I realised I was so busy complaining yesterday that I forgot to mention two bits of good news. One is that I will be getting Employment and Support Allowance (ESA – benefits, basically) for a year, assuming my employment position doesn’t change, which is something of a relief after all the hassle I went to in order to claim.
The second is a more positive thing that came out of the seder experience. I can’t remember exactly how it came about, but I realised that I could re-frame the narrative of my life in a more positive way. It possibly came from something by Rabbi Lord Sacks that I read out at seder about Moshe (Moses) using his speech immediately before the exodus (in Shemot/Exodus 12) to focus on the idea of how to tell the story to our children, which Rabbi Sacks used to talk about the idea of telling our own personal story in a way that supports us.
In the past I have cast the narrative of my life in a very negative way: school, Oxford, my MA, work, dating, religious growth, I have presented all of them in a very negative way, focusing on the difficult times I had and the lack of clear progression to where I wanted my life to be, in terms of marriage, career, community, a certain sort of religious life and so on.
I realise that there were some positives that came out of all of these things. For example, I tend to present Oxford as the worst time of my life, but I did get my BA in end, with a decent mark, and I made a number of friends that I’m still in contact with fifteen years on. And it was a worthwhile experience that I learnt from, even if it wasn’t often a happy one. I won’t bore you by going through the whole list of life events, but I can sort of see that I can do this positive re-framing for most of my life if I try hard enough.
I read Giles Fraser’s latest essay on UnHerd (here, but don’t bother to read the comments which are tedious “God does/doesn’t exist” arguments by people who have missed the point of the article… I already regret wishing that UnHerd had a comments section and they’ve only had it a few weeks). I find Fraser’s articles interesting and provocative for me, as much of his Christian theology resonates with me, and yet much of it seems utterly alien, from a Jewish point of view. Usually both at the same time.
The engagement with brokenness and vulnerability in Christianity as opposed to in secular liberalism is something Fraser has written about a lot. It makes me wonder how much this acceptance is present in Judaism. One would expect it to be present in Judaism, given how much of Jewish history has been written in tears of exile and persecution, but I’m not sure how much it does appear, at least not on a personal level. There is Iyov/Job, as Fraser says; there is some of Tehillim/Psalms. Perhaps you could count Eichah/Lamentations, but that’s really about national brokenness, not individual brokenness. Which is kind of my point. Judaism is a lot more about communal or national experiences than private and personal ones. Unsurprisingly, because Christianity is pitched as an individual quest for personal salvation, whereas Judaism is at heart a national quest to build a social utopia (even if many religious Jews appear to have forgotten that). That’s why (topically for this time of year) the key event of Christianity is Jesus dying on the cross, whereas the key event in Judaism is a nation of slaves leaving for freedom.
This can make Judaism a difficult source of support for someone dealing with private, personal pain as opposed to communal disaster. While there are plenty of Christian conversion stories along the lines of, “I was at rock bottom, but I opened the Bible/heard a preacher/accepted Jesus into my life and suddenly felt loved and accepted,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a religious Jew offer a parallel story using Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) or the Talmud, nor have I ever come across kiruv organisation (outreach organisations attempting to make non-religious Jews more religious) using such tactics. Kiruv organisations prefer a mixture of intellectual engagement with supposed proofs of the truth of Judaism, which are really a pretext to encourage people to experience celebrating Shabbat or going to Israel, particularly in a group.
(The reverse is true: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Christian parallel to the outpouring of concern and love that Jews of all stripes and religious levels share when there is war or terrorism in Israel or antisemitism in the diaspora; many Western Christians seem utterly unaware of the persecution of their coreligionists in much of the Middle East, let alone upset by it, something that is simply unthinkable for the global Jewish community.)
I’m not familiar enough with the rabbinic literature, the Talmud and the Midrash, to know if there are many more stories of individual brokenness there. I can think of one or two. This one comes to mind (Talmud Brachot 5b, translation from the Steinsaltz edition via Sefaria – the bold text is direct translation of the original, the non-bold text is explanation):
The Gemara relates that Rabbi Elazar, another of Rabbi Yoḥanan’s students, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him, and saw that he was lying in a dark room. Rabbi Yoḥanan exposed his arm, and light radiated from his flesh, filling the house. He saw that Rabbi Elazar was crying, and said to him: Why are you crying? Thinking that his crying was over the suffering that he endured throughout his life, Rabbi Yoḥanan attempted to comfort him: If you are weeping because you did not study as much Torah as you would have liked, we learned: One who brings a substantial sacrifice and one who brings a meager sacrifice have equal merit, as long as he directs his heart toward Heaven. If you are weeping because you lack sustenance and are unable to earn a livelihood, as Rabbi Elazar was, indeed, quite poor, not every person merits to eat off of two tables, one of wealth and one of Torah, so you need not bemoan the fact that you are not wealthy. If you are crying over children who have died, this is the bone of my tenth son, and suffering of that kind afflicts great people, and they are afflictions of love.
Rabbi Elazar said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: I am not crying over my misfortune, but rather, over this beauty of yours that will decompose in the earth, as Rabbi Yoḥanan’s beauty caused him to consider human mortality. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Over this, it is certainly appropriate to weep. Both cried over the fleeting nature of beauty in the world and death that eventually overcomes all.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Elazar said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Elazar gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.
Still, these type of stories do seem to be the relatively rare in Judaism and I do feel like I struggle for inspiration and guidance on how to connect with God through my suffering and depression. I think that’s why I’ve re-read Arthur Green’s biography of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav three times, because it deals extensively with his bouts of despair and self-criticism (possibly the result of bipolar disorder, undiagnosable and untreatable in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries). Rebbe Nachman’s own stories are also important to me; they also deal a lot with longing and spiritual desire. Still, I would be interested in finding more sources of Jewish inspiration and acceptance of brokenness.
As for my day today, I did half an hour of Torah study and went for a half-hour walk. E. and I tried to do a virtual museum tour as an online date, but the picture resolution was poor, as was the navigation, and there wasn’t any text to explain what we were seeing. We found the experience disappointing and switched to a straightforward video date after a while. We spoke for over an hour and a half.
I found I was exhausted this evening, I think from the emotional stress of the last three days more than from my activity today. I would have liked to have done more Torah study, or to have written my devar Torah (Torah thought) for the week or to have worked on my short story, but I’m just too exhausted. I’m also intermittently anxious (OCD anxiety mainly, although some general anxiety) and depressed; anxiety and depression tend to worsen when I’m tired, as at the moment. I am going to turn off my computer and watch TV and read before bed, because I don’t feel I can do anything else, sadly. I’m just trying to stay afloat and not end up too exhausted and depressed tomorrow.
A question that is bothering me, but which I’m reluctant to ask more widely for fear of being misunderstood: what is the additional number of COVID-19 deaths? Because while over 100,000 people have died globally, a proportion of those, statistically speaking, would have died anyway from something. The people most likely to die from COVID-19 are also largely the people most likely to die in general (elderly, seriously ill, having compromised immune systems etc.). I would like to know what is the number of deaths so far over and above what we would expect for a normal first quarter of a year? I am not trying to be callous or to say that it doesn’t matter that they died as they would have died anyway. Obviously any death is a tragedy. I’m just curious to know what the global scale of COVID-19 is likely to be. Are we talking thousands more deaths, hundreds of thousands or (God forbid) millions? How does that compare with normal mortality rates?
I heard that when the ebola virus was at its worst in Africa, there was a sudden increase in deaths from malaria, because resources that would have been used in the fight against malaria were diverted to fight ebola, because it’s a “scarier” (or perhaps just less common) illness. I am wondering if anything like that could happen here.
I think they are legitimate questions, but I’m afraid they make me sound callous and uncaring. The autistic part of me has learnt that some genuine questions are off-putting emotionally to many people, however intellectually justified, just as the politically aware part of me is aware that people with strong political opinions generally see the world through the lens of their opinions and don’t always like questions that probe that too deeply or challenge their core assumptions.
The annoying computer problem I used to have, where the mouse touchpad would default to tapping mode whenever I turned the computer on and it would last until I went to turn it off, whereupon it would switch off before I got to the screen where I should have been able to turn it off, is back. I’m not sure what to do about that. It’s another step in the protracted decline of my laptop, but I’m hoping to, um, protract it some more as I can’t really afford to buy a new computer right now. If anyone knows how to deal with this, please let me know!
8 thoughts on “Re-framing and Brokenness”
I think it’s impossible to say with certainty that those who died due to Covid 19 probably wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t caught it, or would have survived years or decades longer. The normal death rate is an interesting statistic; they’ve been comparing the number of deaths to various wars, 9/11(New York people), and other diseases, but right now the number of deaths due to or contributed to by Covid 19 are only projections. Depending on how well we socially distance, and what kind of effective treatments can be found, those stats will all change. Best case scenario in the US would be under 100,000 deaths. There is definitely a group here (many in my Facebook feed) who are evangelical Christians and only see or talk about Christians being persecuted in various countries. They don’t seem to recognize or care about Jews or Muslims being killed or harassed. I’m glad you’re reframing your past and focusing more on the positives. I need to do that also!
Thanks for this!
That’s great news about the benefits!
In terms of absolute numbers of deaths, COVID-19 is killing far fewer people than, for example, vehicle crashes do (or suicide, for that matter). I think what’s concerning is the rapid increase in number of deaths, and that’s where they talk about needing to “flatten the curve.” How quickly those numbers continue to rise is going to depend on public health measures to contain the spread. Various agencies are doing modelling to predict potential numbers of deaths, but that’s all highly dependent on people’s behaviours.
That’s the kind of statistic I was looking for. I find the media often give figures for things without any kind of comparison (not just with COVID-19, but generally) and they make things sound scary, but it’s hard to tell how scary it is.
Yes, I understand that the rapid increase threatens to overwhelm hospital facilities, even if a similar death toll spread over a longer period would be manageable.
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Good news about the ESA. Good you’re able to recognize that you’re “a glass half empty” person — and see some of the positives in your life despite the difficulties. Very interested in your comments on Christianity and Judaism — might come back on this another time.
Re: Covid statistics — I’m afraid I don’t take them very seriously — and even if they were reliable people are misusing them e.g. how can you compare the number of fatalities between countries like the USA with a population of 328 million with the UK (66 million)? What strikes me is how small the current accepted global death figure is — just over 100,000. Unless things get a lot worse (and there is evidence that things are slowly getting better in some places) — or there is a 2nd wave — or this virus mutates into something more deadly — there is no comparison between Covid-19 and the last truly global pandemic the 1918 Spanish flu which killed between 50 and 100 million — and mostly younger people too. And as you say many of the 100,000 would probably have died this year anyway. (See the FT here: https://www.ft.com/content/f3796baf-e4f0-4862-8887-d09c7f706553 — suggests half to two thirds deaths would have happened anyway). However, there will be deaths indirectly caused by Covid – as other illnesses will not be spotted and treated promptly, including mental illness. These are impossible to quantify. Only when this is over will we be able to make a comparison with death rates in previous years.
I am interested in what this whole crisis says about our current society’s denial of death. The PM (glad he’s better) spoke of the NHS as the beating heart of our society. That is so telling. In the past it would have been the church i.e. the Christian faith of the majority. People were less afraid of death because they knew there was a better life to come. Now the current existence is all we believe in — death has become a taboo subject — and so being forced to confront it in the current crisis is exceedingly uncomfortable for many. No wonder some see doctors and nurses as the only saviours, with some people saying that the NHS is the nearest thing we now have to a national religion.
Right. I had similar feelings about the global mortality statistics, that we are looking at something in the hundreds of thousands, but not so far in the millions like Spanish flu (at a time when world population was considerably lower than now too). But I was wary of spelling it out in case I was considered unfeeling.
I agree that it’s likely that mental illness will increase because of this. Certainly many people who may have been prone to contamination OCD will be triggered by this.
Yes, I agree that NHS is a religion to some people. I suppose that’s why I get so upset by the poor treatment I’ve often experienced on the NHS, because it goes against the social narrative of what is “supposed” to happen, particularly when I feel that the problem is a structural problem with the current model and not just a lack of funding.
Also, Charles Moore has pointed out that the “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” slogan seems to place protecting the NHS ahead of saving lives. I’m not sure that’s the intended reading, but it does seem to place value on the protecting the NHS as an end in itself rather than a means to an end (saving lives).
I think it means that by protecting the NHS we save lives because what they want to avoid at all costs is the NHS being so overwhelmed with patients so they run out of critical care beds and ventilators. They want to avoid a situation like in Italy where you had patients dying in hospital corridors, or having to choose who to ventilate or not dependent upon age. So I think this is why the slogan is worded in that order though can see your point!