Fighting Fatigue

Some of you may have heard of the great rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and his community, and as has happened with so many communities, his was going through a particularly rough patch. While every decent person and especially the rabbi were there as best as they could be for their neighbors in their sufferings, the trials of that year became so overwhelming that Rabbi Levi couldn’t take it anymore. Completely overwhelmed by the sufferings of his people, he prayed. He offered to God, “Good morning to You, Ribbono shel Ha’olam. I, Levi Yitzchak, son of Sarah of Berditchev, have a matter to bring to You concerning Your people of Israel. We do not understand what it is you want of us. It says over and over again in the Torah, “Command the Children of Israel, Speak to the Children of Israel.” And most of the time, we do, and we listen! But Av Harachimim, Merciful Father, there are so many other peoples in the world: Persians, Babylonians, Russians, Germans, the French! What do they say? They say “our kingdom is our kingdom, our ruler our ruler, and we have no ruler but him.” We have turned to you and blessed you beyond our fair share, and it is time for something in return. I, Levi Yitzchak, will only again say, “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba— glorified and sanctified be God’s name, when there is an end to my people’s suffering, and I will not budge from my place until then.”

This crushing sense of being overwhelmed is something of which we are all too familiar. These past few months, trying to be compassionate human beings in America and in the world have truly pushed our limits for empathy, with one awful test after an another.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, a highly influential young rabbi in LA, labeled these past few months, “the Summer of Sorrow.” Between racism and police killings, bombings and mass shootings here in New Jersey, New York and Orlando, terrorism in the Middle East, Africa and Asia but also closer to home in Israel, Belgium, and France, ISIS, Syria, Iran, refugees, the Zika virus, fires and flooding, climate change, the deaths of Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres, continuing attacks against Israel by Hamas and its like, and BDS and its like, betrayal from our partner in social justice #BlackLivesMatter, political deadlock and vitriol, and our society being on the verge of a total collapse of communal obligation and morality, we have just lived through a very difficult summer.

Some of us are blessed with infinite hearts, with room to hold all those suffering in this world in empathic embrace; some are blessed with the skill of obliviousness, to close themselves off enough to do what they need to do to get through their own days. The rest of us (that’s most of us) are left somewhere in between, wanting to act each time something awful happens— wanting to make a difference in someone’s life, in our nation, in this world— and every time we think we’ve figured something out, a way to change things, something else goes wrong. And there are only so many times a person’s empathic energy can be knocked in a single moment before they freeze up in helplessness and can no longer move.

And that is where Rabbi Levi Yitzchak found himself. That is where many of us find ourselves. And there’s a term for this state of being. It’s called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is “an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of [others] to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.” Compassion fatigue is what happens when in completely immersing ourselves in the traumas of others, we ourselves end up being traumatized, taking on more of the suffering of those for whom we care than we intended or can handle. Symptoms for individuals can include apathy, bottled up emotions, and general sadness, and for an organization or society, symptoms can include an inability for groups to work well together, aggressive behavior, inflexibility, negativity towards leadership, reluctance towards change, and an overall powerlessness to hope and see a better future.

Are any of these familiar? Do we ever encounter short tempers, hypersensitivity, and inflexibility? Or perhaps a lack of faith in the higher moral road and a shut-down of generosity of spirit? Probably we do, because these feelings have become ubiquitous, on a global scale. They provide the substance that fills our news, Facebook and twitter feeds.

And these feelings of anger and pain are problematic not only in themselves, but because they are gradually supplanting the positive feelings of optimism and opportunity that ought to fill our hearts, minds, and deeds. Many of us have, at least in certain moments in the face of all that is happening in the world, lost our ability to see goodness, possibility, and hope. We, in our community, in this nation, and throughout the world, are in a state of Compassion Fatigue.

This feeling is nothing new; we read about it in the book of Jonah this afternoon. Jonah, who has seen so much awfulness in his world, comes to us, the readers, as a man who has given up on his fellow human beings and their ability to change.

When God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh to speak up against its people’s wrongdoing, Jonah does the opposite and gets on that boat to take him as far as possible from his task. Why does he flee? Not because he doesn’t think that the Ninevites are doing wrong — Jonah recognizes their evil. He flees God’s commands because he has become bitter and simply wants to see Nineveh burn. He also knows that if he goes and warns them, they’ll repent, and God will forgive them. And of course, jaded Jonah believes that these awful people will repent— but then later backtrack and turn to evil once again. And then God will forgive them once again. Which, in Jonah’s mind, renders this whole endeavor of compassion pointless. And so he flees. But of course, the message of the book of Jonah is that Jonah’s behavior is not to be emulated. Rather, no matter how bad things have gotten, everyone— those wreaking havoc in this world and those who simply get under our skin, those in tragic circumstances and those who have made their own bed of destruction, deserve our compassion and an opportunity to do better.

Compassion fatigue may be a real psychological state, but we can overcome it. On Rosh Hashanah we spoke about the importance of going beyond ourselves and connecting with others, and it is through compassion that we connect. We the Jewish people are expected to emulate God, and who is the God we invoke today? Adonai Adonai El Rachum v’chanun- Adonai our Lord who is a compassionate and gracious God.  And emulating a compassionate God means doing everything we can to combat the emotional helplessness of compassion fatigue.

So what do we do?

We consult the prophets— the ancient ones who lived and breathed Torah, who, often against the currents of society, would speak to us of what was necessary and sacred.

We first turn to the faith of Ezekiel. Living in the darkest time yet of Jewish history in Babylonian exile, when our people felt completely cut off from everything they knew, and especially from God, Ezekiel stated firmly, “do not lose faith, God is with you.” When we thought we had lost God by being forced out of Jerusalem, Ezekiel painted a brilliant metaphor of God having a chariot— a vehicle—for meeting us wherever we were. Ezekiel through imagery and vision told us that we must never feel abandoned, as God will always meet us where we are. All we need to do is ask, and pray, and connect. And though God is unlikely to give us the answers for how to fix all of life’s problems, what we will get is a sense that we are not isolated from the universe; we are part of the greater whole.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught of the silent scream— the kind that escapes from deep within our souls, “erupting when we eat expect it” even if being made without a sound. “Help me!” We scream silently. And it is when we cry out for help from such internal depths that God will answer us. The first steps out of compassion fatigue is realizing that we have a problem and then crying out to the Holy One for help.

When we have done so, we then turn to solving the problem, by working on our selves. To do so, we turn to the practicality and self-care of Jeremiah. Jeremiah too spoke during the exile. Knowing that in utter devastation, we would be inclined to freeze up and wail for all we had lost, Jeremiah told us, “Do what you need to do to survive and thrive.” He told the Israelites, so far from home and not knowing if they’d ever return, “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take spouses and have children, and even seek the welfare of the city to which God has exiled you.” He tells the Israelites, “you may feel awful and for good reason, but you must do everything that you can, given the circumstances, to live and flourish. You still have a job to do, to bring life and goodness to this world, wherever you are.”

What is it that we do for self-care? Is it taking personal time with our families in the evenings and on the weekends? Heading to the gym in the morning? Baking? Therapy?

One form of self-care that many of us here find helpful is Shabbat— having a designated period of protection where we connect with those for whom we care, join in song, prayer, and joy, and shut out negative influences, welcoming in only that which elevates and improves. One member of our community and I, speaking about her experience of compassion fatigue in light of this summer of sorrow, decided that the best cure would be one day off a week from internet and news access— a Shabbat from electronics— to guarantee at least one day of peace per week. And it’s worked. Shabbat created in her enough space and strength to keep on moving and caring for others after Shabbat ends with Havdalah.  Caring for ourselves, as Jeremiah instructed us, gives us the space and ability to care for others.

And once we have brought ourselves up from the depths, we again turn to others. We heed the words of the prophet Amos who told us to never accept the way things are when imbalance and injustice remain in the world. Amos demanded that we always “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice at our gates.” Amos called us to “let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:15, 24). Amos says, enough with your compassion fatigue. Do what you need to do to overcome it, and then keep moving, because we have work to do. We must continue welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor, ensuring justice for all, and loving one another. In the face of sorrow, in the face of destruction, in the face of overwhelming odds, we Jews keep going. We embrace tz’dakah, we embrace compassion, and we gird each other in the ability to be rachum v’chanun – compassionate and gracious. It may be that there is far more than we can ever each fix in this world, but in the face of such challenge, we stand tall and keep trying, bit by bit. We begin with a single act: showing love, giving a dollar, bringing in a bag of food, calling a politician, offering a hug. And then we do it again and again and again.

Being human does not mean being perfect. Being broken is part of the human condition. We are all broken, and our brokenness never leaves us. The shofar blast, calls out to us with the powerful call of t’kiah, but also with the broken blasts of sh’varim and t’ruah. When we are called to account for our days behind us and our lives ahead, God does not expect ​perfection from us. God, through the shofar, calls to all that we are, whole and broken. And God expects of us, from whatever state we find ourselves, to keep moving and fulfill our sacred obligations of completing this world.

In the midst of our brokenness, we seek to find our place in that book of life. But here’s the secret. It’s only in helping everyone else to find their places in that fate-filled book that our places, our names, and our legacies are sealed for goodness and life.

So in the wake of this summer of sorrow, let us experience a fall of fruition, an autumn of activation, and a new year of newfound strength to partner with God in tikkun olam, the completion of this world.

Gamar Chatimah Tovah, may we all come to that good seal this Yom Kippur.


Sermon delivered at Temple Emanu-El of Edison on Yom Kippur morning, 5777.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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