So many of us are exhausted. We are feeling burnt-out, tired, disconnected. We feel lost, alone, confused, vulnerable. We are struggling with things which used to be easy. We are tired.
The news is filled with stories of tragedy, horror, war and anguish. Antisemitism is on the rise. People are angry and frustrated and we don’t know where to turn. We are struggling and for many of us, we feel alone, afraid and we are searching for a way to soothe our wounds. Too often, we look in places we know we will never find the answers: possessions, power, Instagram followers, when perhaps the path is right in front of us, if only we would walk it.
David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech to Kenyon College argued that there are no atheists, that all humans worship something. He says: “Everybody worships, the only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some kind of god or spiritual type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
We have a spiritual need, a yearning and in our Jewish community, we can find something to worship which is bigger than ourselves. Where we can touch and link with something beyond the rational, beyond the here and now, to realise what is important, and discover where we sit in the vast cosmic universe. That is what can bring us comfort, strength and satisfaction. And there is something incredibly powerful about our voices being joined with those thousands of years before us, that we can have conversations about meaning and life which are not new, but ever evolving.
We need to touch a little eternity, to link and connect with the deep teachings, the guidance and comfort, the nurturing, inspiring beauty of the timeless truths of what it is to live a religious life, because our world needs it, we need it, now more than ever. We have in our hands the most precious of jewels, but we too often fail to see its beauty because it is in the depths of the baggage that we carry when it comes to faith, religion and God. These words have become laden with meanings which are not true to their essence, they have been hijacked by others and it is time for us to reclaim them, to understand how they can guide us and help us with the challenges of our world and our lives which are difficult and complicated and where we need Judaism more than ever.
There is an epidemic of loneliness. Part of our feelings stem from the fact that we do not feel valued, seen or heard. Our voice is lost in the vast cacophony of sound. Judaism reminds us that we are important, each one of us is significant and needed, we are unique individuals but also part of a greater unity and oneness.
We are siloing ourselves into small compartments and separating from one another: our society has become so polarised that there are less and less opportunities for us to meet and connect with people who disagree with us. Our Jewish community gives us a place where we come together with people across the spectrum of politics and religious practice. We hear the uncomfortable, we are challenged to work out what we believe, where we fit. We are called upon to engage in respectful dialogue with others, to listen and hear, to ask the big and important questions about who we are, why we are here, our meaning and purpose. We are called upon to sit and dwell in the uncertainty, the discomfort, to meet and interact with others in all the messiness that entails.
These last years of COVID have reminded us of our lack of control over the vicissitudes of life, it has laid into stark relief what we all know in our hearts but refuse to believe. We want to control our world, to have everything be neat and ordered. We are told we should be happy all the time, that we can manipulate our environment to be whatever we want it to be so we avoid anything which makes us feel bad.
But then life happens, we recognise most things are out of our control and we are pushed off centre. We want answers but believe that religion with its certainty, dogma and pat responses cannot possibly provide what we need. But faith is actually the opposite of strict rules and simple answers. It calls on us to dwell in the uncertainty, to understand that we don’t have the answers but it reminds us to ask the questions, to grapple together with finding meaning, a reason for being, hope in the future.
I hope we can walk together on this journey of the spirit, encountering one another in sacred moments of community, with Judaism’s wisdom and eternal teachings as our guide.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio has been a rabbi at Emanuel Synagogue since 1998.