A couple of weeks ago I picked up a delightful kids’ book called The Huge Bag of Worries. While not written for the current election campaign – the book was first published in the US in 1996 and then came out in 2011 in Great Britain – it fits our moment. The Huge Bag of Worries tells the story of a girl named Jenny. Here’s her story –
“Jenny had always been happy. She had a lovely mum and dad, a great brother (well, most of the time…), she had a best friend at school and she liked her teacher. And then, of course, there was Loftus (her dog).
“But recently she had been getting gloomier and gloomier. It wasn’t just one thing; it was everything. She worried that she was getting too fat, that Loftus had fleas, and that her best friend was going away. She worried that she was getting bad marks at school and she thought she heard someone whispering about her in the playground…she worried when her mum and dad had an argument…she even worried about wars and bombs…until one day she woke to find…a HUGE BAG OF WORRIES.
“The bag followed her everywhere…to school, to swimming, to the toilet, and it stuck by her even when she was watching TV. She tried ignoring it…but it didn’t work. She tried throwing it away…but it always came back. She tried to lock it out, but when she got back to her bedroom, there it was, waiting for her. It was like a horrible shadow she couldn’t get rid of. What could she do?”
Well, eventually, the kindly old lady who lived next door comes to the rescue. Her solution? “Now let’s just open it up and see what’s inside!” Jenny resists, but the old lady persists. “Nonsense,” said the old lady firmly. “There’s nothing a worry hates more than being seen. If you have any worries, however small, the secret is to let them out slowly, one by one, and show them to someone else. They’ll soon go away.”
“So Jenny opened the bag. The old lady sorted the worries into groups. Jenny was astonished to see how small they looked when they were out in the open. Half the worries disappeared because lots of worries just hate the light of day. As for the rest, the old lady put some in her shopping basket to deal with herself; some she sent packing because she said they belonged to other people; some she just blew a kiss to; and some she said were worries that everyone had, even Jenny’s family, her friends and her teacher.
And as for the bag…?” (Empty now, it just flies off, taken by the wind on a clear day).
So, what’s in your bag of worries? Time to start to unpack it; right here, right now I invite you to share a worry or two with someone beside you, preferably not someone you know well. Say hello, swap some worries, let them out slowly, and let’s see if we can make at least a few of them go away.
Dr. Marty Rossman of Healing Mind fame says that there are three kinds of worries: Good, Bad, & Not Sure. “I invite people to write down all the things that they’re worried about. Get them out of their head. Just write down big things, little things, clarify what you’re worrying about. And then to sort them into basically three columns. One is things that you might potentially be able to do something about. [Second], things that you’re powerless to do something about. And then a middle column of things you’re not quite sure. You can’t tell whether you can do something about that or not.”
Here’s where Avraham Avinu enters. I’ve long been haunted by the Abraham of this morning’s Torah reading. He strikes me as a deeply conflicted individual facing momentous decisions and challenges. Truth be told, I relate to him, even identify with him. Perhaps you do as well.
Sarah makes a clear and absolute demand of her husband – גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ – “cast out that slave-woman and her son.” The language is forceful and purposeful. It’s not “ask her to leave,” but rather “cast her out.” And, devastatingly, the child in question is “her son.” Sarah knows full well that Abraham is Ishmael’s father. Not on this particular morning; today’s he’s “her son.”
The Torah hints at Abraham’s inner turmoil. וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד בְּעֵינֵ֣י אַבְרָהָ֑ם עַ֖ל אוֹדֹ֥ת בְּנֽוֹ׃ – “the matter distressed Abraham greatly, for it concerned a son of his.” Notice – a son of his, not just hers. וַיֵּ֧רַע הַדָּבָ֛ר מְאֹ֖ד – the matter distressed him greatly. How to understand the Torah’s cryptic language? Abraham is worried, we get that. What’s underneath his worry? What drives it; what is it really about?
One of the great medieval commentators, R. David Kimhi – known as RaDaK – offers some tantalizing suggestions. Radak reminds us that Abraham loved Ishmael, his first born, and that Abraham had “taught him the way of God.” Convinced that Ishmael “was on a good path having grown up” in his home, Abraham felt great distress at the thought of expelling Ishmael. Going a bit further, Radak notes that God’s words of assurance to Avraham include mention of Hagar: “God knew that expelling Hagar who had served him for years and with whom he had a child also distressed him…God knew his heart.”
Radak deftly captures the accumulation of worries held by Abraham; there’s more there than meets the eye. Abraham’s blue bag of worries is plenty big.
I wish to suggest that Abraham is really us and this his worry in this liminal moment reflects and exemplifies the Huge Bag of Worries that we as Americans, as Jews, as thinking, feeling, striving people carry with us at this confounding moment. Avraham Avinu’s worries sit in that middle column. Maybe he can do something about them, maybe not. How do we make sense of him, and, by extension, of ourselves?
We might understand Abraham as an exemplar of ambivalence, one who sees good and value on both, even many, sides and wants it all. We might understand Avraham as a victim of cognitive dissonance, one who hears the words of his beloved wife Sarah and who cannot align those words with what he knows in his heart to be true and good. We might understand Abraham as an individual struggling with his own freedom, aware that he has the power to choose and at same time deeply concerned about the consequences of his choices. Avraham Avinu might as well be right here, right now, in these early years of our still new century, one of us.
Let’s start with ambivalence…
An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, God will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, infinite wisdom, or infinite beauty.
Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.
“Done!” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning.
Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light.
One of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.”
The dean sighs and says, “I should have taken the money.”
Here’s the part I don’t get; if I were that Dean, I’d have hesitated plenty. All three choices appeal to me; each has its virtues and value. There’s even a version of the story that substitutes honor for beauty. That would entice me as well. How can the Dean choose with no hesitation at all?
Our Dean’s quick decision turns out to be a bad one. Ironically, he chooses quickly but not with wisdom. A little ambivalence would have done him good. “Ambivalence,” writes Kenneth Weisbrode in a charming little book on the topic, “results from a basic desire to have it both ways.” Weisbrode claims that “it began with Adam and Eve. Do we or don’t we eat the apple?” This morning’s Avraham Avinu might have been an even better choice. Abraham would truly prefer not to choose; desperately he wants it both ways. After all, he loves Isaac AND he loves Ishmael. And yet, choose he must. Indeed, we all do, at least once in a while.
As you know, I’m a both/and kind of guy. Abraham makes total sense to me. In an ordinary election year, I’d be finding value and virtue in both major party presidential candidates, for example. And as you know, I believe that we need a good deal more in the way of both/and thinking in our lives and our world. That’s among the reasons that Shimon Peres z”l has long been an inspiration to me and to many, many others. Build up Israel’s defense capabilities AND pursue peace with Israel’s neighbors; keep yourself grounded in day to day reality AND dream great dreams about what the future could look like; take great pride in the Jewish people and our accomplishments AND promote universal values and cosmopolitan connection. Former President Peres made decisions, often momentous and difficult ones, but always with his both/and tendency intact. Avraham Avinu, the same; we, I hope, the same as well.
Abraham’s dilemma also feels like a case of cognitive dissonance to me. Let’s consider that angle for a moment. The theory of cognitive dissonance, developed by 20th century social psychologist Leon Festinger, describes the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values. It’s something that we all face in the course of our lives. Here’s a trivial example. I never met a baked good that I didn’t like, especially if it came from one of a long list of very favorite bakeries. I know I shouldn’t have that croissant each morning, and somehow I always (or at least often) do.
Abraham’s dissonance is, needless to say, much more serious than the question of almond croissants and raisin danish (my two favorites!). How can he line up his loyalty to Sarah and Isaac with his loyalty to Hagar and Ishmael? How can he kick out one at the behest of the other? How can he live with the agony of this moment?
Festinger teaches that an individual who experiences the discomfort of cognitive dissonance will try to reduce it and will actively avoid situations and information likely to increase it. He sketched a number of ways to get there, all involving some measure of manipulation and/or rationalization.
My friend, Rabbi Lauren Berkun, suggests another way – recognize that each of the clashing beliefs or ideals derives from its own moral ground. You and I hold a different opinion not because I’m dumb and you’re smart – even though that may be true! – but rather because we begin from different values, each of which we agree is important and good. If we can recognize that, then there’s a chance we can actually talk to each other, and maybe even get along. Near the top of my bag of worries is our inability to see and hear and converse with those with whom we disagree.
One more angle on Avraham Avinu – Contemporary Israeli rabbi and teacher Shlomo Wolbe asks a sharp and uncomfortable question: How often do we make use of our freedom? Not very is his equally sharp and uncomfortable answer. Rather “personal disposition, education, habit, and interests maintain almost absolute rule over us from childhood to old age.” Ouch, and probably correct. Here’s Wolbe’s big point: freedom is “one of the noble virtues which one must labor to attain.” It requires “great effort” over the course of a lifetime. Does Abraham freely choose to hear Sarah’s voice? Is he aware of his “maximal responsibility” and of the “knowledge that (he) can create worlds and destroy them” as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik teaches on the same subject? Abraham faces his worries mindfully and, I believe, does make a free and responsible choice. Do we in the face of our worries? Mindful attentiveness to our power to choose feels like a beautiful way to address the many things that keep us up at night.
Abraham, much like Jenny’s neighbor, comes to teach us how to handle our worries. Stay appreciative of value and goodness on all sides, talk through your dissonance and discomfort, and don’t be afraid to exercise your freedom of choice. Nothing less than the destruction and creation of worlds hangs in the balance.
A prayer for us on this worried and worrisome Rosh Hashana: May our experience mirror that of the great Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain who said: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Ken y’hi ratzon! So may it be for all of us.