There is an episode of The West Wing where one of the characters, Josh, spends the entire episode in a therapy session, beginning to work through his post-traumatic stress disorder. At the end of the episode, his boss, Leo, tells him this story:
This guy's walking down the street when he falls into a hole. The walls are so steep, he can't get out. A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, 'Hey you, can you help me out?' The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, 'Father, I'm down in this hole, can you help me out?' The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole, and moves on. Then a friend walks by. 'Hey Joe, it's me, can you help me out?" And the friend jumps in the hole! Our guy says, 'Are you stupid? Now we're both down here!' The friend says, 'Yeah, but I've been down here before, and I know the way out.'
Most of us are probably familiar with this story, and some of us may have even used it before in other sermons. But we often overlook a very important detail: Leo felt such a responsibility to Josh’s well-being that he waited for him long into the night.
How often, though, do we fall short on our responsibility to support our peers when they really need it most?
In this week's parasha, Bo, we read of the plague of darkness: "Moses stretched out his hand over the heavens, and there was gloomy darkness throughout all the land of Egypt for three days, - לֹא רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו - a man could not see his brother, and a man could not arise from his spot, for three days, but for all the Children of Israel, there was light in their settlements." (Ex. 10:21-23)
A Midrash explains that this darkness is the same darkness that existed before God created light, a "darkness of Hell." What Hell is this darkness? It is the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors. Indeed, the Talmud explains in Berachot that dawn is defined as “when one can recognize the face of a friend.” In other words, the rabbis are telling us that the plague of darkness can happen to any of us, when we cannot see the face of the other. But the way out of that darkness is looking at our friend and seeing their joy and their pain.
Perhaps we, too, are suffering from this plague. How often do we walk these halls in darkness, unable to see the person suffering right next to us? How often do we find ourselves in darkness, unable to see a light at the end of whatever vast tunnel lies before us? How often does the darkness of our lives, sometimes self-imposed, constrict us?
Each of us navigates our emotional challenges in different ways. Some of us are proactive and seek out therapy, a spiritual practice, or some other form of a support network. Yet, most of us, myself included, do little to actively pursue support when we need it most. And to be fair, there are no established systems in this community for us to seek out that support.
This sermon, though, is not about self-care. In the four years I have been on this campus, I have been lucky enough to hear sermons that discuss the importance of self-care, at the rate of at least once a year, and we will hear another in a week from our colleague, Abram Goodstein. Indeed, the justification for the importance of self-care is rather clear. But there is one thing we do not talk about: What is my responsibility to care for others in this community?
Last year, our colleague Dusty Klass conducted a survey of the three HUC stateside campuses to try to get a sense of the vibe of its culture in one word. For Cincinnati, the word was "academic." For New York, "busy." And Los Angeles? "Friendly." On the whole, I think we are living out that culture, but part of that friendliness must mean caring for each other. To me, creating a friendly atmosphere is not just about superficially acting friendly or even being BFFs with everyone on this campus. Living a culture of friendliness is about ensuring that our community member's emotional health is being cared for.
Currently, if a member of our community is in need of support, they can reach out to their academic advisor, their mentor, and possibly their classmates. There are some times when we have seen our community go beyond these structures, specifically when someone has a baby or there's a death in the community and we organize meal-trains and shiva visits. When I first got to this campus, I saw the community rally to Zach’s side after his father died.
But for the things for which there is no usual communal response, such as relationship crisis, the failing health of a family member, or just a higher than usual level of workload stress, we don't have the equivalent of a button on Facebook where we can check in and acknowledge, "I'm okay," or even, "I'm not okay.” But imagine if there were some way to ask for help in a safe, healthy way.
This communal responsibility of care is not just our imperative to maintain our campus's new slogan, "HUC-JIR Los Angeles: We're the friendly ones." We should be living out the value of chesed with each other. Our tradition has numerous examples that remind us of the imperative to support the well-being of the community.
In the Shulchan Aruch, there is a discussion of when one can go back to work after a funeral of a loved one. Technically, a person can go back to work after only three days of sitting Shiva if he or she feels obligated to do so for financial reasons. However, the text notes that if this situation exists, it should be seen as a failure of the community to not have done enough to support the bereaved.
We should also heed the philosophy of Emanuel Levinas. Levinasian thought says that when I am confronted with the Face of the Other, my principle ethical relation to that Other is the recognition that I am responsible to her. This is living out "Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l'zeh - all of Israel is responsible for one another."
We do have moments where we make attempts to care for each other. When we go around the room and ask for names before Mi Shebeirach l'Cholim or Kaddish Yatom, we are engaging in caring behavior. But what kind of follow up do we do? How often do we acknowledge that someone else in the room, maybe even the person right next to you, said a name before one of those blessings and ask them about their loved one and how they are dealing with their situation?
Maybe we don’t follow up because it’s hard. Maybe we don’t connect with the person sitting next to us because we know it will be a long conversation and we really need to get to that next thing. Maybe we don’t pay attention to the names said aloud around us because of fear - fear that it will bring up something painful in ourselves, fear of not saying the right thing, fear of being vulnerable.
In the bigger picture of our campus culture, there are some structural things we can do. HaKesher, our student group, will be looking at this issue at its next meeting to brainstorm ideas for how we can be there to support each other emotionally, both in times of crisis and otherwise. I encourage you to be a part of that process, as that will be the best place to make an institutional and cultural shift. I also would like to propose three examples of how we can take on the communal responsibility of care:
One - I am acutely aware of the need to have a nursing room. It is important that our physical space reflect our values. But, when that space is not being used for nursing, I would like to suggest that it be used as an emotional safe-space, where peers can be present for each other, and even pastor to each other.
Two - One day, as I was walking to my car, I asked a classmate how he was. We had maybe a 30-second conversation, and we went our separate ways. That classmate came up to me later and expressed immense gratitude for asking such a simple question with true sincerity. We can do that for each other. The 15 second difference between being full present for someone may not make a difference in your arrival to your next thing, but it could completely radicalize how your peers are able to make it through the day.
Three - Our schedules are crazy. We have responsibilities of work that extend far beyond the classroom. But our time on this physical campus should not be monopolized by work. To that end, I would like to suggest the creation of small groups, no bigger than four or five people, that can meet periodically to help each other process emotional challenges as they come up. As Levinas taught, the first step in lifting the darkness is being confronted with the Face. Each group would have a peer facilitator, but the role of facilitator could change depending on who needs the support, even within the same meeting. Sometimes, all we need is to talk it out with someone who can help us talk it out. Not only will these groups support our individual and communal emotional health, it will also help us practice the sacred work that we will do when we leave these halls: provide pastoral care to our communities.
Admittedly, structural changes are the easiest to make. Changing our campus’ culture will be far more challenging. And I know that the responsibility of caring for our neighbors is difficult and complicated. I often fail to follow up with good friends who say a name during Mi Shebeirach l'Cholim, nonetheless the broader group of peers within my circle of concern. I tried and failed to start a post-CPE support group this fall. But these difficulties should not dissuade us from trying to lift the darkness by seeing each other's face.
The unfortunate reality is that our community will suffer plagues. Our hearts will be heavy and hardened. And there will be times that we are shrouded in darkness. But we cannot throw away this opportunity to be there in support of each other at difficult times by taking on this sacred responsibility for communal chased.
As we leave this sacred space today, take a look at the face of the person in front of you. Do you see their struggle? Can you see your neighbor's face? Can you help lift their darkness?