“Heartbroken”

This week, I’ve been aware of trauma inhabiting my body and spirit. The events in Las Vegas have left me feeling heartbroken. My thoughts have been fragmented and unfocused. I’ve felt disoriented, overwhelmed and numb. I’m struggling to make sense of what is so senseless.

The truth is, this world we live in breaks our hearts continually. A few weeks back, I sat with the spiritual and religious leaders who make up the Interfaith Campus Coalition. Those who work directly with students noted that they are seeing a sharp increase in the need for mental health services on campus. They lamented the fact that neither their organizations nor the University itself seems to have the capacity to respond effectively to this crisis. This revelation prompted us to reflect on the increased trauma we are all experiencing through our extreme connectivity. We know the world with more immediacy and breadth than ever before. Our senses are overloaded with images and sounds and personal accounts of tragedy all across the globe. Because of social media, we are aware of the struggles and joys not only of our friends and family, but also of friends of friends of friends.

I’ve been asking myself since then: How can our experiences of heartbreak open our hearts rather than hardening them?

Today’s Exodus story certainly describes a time of heartbreak. Nine plagues were not enough to release the people of Israel from their bondage. Not even complete ecological disaster, the undoing of the life-giving, life-sustaining order of creation, could soften Pharaoh’s heart, could break his iron will. Pharaoh was content to let his own people suffer in order to maintain his power and wealth. Pharaoh had no problem ignoring the voices of his own officials crying out for change, begging him to give in and let the people go. Pharaoh truly had a heart of stone. Today’s story does not end on a hopeful note. The word from Pharaoh is “no!” Just “no.”

And doesn’t that “no” ring true for us as well? Freedom is an endless struggle. And whenever liberation breaks through, it faces firm resistance. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” In our personal lives, many forces hold us captive: addiction, abuse, stress, illness, grief, exhaustion. In our common life, oppression binds us all—perpetrator and victim alike. Each generation has found a new disguise for slavery: Jim Crow, housing and employment discrimination, the war on drugs the school-to-prison pipeline, police violence against black and brown bodies. And our inheritance of manifest destiny, with its ethic of greed, theft and murder, is alive and well, warming our climate and driving our planet to the brink of destruction.

The horrible events in Las Vegas also reveal the forces that hold us captive. What disturbs me the most about the shooter’s actions is the way in which he removed himself from their real, human cost. He committed his crime from a distance; he did not look at the faces of his victims. This shooter has been called a lone wolf. The media pushes us to think of him in an individualistic way, as an anomaly, rather than a representative. But, I believe that his actions are (at least in part) an expression of a violent culture that has sustained white supremacy over our nation’s history. Whiteness teaches white folks not to see, not to feel, not to empathize. It aims to dissociate us from our own bodies and spirits, and to separate us from the pain of the world, even that pain that are causing, or from which we benefit.

How can our experiences of heartbreak open our hearts rather than harden them?

In the many chapters of Exodus that contain today’s story, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is a major theme. Sometimes, the storytellers said, Pharaoh hardened his own heart. At other times they reported that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Now this is a theological problem, a puzzle; why would God do such a thing? Was Pharaoh even responsible for his own actions?

This week I discovered that the Union of Reform Judaism has a wonderful website. Among other things, the site offers thoughtful, down-to-earth reflections on biblical texts by various rabbis. As I puzzled over the question of God’s role in the plagues, I read Rabbi Ana Bonnheim’s commentary on this story. She proposes that perhaps the plagues, as a demonstration of God’s power, aren’t so much directed at Pharaoh and the Egyptians, but at the Israelites. She writes:

It is critical to remember that at this point, the Israelites have been slaves for over 400 years. They are accustomed to oppression and all that comes with it—lack of choice and agency, demoralization, and dehumanization. And they are used to not having God around. A far cry from Abraham or Joseph’s personal relationships with God, God is conspicuously absent during the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt.[1]

The plagues were a way of awakening the Israelites: God is here; God is powerful; God is on the side of the suffering. The biblical storytellers also wanted to communicate that God’s character was not like Pharaoh’s. Pharaoh needed to be exposed to the Israelites as a false god. The people had to understand that the real God is not coercive and cruel, greedy and stone-hearted. These storytellers of old; however, depicted God using power in the same way that Pharaoh did—as an overwhelming and violent force—because that was simply how they conceived of power. But it’s clear to me that God does not wield that kind of power. The life and teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus illustrate a different kind of divine power. God is a force within us, a force of liberating love, peace, strength and joy. God is the heart of justice that beats within the whole creation.

How can our experiences of heartbreak open our hearts rather than harden them?

How do we connect meaningfully with a world awash in trauma?

I don’t have answers. But I do know that we need to be together in sacred space so that we can wrestle with these big questions. Though we live in a world of extreme connectivity; though we are plugged in to constant stimulation, face-to-face gatherings, like our times of worship, are growing both rare and precious. As we struggle, with God, in the trenches of our daily lives, to free ourselves and our world from all that binds, and oppresses, we need to gather, shoulder-to-shoulder, spirit-to-spirit.

Today, we’ve received the invitation to discern, prayerfully, what gifts we will make to the living stones campaign. Take a moment now to consider what this sacred space means to you—the earth that cradles our building’s foundation; the shelter of sandstone and mortar, slate and glass; these pews, seasoned with prayers, tears, and gratitude; the windows and their way with light and color and story; the floorboards scuffed by the knees of generations of children.

Let us ground ourselves here, in this place; here in this community. Let us stay in our bodies, stay with our feelings, stay with each other. Let us learn, together, to be fully present to our God, who is liberating love.

Amen.

[1] https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/va-eira/true-purpose-plagues