Take Action to Heal Yourself

This year I am declaring war on conventional wisdom, which is really nothing but a collection of sayings we think are true just because we hear them and say them all the time. The problem with conventional wisdom is that most of it is just not true. My first target is the saying "Time heals all wounds." Imagine that you were bitten in the butt by a poisonous snake. At that moment would you really believe that time heals all wounds? More likely you would think that snake antivenom serum administered immediately to your punctured posterior heals all wounds. The truth is that even if you are never bitten by a snake you know that time does not heal all wounds. Decisive, immediate action is sometimes exactly what is needed to cure your tush—or your soul.

One of the reasons we think that time really does heal all wounds is that over the long run people tend to bounce back from loss and disappointment. Ed Diener, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois, once conducted a study that found that after about five years, even widows and widowers reported feeling about the same level of happiness they had before the death of their spouse. However, it was not the simple passage of five years of time that healed their wounds. What healed them was five years of loving and being loved, of giving and being given to, of serving and being served. If those widows and widowers had lived alone in a cave for those same five years, they would have become psychotic or died. Our only hope is to do something to try to heal our wounds, and the Torah, during these high and holy days, tells us what that something is: teshuvah (repentance) and mechilah (forgiveness).

A story from my childhood in Milwaukee: My Grandpa Lepa had a brother named Ben, whom I never met, even though he also lived in the city. Ben had a son, Eddie, my father's first cousin whom my father did not really know. The other Milwaukee Gellmans were never in our house and we were never in theirs. Nobody in our family remembers exactly what caused the split between Lepa and Ben, only that it happened many years ago, it may have involved lending money, and nothing was ever done to heal the wound. Lepa did invite Ben to my Aunt Lea's wedding, but he refused and they never spoke again. When my grandpa was run over by a drunken driver in 1958, Ben came to the hospital to see his dying brother and to make amends. Ben entered Lepa's hospital room just a few minutes after Lepa died.

Time did not heal the injury in our family. Time only made it permanent. Perhaps you have a family wound like that. You must try to heal it even if you are rebuffed, because those wounds are in you and they are killing your soul. What heals our wounds is not time but courage and love, repentance and forgiveness.

An old Buddhist story tells of two monks on a journey. One day they argued over something and one monk slapped the other in the face. The one who got slapped took a stick and scratched this message in the sand: TODAY MY FRIEND SLAPPED ME IN THE FACE. They kept on walking and had to cross a swampy bog. The monk who had been slapped got stuck in the mud and began to sink into the muck and mire. His friend immediately grabbed a long stick, handed it to him and pulled him to safety. The muddy monk immediately took a stone and scratched this into the stone: TODAY MY FRIEND SAVED MY LIFE. That night the monk asked his companion, "After I slapped you, you wrote in the sand, and now, you write on a stone. Why did you do this?" The monk answered: "When someone hurts me, I write it in sand so that the wind and water can quickly erase it, but when someone shows me kindness I write it in stone where nothing can ever erase it."

The Jewish version of this universal spiritual and psychological truth is the teaching of the rabbis, "Consider every sin committed against you to be a minor sin and every sin you commit against others to be a major sin." What heals all wounds is learning how to write our hurts in sand and our redemptions in stone.

All the wounds in your life that you have written in the stony parts of your soul are your unfinished spiritual business, and this is a season about attending to our unfinished business. In fact, the whole Torah is about the unfinished business of sin and repentance. Isaac and Ishmael were estranged, but burying Abraham together healed them. Jacob and Esau were estranged, but they were healed when they buried Isaac together.

In Genesis, chapter 22, we find the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, where at the last minute an angel stays the hand of Abraham as he prepares to kill his son for God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says that he cried when he first heard this story. His father asked him why he was crying, and the young Heschel answered, "I am afraid the angel will be too late." His father hugged him and whispered, "Angels are never too late. That is the difference between angels and people. People are sometimes too late." If you believe that time heals all wounds you may be too late to attend to your unfinished business.

In debating when the Messiah will come, the rabbis rejected the belief that we can do nothing but wait for the appointed day to arrive. Instead they taught that we can bring the Messiah if we all observe Shabbat one time together. Or in another version, they taught that the Messiah will appear as a leper at the gates of Rome, and when some kindly person offers to change his bandages, he will announce himself and heal the whole world of sin. How extraordinary that Judaism teaches that the unfinished business of our world and the unfinished business of our lives are healed in exactly the same way, not by waiting, but by doing something brave and loving.

I pray for a year of us not waiting but trying to heal our wounds and wounds we inflict on others. I pray for a year that will bring a man riding on a white donkey over the hills to the north of Safed in Israel. Whether it is his first visit as we believe or his return as our Christian brothers and sisters believe, I pray for the coming of the Messiah and for the man leading him, who is Elijah the prophet and who will announce the end of time as we have known it and the beginning of a healing that will change everything forever. Amen.

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