Rabbi Allison RH Conyer Kol Nidre sermon 2021

In the Belly of a Big Fish

Yom Kippur 5782
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim, Bentleigh VIC

As I sat down and stared at my blank screen with about 5 different ideas about which to write, I found myself unable to focus on any of them in detail. Any message I considered sharing with you tonight felt devoid of authenticity. Don’t get me wrong. They were all important and all had their place, but as I attempted to think beyond a single sentence, I found that I just didn’t care about any of them. In fact, I actually couldn’t be bothered about anything. I found that there was nothing in my house I wanted to eat. I had no desire to get dressed – Pjs and lockdown was becoming quite comfortable. I just wanted to curl up under my covers and not come out…ever!

Like Jonah, in the story of Jonah that we read every year on Yom Kippur afternoon, I felt like running away from my responsibilities, pretending I could hide.

I was overwhelmed with everything and wanted to sleep through the eye of the storm I felt was around me. But then, like Jonah on the ship in the middle of a storm, I realised there is no escape. I could not pretend that Covid is going away any time soon or that the current lockdown, and everything that has come with it, has not affected me. I really wanted to talk about something else tonight, but I just couldn’t.

As I took my daily walk, I saw so many people without masks walking down the street, in the parks, in and out of other people’s homes. What’s the point of doing my part if others are not doing theirs? It’s all or nothing. Protesters who want their freedom inadvertently inhibit mine. How can we coexist and access our freedoms? And I thought - It’s all just pointless!

And so, like Jonah, I found myself swallowed up, as if in the belly of a big fish, stuck in a continuous loop of apathy, guilt, and helplessness. I thought:

What’s the point?I can’t possibly make a difference. This situation is so beyond me. I look at the Covid cases each day, in Victoria, in NSW, in Israel, in the US, in South Africa, thinking that they will actually tell me something, but they don’t.

I felt guilty. I should be able to do more. If I don’t do anything, who will? But, I’m not doing enough. Then, I thought about Hillel’s famous quote (Pirkei Avot 1:14):

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

  • I have to look out for my physical and mental health, as no one else can do that for me.
  • If I don’t consider how my actions affect others and do everything I can to minimize risk to others, as well as reach out and connect with others, then what good am I to anyone else?
  • Don’t procrastinate – so, I’ve been double vaccinated. I’ve gotten tested when I felt unwell. I wear my mask outside and inside, at least when there are people around me.

But, I’ve been too busy, or unmotivated, to reach out to those who I’d like to, even within my own family. And so, my guilt - if not now, when?

Next, in my melancholic loop, I felt overwhelmed and helpless.The impact of the pandemic is beyond me, our Jewish community, and our Australian community. The impact of this pandemic is greater than the inconveniences of lockdown or the challenges of employment. The impact is more than numbers of active cases, numbers in hospital or the ICU, or the number of deaths. The impact of this pandemic will have serious long-term consequences for our children and our future.

Education is being compromised; social interactions and connections are being challenged. Exploration of the world is impeded, reducing our understanding of different cultures and ways of approaching life which generally encourages respect for difference and expands our minds, increases empathy, creativity, and productivity. National and international economic stability will become a thing of the past. Loss and fear are becoming the thing of the present. People are becoming more and more anxious and depressed, socially withdrawn, unmotivated, and just don’t care about anything anymore. So, what’s the point? And the loop begins again.

Then I read Jonah’s heartfelt prayer spoken in the depths of his despair in the belly of the big fish:

“In my trouble, I called to Adonai. And G-d answered me; From the belly of Sheol, I cried out. You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea. The floods engulfed me; all your breakers and billows swept over me. I thought I was driven away, out of your sight…The waters closed over me, the deep engulfed me. Weeds twined around my head. I sank to the base of the mountains; and the earth closed upon me forever.

Yet, you brought my life up from the pit, O Adonai, my God. When my life was ebbing away, I called Adonai to mind; And my prayer came before You…

(Jonah 2: 2-8)

In the story, only after Jonah poured out his soul was he “vomited out” of the big fish.

There was no great insight, no great solution that preceded his dramatic exodus from the pit of his despair. Just pure, unadulterated expression of woe.

Now, THIS, I can talk about. In order for Jonah to emerge from his dark place, in order for him to remember his sense of purpose, to feel a sense of responsibility for himself or others, Jonah needed time to just be – to be with his raw emotions. He didn’t need G-d or anyone else to fix or solve his problems, to steer him back onto the right course; he simply needed to be held in the space in which he found himself. The belly of the big fish was merely a holding space - a space for him to neither run away nor toward anything; a space to be, to think, to feel. He had been so busy running away from his responsibility, that it took the stillness of unfamiliarity that allowed him to find the words to express himself. As soon as he was able to find his words, he was spat out and free.

How many of us have found ourselves in Jonah’s shoes, in the belly of a big fish, or in an endless loop of apathy, guilt, and helplessness? How many of us have lost our motivation, struggle with concentration, or smile half-heartedly, if that? How many of us have been frustrated with ourselves, knowing we’re capable of more, but just can’t seem to bring ourselves to get there? How many of us have gone beyond feeling isolated to feeling as if we don’t want to connect to others?  How many of us have friends or loved ones who are struggling right now and feel at a loss for what to do to help them? How many of us are struggling to find the words to express how we’re feeling, or actively choosing to ignore our feelings or just run away from them and our responsibilities?

How many of us, like Jonah, have just sat with our thoughts and feelings – not to find answers, not to make them go away, but just to acknowledge where we’re at. How many of us have forgiven ourselves for not living up to our own expectations as parents, as grandparents, as children, as professionals, as students, as friends?

How many of us have been able to sit back and observe ourselves in our new and changing times, recognising the physical, psychological and practical impact of these trying circumstances, and tell ourselves that how we’re feeling is ok.

The well-known Jewish psychologist, Abraham Maslow, created what he called our “Hierarchy of Needs”, which states that, as human beings, we cannot meet our higher needs until our lower needs are met. Maslow posited that all human beings have 5 essential needs: our basic needs comprised of physiological needs such as food, water, warmth, and sleep; and safety needs, where we feel safe and secure. Next are our psychological needs such as a sense of belonging and love from our family, friendships, and community, as well as esteem, feeling a sense of respect and accomplishment. Finally, we find our need for self-fulfillment, or what Maslow calls “self-actualisation”, reaching our potential or being the best we can be. Again, our lower needs must be met before we can hope to fulfill our higher needs, for how can we be our best if we don’t feel safe or experience a sense of belonging?

One of my colleagues at the psychological clinic where I work pointed out that being in lockdown actually affects our sense of safety, security, and certainty, as well as seriously impacts our sense of belonging and connectedness. How, then, could we be expected to work on our esteem, feel a satisfying sense of accomplishment, or to be our best selves? It’s very challenging. Thus, working to meet our basic needs is an important first step during these trying times.

Eating healthy, drinking enough fluids, getting daily exercise and a proper night’s sleep is fundamental. Easier said than done for some of us. Bringing it to the forefront of our minds and setting daily or weekly goals can help. Plan healthy meals and shop for them, reducing the “comfort foods”, for, in the long run, they actually contribute to a lower mood. Choose our preferred, or least offensive, form of exercise, given our current restrictions. The weather’s been good. Take advantage of it. Improving sleep…that’s a whole other sermon, but eating right and exercise can often help the quality of sleep. Most of us know this, but many of us don’t always do it. Consider this a reminder.

The second basic need takes us into the belly of the fish.  How can we find a sense of safety, security, and certainty in a world where there is none. Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. We’re not in a war-torn country. We are, however, living with the Delta variant of Covid, highly contagious, and non-discriminant of age, gender, religion, or culture. There is nowhere to hide.

There are only vaccinations to get, masks to wear, and restrictions to follow, and hope and pray that our health system can handle the increase in coronavirus cases, while still being able to look after those with all the other serious health conditions requiring hospitalisaion; and that those who do become infected will experience mild discomfort with no long-term health conditions.

Given that we have absolutely no control over the latter, our safety and security lie in our ability to accept our circumstances and to sit with our thoughts and feelings in our current reality. And to know that whatever they are, it’s ok. And for those who are able to do that for another person, to be able to hold their space, allow them to be in whatever it is they are feeling without trying to make them feel better, or to get over it, or distract them, but just to hold their space and let them know it’s ok - that is an incredible, difficult, and important task.

I was always taught that the message of the Jonah story we read on Yom Kippur was about tshuva – repentance. However, as many of us know, tshuva literally means return.

So, Yom Kippur is not only a day of repentance, but also a day to return to our core, to be at one with it, not to escape it. Just as Abraham Maslow suggested that a person could not meet their higher needs if the lower needs were not met, the process of tshuva cannot begin until we first tap into our core and accept where we are at. How can we discern our right or wrong actions if we are not fully present with our thoughts and feelings? How can we be fully aware of how our actions have affected others if we are not aware of our current state? Sometimes, we need to go into the belly of the big fish… just to stop, be, reflect, to find the words to express ourselves. And once we have found those words, we can engage tshuva, return to our core and find our path back to where we want to be.

The belly of the big fish doesn’t have to be a pit of despair, but can be a place of solitude and stillness where we can take note of where we are, how we’re feeling and coping; where we feel a sense of emotional safety and security; where we can search our heart for what matters most to us, find our voice, and express ourselves – through tears, through thoughts, through writing, through talking.

From Jonah, we learn that, sometimes, in order to move forward, we must first stay still. We learn that, sometimes, the best way to help someone is to just accept them where they’re at and help them hold the space until they are ready to emerge. Don’t try to provide a solution for them. Listen to them, hold them, so their solution might arise from within.

And so, on this eve of Yom Kippur, I invite each of us into the belly of our own big fish, and pray that over the course of the next 25 hours, we will each begin to find moments to tap into a safe space to fully acknowledge and accept where we are at, and find the words to express it, even if just to ourselves, and give voice to that which resides within us.  I hope and pray that these services can help hold the space for each of us to be, simply, to be. I hope that each of us can emerge from this space hopeful and empowered, with a renewed sense of purpose.

Ken y’hi ratzon– May this be G-d’s Will.

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