Funny how engaging in physical labor, putting the mind on hold, can precipitate an epiphany of sorts.
Mine came on Friday morning as I worked together with four other volunteers to pack food boxes at Christ Episcopal Church in Teaneck. (The food is distributed on Saturday by another set of volunteers, who hand out the boxes as cars filled with hungry neighbors line up outside the church.)
Some of the packers – all women, the youngest probably in her 40s — belong to that church; others come from churches in other communities. I come as a synagogue volunteer, specifically from Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom, whose social action committee is working to address hunger in a variety of ways.
Our rabbi, Joel Pitkowsky, is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Reverend Chelli, the ebullient religious leader of the church – who wants every last bit of donated food packed and distributed — constantly expresses gratitude for the shul’s support and clearly would be hugging everybody if it weren’t for covid.
On Fridays, we work hard, and we sweat. (I’ve dubbed us a sisterhood of sweat.) We also talk, laugh, and share stories about our lives. Between the satisfaction of doing something useful for the community and the privilege of working with these women – some of them, over 80, refusing help from us young ’uns — I look forward to my Friday morning workout.
So what was the revelation that precipitated my rush to a computer when I got home?
It all started when I chipped a nail. The project organizer expressed sympathy, and at that moment I was painfully aware of what we call “problems” in our first-world existence. A nail, for pity’s sake.
This put me in mind of the time I chipped a nail when my kids were younger and my then teenage son Yaron – now he’s a school psychologist – would say, in mock horror, “Oh no, Ema chipped a nail.” I thought he didn’t get it, but as it turns out, it was me who didn’t get it.
Last week, I narrowly averted a personal breakdown caused by a mechanical one. My computer crashed. Granted, the Standard would have been a story short if my notes hadn’t been reclaimed by three computer mavens, but in a world where Haitians are barely surviving and the people of Afghanistan face an existential threat, big deal.
And so I formulated my new philosophy of life. I don’t have a gratitude journal or a therapist. But I do have a newfound appreciation for putting things in perspective. Anything that doesn’t endanger my life or the lives of those I love, any glitch I can fix by throwing money at it, anything I can resolve with a little bit of patience or with dogged persistence – those are not problems.
Going hungry, living in your car, losing your home to a hurricane or earthquake — those are real problems. My new philosophy already is bearing fruit, shrinking the number of issues that cause me angst. I expect it also will be helpful as I gear up for the High Holidays, focusing my mind on things beyond myself and directing my attention to issues that matter.
I suspect that Isaiah had the same revelation when he chided his fellow Jews about their selfishness and preoccupation with trivialities. See the big picture, he said. There are too many things that need fixing to worry about which conditioner to use.
While we haven’t got a prophet breathing down our necks, threatening us with Divine wrath – granted, we do have some scruffy, bearded New Yorkers walking around the city proclaiming that the end is near — we do face a large number of problems, some of them, such as the climate crisis, potentially existential. That is what deserves our attention, as do our less fortunate neighbors and those in crisis throughout the world.
This Rosh Hashanah, let us resolve not to focus on trivialities but to turn our minds to things that truly matter. We are blessed to have first-world lives, but let us not lessen that blessing by focusing on its imperfections.