Chaplains’ Corner: Bearing witness to our shared brokenness

Seth Wax

This essay is adapted from a sermon delivered for Rosh HaShanah at the Jewish Religious Center on Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.

When I first came to Williams College just over four years ago, I learned that in addition to working with the Jewish Association, counseling, doing some informal teaching, and working with the other chaplains, I would also be helping to run Where Am I?!, an EphVentures orientation program for incoming students. As part of the planning work that I was involved with, I had conversations with students and staff from across campus that centered on how we can best welcome frosh to our campus and community, what tools we could give them to help begin their experience in the best way possible, and how we can best support them in building meaningful relationships.

We tried to imagine what incoming students might be concerned about, what they might be looking forward to, and what they might need and want as they started their time here at Williams.

Many of those conversations came back to figuring out what it means to be together, to build relationships and community, and to learn together. Coming to a new place means, in some ways, starting from scratch. Starting freshman year means asking, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?”

Yet these are not simply questions for frosh. Any time we come back to Williams to begin a new academic year, these questions are in our awareness or buried somewhere in our minds. Especially this year, we are coming out of a phase of the pandemic that kept us apart in sometimes extreme ways. We learned through boxes on screens; worried about who we do and don’t need to wear a mask around, and when and where; thought about who we needed to avoid seeing us when we didn’t have a mask on; and felt anxious about who else was being vigilant about wearing masks. We have felt exhausted, lonely, and disconnected. So I think that all of us — frosh, returning students, faculty, staff, families, really everyone that I know — are asking the same questions:

Who have we been this past year?

Who are we now?

Are we the same people we were a year ago?

How do we build and rebuild connection and community?

What does it mean to be together, to build relationships and community, and to learn together? Especially when we don’t have all our stuff together?

I’m not going out on a limb in saying that this has been a very bad year and a half for the whole world. And things are still very confusing. In fact, things might be even more confusing now than they were earlier this year.

And yet, we are here. We are trying to figure out how to navigate our world in uncertain times. We are here, figuring out what it means to be together. We are here, committed to learning together, to increase knowledge in the world, and to build community.

So how do we do that?

I want to suggest that the best way to find joy, relationship, and community is through our shared brokenness. So often, we hide the parts of ourselves that we think are broken, unfinished, not good enough. Especially when you’re a student at a place like Williams, there’s often a feeling that you need to put on a face of being perfect, that you can handle anything. That since everyone else looks successful and productive, you need to look that way too. To put on a show for our friends, our entrymates and hallmates. Even for our professors and families.

But I think that the disruption of this past year, and the new academic and Jewish year whose beginning we mark on Rosh HaShanah, offers us an opportunity to do things differently — to think critically about who we want to be in the new year, and to identify the ways we can live more fully, with a more open heart, with more intention and deeper connection.

And I think one way we can do that is through seeing our shared brokenness as an opportunity for connection. The concerns we have need not be something we hide, but rather, something we can share. That, in fact, is what we need to do.

A story is told of Reb Moshe Sassov that I think illustrates this well. This telling of the story is adapted from Avraham Weiss. When Reb Moshe died, it was decided to send him to heaven. But on the way to heaven, you have to go through hell. The way you do it is that the angels walk you through hell, but very quickly. You go through, and all at once, you’re in heaven.

As Reb Moshe was being led through hell on his way to heaven, he saw the pain and the brokenness of all the souls in hell. He stopped. The heavenly policeman who was walking him through said, “Reb Moshe, let’s go, let’s hurry. We have to go to heaven.” Reb Moshe responded, “I’m not leaving hell until I can talk to the souls who are here.”

The angel looked annoyed because he didn’t like spending more time in hell than he had to, but what could he do? He told Reb Moshe that he could start talking to the souls in hell. Reb Moshe went to one soul and, in the course of their conversation, he found out that he had dealt with struggles of self-doubt his entire life and had never felt good enough, something that Reb Moshe himself had also faced constantly. He then went to another soul, and he learned that that soul experienced loss after loss of the people she cared about, and always felt so lonely. This was also something that Reb Moshe knew all too well. Reb Moshe then went to yet another soul and found out that this one had depression. He talked to another one and found out this one struggled financially.

After all of this talking, Reb Moshe called to his angelic escort and said, “I’m not leaving hell unless I can take all the souls who are here with me.”

This is not what the angel wanted to hear. “Look,” the guide said, “It’s tough enough to run hell. Think about the complaints, the yelling, the poking of the souls with sharp things, and the fire, always with the fire. We have enough trouble without your demands. Please, Reb Moshe, this is not your place. Your place is in heaven. Just go!”

But Reb Moshe answered, “I’m not leaving until all the souls come with me.”

The heavenly court had no choice but to convene to hear Reb Moshe’s argument. And this is what he claimed: “If God really wants me to live in heaven, what kind of heaven can I have if these poor souls remain in hell? How can I live in bliss when I know there’s suffering? With every soul that I talked to in hell, I learned how much they suffered in their life. And each of their sufferings, I went through it myself, or I loved someone who went through it, in their own way. These poor ones suffered enough in their lives, just like I have. Why do I get to go to heaven while they’re all stuck here? If you want me in heaven, the only way I’ll go is if I can take all the souls with me.”

What could the heavenly court do? They decided that Reb Moshe could take with him to heaven as many souls as he could talk with, and listen to the story of their suffering. So Reb Moshe talked to every soul, and he took them all out of hell with him.

Which goes to show you: Each time that you listen to another person and bear witness to their experience and their suffering, you may be getting that person out of hell.

One of the things that I like about this story is that it reminds us that as human beings, we all face difficulties, and none of us is impervious to pain. While it can be so tempting to cover up our experience — to deny it to the people around us, to our friends and loved ones, and even to ourselves — holding it in can send us right to hell. And the inverse is also true: When we can share our brokenness and our pain, that is a powerful way to get out.

So as we plunge forward with the start of our year, I want to bless each of us to bear witness to each other and our experiences. To know that none of us is perfect, and that each of us is a work in progress. And to explore the possibility that our best chance of developing authentic connection might just come from letting others in.

Rabbi Seth Wax is the College’s Jewish chaplain.