Three Jewish Reminders for When the World Seems Overwhelming

Chaim Harrison

Judaism embraces the notion that we can all do and be better and that it’s incumbent upon us, as Jews, to create this reality. Rather than relying on God to repair the world, Judaism compels us to take action and do it ourselves – which means that there can be a real sense of empowerment that comes with living a Jewish life. 

There may come days, though, when all we can do is sit in shock at the acts of hatred and oppression that occur in the world around us. Each mass shooting, each act of unethical political warfare, each act of antisemitism, racism, and transphobia can leave us feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and skeptical of our ability to confront the challenges of tikkun olamtikkun olamתִּקּוּן עוֹלָם"Repair of the world;" Jewish concept that it is our responsibility to partner with God to improve the world. A mystical concept of restoration of God's holiest Name to itself and the repair of a shattered world. Often refers to social action and social justice. , repairing our broken world.

We may even fall into the trap of thinking, “This is the new normal, and I’m just one person. What’s the point of even trying?” In times like these, it may help to remember the teachings of our Jewish faith and tradition.

When we feel overwhelmed by the world, here are three important teachings to bear in mind:

1. We are called to pursue justice

The biblical prophet Micah (6:8) teaches:

“You have been told, O mortal, what is good, and what God requires of you: only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God.” 

Centuries later, Rabbi Tarfon in the Mishnah reminds us not to give up, especially when the task is daunting:  

“The work is plentiful…It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” ("Pirkei Avot" 2:15-16) 

Justice, mercy, and humility are some of the core tenets of Judaism. These tenets aren’t electives we can simply shrug off as optional. We are literally called to be dedicated agents of justice, to look the world’s grief in the eyes and face it head on, even – perhaps especially – when it feels easier to just give up. 

2. We are capable.

In his d’var Torah for Parashat B’har/B’chukotai, Rabbi David Lyon asserts that “humanity thrives in places where freedom from hunger, redemption from bondage of any form, and release from tribulations unleash our greatest human potential.” We are capable of anything we set our minds and hearts to – but, as he reminds us, our capability is often unearthed in the most seemingly hopeless moments.

Consider this: When have you felt the most confident in yourself? Was it when things in your life were going relatively easily, or after you overcame something you thought would nearly destroy you, walking away from it feeling stronger and more resilient?

Your answer is likely the latter, and that’s because those moments serve as testimonies to our capability as human beings to accomplish goals we once only dreamt of. Our sacred pursuit of justice in the face of a torrent of unjust opposition is no different.

3. We are destined.

Revisiting the book of Micah reveals the following prophecy of transforming ya’ash (despair) into shalomshalomשָׁלוֹםSalutation meaning "hello" and "goodbye" but coming from the root word meaning "wholeness" or "completeness."   (peace):

“…They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war; But every [one] shall sit under [their] grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb [them]…Though all the peoples walk each in the names of its gods, We will walk in the name of the Eternal our God forever and ever” (4:3-5).

This passage includes a beautiful image of olam habaolam habaהָעוֹלָם הַבָּאThe world to come.      – but again, rather than being up to God to make into reality, it is destined to happen because we are to make it happen.

The Torah, Judaism’s essential text, teaches that we’re all created b’tzelem Elohimb'tzelem Elohimבְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִיםLiterally "in the image of God;" the concept—from Genesis 1:27: “God created humankind in God’s image”—that because all humanity is created in the image of God, each person is equally valued.  , in the image of God. If the Holy One is without end, as the Kabbalists suggest, then we, through the work we accomplish in creating a safer and more just society, are also without end – destined to live on through eternity as we continue seeking to make the world a better place.

The Jewish people have survived for centuries, despite the odds against us. Although each generation of Jews has faced its own considerable share of sorrow and hopelessness, each generation has survived and left the world a little better than they found it.

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