On Anxiety

Anxiety and not Balak

by Nancy Coren

July 16, 2022

The Herald of Dawn, Elena Kotliarker

This week, I found it was on my mind to write this rather than going with something more traditional about this week's Torah portion:

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”  Anxiety does not have to be excessive nor involve panic attacks in order to be defined as such.

I’m going to guess that for everyone here with us on zoom today, anxiety is a well-known feeling.  Some of us experience anxiety when we listen to the news or read in a newspaper about national or world events.  Some of us experience anxiety when we think about the ways the world has changed from the times we remember in the past. Some of us experience anxiety when facing new challenges in our own personal lives, be they health issues or financial issues.  And for many of us, anxiety is a result of having lived through two years of a pandemic with no sight in end.

No matter what causes us to feel anxious, we have a tendency to interpret the feeling as negative.  Yet, what I’m going to say may come as a surprise to many.  Judaism encourages a type of anxiety that is actually considered productive anxiety.   If you take a look at the piyyut, Unetaneh Tokef in the High Holyday machzor,  it states, “Who shall live and who shall die….who by fire and who by water….”  Wow!  That isn’t exactly a calming thought.  Yet the lines that follow are meant to remind us of the real purpose of producing such a feeling of anxiety….It is because we are to perform acts of tzedakah, prayer, and teshuvah in our attempt to live a life that avoids the negative feelings elicited by the inevitability of recognizing our own mortality.

When we live with a sense of tension, we are more likely to work to correct the ills that we see in our own lives and in society.  When we are too comfortable and too passive about what is happening in the world around us, we are less likely to react to correct the ills. One such ill that has created a sense of anxiety in many of us is the increase in acts of anti-Semitism nationally and world-wide. In October of 2019 there was a special report called, “Combatting Antisemitism to Eliminate Discrimination and Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief,” released by the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed. It defined anti-Semitism as a global phenomenon—not one largely confined to the United States and Europe—as had been the case in many previous U.N. reports. The Special Rapporteur recognized that the sources of anti-Semitism are varied, coming from the far right, from members of radical Islamist groups and from the political left. Of course, our familiarity with anti-Semitism stems from our own experience here in the U.S. One cannot walk into a synagogue here in the United States anymore without wondering what kind of security system is in place. Just last week, all San Antonio synagogues were shut down on Shabbat due to a credible threat to the community.  If one finds an unmarked package at the back door of a synagogue it is no longer assumed that it is okay to move it into the building without calling 911 to report it and have it checked out. The list goes on and on.  We have witnessed acts of violence, yet the question still remains, “what can we do to stop these forms of violence?"   Yes we can create reinforced buildings, but how do we stop the hatred that has risen up from the sewers and is finding a place in America unlike any we’ve seen in decades?

Another source of anxiety comes from watching our country walk backwards in race relations.  It is most disconcerting for those of us who grew up at a time when civil rights marches were taking place all over the country to see the divisions rising again.  We who were among those whose children were taught and benefited from the idea that all human beings are created equal find it hard to comprehend that individuals are still voicing opposition to this “given.”  Yes, we can continue to model our best vision for America, but how do we make all individuals feel safe?  How do we ensure a criminal justice system that is indeed color-blind?

Anxiety arises when we see the rights women have had to make decisions about their own bodies eroded by the Supreme Court.  Once again, there are many women alive today who have taken this right for granted while others of us remember the struggles women had before Roe vs Wade when accessing an abortion put them in great danger.  How do we ensure that the states we are living in will not remove the 50 years of agency women in America have experienced?

These are not the only scenarios which cause anxiety these days.  Witnessing or hearing about the increasing rise in teen suicides, of gun violence,  and of violence and discrimination against non-binary gender and transgender people also brings a sense of uncomfortable tension.

So, it is easy to declare the parts of our daily existence which give rise to anxiety, but the big question is what can we do to alleviate its root causes?  The purpose of anxiety in Judaism (and no I am not speaking about anxiety disorders), is to lead us to action.  Without feeling uncomfortable, without feeling a sense of discontentment, we might remain passive about situations we see in our midst.  If we look at the Torah, for an example of how to respond to worry, we would note that the best response is to make plans and work toward a better future.

Much can be done to fight antisemitism, racism, and sexism by actively making sure that our educational systems address these topics with young people.  In addition, it is important to make sure that the laws which are in effect for hate crimes are enforced and groups needing protection are provided that protection.

When our government pursues policies which we feel are unethical, we need to speak up and tell our elected representatives that we want the policies to end. We can march, volunteer at organizations that are attempting to protect the vulnerable in our society, and provide financial support for such organizations as well.  Voting is another means of having one’s voice be heard.  It is important for each of us to know what we stand for, to figure out our purpose in life, and stand up and be counted when there are injustices being committed by others.

And finally, when anxiety seems to be rising, it is important to have faith.  It is our faith that teaches us we can change the world.  It is our faith that reminds us that even in difficult times we have much for which to be thankful. Life’s challenges are not meant to leave us feeling depleted, just provide us with tasks that must be tackled.  Remember, the famous statement in Pirkei Avot:

Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor,  V'lo ata ben chorim l'hibatil mimena,
It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.

May we begin to see our anxiety as a reminder that we have work to do in this world.  Let us not see our anxiety even as uncomfortable as it is, as a source of paralysis.

Questions:

  1. What is the greatest source of your anxiety and what do you to try to effectively change that source?
  2. Is it best to focus on changing one source of your anxiety or to spread out to try to effectively change multiple sources of one’s anxiety?
  3. What sources of strength do you rely upon to make sure you do not feel depleted?

Shabbat Shalom.