If Worry Comes to Your Heart: Anxiety, Control and Noah

Shabbat sermon delivered 10/24/14.  

We just bought our Halloween candy for next week’s trick-or-treaters.  (I haven’t quite finished it yet.).  Bags of mini candy bars take me back:  Do you remember the 80’s, and the freak reports of razor blades in bags of candy?  Suddenly, the world was out to kill America’s children.  No longer could we accept homemade cookies or apples, lest they be poisoned–by my neighbors, in suburban New Jersey!  And no longer could we go home and pop a chocolate bar in our mouths.  No, we had to wait for my mother to pull out the cutting board and the cleaver, and chop through, to check for razor blades, so that we could then enjoy our Kit-kat sawdust.

What do we need in order to feel secure?  How much worry is too much worry?  How do we balance our caution and our trust?  

In Parashat Noach, amidst the violence of a lawless society, God tells Noah the plan for the flood and for Noah to build an ark for his family and the animals.  Perhaps the most puzzling verse in this fantastic story, is the one that describes Noah’s response.  Verse 22: Noah did so. Talk about trust–did Noah worry?  Now, Noah does not sit back and simply ride God’s waves–he takes responsibility and action.

But how do you think he felt in that moment?  Did he think, I knew I should have paid more attention when my father tried to teach me to use a drill.  Or, have I been enabling my children, or have I guided them towards resilience–the grit that will help them survive this new challenge.  Did Noah think, how will this turn out, when will this be over?  If we do survive, once on the other side, will we come out weaker?  The people who say, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger–have they been through a flood?

I think most of us do endure floods.  Not necessarily with the animals two-by-two, and not necessarily floods equal to Noah’s, or equal to each other’s.  But it’s not a competition.  Because when it’s your flood, whatever the challenge may be, there is great potential to feel lost in the anxiety of the unknown.  When will this end, how will this end?  Do I have enough grit?  Will I come out weaker or stronger?

One of my family’s challenges–not the easiest, but certainly not the hardest we have, and will face, came during the economic downturn several years ago, when my husband lost his job. Even in a two-income household, we worried a lot for those months.  I know many of you have shared the experience of unemployment or underemployment.  During that time, the worst part was not the moratorium on household spending.  It was the anxiety of the unknown:  When will this end, how will this end?  Do I have enough grit?  Will I come out weaker or stronger?  We did not know what was going to happen.  We never do.  For so much of life, we are not in the driver’s seat. That does not mean we can simply ride God’s waves.  My husband invested tremendous time, expense and energy into networking for a new position.  There were aspects of our situation where we could make a difference.  When there is something to do about a problem, you bring your gifts, your capacity, you do your part. But then, there are aspects of any problem that are out of our hands.  I now look back and realize, if I had let go a bit, to see that we were not the authors of the world, we might have wasted less energy on worry.

It can help to understand that we do not control all outcomes.  There are some things we can do something about.  And there are some things we can’t.

In these moments of anxiety, Jewish tradition brings profound wisdom.  In an 18th century work called Cheshbon Hanefesh, Rabbi Menecham Mendel Levin teaches: “If worry comes to your heart, take it as a warning from God, who loves you.”  However you interpret God–as a transcendent being, as your conscience, as the world’s connective tissue–consider the role of the Divine in this teaching.  If worry comes to your heart, take it as a warning.  Here, the first pangs of anxiety serve as a signal that we need to pause and take a breath before it takes over.  When we start to worry, we might understand it as a red flag, reminding us, not to put our energy in the wrong place.  Worry, does not produce outcome.

There are serious problems in this world that require our collaboration, creativity, compassion. So often, the media, the government, even well-meaning fundraising causes, fuel our level of anxiety, rather than our efforts to solve problems.

In his NY Times column last week, called “Scarier Than Ebola,” Frank Bruni writes, “We Americans do panic really well.”  Now, if Ebola is a medical cause to which you would like to contribute your resources, absolutely, go ahead and do your mitzvah.  And if you have compassion for the victims of Ebola, pour out your heart in prayer.  But, for most of us, the horror of this deadly disease, has become a media-driven anxiety.  It threatens very few Americans, and most of us have no way to control it.

Do you want to protect your health?  Frank Bruni says, get a flu-shot.  Thousands of Americans die every year from the flu and there is something we can do about it.  Don’t require such a level of fear, in order to take good care of yourself and others, in the problems you actually face, and can actually impact.  Instead, wear your seatbelt, your bicycle helmet, your sunscreen.  He goes on, if you’d like to further your impact in this world, look for the epidemics on your doorsteps: 30,000 Americans die from gunshots every year.

Letting go of the sense that we have all control might free us from the anxiety of hyper-responsibility and guide us to the areas where we can make an impact. There are some things we can do something about, and there are some things we can’t.  Where do we want our energy to go?

Imagine how we might be able to endure life’s next storm, if we embrace the words of our tradition: “If worry comes to your heart, take it as a warning from God, who loves you.”


*Cheshbon Hanefesh source found in Alan Morinis’ Everyday Holiness.