Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Bo 5781 Nechemta

Russell, your d’var Torah explored this parasha and the issue of Pharaoh’s hardened heart in a totally original way, as you explored the terrifying feeling of being out of control in our emotions. You showed us that not only is this a universal human experience, it is an experience that the Torah tells us God shares with us. And you questioned whether it was okay, whether it was moral, for God to artificially impose or exacerbate that experience within Pharaoh.

I have so much I want to say about this, as I’ve been afforded the ability during the pandemic to observe and attend to my emotions more deeply than maybe ever before, and I think that might be true for many people. One thing I know for certain is that with or without God’s intervention, our feelings are at least in part out of our control. They wash over us, they emerge from within us, they sometimes overwhelm us, and it doesn’t matter what else we have to do that day, whether the timing is convenient, whether they are appropriate to what is happening, they come when they come. We cannot decide not to have certain feelings, or not to have them at certain times. Some emotions are caused by hormones and brain chemistry, which is different for each of us, and out of our control. Some emotions are about events long past, and emerge suddenly when we’re on to other things. Some lurk under the surface, creating a vague and murky state of unease, until we can finally pinpoint them and they surface. They last as long as they will last, and then they go when they’re ready to go. It’s not that we have no control, we do. In time, we can choose how we want to react to them, whether and how we want to act on them in the moment or later, we can learn to tolerate even the most difficult and unpleasant feelings, we can observe the relationship between our thoughts and our feelings and see the ways that certain thought patterns or habits of thought can lead to certain emotions, we can learn to accept, appreciate, and even love our more difficult emotions, even anger, even fear, even shame, even grief. We can learn that we don’t have to be afraid of or reject any emotion. When we do this, we might even make space for the underlying, often unconscious story we are telling ourselves that leads to the frequency or set point of certain emotions or moods, better understanding their cause and origin. We can learn to tell a different story about ourselves or our lives or our world, and we can learn to create different patterns and habits of thought to cultivate emotions like love and gratitude.

Judaism both acknowledges the emotionality of the human experience and encourages us, even commands us sometimes, to cultivate particular emotions and to train ourselves away from others. Not only God and Pharaoh are emotional in Torah, so too are all of our ancestors from Genesis through Kings and Prophets. In Leviticus and in Deuteronomy, we are commanded not to hate but to love. In Pirkei Avot, the rabbis urge us to master anger, hatred, lust, jealousy and pride.

We are to use prayer, study, and mitzvot, specific other-focused actions, to train ourselves to manage those emotions. It isn’t that we’re expected to root them out of ourselves—that would not be possible or healthy—but we’re encouraged to learn how not to act them out, and how to habituate ourselves away from them, toward humility, kindness, and peace. An entire strand of Jewish teaching called mussar developed in the 19th century is designed to help us develop and balance our character traits, intentionally cultivating those qualities and emotions that lead us to do good in the world.

L’havdil, in contrast, as you taught us Russell, in Shemot Rabba, the collection of midrash on Exodus, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish teaches that Pharaoh was so used to hardening his own heart, to making himself callous and unfeeling for years and years and years, he had so reinforced that tendency in his own consciousness not to feel compassion, not to reflect or feel regret, that he didn’t need any help from God to harden his own heart in response to the first five plagues. Only on plague six did God begin to interfere and contribute to the hardening. This is an important lesson for all of us about the way feelings can become habits, and how habits can become entrenched unless we consciously shift them, and how we might use the limited control we do have to change our habits of thought and feeling through intention and repetition.

But even with all of that, being emotional, being human, and according to Torah being Godly, is about being a little bit out of control, even when it comes to our own mood, our own heart and mind. The ability to control our inner state seems like it should belong to us and only to us, but it does not, and your d’var Torah, Russell, made me wonder whether God’s interference in Pharaoh’s inner state isn’t simply descriptive of the experience we all have, of that lack of control.

This Wednesday was a glorious day, on which we saw that our democracy has survived, on which we saw capable and compassionate leadership return, on which we glimpsed a vision of the country we can become. I talked with a number of people on or after inauguration day who expressed surprise that along with their joy and inspiration and relief, they felt a strange sadness, or heaviness or weariness. We may find that we have leftover emotions from the last four years, emotions we couldn’t fully feel because we were so busy coping. Anger, sorrow, despair, grief. We lived through something terrible and terrifying, and it would be natural if there were feelings to be felt afterward, maybe even for a long time.

I would submit that the last four years set us into an unhealthy emotional pattern of tension, fear—panic even—dread, heightened reactivity and sense of threat, anger—rage even—and hatred. We have been besieged, abused, for four years, and it is time now to consciously change the pattern of our thoughts and feelings. To pay attention to healing. To calm our bodies, to notice when we jump to the worst conclusions, when we catastrophize that which is not a catastrophe, when we hate readily or are inflamed into anger with little provocation. And when we notice this reaction, we can gently ask ourselves whether it fits the facts. If the reaction doesn’t fit the facts, we can gently soothe ourselves.

It is time to find a new set point, to lower the internal temperature. That is what Jews use Shabbat for every week. Even without a near slide into white nationalist fascism, every week has its stresses, and every week we need a day to breathe, to calm ourselves, and to remember the actual context in which we live — the vast universe in which we spin, the brief glorious experience of being alive, full of wonders and blessings. To remember gratitude, to remember love, to remember simple miracles. To sing, which deepens our breathing, calms our nervous systems. To recontextualize our moment in eternality, our selves in all humanity, our souls within all Being, the interconnection of all souls.

I’m not suggesting that the work of our nation is complete, that there aren’t real, pressing dangers or urgent needs. Of course there are. It is precisely because there is so much work to do that we need to care for our inner state, to attend to our emotions. We will have so much more to give, we will last so much longer if we can re-center ourselves in a calmer, more peaceful, more hopeful, more loving state. This was extremely difficult to do for the last four years, but it is newly possible to do so now.

When we feel less threatened, when we start to feel that there’s a bit of safety, we can start to dream up our visions for our country and our own contributions to those visions. This week, we released CBE’s and Union Temple’s pledge to the People’s Inauguration. The idea of the People’s Inauguration is that a president and an administration can’t make the changes our country needs without the support and a groundswell from the people. So for ten days, communities all across the country are making a pledge to do our part to bring about the world that should be. CBE’s covenant with America was written by members who attended Friday night services last week, on Martin Luther King Shabbat. You may find the pledge here, and I encourage you to read it and to consider what your personal pledge will be to this covenant and to our country.

On Inauguration Day, poet Amanda Gorman spoke to the relationship between the difficult emotions of these last four years and the work that lies ahead:

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried…
It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it…
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid
The new dawn blooms as we free it
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it”

I know that we’re brave enough to be it.

As you said, Russell, who knows, we might just surprise ourselves and do something amazing.

Shabbat Shalom.