I am trying not to shut down emotionally. The sense of overwhelming pushes on me like a bully’s knee on my back. The crush of despair begins with numbers, compresses with names, and swamps us with images.
The current wave started to crash with the war in Ukraine, continued through the shootings in Buffalo, and flattened me with the murder of school children in Texas. As is my practice, I tried to think about these episodes through a Jewish lens. The opening of the book of Numbers, BaMidbar, which we read this coming week offered some framing.
The book begins with the requirement of a census. We count people. Thereafter, we group people with names. The numbers of Hebrews counted are associated with the names of clans. Only after some framing does the book of Numbers veer off into some of the most colorful depictions of people we have in all of Torah.
Each morning, as if a ritual, I watch Morning Joe. One commentator followed another. First, they offered numbers. More children die in this country from gun violence than by any other means. Over 100 people die from gun violence each day in America. Then there was a discussion of the individuals who died, we shifted from Ukrainian names and then the names of people in Buffalo to this week naming teachers and children in Texas.
I was able to hold onto my emotions through numbers and names. But the images, the color commentaries, and the personal stories had the effect of shutting down my emotional response. Then I watched President Biden exhibit bitterness and sadness during his comments on the Texas massacre. Senator Chris Murphy pleaded with his Republican colleagues to enact gun control laws. Deep emotion can be directed toward action.
On the other hand, emotion can impede action. When I was in Israel recently, our group met with a Palestinian journalist. He shared the tortured path of his family, disconnected from each other by borders and walls. Yet, he shared that he was no longer wedded to his anger. He described anger as an impediment to progress and a detriment to his own health.
In the United States, too many are operating from a place of anger. It is the anger of displacement. It is the rage of oppression. The fury is most often directed at unnamed others – people with other skin colors, people who follow different faiths, and people from other countries. Yet, the anger doesn’t stop with the other. The anger becomes antagonism, leading to confrontation rather than cooperation.
I am learning that shutting down emotionally is counterproductive. But indignation and anger, on any side of an issue, will not bring peace anywhere. Emotions must be applied in a productive manner. And because emotions are so powerful, each of us will be challenged to take a breath, notice our emotions, and select those that help us resolve differences and which can motivate positive change. The numbers, the names, and the stories are now ours to carry forward. Let’s do so with productive emotional energy. Tamp down the anger and bring on the holy.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame