Addressing Anxiety through Judaism

Addressing Anxiety through Judaism

16 Dec 2016

Rabbi Benji Stanley

Ever heard of ‘Empowered Judaism’? This week's Shabbat reflection addresses an everyday phenomenon: anxiety.

What do we learn from Yakov?

In this week’s Torah portion, Yakov wrestles with man, and God, and we suspect with himself, his past, and his brother, and he comes out alright. He is given the new name Yisrael, and is told that this means 'to wrestle with God'.

We ourselves, the people of Israel, have been bequeathed the name and the mandate to grapple with Ultimacy, but what do we do in the meantime?

It can’t be easy to enter into spiritual profundity. As a Rabbi, when people ask me about my beliefs, or seem to make assumptions about them and me, I occasionally fear that that they are projecting onto me that which they themselves do not believe in and never will. They willfully mistake me for some sort of holy man. Sometimes people want me to imagine that I’m doing that other-worldly wrestling on their behalf.

So I want to tell you that part of what I have found in Judaism is very practical and everyday. I have found ways of recognizing and channeling anxiety and fear through an active spiritual practice. I want to invite you into this everyday, empowered Judaism.

Yakov, in this week’s Torah portion is beset by fear and anxiety. Understandably so.

The brother whom he has not seen for a decade, since stealing his birthright and blessing, is on his way to meet him with 400 men. In chapter 32:8, we read Va’yira Yakov M’od Vayetser lo - “Jacob was scared and anxious”. Seemingly unnecessary words in the Torah compel our interpretative participation. What is the difference between “va’yira” and “vayetser”?

Why do we need to hear that Yakov was scared and anxious?

The medieval commentator Radak (1160-1235) suggests that the verse is simply emphatic. It lets us know how terrified Yaakov was. Rashi (1040-1105) brings an earlier Rabbinic commentary from the compilation Bereishit Rabba, saying Yakov was scared of being killed by Esav and he was anxious about the prospect of having to kill Esav. Professional Coach Justin Wise, drawing upon the thought on the Benedictine Monk, David Steindl-Rast, explains anxiety as follows:

Anxiety, he says, is the feeling of being pressed-in by the world. It comes from the linguistic root anguere meaning ‘choke’ or ‘squeeze’. The first experience of it in our lives, the primal experience of anxiety, is that of being born. We all enter the world through a very uncomfortable occurrence in which we are squeezed and pushed and all there is to do is go along with it. In a very real sense going with the experience is what makes it possible to be born into life in the first place.

In our verse, the word “vayetser” comes from the root tsadi-resh-resh: to be narrow or constricted. Its etymology (as Avigdor Bonchek points out in What’s Bothering Rashi) is similar to that of “anxiety”. Psalm 118, which we sing in celebration as part of Hallel on occasions such as Sukkot, Chanukah and Pesach, exclaims “Min Hametzar karati Yah, anani va’merchav Yah” - “From a narrow place I called on Yah, Yah answered me expansively”.

Our anxiety, our experience of narrowness, is an invitation to reflection, growth, and action.

Mitzrayim contains the same Hebrew route, and Biblical Egypt is our archetypal narrow place from which, in passing through the waters, we are transformed into new possibilities. Yakov in our verse is perhaps afraid of the real prospect of death and danger, and anxious to be free and active in the face of this. As the ancient midrash Tanchuma, also brought by Rashi, highlights, Yakov channels his anxiety, at the imminent arrival of Esav and 400 men in three ways: He took care of himself by giving Esav a gift, by praying, and by preparing if necessary to fight.

Anxiety can be a spur to fostering relationship, reflection and action.

Six years ago I spent a summer, and then a year, at Yeshivat Hadar, an egalitarian, full-time Yeshiva (intensive Jewish learning centre) in New York, in which people of all ages, around 40 of them in the summer, and 20 during the year, participate in doing t’filah (“prayer”) Torah (transformative learning) and mitzvoth (commandment/ acts of Judaism) together.

I came, having spent years in my youth movement, with much enthusiasm about a Judaism that cherishes tikun olam, repairing the world. Over that summer in New York, I realized I felt great anxiety (the busyness, the new people and place, the intensivity of the programme, the unfinished responsibilities I had left in London) and needed to take care of myself. At Hadar, I found that an adult Judaism in which I can participate helped me care for myself and others. It bound me in community and relationship. The empowered Judaism of Hadar encourages participation by teaching all folk, not just Rabbis, to read and grapple with sacred texts, to grapple with themselves and God through t’filah, and to contribute kindly and conscientiously to the world through mitzvot. This is a Judaism of participation, not one in which a Rabbi does it on your behalf.

Anxiety is natural and important.

Yakov, our great ancestor, had been assured by the Ultimate several chapters and a decade before that “I will be with you”. What cause did he have to feel scared and constricted?

Early Rabbinic commentaries tell us that the example of Yakov teaches us that sometimes it is important to be scared, that even for the righteous there is uncertainty in this world (Bereishit Rabba 76:1-2).

What do we do with our fear and anxiety?

I encourage you to take steps to develop an active reflective practice, find a person you can talk to and learn with, a teacher or a community that enable you to participate in transformative practices, that will teach you to breathe. Judaism is no substitute for the professional options of therapy, but it is a strong invitation to be part of a “kingdom of priests”, in which you fully participate, and find holiness in yourself, others and the world every day. Judaism can help us recognise and transform anxiety, and then, maybe then, as we humbly address our everyday lives, we, like Yakov will find ourselves wrestling with the divine and the mundane, and coming out just fine.

Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.

Image credit of Rafael Halperin: The Jack Pfefer Wrestling Collection

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