Easing Our Worried Hearts

It’s good to be together even if we are apart. We are all carrying so much right now. Praying together is one thing we can do to support loved ones who are suffering and to fortify ourselves spiritually. We can know that our personal prayers join the prayers of each person in our community, and the prayers of people around the world. May we feel a sense of unity, and derive strength and comfort from connecting with others, grateful that we live in a time when virtual worship makes this possible. But we can’t deny that living through a pandemic is very hard. What do we do with the worries and anxiety we are carrying?

My teacher Rabbi Cheryl Peretz taught me a beautiful text this week that I’d like to share with you. The Book of Proverbs/Mishlei teaches, “da’aga b’lev eesh yashchena, v’davar tov y’samchena” (12:25) — If there is anxiety or worry, da’aga, in a person’s heart, let them push it away, and turn it into joy with a good word.” This verse counsels us, first of all, that if we’re worried or anxious, we should do something about it. Prolonged worry is destructive to body and mind; we thus have an obligation to take positive action to lift our own spirits.

But how do we do that? The verse teaches us that we can turn our worries into joy with davar tov — which could be translated as “a good word” or “a good matter.”  Sharing a kind word with someone else, expressing gratitude or offering them encouragement can indeed shift how we are feeling. For Rashi, “davar tov” refers to Torah study. Busying ourselves with Torah can focus our attention on something higher, calm our anxious hearts and fill us with the joy and fulfillment of learning. So, shall we try studying a little Torah together?

Two Talmudic sages discussing the verse from Proverbs (Sota 42b) disagree about the meaning of “yashchena” — that one should “push away” worries. Rabbi Ami says “yashchena” means one should deliberately force the worries from one’s thoughts. How do we do this? Perhaps by taking constructive action to distract ourselves: focusing on our daily tasks around the house; work or childcare; tackling projects we’ve long deferred; showing up to morning minyan and shiva minyan; sustaining our relationships; engaging in hobbies and taking much needed walks outside. Living life and staying busy is how we push worry away and keep ourselves strong. 

But Rabbi Asi understands the word “yashchena” differently. He offers a playful pun, teaching that rather than reading “yashchena,” we should read the word “yesichena,” from the word “siach,” or conversation. A worried person should have a siach — tell someone their troubles to relieve anxiety and stress. 

While Rabbi Ami encourages us to push away worries on our own, Rabbi Asi encourages us to find a trusted person with whom we can talk about what we are going through. In my own life, I find both strategies essential; and I believe both can help us find the stamina and emotional resilience we need at this difficult time. Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi remind us that taking care of ourselves doesn’t only mean staying inside and washing our hands. We must also care for our worried hearts, by continuing to live with purpose, giving and getting support, and maintaining loving connections with others. Shabbat Shalom.

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