Finding Comfort in the Curmudgeonly

by Ren Finkel, Emergent Programs Coordinator

A group of SVARA-niks are sitting in the bet midrash, looking off to the left of the photo. Behind them, there is a rainbow painted on the wall of the bet midrash, with a blue-and-green background.

Between our one-year anniversary and our Masechet Avot Chapter 4 siyyum, it has been a really big couple of weeks for the Mishnah Collective. As is so common during the pandemic, going through this last chapter felt like it took both a second and a year. This last mishnah, especially, has lingered. In a week that has felt particularly overwhelming for me, Rabbi Elazar HaKappar’s teaching has felt both challenging and indulgent. 

Throughout our journey in chapter 4, a variety of teachers have commented on how wonderful the mishnayot continued to be. Texts that felt entirely out of line with our personal, contemporary values were few and far between, and so many fit so nicely into a framework of justice. And then came along Rabbi Elazar Hakappar in Mishnah 21-23, where suddenly we’re talking about desire taking us out from the world and a God that sounds really harsh and judgy! I felt, initially, at odds with his perspective. 

Each day, though, I would read through the comments and take in our incredible teachers’ lessons, and I would be consistently struck by how expansive this community’s wisdom is. Without pretending that harsh texts were soft, participants were able to shine a light on the most beautiful aspects of his lessons. I feel especially drawn to a line in Mishnah 23:


שֶׁעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹצָר וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹלָד
“…for against your will you were formed, and against your will you were born…” 

Bleak, I know. 

But in a week where disability and mental illness felt more burdensome than usual for me, there was something comforting about a Rabbi being as curmudgeonly as I felt. When I have weeks like this, where I feel especially worn and the world feels especially unjust, the Pirkei Avot-inspired quote by Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Rabbi Tarfon’s famous teaching both come to mind:


“Do not be daunted by the weight of the world’s grief”
-R’ Shapiro, Wisdom of the Sages

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

“Rabbi Tarfon would say, ‘It is not upon us to finish ‘The Work’ but neither are we free to neglect it entirely.’”
Avot 2:16

And they never seem to help! The world is daunting and full of grief! I can’t imagine it actually helps the world for me to ignore how bad it feels to exist in the midst of transphobia, white supremacy, capitalism, the list goes on. What’s most striking to me, though, is that the sooner I let myself feel what I need to feel, the sooner I can dive back into that grief-healing work. With a little time, the feelings of overwhelm always ease, and eventually this teaching does ring true again. We must keep working towards justice, even (and perhaps especially) when it feels tough—and it’s okay to let it feel tough. 

Perhaps Tarfon and Shapiro’s teachings can come into play after, and instead step one can be a Rabbi Elazar Hakappar on my shoulder reminding me that it’s okay if the world feels too heavy, because sometimes it really is. While we certainly can’t always live inside this text, taking a moment here is okay. We can move back into not being daunted after we’ve caught our breath. I find that I can settle into my obligation and desire to do The Work much more readily and sustainably when I let myself take a brief minute to go, “Hey, this sucks!” Perhaps we didn’t ask to be here, and yet all the same, it will take all of us to build a better world. When we allow ourselves to feel out those hard feelings, to not look the other way or shove them down, we give ourselves the opportunity to move through them more fully.

As we move into Pesach and “closing” mishnah collective for a week, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for all of the wisdom and compassion that SVARA has to offer. It has been an absolute honor to help facilitate this community these last three chapters, and I cannot wait to take in all the incredible Torah yinz come up with on the other side of Pesach. Next year in person, next year in collective liberation! 

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