Overcoming Overwhelm (Kol Nidre 5783)

Do you remember the Highland Park shooting?

I would not be surprised if you didn’t recall the details, considering that there are so many shootings that take place in our country on a regular basis.

The Highland Park shooting, in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, took place this past Fourth of July during an Independence Day parade. As the parade wound its way through the streets of downtown Highland Park, at 10:15 in the morning local time, a shooter climbed atop a roof-top of a building and shot down into the crowd with an assault rifle. By the time it was over he had shot 83 rounds, killed 7 and wounded 48.

I’m not sure what it was about this mass shooting that sunk so deeply in my soul. Perhaps it was the fact that Highland Park is a very Jewish suburb, though authorities don’t ascribe any specific anti-Semitic motives to the shooter. Maybe it was the fact that it took place during a parade, a very public and outdoor setting. Maybe it was the fact that it took place on the Fourth of July, this communal day of celebration and the irony of that day, with the movement for individual rights impeding on the safety of a community.

Whatever it was, it was after this event unlike others where I felt this heaviness in my soul, and this resignation to the fact that to live in this country, means that you can be shot and killed by anyone, at any time, in any place. It just rested there , it’s simply a fact of life in this time, in this place. Schools, workplaces, concerts, synagogues, walking on the street. A few weeks ago I was the object of a road rager after I found myself on an unfamiliar exit off of I5 because I needed to get gas, and inadvertently cut them off when I was trying to get into the right lane to get back into the highway. I wasn’t familiar with this exit. They revved their engine, drew close behind me, then went around me and sped up, acted very aggressively. And the thought passed through my mind that this person, like many others, could be armed, and that an incident such has this can easily erupt into something more violent or even deadly.

This is message tonight about gun violence, or about the proliferation of guns in our society, though there is plenty to say on the subject. No, what I want to talk about was that feeling, that deep resignation. It was a moment surprising to me that my anger and sadness over the event became in that moment acceptance and contentment—it is what it is. What it is is not good, but it is, and it is not going to change.

This deep resignation and heaviness that things as bad as they are, are not going to change.

And I was surprised to realize over these past few months of study and reflection, that this attitude is found in our Torah, in our sacred text.

 At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are enslaved. Their pleas for freedom are heard by God, who selects Moses to be the messenger of freedom and who, with his brother Aaron and Miriam, will challenge Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelites. Moses demurs in this task, God assures him of divine support, and finally Moses takes the mantle of leader and liberator. This fundamental story that we tell again and again and celebrate around the Passover table is the basis for our faith, our covenant, our Jewish identity.

Now Moses and Aaron’s initial plea for emancipation are not only pushed aside by Pharaoh, but they are punished for them. Pharaoh demands that the Israelites make bricks without straw and does not lower the daily quota of bricks to be made.

This of course does not sit well with the Israelites, who are thus oppressed even more, and blame Moses and Aaron for bringing about their latest troubles. Moses then complains to God, essentially saying, why have you chosen me, can’t you see that Pharaoh is not going to listen, and that things are just going to be worse?

God responds to Moses with a beautiful, lofty speech:

“I am Adonai. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am God. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, Adonai, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I am God.”

A rousing speech.

And how did the Israelites react to this grand, inspiring, lofty speech when Moses conveyed it to them? They ignore it. They ignore it. We read in the text:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃ {פ}
But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits were crushed by cruel bondage.

This is such a potent and powerful verse of our Torah. And when I read it it felt so relatable, and not because we may imagine ourselves like Moses as we do sometimes, telling people what to do, trying to inspire, to organize for change, only to have it ignored, our message fall flat. No, I think this is relatable because we are often like the Israelites, so overwhelmed and our spirits crushed that we can not even hear the message of change, the promise of redemption. It’s not that the Israelites ignored it, but that they just couldn’t hear it.

This phrase in the Hebrew, lo shamu, is even more nuanced than this translation, “would not listen,” implies. “Would not listen” implies an active choice, that they ignore, like when we speak to our kids sometime—selective listening. Another way to understand this is that they just could not hear. That word Shema, the first wold of our most sacred prayer, speaks not just about hearing or listening but understanding, and integrating. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad—Understand, Israel, that you are a part of a sacred unity, a oneness of all things. This is our most sacred prayer. When it says that the enslaved Israelites could not shema, could not shemu, even if they heard the words, they could not understand what Moses was telling them.

And the phrase in the Hebrew that is translated as “spirits crushed” is “kotzer ruach” which when literally translated means shortness of breath. Kotzer from the root k.tz.r, or short, and ruach, a noun that means spirit, yes, but can also mean wind or breath. The Israelites would not, could not understand Moses, because they had shortness of breath.

And what does this mean? If we turn to our  traditional biblical commentators, we turn to Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, the preeminent Torah commentator who lived in France in the 11th century, who wrote in an explanation of this verse: “If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths.” Meaning that the verse is describing a physical condition of exhaustion and pain, and that when one is in pain they tend to be short of breath. And since they were out of breath, they could not hear what was being said to them.

Another commentator Ramban, also known as Nachmanides, who lived in 13th century Spain, said about this verse “…they paid no attention to his words because of impatience of spirit, as a person whose soul is grieved on account of their misery and who does not want to live another moment in their suffering even though they know that they will be relieved later. The “impatience of spirit” was their fear that Pharaoh would put them to death, as their officers said to Moses,47 and the “cruel bondage” was the pressure, for the taskmasters pressed upon them and hurried them [in their daily task],48 which gave them no chance to hear anything and consider it.” In other words, the Israelites were “short of breath” because they were operating from a place of fear, fear of punishment, fear of death at the hands of Pharaoh and the Egyptian taskmasters.

And still a third commentator, Sforno, the 15th century in Italy commentator wrote, “for it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise.” In this case, their shortness of breath was not fear, but disbelief.

And if we take all of these together, these three commentaries paint a deeper and more nuance picture of the condition of the Israelites at that moment. The point of this in depth textual analysis is to say that this phrase kotzer ruach has meaning both literal and figurative, within our tradition both out of breath, and impatient of spirit. Indeed, we can understand these two as not mutually exclusive: one who is so out of breath and overwhelmed because of their condition is then so aggrieved in their soul and fearful of what is or may be, that they can’t even imagine a way out. Their physical oppression led to a spiritual oppression as well. And the opposite is true, which I am sure we know from our own experience, when we are full of sadness, or fear, or grief, or despair, that we react physically. we feel it in our body. The trauma of that moment for the Israelites, and the trauma we carry, is both physical and spiritual. Kotzer ruach.

And how deep in kotzer ruach one must be to not even imagine that things can be different.

That moment last summer facing the reality of the ubiquitous presence of violence in our society was for me a moment of kotzer ruach. Of being so overwhelmed that I could not even imagine a way out. Of feeling physically trapped—did that person have a gun, did that person–which led to a spiritual malaise as well. We have lived through so many of these moment over these past few years:

The mass shootings like Highland Park, that make us feel that we live in a brutal, violent culture that devalues human life at the expense of ephemeral rights.

The reality of climate change, made manifest here in our area with the lingering effects of wildfire smoke and vast variations in temperature, that makes us feel that there is no way we will be able to control the devastation we have brought to this planet.

The persistence of white supremacy, institutionalized racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and transphobia, and and homophobia in this country, which feels so deeply ingrained in both the founding and the fabric of our nation, that its undoing feels sometimes beyond reach.

The assault on bodily autonomy through the curtailing of reproductive freedom. The lack of comprehensive solutions to address homelessness, or provide mental health support.

And on and on.

And we read that verse. “But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” And we understand. We understand kotzer ruach.

I’m sure that you too have your moments, your own personal moments of kotzer ruach, when you too feel so overwhelmed that you can not hear: hear the advice and counsel of another, hear your inner voice telling you what to do, hear the voices of change telling you that there is a way forward. You can not understand that there may be another way.

Kotzer ruach.

And yet. And yet, is the thing: We know the end of the story.

The Israelites are liberated. They join Moses’s cause. It takes time, it takes the plagues—and note that the plagues were as much about convincing the Israelites as they were about convincing Pharaoh—but eventually the Israelites march out of Egypt and cross the Red Sea into freedom. We know how the story turns out, even knowing where the Israelites started.

And indeed, as I would suggest, they needed to be in that state of kotzer ruach in order to be liberated. Sometimes things need to get worse before they get better. Sometimes it’s the continued shortness of breath that forces us to say we can not take it anymore. That even though it is so hard to hear and understand the message of liberation, the cost of not listening is so much worse. That we keep falling until we say, another way must be possible.

So I want to share my state of kotzer ruach. I want to acknowledge your states of kotzer ruach. And I want to tell you, that there is a way out. We are not defined by your our actions and patterns, and that no matter how much you can’t imagine it in the moment, who you were is not who you can and will be.

That’s the meaning of this day.

If the defeat of spirit is literally “shortness of breath,” then the first step is just to catch our breath.

This is the beauty of meditation, when it was taught to me as a spiritual practice. That power to notice the breath simply entering and exiting the body, paying attention to this automatic and natural act. With the goal not being to clear one’s mind, but to focus on the breath. If a thought arises, acknowledge it and move on, thinking of our breath. It is so grounding, so slowing. It is such an accessible practice.

I’m not saying meditation will solve everything, but it’s a good start. Once we notice our breath, we can use it.

There is another teaching of the hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who teaches a variation of a meditation breathing practice, as it were. It’s called the krekhtz, or sigh. Each one of us has moments of kotzer ruach, and each one of us has the power of the krekhtz. When we imagine it, when we think of a sigh, it’s is an act of resignation. But in the eyes of Rebbe Nachman, it is the path to new life and redemption.

In his famous text Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman writes, “See how precious is the sigh and groan [the krekhtz] of a person. It provides wholeness [in place] of the lack.” Why, because ruach, or breath, is the source of life. The world was created by the breath of God. Humans were created when God breathed into them. Ruach is life, according to Rebbe Nachman, and so the sighing is a sign of life.

Rebbe Nachman continues, “And sighing is the extension of the breath. It corresponds to erekh apayim (patience)—i.e., extended ruach. Therefore, when a person sighs over the lack and extends one’s ruach, one draws ruach-of-life to that which one is lacking. For the lack is in essence a departure of the ruach-of-life. Therefore, through the sigh, the lack is made whole.”

This is not to say that changing how we breathe can change the world, but rather the deeper understanding that the same forces that cause us to feel overwhelmed and unable to act, are the very same that will allow us to break free and act. And both of those are already an integral part of who we are, our very life force. That breath, which was the symbol for hopelessness, is now the symbol of hope as well.

As Pema Chodron writes in her book When Things Fall Apart, “Everything that occurs is not only usable and workable but is actually the path itself. We can use everything that happens to us as the means for waking up. We can use everything that occurs—whether it’s our conflicting emotions and thoughts or our seemingly outer situation–to show us where we are asleep and how we can wake up completely, utterly, without reservations.” Or as she says, the “poison becomes the medicine.” That which holds us back is actually the source of liberation.

From shortness of breath, that prevented the Israelites from imagining freedom, to the extension of breath, that creates wholeness. Because extending our breath, is really about extending ourselves. And unlike the Israelites who in that moment who could not hear, when we extend ourselves, when we sigh as opposed to being in a state of kotzer ruach, then we can hear the sounds of change and liberation.

So again, where is your feeling of kotzer ruach? And where do you hear the sighs and the cries? What is calling out to you? What can you hear? The youth lamenting a less inhabitable planet in future generations? The family of another Black person killed by police? The asylum seeker punished for fleeing violence and seeking opportunity? Your own future self, promising that things will get better? What are the voices you are hearing? These very same forces that can lead to overwhelm are the same that can inspire us to rise and act, if only we stop and pay attention.

And this paying attention, this is a practice, this is practice this is a spiritual practice, like meditation. Meditation is the act of moving from the automatic to the mindful. It is a practice. So is stopping and paying attention. Shema. That’s a practice. Listening, understanding, internalizing. Change is a practice. Life is a practice.

I’ll close with these words from adrienne maree brown recently shared on the podcast On Being:

there’s so much awakening. So I always tell people that you’re always practicing things. So it’s not like you go from not practicing to practicing, but it’s, are you practicing things on purpose? Are you practicing things you would want to practice, or are you practicing what someone else has told you is the right way to do stuff? And once you start practicing on purpose, then you can actually practice liberation and justice and freedom and — then I think you begin to have this contentment that comes from practice. Like, I know that I won’t see total liberation in my lifetime, but I also feel very satisfied with how I’m practicing liberation every single day and in every relationship.

The Israelites in our Torah, once beaten down they could not hear Moses’s promise of redemption, eventually, over time were able to make that change. The pain itself became the source of growth. Our kotzer ruach can become a krekhtz. We too can overcome circumstance, history, and the forces of oppression to create a better world for us, and for each other, and for those yet to come.

We know what we need to do. We know we need to pay attention. We know we need to practice. And we know we have the power to do so.

So let’s take a deep breath, a big krekhtz, and we get to work.

We get to work.

Published by

Rabbi360

I am a Rabbi, serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and the surrounding area.

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Overwhelm (Kol Nidre 5783)”

  1. Hello rabbi,

    Your wonderful narrative brings to mind an old folk tune written and sung by Ralph McTell entitled
    “ The streets of London”. It is worth the listen.

    Rick

    Like

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