Posted on September 17, 2021
How’s it going? How are you? How are things?
We get asked this question, or a variation of it numerous times a day. But, when I first moved to America, I had to get used to the fact that “How are you?” is not necessarily a real question. The Cultural Atlas actually warns newcomers to this country: “This is usually a form of greeting rather than an actual enquiry about your wellbeing. The common response is “I’m good, thanks. How are you?”. Giving an answer that is deeply personal or less positive can make the situation uncomfortable if you are not very familiar with the person.”
I know that culturally there is a way that we are supposed to respond when asked: “How are you?” I know that it is not really an invitation to open up and to share how we are really feeling. But I have always felt that the lack of an honest answer to this question is a real missed opportunity. And if that was true before the pandemic, it is even more accurate now.
How have any of us answered this question over the past 18 months? “I’m good, thanks” – doesn’t seem to represent where any of us really are. Maybe that undefined answer of “Fine, okay” has been better during this period. Or maybe it needs a qualification: “All things considered, we’re okay” or “we’re Covid fine.” During the last month or so, with all the juggling that summer entails, with the uncertainty of the High Holy Days and with the emergence of Delta, my response was “We’re surviving.” That felt like all I could say when asked how we were, and it felt like a reply that said so much of what I needed to say – but I’m realizing it was still an avoidance of an answer.
We don’t want to admit that everything is not okay. We don’t want to say that we are hurting, broken, exhausted, beaten down, and exasperated by what is happening around us. We don’t want to admit the truth. At some point we internalize the lesson that we cannot admit our weaknesses in public, that our mental pain is something we must never share, that we have to solider on, put a smile on our face, or in the British context, keep a stiff upper lip. This is why we almost never answer the question “how are you?” honestly – and it has to stop.
It takes strength to admit our weaknesses, it takes courage to own our mental anguish, it takes confidence to speak publicly about our pain.
It is for this reason that if I were awarding gold medals at the Olympics, then Simone Biles would be the undisputed winner atop the podium. I cannot imagine the courage and strength it must have taken to withdraw from the Olympic competition, putting her mental health first and doing what was also clearly best for the team. In the build up to Tokyo, she was the face of Team America, she was the face of gymnastics, you could even make a case that she was the face of the Olympics. It was against that backdrop, with all eyes on her that she was forced to deal with a personal matter under the spotlight of the world’s media.
We watched the qualifying rounds of the team competition, and you could see that something was not quite right; it was the look on her face, the way she moved, it appeared as though she was carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. We were in shock the next day when news of her withdrawal began to filter out, everyone wondered how we’d missed her getting injured, what ailment could be preventing her from competing on the biggest stage of all. Everyone looked for a physical explanation, no one considered the mental burden she was carrying. In the press conference after the team event, she talked about not wanting to get in the way of the team winning a medal and she said: “Today has been really stressful … once I came out here, I was like no, mental’s not there, so I just need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”
She faced the world’s press and shared personal details about how she was feeling. And the media seemed unable to accept that this was an issue of mental health and mental exhaustion. They still looked for other reasons, physical explanations for her withdrawal, and people latched onto her having the “twisties.” A lot has now been written about the twisties, but at their core they are related to her wellness and mental wellbeing. And we might wonder about why so many were reluctant to accept mental health as the reason for her withdrawal.
Simone Biles is worthy of a gold medal for her courage, for shining a light on wellness and mental health, and for setting an example for all of us to speak up about how we are really feeling. And in her story, there is also the call for all of us to really listen to what others are saying, to hear them when they ask for help whether explicitly or implicitly, and to be there offering comfort and support.
Today, is Yom Kippur, the day where we stand before God in judgment. On this day we cannot hide. As we declare in the confession: “You know and understand us, for You examine our inner lives. Nothing is concealed from You nothing hidden from Your sight.” If only we could be this open and this vulnerable in front of each other. If only we could allow others to see the pain that we are carrying and feeling. If only we could answer the question “how are you?” truthfully, exposing the brokenness that is inside us all.
This is the change that I am searching for this Yom Kippur. This is the change that this hour demands. This is the change, the teshuva, the return that is needed.
There was a brewing mental health crisis before the pandemic began. But these last 18 months have exacerbated and exponentially increased the problem. Covid has broken our world and we are all living through and living with the brokenness. In many ways, this period has simply been too much, we’ve been overwhelmed and overloaded; so much to take-in, so much to process, so much to absorb.
Many of you will have heard the story about the philosophy professor who stood before her class with a large empty jar. She filled the jar with large rocks and asked her students if the jar was full. The students said that yes, the jar was full. She then added small pebbles to the jar and asked again, “Is the jar full now?” The students agreed that the jar was indeed full. The professor then poured sand into the jar and asked again. The students concurred that the jar was finally full. There are lots of explanations that people give at the end about what the rocks, pebbles, and sand represent; but my friend Rabbi Carrie Vogel offered a different lesson. As she taught; with the jar so full, there is no way in which to take anything out, it’s all stuck.
Most of our jars were already filled with rocks before the pandemic began, and then Covid added pebbles, filling whatever space they could find. And 18 months later the sand represents the myriad little ways our lives are constantly changing as a result of living through a pandemic. Some of our jars have shattered, many of them have cracked, but all of our jars are full way beyond their capacity and what can reasonably be held.
There is an initial challenge in this moment to accept and hold our brokenness.
One of the most powerful moments in Torah comes when Moses returns from Mount Sinai. He has been away from the people for 40 days and nights, sitting with God, and as he descends the mountain, holding in his hands the two tablets of stone with the ten commandments upon them, he witnesses the people worshipping the golden calf. In a fit of rage and disappointment he smashes the Divine tablets on the ground, shattering them. The stones were broken, and while a new set would be created, carved by Moses and inscribed by God, the broken tablets were taken by the people to be carried in the Ark alongside the new ones.
In the holy Ark, at the center of the community, throughout our journey to the Promised Land, we carried the broken tablets as a sacred object to be preserved and remembered. I would suggest that we couldn’t have reached the Promised Land without holding onto both what was whole and what was broken at the same time. And it was a lesson to help all of us recognize that we can and do carry both sets of tablets in ourselves; we are simultaneously whole and perfect, but we are also in some ways broken.
On Yom Kippur we stand before God and God sees us completely; there is no hiding, no concealing how we are feeling, or covering up who we really are. But why don’t we allow ourselves to open up like this to each other? Why are we so reluctant to admit when we struggle, to own the challenges we face, and to confess our brokenness?
There are probably numerous reasons. Our society has unfortunately taught us that when we struggle in this way, we are weak; and weakness, or really the perception of weakness, is something to be avoided at all costs. Or perhaps we don’t open up because we do not want to burden another person with our challenges, they have enough to deal with already. Or maybe, we remain silent, because if we share it with another person, then it forces us to acknowledge how we are really feeling and we can no longer hide it from ourselves.
We need to challenge this silence. Struggling with how we are feeling, especially as we live through a pandemic, is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of humanity. The struggle is a real and valid response to what we are experiencing. When we open up to another person, we give them a gift, we deepen our relationship with them and we give them permission to open up to us and share a piece of themselves. And while we may wish to deny how we are really feeling; until we own it we cannot respond to it and help ourselves in the way that we need.
And so, on this day of confession, I stand before you and confess. I am broken. The pandemic has exhausted and drained me in ways that I could not imagine; I feel this physically and mentally. I say that as a husband, as a father, as a son, as a friend, but also as a Rabbi, and simply as another human being struggling to make sense of living through this time.
I feel this trauma now more keenly and acutely than at any other time over the last 18 months; because I am vaccinated but still forced to be cautious, and I returned to some sense of normalcy at the beginning of the summer only to have it snatched away. It has made the last month or two even more exhausting because some of my hope has been lost. Fear is the predominate feeling that I experience; I am fearful for my children who cannot yet be vaccinated. I am fearful about how the actions of others are affecting us. I am fearful that with misinformation campaigns and anti-vaxxers there will be no way to get this under control. When I allow myself the space to reflect: I worry about what this period is doing to our children. I think about the fact that I haven’t seen my parents in over 18 months, that my kids haven’t see their grandparents in almost 2 years, and I am scared about what the future will bring. My jar is full to bursting and I can see the cracks have already formed.
This is how I am feeling, and I confess this not just before God but before each and every one of you. Because there should be no shame in sharing when we are struggling, no embarrassment in admitting when we feel mentally exhausted, and no silence in the face of confronting the brokenness we experience. Simone Biles is my teacher, who helps me understand that we need to speak up and prioritize our own mental health. And the Torah is my teacher, as it tells the story of the broken tablets carried alongside the tablets that were whole.
We begin with a question. We need to ask: “How are you?” and to really mean it, to give a person the opportunity to answer that question with openness and honesty. If we are truly asking the question, we must provide the space for a person to truly answer. And then we must listen to what they are telling us, hear the person open up. And sometimes we may need to push, gently and delicately, reading the visual cues or recognizing the non-answer “fine” or “good,” asking: “How are you really doing?” This does not mean that we will fix the brokenness, but we will provide a space for another person to be held and supported.
We can ask, but will we answer? No one can obligate us to speak; but I hope that people will provide us with safe spaces in which to open up and that we will help to create those opportunities for honest answers both for ourselves and for others. We need to recognize that sharing our pain is not a sign of weakness, but it is actually a sign of strength. There should be no need to apologize for opening up; through sharing our authentic feelings, we allow the light to shine through the cracks of our brokenness. So many studies discuss the importance of verbalizing what we are feeling to help us make sense of it and as a vital first step in confronting it. The silence is dangerous.
When we create the space for people to speak about how they are feeling, to express their struggles, and to share their brokenness, we don’t just help them, we don’t just help ourselves, we actually help everyone. We recognize that we are not the only one feeling this way, suddenly we have companions who are on a similar journey. We are all experiencing challenges and struggles, that is part of the human condition and it is exacerbated by living through a pandemic. But we do not have to struggle alone.
Even today, when we stand alone before God in judgment, open and honest about who we really are, we do it in the midst of a community. We say the same prayers, we recite the same confession, we share in this experience. We all experience brokenness, we have all been broken in different ways by this pandemic, we are all in this together. The aspiration is not to fix the brokenness, the original set of tablets, once smashed were never repaired. Instead as a community we found a way to hold the brokenness, we shared the burden, and we were able to continue on our journey together.
“How are you?” Perhaps the most important question that we can ask another person. When we provide the space and opportunity for someone to truly answer, we give them a gift. And when they answer openly and honestly that gift is returned tenfold. I hope that this will be a gift that we are able to share with each other in the year that lies ahead.
Gmar Chatimah Tova
 Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p.84.
 Shemot-Exodus 32
 Reference to this is found in Talmud Baba Batra 14b.