By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The Vestal NY Reporter 

Finding a balance


Sometimes the right book appears at just the right time. That was the case with Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” The past few months have been difficult for a variety of reasons and I’ve been seeking ways to handle the stress. When writing about asking God for help, the Christian Lamott offers suggestions for dealing with difficult times. Her advice made me look closer at my Jewish thoughts and practices.

Lamott believes in order to survive our hardest moments, we must release our problems and hand them over to God. The idea is that we mere humans can’t control everything and one of our biggest mistakes is when we try to change the world. It’s a nice sentiment, yet I found myself answering her thought with one from contemporary Jewish prayer books: “Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you.” In other words, prayer alone is not enough; human actions also matter.

Of course, if we view the world realistically, we know we can’t control everything. In fact, a careful look at our lives shows just how little we do control. That’s the reason Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayers have proved valuable to so many people: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

It is a very wise statement. Yet, once again, a Jewish thought partly contradicts it: In “Pirke Avot,” Rabbi Tarfon informs us that while “it is not yours to complete the task...neither are you free to desist from it.”

Basically that translates into, “yes, I know you can’t change everything, but that doesn’t mean you can stop trying.”

The question could be asked as to whether Tarfon is talking about our personal lives or our political ones (our obligation to perform tikun olam–repair of the world).

That raises yet another query: Is the personal political, as feminists have suggested? Judaism answers that question with a resounding “yes:” Our religious practice is not restricted to the synagogue, but must be followed in our personal, public and business lives. In the Torah, there is no distinction between religious law and secular law: It’s all religious law, from fair weights and measures, to not withholding a person’s wages at the end of the day, to honoring our elders.

These thoughts were all interesting, but my personal dilemma still remained: How do I balance my Jewish practice while still reducing the amount of stress I face?

One interesting suggestion came from a Buddhist-themed book about business. The author writes that something can be so broken, major changes must be made in order for it to survive. Other times, we may have to acknowledge something can’t be saved and move on from there. His ideas show a way to combine the other traditions: we can always do something, although our actions may not support our hopes and dreams.

It is difficult to find a balance because every change forces us to make new decisions. Prayer can be helpful because it allows us to dig deep inside ourselves and find the strength to continue. That’s where Lamott’s advice is so valuable: We must remember to ask for help when our courage and determination start to flag; to say thanks when someone or something shows us beauty and caring, no matter how small; and to say wow at the awesomeness of creation we sometimes are too preoccupied to notice.

Rabbi Rachel Esserman is the executive editor of The Reporter Group. She can be reached at


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