I’m Sick of Reflecting
That’s all I feel like I have been doing since March 11, 2020. I remember the heaviness that surrounded my wife and me on that very date. We were at a local Tarzana Restaurant having a romantic dinner in honor of her birthday, except it wasn’t romantic. It was anything but romantic. It was nerve racking. We were reflecting on so many questions – were we risking our lives by eating out? Who around us might unknowingly endanger our lives with a simple exhale? What was to become of her students and my congregants if there was a lockdown?
Romantic, no. Stressful, yes.
Within days, we were in lockdown mode with our college aged children returning home mid-semester.
With so much time on my hands, I reflected and reflected and reflected. I reflected on my interactions with my family, with my congregants, and with society at large. I reflected on Black Lives Matter, anti-Semitism, politics, and the weather. I reflected on my relationship with my pets, my garden and my car. I reflected on which tomato I’d use for that night’s dinner and whether I should defrost the chicken or the fish. I reflected on every choice I made. I drove my wife crazy with all the things that I wanted to reflect upon. “Just make the fish,” she declared on more than one occasion. Of course, we weren’t always talking about fish, but you get the idea.
Now, I am stuck in a permanent state of reflection. Even when nothing happens, I reflect on the fact that nothing happened. As a close friend recently said to me, “Don’t you ever get tired from all the reflecting you do?” I smiled at her and didn’t respond. What could I say except for “yes”? I did not want to admit out loud that I could probably do a little less thinking. But, for whatever reason, I need to look at every side of a metaphorical Rubik cube again and again before trying to solve its riddles.
For so many of us, constant reflection has become one of the side effects of long Covid.
As we enter the High Holy Days, I am supposed to “sell” the idea of taking time to reflect. It’s a primary seasonal product. But, like television sets, everyone upgraded during the pandemic and now have no need for a new one. Honestly, who hasn’t spent time reflecting, either on their own or with clergy, a friend, a professional counselor, or a family member? So, what am I “selling” this season when I’ve got so much “reflection” sitting on the store shelves? Here is a possible product line that excludes reflection – Community, Tradition, Companionship, and Repentance. All of these products will be beautifully packaged and fill your souls with Yiddishkeit. But I’ve sent the unsold sets of reflection to the discount stores. People have just overbought them and do not need any more.
When opening Mishkan HaNefesh, the Reform Movement’s High Holy Day Machzor, the introduction speaks clearly of the need to reflect. It uses the words soul-searching, reflection, introspection, examination, and inner-path, and all of these words are found within the first paragraph. Covid has made our interaction with these terms daily, not yearly. Pre-covid, I would have cheered on anyone who was reflecting daily. Perhaps, some days, we need to let the activities of our lives just happen without too much thought. Perhaps, as Freud purportedly said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Here is the conundrum – while so many of us have spent too much time reflecting, others have not. So often, a simple question to a congregant like “How are you?” releases a torrent of confusion like a can of soda that unexpectedly explodes its contents as you gently pull the tab. It is at these moments that you realize that while you’ve spent the last couple of years consumed with reflecting others have not, or their reflections have not led to positive outcomes but sent them into a downward spiral.
It is at these moments I realize covid has sent us to extremes. Yes, we are all aware of the political extremes now found in our nation, but we are ignoring the emotional extremes. Individuals have buried their challenges and their problems deep into their souls and now find themselves on the fringe of their own emotional lives. They ignore emotional challenges all the while functioning as best, they can. Like that can of soda, the pressure of their lives needs to be released so they can reflect and then move to a more balanced emotional state. This release can only occur with reflection, often under the guidance of a professional counselor.
As a rabbi, I’ve spent my career attempting to get people to reflect in order to become, in Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s words, “more human.” Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, believed you could create any definition of God that works for you as long as it makes you more human, which he considered a good thing. One of the ways to put yourself onto a path of becoming a better human, is to reflect on all your actions, words, and impulses. Then, take the proper action, speak the proper words, and control your impulses. By elevating your thoughts, by acting in a positive way and by speaking words of goodness, we become more human. Reflection is a positive act within Kaplan’s philosophy. But his philosophy also includes action. We don’t limit ourselves to reflection. Action is the outcome of reflection.
Perhaps, Kaplan has figured out a simple methodology for how we should approach reflection. For those of us who over-reflect, we need to discard useless reflection. Just grab that piece of frozen fish and don’t entertain a lengthy mental reflection on farmed vs fresh, whether seas are being overfished, the amount of fish one should each week, and the interplay of all of these issues. Similar to a chess master who doesn’t look at every possible move but only the variations that he or she knows are possible given the situation, we need to focus our energies on the reflections that make us more human. For those of us that have stopped reflecting, we need to start the process in order to achieve the same goal. Every situation in life does not need to be part of our thoughts, only the important ones. We need to discard the unimportant reflections for the important ones, to focus on what really matters. For those of us who have avoided reflection, we need to share what is in our hearts so that we, too, can move toward becoming more human. Some of us need to move toward less reflection and some more. To become more human, we need a balance between thinking and doing and just being. We need to move away from the fringes of our emotional lives.
The High Holy Days follow the same ideology. Our holiday reflections are not meant to include everything in our lives, only the issues that raise our souls and spirits to a higher status. The High Holy Day process is the same for those of us that have developed a tendency to over reflect and those that have found a way to avoid reflection entirely. Our holiday reflections are not random. Our prayer books ask the questions that need to be asked. We are directed as a community to reflect on the same questions at the same moment. By standing side-by-side reflecting on what is important to our community and our society, we move together toward a greater goal, the goal of being more human and creating a better version of humanity.
A congregant took me out for coffee last week. He wanted me to give him a reason to come to High Holy Day Services. He just was not interested in attending. Between sips of an Iced Mocha, I rattled off my list of reasons with a heavy focus on the need to focus and reflect. He argued that he spent his time reflecting, lately more than ever. He didn’t feel the need to use the High Holy Day structure as a vehicle to improve his spirit. As I dug deeper, he admitted that his favorite services were Selichot and Neilah. At Kol Tikvah, these are the services that have a mystical feel to them, with the heaviest of doses of reflection. These are heightened moments of reflection because everyone’s souls seem to be touched in a beautiful synchronicity. While I am not sure I convinced him to attend every service, we came to an understanding on why those two moments of spirituality work for him.
I have to admit I’m exhausted from over reflecting. But I am not done with reflecting. Like Kaplan, I need to remember to use reflection as a way to become more human. Like all Jews, I need to enter the High Holy Days knowing that the structure of these days forces me to reflect on what is important and to ignore the trivial. Like my congregant, I need to say, “why go?” and then to realize that not all reflection is the same and not all reflection can be done alone. And, like everyone making tonight’s dinner, I need to remember to minimize time spent reflecting on what to pull from the freezer…. but fish vs. steak vs chicken – there is so much to consider!
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