It has certainly been a while since my last post. While I have been reading and studying quite fervently, sometimes life itself simply becomes too full for a proper writing session. Reflection itself takes time, and the writing comes later. One of the consequences of trying to cram too much into a small space has been a hot topic in my life as of late: Burnout. In terms of my professional life, I have been addressing burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma via customized training programs and seminars; mostly for healthcare workers. So many people are experiencing burnout these days, and I feel it has been my job to instill a sense of hope for better days ahead, and strategies for better days now. While building and delivering programming to so many in a secular fashion, the back of my mind was always wrestling with this issue in a Jewish sense.
Immediately, my mind sprung to Exodus 27:20: “And thou shalt command the children of Israel…to cause a lamp to burn continually.” The lamp that is being caused to “burn continually” is the “Ner Tamid,” or the “eterna light” that we so often see in our Temples and Synagogues. While the eternal light is a symbol of Israel as an “ohr l’goyim,” or a “light unto the nations,” what else does an eternal flame represent? Aaron and his sons are tasked with maintaining this light upon the Ark forever. A light that never dims is such a beautiful and comforting notion…perhaps more so if you are not the light. How many of us have been “burning the candle at both ends,” and are simply running low on the proper oil to keep us going? Eternity is much to ask of one light, and perhaps this is why G-d instructed that only the purest of oils must be used for burning the Ner Tamid. The light needs to be nurtured and cared for properly. How many of us expect consistent radiance from ourselves without time and space set aside for self-care? I always ask my trainees to think of at least three things that they do for themselves every day; only for themselves, and no one else. It is more than often the case that individuals have much difficulty coming up with three examples of daily self-care. I then proceed to recommend the homework of finding these three things. If we do not, we run the risk of losing our light. No matter how holy the Ark, one needs light in order to see it. If our own lights go dark, how will we be spiritually resplendent enough to witness the holiness in our own lives?
The past year of pandemic living has made it more difficult to take care of ourselves. That truth is plain and simple. How many of us can identify with wanting to jump out of our own skins, or just run in the other direction? I have to admit, I have never had so much compassion for our reluctant prophet, Jonah, as I do now. Jonah was instructed by G-d to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, and prophesy its imminent destruction. G-d wants Jonah, the Israelite, to travel to Mesopotamian Assyria, Israel’s most fearsome enemy, and let the people know they are doomed. Does this seem like an undesirable task? Well, Jonah seemed to think so, too. Instead of a quick “ken” (yes), Jonah gives a solid “lo” (no), and he votes with his feet. Not only does Jonah not go to Nineveh as G-d has commanded, but he flees in the entirely opposite direction. It is said that Jonah boarded a ship toward “Tarshish,” which could be a specific place, but may simply imply the other side of the known world. To add insult to injury, once Jonah is on the ship that is sailing away from his task, “Jonah was gone down into the innermost parts of the ship” (Jon. 1:5). Oh, and he also went into a deep sleep while the other members of the crew captained the ship. Who can identity with Jonah right now? Our days are often filled with what feel like arduous and undesirable tasks. Many of us feel trapped or overwhelmed. Workplaces are struggling with employee morale and retention. Children are struggling to stay engaged in a virtual classroom. So many of us want to get on that boat to our own personal Tarshish, and go take a long nap in the cabin.
How can we find sprinkles of light when we feel so overwhelmed and exhausted? As many of us know from the famous story, Jonah was eventually swallowed up by a very large fish. This doesn’t sound pleasant at all; but wait a moment. According to our sages, G-d was at work here. Rabbi Tarfon tells us that G-d crafted that fish during the six days of creation just for the purpose of gobbling up Jonah. He writes that the fish’s eyes were bright windows, which brought light upon Jonah. Rabbi Meir tells us that present in the fish was a giant pearl, which served as a sun-like figure, enabling Jonah to see in the darkness. While being swallowed by a giant fish comes off as a fairly traumatic experience, holiness was at work. Jonah was given precious time to reflect, and how can we reflect without light?
While burnout, compassion fatigue and the like are so prevalent now, perhaps more than ever; our tradition gives us so much to work with in terms of shifting our respective paradigms. If you feel tired of searching for “silver linings” at this point, I understand that perspective as well. Moses, coming down from Mount Sinai with tablets manicured by the thumb of G-d in hand, saw the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Moses did not have a meditation or breathing exercise handy for that moment. In a very human way, he shattered the tablets in disgust. Sometimes we all just “shatter the tablets,” and we need to forgive ourselves for being human.
May we all be blessed with the proper oil to keep our lights free from burnout, the freedom to find the hidden holiness in hiding, and forgiveness for ourselves when we lose patience and smash those tablets.
You are doing a great job. Keep going.