As the landscape for the upcoming High Holyday season comes into somewhat clearer focus, I know that a great many of us are feeling both physically and even emotionally drained. The disruptions of the past 18 months have challenged all of our resources and resiliencies. At the heart of it all is our current pandemic, but it is not COVID-19 alone that is taking its toll on us. It is also political divisiveness and discord; it’s been the inflamed expressions calling out racial injustice, with accompanying protests and violence; a war fought between Hamas and Israel which has intensified antisemitic and anti-Israel rhetoric; and economic downturn and uncertainty. We watch uncontrolled wildfires in the West, while continuing our obligations to care for and even homeschool our children, or look after our elderly parents and neighbors – all the while trying to keep up with life’s normal ups and downs, demands and obligations.
I see it – the angst and fatigue – throughout my congregation and community. I am certainly not personally immune to the feelings of uncertainty, disruption, isolation, and loss.
Many of us are entering this season of the New Year suffering from a depletion of what has been called “surge capacity.” Ann Masten, a psychologist and professor of child development, uses that term. She defines “surge capacity” as our ability to adapt mentally and physically, drawing upon internal resources necessary for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different – the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely. Masten writes, “The pandemic has demonstrated both what we can do with surge capacity and the limits of surge capacity. When it is depleted, it has to be renewed. But what happens when you struggle to renew it because the emergency phase has now become chronic?”
Perhaps some guidance may be found in the final words of a medieval piyyut, a poem which punctuates our High Holyday worship services known as Unetaneh Tokef. Yes – it asks the unanswerable questions of “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?”, but more powerfully, it concludes with the affirmation that “Teshuvah – Renewal, Tefillah – Prayer, and Tzedakah – Righteousness: these diminish the severity of the situation.” And here our tradition offers guidance to renewing our own “surge capacity.”
From the days of our ancient Biblical tradition, times of physical and emotional depletion were understood as diminishing our neshamot, our spirits, and through Tefilah, prayer, we have sought and discovered the strength needed for replenishing our depleted spirits. Prayer is reaching upward, metaphorically, to experience the transcendent Source of our lives, our hopes, and our inspiration.
The second idea, Tzedakah, translated as Charity or Righteous, is better understood as reaching outwards to help others in need. Tzedakah isn’t only about making charitable donations but encompasses all of the ways we might reach out to address the needs and hardships of those around us. And the benefits are not only for the sake of the recipient of our acts of kindness. Rather, the psychological, emotional, and spiritual benefits we receive by doing for others has been well documented in recent years and even in these trying times.
Finally, the third anchor noted in our Unetaneh Tokef prayer is Teshuvah, often translated as “Repentance,” but I prefer to use the term “Renewal.” Teshuvah is the most inward-facing of our three approaches to soul repair, and it is a discipline which allows us not only to survive, but to grow as human beings in the aftermath.
May this season of the New Year bring us all a renewal of strength – a replenishment of our surge capacity, which will enable us to face the challenges that yet lie ahead. The artist and writer Joanne Fink has expressed this spiritual journey with lovely, poetic insight:
Each step of our journey leaves an indelible mark on our souls.
The challenges you have been facing have forced you to grow in ways you might never have imagined.
Before everything changed…
Before the curveball rocked your world.
Before your life veered unexpectedly towards an unknown destination.
Before you became so weary that you weren’t sure you could take another step.
Before you began to open your heart to possibility.
Before you discovered that love makes the journey worthwhile.
And now, you stand here: at the crossroads of your old life and the person you are becoming.
Celebrate the opportunity to re-envision your life’s purpose
The time will come for your soul to soar.
Transition leads to transformation, and you are on the path to wholeness.
Rabbi David J. Meyer is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead.