor six days a week, we create that heat and pressure, and then on the seventh, we release ourselves from those burdens. We refrain from making things; we keep from engaging in business transactions; we stop. We refocus. One who works on Shabbat will surely die, we read in Exodus.3 In a plain reading of that verse, we might believe the community should kill the person who profanes Shabbat. Instead, I choose to read it as a caution: We cannot survive the intensity of daily life without the pressure valve of Shabbat. Don’t run your engine 24/7, but feel free to go for 24/6.


This lesson is essential now more than ever. When the intensity of the world around us gets to us, we guard ourselves against self-annihilation in the fires within and around us—turning off social media and the news, engaging in conversation and activities that remind us that there is more to life than what we see when we doom scroll. These actions are pressure valves that make us more effective–even more spiritual–human beings.


When managing our way through difficult times, the Jewish tradition that compels us to pause and rest is more than a gift; it is a necessity. Because Shabbat is a shield against self-destruction, in this week’s Torah portion, God encourages Abraham not to fear, “Ki Anochi lach, For I will be your shield,” says God.4


God shows up for us in Shabbat. We need to shield ourselves from the intensity that surrounds us. Shabbat is here to help us do that. We cannot remove suffering and intensity from our lives. Even moving to a beautiful place, going on vacation, trying to remove oneself from the world–worries can still creep in.


The real question at hand is how we best cope with those pressures. Shabbat is an excellent reminder that sometimes we must willfully step out of the fire to keep living within it.


I realize that I am preaching to the choir tonight. But we can also take the calm we find on this Shabbat to others we encounter. With that in mind, my prayer for each of us tonight is for ease. May you know ease on this Shabbat, so that we can confront the challenges that come our way, moving through them with grace and determination. May we help others find ease, providing a sense of perspective when it would otherwise be hard to find. May that ease flow ever outward, from this sanctuary to others we encounter and beyond, so we might turn down the pressure for one another.


Shabbat Shalom.


--

1. “Ki Hashem Elokekha Esh Okhlah: Spirituality and Danger,” in Paths of Faithfulness (Ktav 1997), 19.


2. Ibid.

3. Exodus 31:15. 4. Genesis 15:1.

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