It’s Wednesday evening and I’m on my way to the Rabbi Rachel Cowan Chapel when a notification pops on my phone from the New York Times. There’s been a mass shooting in Milwaukee. Five murdered. The shooter committed suicide. Inside the chapel I watch a screening of Dying Doesn’t Feel Like What I’m Doing, a powerful testimony to the life, legacy, and spirit of our beloved Rachel, for whom the BJ Chapel is named. The documentary ends. As I make my way back to my office, I receive another notification from the Times—the first case of coronavirus with no known link to travel has been identified in California. And so the soundtrack to my day begins again. For one hour I was isolated from the 24-hour news feed: the latest on the democratic primaries, who will or won’t attend AIPAC, the rise and fall of the stock market, the fight over bail reform, and the impact of the president’s immigration policies.
We carry so much: everything that is playing in our heads, and everything we are experiencing in the world.
There’s the family lessons soundtrack: “Make sure it is a good plane,” says my Baubie before I travel. “Value experiences, not things”—an essential lesson from my parents. Other soundtracks play in our heads of things we were told by family members or teachers or friends, of how we weren’t enough, wounding our souls. We spend years overcoming that playlist, if we ever do.
I’ve been thinking a lot about these soundtracks and what it means to be a religious person amidst all the noise. Not only because there is so much pain, unrest, agitation, and injustice, but because in my class we’ve been studying Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmash Shapira, the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto and his teachings called Eish Kodesh, The Holy Fire. The essential question at the core of his almost-weekly teachings from 1939 to 1942: How does one live with faith in the fire? I can not imagine the horrors he witnessed and experienced. The faith he expresses is often astounding—in some instances seems absurd, and yet—his voice has become one of the soundtracks in my head: challenging me and inspiring to hold fast to God, to Torah, and to purposefulness in this upside down world of ours (which is not nearly as upside down as the world in which Rabbi Shapira lived and died). His faith has strengthened and changed my faith.
For an hour on Wednesday night, I was privileged to connect once again with Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l, who speaks of her living with and dying of brain cancer: “Without this practice, without the years that I put in, I don’t know how I would do this.” Her mindfulness practice didn’t make the fear go away, nor did it protect her from death, but it allowed her to live in the present with love and gratitude—even with the brokenness. Her teaching is a soundtrack that I am also trying to keep with me.
Religious life doesn’t protect us from the world. It doesn’t provide guarantees. It invites us into another soundtrack of existence: to plug into different voices, to build practices that help us hold it all, and to cultivate faith in the midst of the fragility of existence.
What soundtrack will you play this Shabbat?