Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Emotion Contagion

Last weekend’s NYTimes had an op-ed from Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton. It questioned this new, prevalent disease we all are facing: the ailment known as “Zoom-fatigue.” Symptoms include lack of productivity, lack of desire to interact on the computer, and abstaining from online communal gatherings and webinars. Researchers have suggested that Zoom-fatigue stems from sitting still, feeling self-conscious about seeing yourself on screen, and the cognitive load of reading glitchy facial expressions.

Yet Grant questions this modern day malady. He offers an alternative theory: The languishing we feel, the malaise we felt and may still feel in our everyday lives may not have been from Zoom itself. It may actually be the product of something called “emotional contagion.” “Emotions,” he explains, “are like contagious diseases: They can spread from person to person…[it is literally being] infected with other people’s emotions.” He continues: “the science of contagion suggests that the negative emotions we feel from video-call overuse could be partially driven by hours of communicating with people who are also sad, stressed, lonely or tired.”

So it turns out COVID isn’t the only virus being passed around. Before COVID, more acutely in the pandemic, and even when it's over, turns out we humans have a knack for transferring our negative emotions from one person to another. This doesn’t only happen from face-to-face interaction, but also from interaction on social media and text messages.

But before we make things worse by disseminating this bad news, it turns out that emotional contagion is just as virulent for positive emotions as it is for negative ones. According to the research, peak happiness, while achievable individually, is even more attainable in group settings.

Grant says, “We find our greatest bliss in moments of collective effervescence. It’s a concept coined in the early 20th century by the pioneering sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe the sense of energy and harmony people feel when they come together in a group around a shared purpose. Collective effervescence is the synchrony you feel when you slide into rhythm with strangers on a dance floor, colleagues in a brainstorming session, cousins at a religious service or teammates on a soccer field. And during this pandemic, it’s been largely absent from our lives.”

This explains our desire to get back to concerts, plays and even into this room for services. It goes beyond fun beyond being in a flow state. We get internally charged by the shared project of joyful activity. We literally light each other up.

Before Covid, research showed that more than three-quarters of people found collective effervescence at least once a week and almost a third experienced it at least once a day. Go from that to zero. The last year and half, we’ve been sharing our negative emotions and have little positive ones to pass around.

Religious ceremonies and observances, particularly in Jewish tradition, exist to share these positive emotions. Passover? The joy of freedom. Tu b’Shevat? Appreciation for nature. Hanukkah? The thrill of beating the odds. Even Yom Kippur, which, while solemn, is not sad. Yom Kippur - inviting awe into our lives.

That all said, cut to Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which begins tomorrow evening. Tisha B’av commemorates the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple - not once, but twice - as well as all the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time. Expulsions, inquisitions, pograms, massacres and genocide. Traditional Jews fast, avoid using luxury items and bathing. It is a day of collective mourning, 24 hours of sharing dirges and verses from the Book of Lamentations. We gather together and sit on the floor. Weeping and hungry, we pass around nothing but negativity and sadness.

Or do we?

Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, reads as an elegy. It describes the siege and destruction of Jerusalem: a place once alive with the busyness of life is now desolate and charred. Hunger, thirst, rape and pillage linger in its stones. Lamentations 3 describes teeth broken on gravel, a person’s soul ground to dust. “My life was bereft of peace, I forgot what happiness was. I thought my strength and hope had perished before the Eternal.”

But just uttering the word hope sparks something within the narrator. At this point, their mood turns. “But this I call to mind, I have hope...God’s kindness has not ended, God’s mercy is not spent...God is my portion, I say with a full heart, therefore in God I hope.”

As the narrator speaks, as we continue to read, hope breaches our darkness. Its light increases the more we call upon it. We utter the word once. Then again. Then it merges with the word of our neighbor. Hope. What once was a whisper is now a melody. Connected more, is now a chorus. Hope. Pass it on.

I doubt many of us would call Jewish culture “optimistic.” We’re notoriously cynical, sarcastic and realistic. But we are a hopeful people. How can that be? What is the difference?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that if we work hard enough together, we can make things takes a great deal of courage to have hope...hope is what transforms the human situation.” It’s an important distinction he makes: optimism can be naive. In a way, it yields any responsibility. Hope, though, is a building block on which our souls and our society get stronger.

He reminds us that we Jews, knowing what we know of history and humanity, are uniquely positioned to lead with hope and build a happier world.

In this week’s Torah portion, D’varim, Moses is nearing the end of his life and he begins to recount the years in the wilderness. The Book of Deuteronomy is his own re-telling. He leads with stories of Israelite bickering, their complaining, their great transgressions against each other and God. This was his greatest frustration, afterall.

But then he reminds them, in Deut 2:7 - “Indeed, the Eternal your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. God has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness; the Eternal your God has been with you these past forty years: you have lacked nothing.” There’s a refrain in his remarks: you went somewhere, you sinned, but then God told you to get up, go on, get moving from there. “Don’t fear,” the portion ends, “the Eternal your God will battle for you.”

Our ancestors had no naivete. They were anything but optimists: from the grumble and doubt of the wilderness, to the anguish and melancholy of our many catastrophes, they knew the world was harsh. Yet they held the radical notion that we can muster enough courage, build enough hope to do so. This would and will only happen by sharing that hope, by leaning on one another. There is an imperative to share in as many moments of collective effervescence as we can muster - on Zoom and elsewhere. Lamentations ends with:

השיבנו יהוה אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם

Take us back, Eternal One, to Yourself, And let us come back; Renew our days as of old!

Return to one another, return to our communal spaces - either virtually or in person - and return to God - the infinite Oneness, the song of joy that pervades all that is.

Friday, July 2, 2021

It is Difficult to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

Niels Bohr was a Danish physicist who is credited with saying “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” While at first this proverb feels like something Yogi Berra may have said, Bohr’s life story is a manifestation of the maxim’s truth.

By all measures, Niels Bohr had a predictable life. For starters, he was a physicist. His job was to predict how the universe would interact. He was so good at this predicting that he won the 1922 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on atomic structures. 

His mother was Ellen Adler, a member of a prominent Jewish banking family. Bohr did not necessarily consider himself Jewish, having been christened in the Lutheran church. His wealth and privilege afforded him an education, which would have been a good enough indicator of his future success. Paired with his innate ability, perhaps it was predictable that he’d achieve such academic and public success. 

But what made him remarkable is what happened after the predictable timeline. As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930’s, Bohr chose to use his prestige to save many Jewish lives. As you may be aware, in 1933, the Rockefeller Foundation created a fund to help support refugee academics – particularly Jewish ones - who were at greatest risk. Bohr met with the President of the Rockefeller Foundation, Max Mason, during a visit to the United States and secured a plan. Bohr offered the refugees temporary jobs at his institute, providing them with financial support and arranging for them to be awarded fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation. Ultimately it was all with the goal of placing them at institutions around the world, shepherding them to safety. He saved hundreds of lives.

Predictably or not, in 1940, his own life came into danger. The Nazis invaded Denmark and Bohr got word that the Nazis considered him Jewish on account of his mother. Like many Danish Jews, he fled to Sweden by way of fishing boat and his was able to find passage to the US. Yet he refused to leave Sweden until he had had an opportunity to meet with King Gustav V, whom he helped persuade to make public Sweden’s willingness to provide a refuge to Danish Jews. Soon after, in early October 1943, the great exodus of 7,800 Jews across the Oresund Sea took place.

When Niels arrived in the US, he became part of the Manhattan. Yet even from there he took an unexpected turn. He was an early defector from using nuclear technology for weapons and directed his energy toward peaceful applications.

Bohr is right, then. It’s hard to make predictions, particularly about the future. His life story is an example of how one may try to predict a great many outcomes, but it is the choices we make in the face of unpredictable challenges that dictate what the future will hold. The future cannot be predicted, it can only be directed by our actions.

Bohr’s story feels meaningful to me this Shabbat for two reasons. The first is because of two very strange objects that appear in this week’s Torah portion. Numbers 27:21 talks about Joshua’s promotion within Israelite leadership. Joshua and the new High Priest, Eleazer, are to consult the “Urim and Thummim” in rendering decisions and choosing next steps for the community. The Urim and Thummim are two stones, we think, that were part of the high priest’s breastplate. Scholars are generally stumped on how they were used, but we think the stones served as a sort of proto-Ouija board. The function remains a mystery, but it seems safe to say that the Urim and Thummim were tools to decode prophecy and help point the community in the right direction.

Somewhere along the way, they fell out of vogue. Maybe because our ancestors felt, much like many of us, that this feels like a whole lot of superstitious mumbo jumbo.

But it would seem that consulting the Urim and Thummim regarding the future is not too unlike Niels Bohr’s life story and how we can live our lives. Rather than ancient magical divination tools, perhaps the Urim and Thummim were the means by which Israelite leaders took the reality of their moment and analyzed it. Perhaps they were a “values lens” by which they interpreted the circumstances and developed a way forward most in line with what they believed to be the most just outcome. They were just a tool through with the community’s values, and God’s commands, were articulated.

Which leads to the second reason Bohr’s story seems significant to me on this Shabbat. As I join you in forging Woodlands 3.0, I’m reminded that we can predict, we can plan, and despite our efforts, we can never know what the future holds. We can, however, take the time to reflect on the values that are most important to us and resolve that even in the most tumultuous, contentious moments, to trudge forward, acting in accordance with those values.

And I believe we do a good job of this at Woodlands. Isn’t this precisely what did throughout the pandemic? In every hard choice to close, to mask, to distance, to change it all, we led with our values. And lest you think me just self-congratulatory of our community, I see our frequent lauding as a reaffirmation of what we stand for: egalitarianism and diversity, an embracing of modernity, a desire to innovate and to constantly level-up not just as Jews but as people.

So as we return to our sacred space, and as we assume new and old positions within the community, let’s accept that we cannot make predictions, especially about the future. That said, we can resolve to choose our future – to make it one we are proud of. We know we’re on the right track, because we are choosing this future together.