Posted on August 21, 2020
I’ve been thinking a lot about the famous British ad campaign from 1939—the one with the motivational poster produced by the British government as they prepared the public for air strikes on major cities: “Keep calm and carry on.”
No one could have predicted then the devastation of the Blitz, or the path to building back the city of London after World War II. Nor could anyone have predicted that 60-some-odd years later, a new “Keep calm and…” fad would hit around the English-speaking world, resulting in such wonders as—
“Keep calm and curry on” (for lovers of flavorful foods)
“Keep calm and mah jongg” (for spending quality competitive time together)
“Keep calm and be a unicorn” (I’m not sure how to do that one but I’d really like to learn how)
and the disturbing play on words: “Keep calm and carrion” (which I guess is an homage to vultures)
At any rate, I think that a lot of us over these last 5½ months have spent a lot of time doing our best to keep calm and carry on, even if we don’t have my rabbinic partner’s inborn British stoicism. We have locked ourselves in our homes. Kept ourselves apart from loved one and from places and activities that are dear to us. We have donned masks and cleaned groceries. We have supervised our children’s schooling and run parent-camp at home. We have done our best to appear unflappable in front of our co-workers online, and in front of people we care about so as not to worry them too much about us.
But, what I hear from many of you—and what I admit that I often feel myself—is that the not-so-calm, not-so-stoic, not-so-unicorny part of ourselves is barely a skin scratch below the surface many days. We may go along acting like we’re fine, or even thinking that we’re fine, only to find that we’re not so fine. We may just have been congratulating ourselves for keeping our cool with someone who is aggravating us, when we find that we’re a tad more reactive than we meant to be. We might go about our days mostly holding it together only to find ourselves waking at 4:00 in the morning spinning. We may find ourselves berating others for things we know they actually couldn’t have done better or differently—or beating up on ourselves for things that we know we actually couldn’t have done better or differently.
It may be that this is the case for many of us even in a normal time, but the time we are living in now is not normal. It is one of ongoing trauma. We are living through our own kind of Blitz, not knowing who or what will be struck next, without the luxury of heading off to the countryside to wait out the assault in safety and maybe find a doorway to a magic kingdom in the back of a wardrobe.
This week’s Torah portion contains within it the famous line Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue. Certain that the Torah contains not a single superfluous word, the rabbis of old wondered, why does the Torah say the word Tzedek twice? Couldn’t the Torah just say, “Pursue justice” and be done with it? Why “tzedek, tzedek”? They wrote a story that each of the two times the word tzedek appears represents a different kind of justice. The first tzedek, they said, is the justice of din, judgment—the stiff hand we need to turn on ourselves and others to make sure that we all stay in line: “Keep your mask on!”, “Stay six feet apart!”, “Don’t hit your brother!”
The second tzedek, they said, is the justice of rachamim, compassion—the justice we pursue when we take the hitting child onto our lap, knowing that they are hurting too; the rightness we strive for when we visit someone who is in pain, even if we know it is breaking the six foot barrier; the compassion that we show for ourselves when we do go ahead and allow ourselves that cookie that does help just a little bit.
We can’t have one tzedek without the other, the rabbis said: din without rachamim becomes cruel; rachamim without din leads to chaos. Din and rachamim in balance with each other, that is shleimut, that is wholeness and calm, that is justice done right.
We are so harsh with ourselves right now for the times when we are not calm and carrying on. What we need is justice within ourselves, the rachamim to console ourselves and to point out, “Look, honey, you are carrying on; you are doing it; you are going to make it through”; and the din to pick ourselves up and give ourselves a little shove, “Up and at ‘em, Bud; ain’t nobody who can get the work done for you but you.”
That is, in order to keep calm and carry on right now, what we need is not necessarily stoicism but a mix of judgment and compassion that we can turn on ourselves (and others) at any given moment. You are hurting—self—and I will be gentle with you, but that is not allowed to stop you from being kind. You are angry—self—and I will let you rant, but that is not allowed to stop you from getting done what you need to get done. You want to go back to bed, but you are going to put your feet on the floor as soon as you are able and get the kids dressed, write the emails that need writing, drop your ballot at the town election office, give a hug to someone you live with or send a loving text to someone you don’t. We’re in a blitz, but we will come out the other side, and justice and justice we shall pursue.