Rabbi Dr. Caryn Aviv
Here are some texts I have been receiving and sending from family, friends, and rabbinic colleagues since that terrible day on October 7th.
Are you okay?
How’s your heart?
How are you holding up?
Is your family in Israel safe?
Thinking of you and what’s happening in Israel and Gaza. Heartbreaking.
Here is what it’s like to live with intense Jewish anxiety and grief right now.
My Israel Studies professor was on the phone with his daughter and son-in-law when they heard yelling and gunshots. He is now grieving their senseless deaths. My dear friends are worried about their young adult children deployed on the borders of Gaza and Lebanon. Colleagues have been yelling at one another online about whether acknowledging occupation and Palestinian suffering is a form of internalized anti-Semitism. Some have been lamenting how few Christian and Muslim colleagues have checked in with them in this terrible time. My congregants are reaching out at all hours of the day asking to set up appointments to process their anguish. People are wondering whether to take their mezuzot down and hide.
I am not sleeping. I have periodically fasted from social media and obsessively checking the New York Times so that I can give my brain, heart, and body a rest from the fear and grief. On Shabbat afternoons, I simply sob for a couple of hours on the couch.
We worry about the potential for increased anti-Semitic violence and update security plans. We talk about how October 7th is now the equivalent of 9/11 for Jews worldwide. We ask ourselves the question “Who is my ally?” and wonder if our friends and neighbors are willing to publicly take a stand against murder and abduction of ordinary Israeli Jews.
These anxiety patterns, inherited and reignited from ancestral Jewish traumas, are deeply etched into the collective Jewish unconscious.
Our Jewish anxieties about safety and security are understandable, given the circumstances of history, the shock of mass murder, and the moral complexity of war. These habitual, patterned responses to fear and uncertainty also intensify our collective suffering. Our Jewish anxiety patterns cause us to ruminate about a past we cannot change and worry about a future that has not arrived. To alleviate the anxiety, we spring into action mode: urgently doing, doing, doing anything we can, to try to fix or control. This habitual response might temporarily alleviate some of the anxiety spikes. But it only reinforces our Jewish habits of responding to uncertainty with fear.
Our deeply patterned anxiety, our urgency to do something to distract us from pain and fear is both understandable AND not inevitable. I want to believe and hope that there are better alternatives to our anxiety habits that cause us suffering.
Here is what I have learned, through the neuroscience of habits and our own Jewish spiritual tool kit. Practicing mindfulness – compassionate, non-judgmental awareness of what’s happening in present moment, can help us see more clearly the range of choices available to us. Practicing compassion and awareness of what’s happening right now – with our breathing and in our tight, contracted, anxiety-laden bodies can pull us out of rumination and worry and return us into the present moment. We have so many Jewish wisdom tools to help us pause in the present moment before acting out of existential fear or the desire to seek revenge for our pain.
Over twenty years ago, one of my teachers, Sylvia Boorstein, offered this sage wisdom: don’t just do something, sit there.
I implore each of us to just sit here. Simply pause and be. Just pause and be with our breath, notice what’s happening in our minds and hearts, notice where we’re holding tension in our bodies and in our perspectives. What would happen if we really paused – an emotional shiva – to just fully be present to all the pain of our losses, fears, and grief? How might we recalibrate our perspective and perception if, when we notice a spike in our fear and anxiety, we simply pause in the present moment to reconnect with our breathing and asked ourselves: am I safe right here, right now? Nine times out of ten, the answer is yes, for the present moment, because the present moment is all we have.
This is my prayer: that we scared and grieving Jews just pause before we spring into anxious, urgent action. May we take a moment to give ourselves the gift of pausing, to be and breathe into whatever we’re feeling in the moment, whether it’s tightness in our body or existential, fearful contraction in our minds. May we fully acknowledge the extent to which our collective past traumas haunt our present. May we give ourselves compassion for the wounds we carry, because right now, we are in deep, deep pain, grief, and fear.