Wisdom For Unwelcome Experiences

The founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, offered a three-pronged approach to dealing with difficulty.

How are we to respond when the familiar structures of our lives are disintegrating before our eyes? When we face fear and confusion? When our emotions ping-pong between alertness and apathy, concern and numbness?

A teaching from the Baal Shem Tov (known as the Besht), the 18th century rabbi who revolutionized Judaism with the creation of Hasidism, offers a rudder as we navigate the stormy seas of the coronavirus pandemic. The Besht sought to help his followers to cope with unwelcome experiences — distracting thoughts during prayer and any encounters with brokenness. He offered a three-pronged approach: hachna’ah (yielding), havdalah (discernment), and hamtakah (sweetening).

When things take a turn from what we expect, our first reaction is often resistance. The Besht teaches that our first task in meeting such realities is hachna’ah — which means yielding or submitting. We are called to let go of the hopes, expectations, and dreams we had for this moment, and to soften to what is. This act of yielding relaxes the tension and suffering caused by denying or avoiding reality. As the writer Byron Katie says, “Whenever I fight reality, I lose … but only 100 percent of the time.”

In this time of quarantine and social distancing, so much of what we expect from our lives has disappeared — routines, rhythms, connections, livelihoods, health. Even for those of us who are physically well, many sources of security and well-being have been ripped away. As a Facebook friend recently wrote, “I miss normalcy.” And yet, we learn from the Besht that we can traverse this strange terrain by accepting that, as an old Israeli expression goes, zeh mah she-yesh: this is what is.

Once we yield to that realization, we can move on to the second step: havdalah. As those of us who celebrate Shabbat know, the Hebrew word havdalah is the name of the ceremony demarcating Shabbat from the rest of the week. The Besht means by havdalah that we are called to discern the exact nature of the spot we’re in, to distinguish fact from fiction, in order to act wisely. We need to engage our curiosity to find our way around and learn about our new normal.

This is a bit like walking into a dark room. Initially, we see only undifferentiated darkness. But once our eyes get accustomed to the dark, we begin to discern different contours, shadows, shades of gray and black, and perhaps even a bit of light coming in under the door. We can grasp the complexity of our new reality and see the sparks of light and goodness within it. This is a practice we can try every day by asking ourselves: Where were the sparks of light in my day? Was there a moment when I was able to bring light to someone else?

This time of isolation and slowing down is not just filled with loss. There are also surprises and opportunities for growth. The Besht calls this aspect of unwelcome experience hamtakah — sweetening. When we are open to what is, and curious about what we can find and become, we will notice new things growing — even if they are tiny and subtle as the first, fragile buds on the trees.

While we are not able to engage in our usual activities, many of us are connecting more broadly and deeply. Video conferencing and cell phones are enabling us to be in touch with friends or relatives — not just in our neighborhood or city, but around the world. For many people, old relationships are being revived. In my neighborhood, the streets are empty of cars, but the sidewalks and hiking trails are filled with people of all ages delighting in the freedom to move about and in spring’s parade of beauty. I would venture to guess that many of us are appreciating nature more intensely than ever.

Beyond these immediate tastes of hamtakah, there is hope that we will not emerge unchanged from this individual and collective trauma. Personally, I hope that I will grow more patient, more flexible, and more compassionate with myself and others. As a society, perhaps we will recognize our interdependency, and act more boldly to care for the most vulnerable among us. Hopefully, we will treasure and support the heroes of everyday life — those who staff supermarkets, clean hospital corridors, drive delivery services and, of course, provide healthcare. May we never take for granted the privilege of ample foodstuffs, of toilet paper, of homes, schools, workplaces, libraries, theaters and parks.

The Besht’s teaching about hamtakah reminds me of Edith, an 88 year-old resident in a nursing home where I once served as chaplain. She lived in constant pain from arthritis, but somehow maintained a cheerful mien. One day, Edith pulled a small packet carefully wrapped in tinfoil out of her pocket. “I take a medicine that leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth,” she told me. “Once in awhile I am able to get my hands on a square of chocolate. I try to make it last for a long time, so I take just the tiniest morsel each time, and the bitterness fades away.”

I pray that, like Edith, we will be transformed by this pandemic for the good, and that we will be able to find bits of sweetness along the way as we struggle for health and healing and safety.

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