How to Focus on "Heart Health" this Holiday Season

August 13, 2018Rabbi Sharon G. Forman

The chirping of the end-of-summer cicadas and the waning of the season’s long, warm days are sure signs the Hebrew month of Elul is upon us. With its arrival, I begin to contemplate the approaching Days of Awe and how I can best prepare for them.

In traditional Jewish communities, the shofar is sounded at synagogue during this month of spiritual preparation. Many Jews also recite Psalm 27 twice each day, as they shift to a mindset of repentance and forgiveness for the new year. Interestingly, pervasive anxiety – not forgiveness – is the focus of this psalm.

Initially, the anguished narrator is wracked with worry and almost every verse overflows with synonyms for “fear.” The author frets about being the target of evildoers, adversaries, false witnesses, and enemies. By the end of the psalm, however, the writer embraces the notion of divine providence. God is watching, protecting, serving as father, mother, and bodyguard. There is no reason to dread calamity; fear is replaced by joyful song.

For individuals who accept a notion of a personal God, this psalm can be immensely comforting. Those of us who struggle to believe in this type of intimate relationship with the Divine, however, may not find our worries assuaged by the psalmist’s proposal that an eternally loving God will shelter us from every storm. The last verse, however, provides hope even for the most skeptical:

Wait on the Eternal;
be strong with a courageous heart!
Wait for the Eternal!

Encapsulated in the refrain of hoping for divine assistance, the psalmist prods us to strengthen our hearts.

If we’ve been paying attention to recent Torah portions in the Book of Deuteronomy, we can find some intriguing instructions for boosting the health of our metaphorical hearts – by cutting away the thick places around them. By pruning away callouses, our nervous hearts (in Psalm 27) and our stubborn ones (in the Torah) can be repaired, moving us from a state of fear and anxiety toward a stance of holiness.

A recent personal experience suggests that a first step toward forgiveness and repentance may involve coping with the fear that makes us (and others) suspicious and cynical.

While out walking our gentle, 30-pound dog, I encountered a petite woman across the street holding the leash of her giant canine.

“I think you should turn back,” she called out. “My dog is 140 pounds, and I can’t hold him.”

“Oh,” I replied, as I tugged more firmly on my dog’s leash, her tail wagging. “We’ll just zip by you on this side of the street and get out of your way,” I informed her.

“No. I live in that direction, and I’m going home,” she announced, “so you can go back the way you came.”

Conflict averse, and peaceful in nature (like my dog), I reversed course, and without a moment’s hesitation, denied my dog her favorite evening route.

Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed with righteous indignation for this admittedly insignificant slight. If that dog owner wasn’t able to control her pet, she should have retreated in a different direction. Who was she to dictate that we should turn around to accommodate her weakness?!

Returning home and telling my children about the exchange, they laughed at my exasperation over something so seemingly superficial. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was more upset by the dog owner’s tone than by the content of her words. Indeed, instead of feeling bullied by her instructions, I could have felt grateful for her caution and foresight. The dog owner’s fear of losing control led her to panic and speak in a less than gracious manner. Once I acknowledged that it was fear that drove her actions, I was able to find it in my heart to forgive her.

Of course, her slight was mild, and the exchange was a one-time event. It’s more difficult to forgive those we deal with regularly and those whose hurts seem to be intentional. Our own fear, too, can lead us to behave in ways that are unkind, as we seek self-protection and self-preservation.

The author of Psalm 27 understood that both existential and situational fear can be all-encompassing. The month of Elul is a perfect time to check in on our “cardiac health.” During these weeks, may we work to cut away the thick places that surround our fearful hearts and ascribe positive motives to others’ behavior. If we can recognize and manage fear in ourselves and others, perhaps we can better use our hearts to act and to forgive.

Shanah tovah!

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