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Rabbi Stiefel's Monthly Article

Rabbi Sharon Stiefel

May 2021


The Weight of the World


    When I wake up in the morning and look at the headlines, I often think of my 92-year-old mother in Seattle doing the same. I picture her unfolding the newspaper, shaking her head and muttering “not very good… terrible, just terrible.”  While I might not say her words or do her head motions, I channel the image and feel the weightiness of the world. Just when I think things have hit rock bottom, they manage to get worse. Racism is rampant. Gun violence is deeply rooted in our culture. Refugees are languishing. The climate is in ruin. Yes, there is a vaccine and yet, the positivity rates have begun to rise again.

    I am overwhelmed. My empathy is stretched. My heart is moved by the most recent trying situation that has caught my attention.  There’s a German word for my distress: Weltschmerz, literally world-pain or world weariness. It denotes a deep sadness about the inadequacy or imperfection of the world. So many causes are worthy and deserving, not only of my hard-earned money but also my limited time. I want to say “yes, yes, yes,” but I despair that my time and money will not make a dent in the morass. I challenge myself to look at the injustice in our midst without turning away.

    When I find myself getting overwhelmed, I look to role models to keep me going. Ruth Messinger, former president of the American Jewish World Service, cautions us to not let the enormity of what needs fixing make us turn aside from involvement. She says, “Often, people say that it is too much, that they are overwhelmed - because they cannot do everything, they cannot do anything. I certainly reassure them we all feel this way some of the time, but to use that as an excuse to move away from work for social justice is a luxury we simply cannot allow ourselves to enjoy. It is our responsibility to work through the feeling of being overwhelmed, find ways in which we can make a difference, and remember our tradition teaches that to save one life is to save the world.”

    Another social justice exemplar, the late US representative John Lewis, said, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

    Our need to repair the brokenness all around and to take action is relentless, but we don’t have to do it all. Nor can we do it all by ourselves.  But we have to do our part, especially by uniting with others in communities, worthwhile organizations, and movements for change. Rabbi Tarfon, one of our earliest sages in the Mishnah, taught: “Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena.” “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.”  Here it is set to music.  Perhaps you’d like to learn it, and sing it to yourself as you go about changing whatever broken part of the world you choose to focus your energies on: