Earth Etude for Elul 13 – Stress Less, Savor More

by Rabbi Judy Kummer~

Work. Work hard. Work well, do well, do excellent work. Do ONLY excellent work.  These are some of the values with which I was raised, and I know I am not alone in this.  Our communities flourish because of the hard work of individuals.

I know these values of working hard have guided me well in life.  I think often of my beloved grandmother who daily lived her values that one should never rest until one’s work has been completed.   And yet, after a recent period of serious overwork, I found myself wondering if it might be possible to produce excellent work without putting such strain on oneself, without having such a steep price to pay for excellence.

So often, many of us operate in life with stress, and we live often with an anxiety that is based in fear. I find myself wondering what would happen if we didn’t strain so hard:  would our lives come crashing down around us, or would there need to be nuanced changes with significant impacts on our lives?   Would we perhaps have to live without some of the comforts we have become used to? Would we need to define ourselves differently?  Who would we be without all of that stress?

In our western world, we seem to accept as reality that stress and anxiety and fear are facts of our lives. We live as if ahead of ourselves, focused on managing the worries that await us rather than savoring the moments we are living in.

One recent summer afternoon in a yoga class outdoors on a Tuscan hillside, I found myself feeling stressed, as usual.   I watched some of the thoughts and worries floating through my mind, worries about the various work projects that awaited me upon my return from this vacation.

What a sad loss of savoring that beautiful moment!  All the loveliness around me, all that gorgeous color and light, all the beauty that was so much of the reason I had gone to Tuscany in the first place — all for naught because I couldn’t focus on anything other than the thoughts and worries running through my mind.  And what an unnecessary amount of stress I was exerting both in my worrying and in trying hard to counter my worries.

In an unusually experimental mode, I thought to set aside the worries and pay attention to the moment I was living in — and what an immediate difference it made in my yoga practice.  With less stress, my body held poses, stretched, breathed into the experience.  And I became aware not only of the emotional terrain within me but of the physical landscape around me.  The patchwork quilt of undulating Tuscan fields, the soft green daubs of olive trees and the corduroy pattern of leafy bright green grapevine rows all grew into bolder relief, and the honey-colored light seeped into my soul.  All because I made a choice to set aside my stressful thoughts and allowed myself to enjoy this moment in all its glory.

Ah, but how hard it can be to let go of our fears, to operate not out of stress and anxiety but with a sense of trust, with a faith that all will turn out all right –- and with a clear sense that even if it doesn’t turn out all right, that we will be able to find the strength within us to handle the downturns. Perhaps it is our Jewish heritage that has guided and encouraged us to pass a sense of anxiety down the chain of generations, so as to keep us ever alert to possible dangers around us. And yet how hobbling to expend all that effort and energy on anxiety when we might more easily glide through life buoyed in awareness of the richness of the present moment and in sureness of an inner strength that will enable us to deal with whatever may come our way in life.

How blessed we might be in having an emunah shlayma, a solid belief that we will be sustained — and how amazing that our Jewish tradition teaches not only about a faith that might spring from our own hearts but also about a mirroring echo from around us, from outside of us.  In the first prayer of a Jewish morning, we end with “Rabbah emunatecha — it is Your great faithfulness that we can count on, O Source of All Life.”

I remember when I was recovering from serious illness some years ago and expressed to a chaplain colleague and friend how strange it felt to be on the receiving end of help and kindness, rather than on the giving end.  How nice to have my friend remind me that we are all part of a net of life; at times we are the knots holding others up, and at times we are the ones being held.  At different times in our lives, we can be both the sustainers and the sustainees.

Just as I chose in that yoga class to set aside my stress, how freeing it could be to choose to feel trusting, to feel that what we may be sure of may not only be what will come from our own hearts but may also be what will come from the universe around us — and how freeing it could be to trust in the knowledge that we will surely be sustained.  Rabbah emunatechah indeed.


Rabbi Judith Kummer is the Executive Director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of Massachusetts. A Boston native, she earned a BA from Barnard College in Environmental Studies and Urban Planning and was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1995. Rabbi Kummer is an avid organic gardener, potter, hiker and social activist.

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