A Fair Burden of Caring

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 5777/2016
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the ways the ancient Sages described our role and responsibility as Jews is with the phrase, עוֹל מַלְכוּת הַשָּׁמַיִים the "Yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. " Part of being Jewish is shouldering the burden of God’s work in the world. It is both a great honor and a formidable challenge—and sometimes we do better than others. One of the most important settings for our holy work lies in our families and our communities. We are called upon to help and care for others—to share life with them in love and in compassion. This is part of our divine service—carrying the Yoke of Heaven.

We know that carrying God’s Presence in the World is important, but how much of that holy burden should each of us undertake to bear? If we’re carrying enough, then we can feel good about a job done well. If we are not carrying enough, then we need to feel some guilt and then embark on teshuvah. As Rabbi Tarphon taught, some 1900 years ago (Avot 2.16):

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, 
“You are not required to do all of the work, 
וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
but neither are you permitted to ignore it.”

My question for today is then: How much of the burden should we carry? How much is enough, how much is too little, and how much is too much?

Some of us may be carrying too little, and we need to be reminded that God needs our help in tikkun olam. Perhaps we need a kind of personal trainer for morality, calling us out, inspiring us, and getting us more involved in the holy work for which we were created. 

There are other people, however, who may hear this message of moral insistence and take on guilt they do not deserve—taking on guilt they do not deserve. It is, I suspect, a particularly Jewish problem, and, at this season of our guilt, many of us may be particularly vulnerable. 

Though we may start with honest self-evaluation, sometimes our noble aspirations can get out of control, and we can misinterpret our limitations as a kind of moral deficiency. The fact is that acknowledging the limits of our abilities—physically, financially, and emotionally—is part of the discipline of self-management and personal responsibility. But those of us with good hearts can get trapped in a quest for infinite compassion and inevitable and irresolvable guilt. We may joke about perpetual guilt being good for the soul, but I do not think that this is what God wants.

Caring is good. Empathy is good. Helping is good. But, we can go too far. We can let our altruism run wild, and, compounded by our natural propensity for guilt, we can push ourselves to take on stress and anxiety and responsibility that are not ours.

Part of this comes from our media culture which turns reporting the news into a kind of empathy fest where reporters try to plunge themselves—and us(!)—into the depths of the emotional distress of the people in the stories. This leaves us with an interesting question of appropriate intensity. If someone experiences a catastrophic event, how much attention from us is appropriate or respectful? Is it important to know about the event—and in what detail? Is it important to know the emotional effects of the event—on victims, survivors, and witnesses? Do we need to feel their loss as though it were our own? Or, is it morally acceptable to maintain some distance?

I believe that I cannot carry the grief of every sadness in the world. It is just not something I can do. And, yet, I often get the message that turning off the story or not delving into the intricate and tragic details indicates a moral failing on my part. It is as though my sin is not caring enough.

How much of other people’s pain or anxiety is it reasonable for a human—a good human like me or you—to carry? Given that we have responsibility for our own mental health and the responsibilities of our own lives, how much extra can we carry? Moreover, how helpful is it to those other people when we voluntarily take on their pain and anxiety? Does it actually help them? If my life falls apart when people far away from me experience grief or tragedy, does my heartbrokenness do them any good? 

It is not a matter of dismissing the real pain that real people feel. Nor is it a matter of minimizing the very real help that we can offer to others. The issue here is the pull of infinite caring and infinite responsibility which I feel acutely, how I can feel okay about stepping back and not taking on the sadness of their lives.

I am talking about a kind of moral balance and how we can be relieved from anxiety and guilt that are not ours to carry. Lest I focus too much on limits, however, let us remember the ways we can be helpful and how we can grow spiritually when we join in supporting others. Here is a poem from the late and exceedingly compassionate Rabbi Alexander Schindler: 

Our lives are a wildnerness,
uncharted and unpredictable—
untimely deaths, unexpected blows,
unsuitable matches, unfulfilled dreams.

And yet, by gathering our heartaches
into a house of worship,
we find something transformative happening—
our sorrows become windows of compassion.
Paths through the wilderness,
hewed and marked by past generations,
give us our bearings.
Patterns of meaning and significance emerge.
We are moved from self-pity to love.
Our individual heartbeats merge with the pulse
of all humankind.
Suddenly we no longer tremble
like an uprooted reed.

Human care and companionship is good and necessary and holy—both when we help others and when others help us. And yet, does this mean that there should be no limit to caring—-that “the more we care, the better it is?”

Reb Nachman of Breslov told a story about a giant heart—the Heart of the World—that feels every single person’s every pain. This heart has total empathy and is a metaphor for the infinity of God’s love. It is wonderful to contemplate the infinity of God’s love—the Divine Embrace that holds us and soothes us at every moment, that dries every tear, and reminds us that we are precious. It is wonderful, but this immeasurable love is God’s, and we are not God. We aspire toward the godly, and we may have some success, but we are limited creatures. There is a limit to what we can bear, and there is a limit to what is actually helpful to those in pain.  

Many of us carry burdens of anxiety and guilt that are nobly assumed but inappropriate. I am here to make the point—a point from Jewish tradition—that limiting our emotional involvement in other people’s grief and challenges is okay. It is part of responsible self-management and self-preservation.

We can find guidance for this balance in the traditional laws of mourning. Halachah prescribes various mourning customs for various people in a set of concentric circles of proximity to the deceased. Only the immediate relatives—parents, siblings, spouse, children—cut the k’ri’a ribbon, say Kaddish, and sit shiva. Others may accompany them or attend them, but grandchildren, cousins, and friends are not included in these customs and rituals. 

Sometimes, secondary family members are frustrated about not being able to do these things to express their grief. I remember, in particular, a good friend who really wanted to say Kaddish for his grandfather, but it was not allowed in their Orthodox world. My friend was looking at Kaddish from a Reform perspective in which rituals are forms of expression, whereas the Orthodox concern is for the proper and commanded forms of behavior. This is not to say that grief is not expressed in the Orthodox forms. Grief takes place within and alongside the prescribed behaviors, but Halachah is designed to tell each person—based on his proximity to the deceased—what he/she is supposed to do and not supposed to do. 

Part of the Halachic motivation is to guide us with limits. When someone close to us dies, there is inevitably a feeling that we haven’t done enough, or are not doing enough. No matter what we do—or what we did, that feeling of deep emptiness does not go away. In the face of this bottomless emotional pit, Halachah comforts us by telling us exactly how much is enough: respectful and enough. Once we’ve done what Halachah prescribes, we can feel a kind of satisfaction that we have at least given our loved one the proper respect. We’re still sad, but we are not left wondering what more propriety and love and respect require. According to the Rabbis, this is why the Children of Israel mourned for Moses for thirty days and then moved on with their lives. If the great Moses was properly mourned in thirty days, then that should be good enough for us. We’re still sad, and we never forget our loved ones, but we are given the comfort of a limit for our formal mourning rituals

The Halachic exclusion of some people from the formal mourning is really a kind of release so that they can help the primary mourners. They obviously feel sad, but they are freed to be supportive and to keep the world turning. Think about what would happen if everyone in a family or community would be totally consumed in mourning at every death. Life would grind to a halt, and it would actually make it harder for the primary relations to do their mourning. The Halachic prescriptions tell us what is appropriate and respectful and give us guidance both in mourning and in knowing when it’s okay to attend to the other needs of life.

When it comes to bearing the weight of the pain of the world, I do not have a magic formula or a quantitative measurement, but I know that it does no one any good if I plunge myself into the despair and grief of people far away from me. I can care, but too much empathy and identification with their suffering increases my burden to the point where I am unable to deal with the anxiety and difficulties of my own life—and of my own people.

I also know that vicarious suffering of other people’s pain is of limited value. Acknowledgement, respect, and prayers are good, but it does them no good when we take on their pain and anxiety as our own. It does them no good, and it does us no good, and it impedes our ability to be God’s agents in the tasks that are standing before us—right here, right now.

It is a matter of balance, and this is something Hillel reminded his students and himself all the time.
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. 
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” 
וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. 
“But if I am only for myself, what am I?”  
וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
“And if not now, when?”