Tonight, the Jewish community will begin Shabbat (the Sabbath) by reflecting upon the themes in Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9; Isaiah 51:12-52:12) which contains the following exhortations: “There shall not be found among you… a soothsayer, a diviner of times, one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or a charmer… You shall be whole-hearted with your Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:10-14) as well as: “You forgot the Lord, your Maker, Who spread out the heavens and founded the earth, and you fear constantly the whole day” (Isaiah 51:13).
Traditional rabbinic commentary explains that Jews are forbidden from relying upon superstition, magic, astrology, psychics or other attempts to try to know or control the future. Rather, Jews are commanded to rely on their faith and their trust in the Creator of heaven and earth. Nevertheless, Judaism, along with many other faith traditions have developed their own means of coping with anxiety and trying to ward off negative outcomes. Many scholars believe that it is a fine line between a superstition and a religious compulsion, noting that even religious rituals can be used superstitiously. Ultimately, it is less about the behavior, and more about the meaning attributed to it, and the ways in which it impacts the person. Do the behaviors help ground in faith, or do they maintain an underlying anxiety? Ultimately, trying to control the future is a way of avoiding the present. None of us are guaranteed a future, but few of us maximize our present. We are too busy killing time or procrastinating what matters. These two texts speak to the challenge of being “whole-hearted” when one is consumed with anxiety.
Modern psychology explains that superstition is a coping mechanism of the ego, to avoid feeling out of control or helpless: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/november-2016/everyday-magic-superstition. Indeed, to truly recognize how out of control our lives are can be a terrifying realization. None of us know what will happen next. Will this be our last day on earth? We are all at the mercy of the unexpected. Recognizing this can either lead us to feel terrified, or feel reenergized to live with true intentionality. Most religious faiths are rooted in shifting this existential terror to a deeper trust, faith and purpose, while existential psychology is focused on transforming that fear into gratitude and perspective.
The Dalai Lama was once asked what surprised him most, and he responded: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present, the result being that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, then dies having never really lived.” This insight is echoed in the Talmud’s injunction to live every day as if it were our last… a technique that is often used in psychotherapy as well, to help with difficult decisions. For example, think about what you did yesterday… if you knew that yesterday was the last day you were going to be alive… what would you have wanted to do differently?
For Jews, this month marks the beginning of a time of deep reflection upon these themes, as we prepare for the start of a new Jewish year (Rosh Hashanah which will begin on September 9th). It is a time to consider that this coming year is not a certainty of which we are guaranteed, and to reprioritize our lives so that we live without regrets or unresolved. It is a time to work on forgiveness and becoming whole-hearted. It is a form of “death bed meditation” which is also an important practice within Buddhism; for more: https://kadampa-center.org/sites/default/files/DeathHO5.pdf. One does not need to be Jewish to reflect upon these themes, and indeed, in the hospital, many of our patients are painfully reminded of these truths. We might feel intimidated to talk to our patients about these topics, but we actually have a lot we could learn from them, if we could allow ourselves to be vulnerable and listen to them.
In Judaism, there is a prayer that one is supposed to recite upon one’s deathbed: “Vidui” which means, confession. But the rabbis teach that we are not supposed to wait until our final moments to recite it. Recognizing that any of us could die at any moment, there are many variants of this prayer for forgiveness that are included in the daily and holy day Jewish liturgy. I share the following version, adapted by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s translation, along with my hopes that this coming week, we treasure and sanctify every moment we have been given, so that our lives may be anchored by forgiveness and faith…
You my Eternal Friend teach me to forgive and show me the path to healing
For Your Loving Wisdom is greater than my understanding.
Witness that I forgive anyone
who hurt or upset me or offended me –
damaging my body, my property,
my reputation or people that I love;
whether by accident or willfully,
carelessly or purposely,
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes;
in this lifetime or another incarnation –
I forgive every person,
May no one be punished because of me.
Help me, Eternal Friend,
to keep from offending You and others.
Help me to be thoughtful and compassionate,
to live with forgiveness and intention.
Hear the words of my mouth and
may the meditations of my heart
find acceptance before You, Eternal Friend
Who protects and frees me.