Lifting Ourselves Up, through the Mitzvah of Self-Care

We in the Kavana community are coming off of a beautiful Annual Partner Meeting this past Sunday(!), but still, I have to admit, the world around us continues to feel challenging to me right now. By way of example:

We in the Kavana community are coming off of a beautiful Annual Partner Meeting this past Sunday(!), but still, I have to admit, the world around us continues to feel challenging to me right now. By way of example:

  • Covid rates in our community are about as high as they've been. Most folks seem to be experiencing this virus relatively mildly, but still, please let us know if you could use support while you're staying home to isolate or quarantine!
  • The mass shooting in Buffalo was horrific, and I am mourning the loss of ten precious lives and praying for healing for the three victims who were injured. Meanwhile, the ideologies and conspiracy theories that show up in the shooter's manifesto are incredibly terrifying; the interweaving of antisemitism and anti-black racism underscores the importance of the work we've been doing to build relationships with the African American community here in the Seattle area. Anyone who's interested in learning more is welcome to join Bend the Arc for a national call entitled "Understanding Replacement Theory: National Jewish Community Call" at 5pm PT tomorrow/Thursday.  
  • The eye of our nation is still on legislation, courts, elections, and the many issues that fall out from there. Our Kavana community stands poised to channel our anxiety and anger into election work designed to help protect and strengthen our democracy -- stay tuned for opportunities to help!
  • I experienced a huge personal loss this week, with the death of my primary rabbinic teacher and mentor, Rabbi Steve Sager. The whole Kavana community has been an indirect beneficiary of Rabbi Sager's wisdom and Torah, in ways both large and small. I look forward to sharing more of his teachings and legacy with you directly over the coming months.

The cumulative effect of all of these challenges is that right now, I'm feeling quite in tune with the general sense of the Omer as a period of low-grade mourning. (Classically, this is the case because Rabbi Akiva's 24,000 students are said to have died of a plague during this time of year.)

This subdued season of the Omer is punctuated, however, by a single day of happy celebration: Lag Ba'Omer (which falls tomorrow). Stepping back, this fits a pattern that many of us will find familiar. Our Jewish traditions are often oriented towards helping us hold multiple, conflicting emotions simultaneously, and bringing us back into balance if we go too far in any one direction. For example, when we gather for the Passover seder, we pause during our mostly-joyous recitation of our liberation story to spill drops of wine in remembrance of the losses of the Egyptian warriors who drowned in the sea. When we celebrate love and delight under a wedding chuppah, we also pause to shatter a glass and bring ourselves back down to earth, as a reminder that there is still much brokenness awaiting repair. I love that during this Omer window, the reverse dynamic is also true. During this period of mourning and melancholy (in which, many traditionally refrain from joyous occasions like weddings, live music, and even haircuts!), we pause to bring ourselves "up" through a day of relief and joy, filled with bonfires and picnics, games and song. If for you (like me), the state of the world is getting you down, I especially invite you to join us tomorrow evening for our special Lag BaOmer Singing Circle (see below for more details), which promises to be quite a treat!

This week's Torah portion, conveniently, is also filled with mitzvot intended to help us regain equilibrium when we have lost it. Parashat Behar famously contains the commands about shmitah (the sabbatical year of rest for the land) and yoveil (the jubilee, in which indentured servants went free in ancient times), both of which are fundamentally about re-centering.

In addition, one specific phrase in Parashat Behar - "ki yamuch achicha" (see Leviticus 25:25) - has garnered especially a lot of rabbinic interpretation! This phrase could be translated "if your kinsman is in straits," or "if your kinsman stumbles." It speaks conditionally about what to do when someone is experiencing a severe challenge or feeling low... and the end of the verse makes it clear that we each have an obligation to "redeem" (or remedy) this situation.

Many of the rabbinic midrashim on this verse take it in the direction of poverty... that is, they ask: how do we help "our kinsman" who is poor? However, one midrash in particular seems to take a different tack, understanding the "kinsman" in the verse as oneself. This midrashcoaches us about the importance -- especially when we find ourselves "stumbling" -- of tending to our own selves, both body and soul. Here is the text of Leviticus Rabbah 34:3, almost in its entirety:

Another exposition of the text "If your kinsman is in straits." It bears on what is written in Proverb 11:17: "The merciful man does good to his own soul." This applies to Hillel the Elder who once, when he concluded his studies with his disciples, walked along with them. His students asked him: 'Master, where are you headed?' He answered them: 'To perform a mitzvah.' 'What mitzvah are you headed to perform?,' they asked. He said to them: 'To wash in the bath-house.' Said they: 'Is that a mitzvah?' 'Yes,' he replied, 'if the statues of kings, which are erected in theaters and circuses, are scoured and washed by the man who is appointed to look after them, how much more I, who have been created in the Divine Image and Likeness'...

Another exposition of the same verse also applies to Hillel the Elder. Once when he had concluded his studies with his disciples, he walked along with them. His disciples said to him: 'Master, where are you headed?' He replied: 'To bestow kindness upon a guest in the house.' They asked: 'Have you a guest every day?' He replied: 'Is not the poor soul a guest in the body? Today it is here and tomorrow it is no longer?'... Accordingly, Moses exhorts Israel, saying, "If your kinsman is in straits... then shall his kinsman... redeem."

I find this pair of stories about Hillel the Elder so beautiful. In the first, he claims that spending time in the bath-house -- where he goes to care for his own body -- is a mitzvah (a religious obligation). Today, our equivalent might be going to the gym to work out, or getting a massage or a pedicure, or spending a day relaxing at a spa. Hillel's students seem surprised to hear him say that this kind of "self-care" isn't indulgent, but rather a must. In the second story, we hear less detail about how exactly Hillel intends to "bestow kindness," but we do know that his objective is to pay attention to the "guest" in question: that is, his own soul. This, too, the midrash reads as a religious obligation encompassed in the biblical verse of Leviticus 25:25. Re-reading that biblical verse in light of these midrashim interpretations, we might say something like this: "If you yourself are feeling in straits, or having a hard time, do something to take care of your body and do something else to take care of your soul; self-care of both body and soul are a form of redemption."

Perhaps these midrashim jumped out at me because they were the ones I needed to hear this week. I can only hope that some of you will find this idea helpful as well... and if not this particular week, then the next time you are feeling sad or stressed or otherwise find yourself "in straits." Meanwhile, I look forward to singing with many of you tomorrow night, as we celebrate Lag Ba'Omer together.

Wishing you a week of well-being and self-care... of both body and spirit,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum