This piece was written by Jordan Braunig, one of the 2016-2017 Boston Bridge Fellows.
Today, as it feels like so many within my social circles (or are they echo chambers?) descend upon our nation’s capital to join together to sing and march and voice opposition, I have come West. Today, as our nation opens what even in its nascent state has shown itself to be a dangerous chapter in its history, my attention will be definitively elsewhere. Today, my dad will undergo open heart surgery in order to replace and repair valves that are no longer functioning properly; a heart wrenching election capped off by wrench being taken to heart. My dad jokes that he’s willing to do anything not to watch the inauguration. A chip off the old block, I will seat myself far from any flat screens in the hospital waiting room. There will be enough anxiety already.
For all the drama that is being played out on the national scale, of course it is the hyper-local, the familial that has the capacity to truly split me apart, to expose my vulnerabilities, to let loose my greatest fears. In our yearly journey through the Torah, we too are transitioning from the familial to the national. Having closed the book of Bereishit/Genesis this past Shabbat, we move into the book of Shemot this week. What in Genesis is the story of one (slightly troubled) family becomes in Exodus the story of one (slightly troubled) nation. We find ourselves at a pivot point, moving our focus back and forth between the past and the present, the intensely familiar and the overwhelmingly public. And, similarly, I find myself oscillating between the preciousness of things past, and my insistent belief that there is more to come.
In the opening chapters of the Torah’s second book, I have no doubt that you remember, a new pharaoh comes to power who is troubled by the growing foreign, Israelite population in the land. He enacts laws that seek to demonize, dehumanize and diminish this population. But, you don’t need me to tell this story or connect these dots because, like I said, my focus right now is not on DC, but on a hospital in San Francisco where for a few hours this week a machine will circulate the blood through my father’s body, while surgeons seek to repair his heart.
I was both surprised and not at all surprised when a month ago a scan revealed that my dad’s heart was enlarged. I was surprised because the intent of the scan was to explain some gastro-intestinal pain and the heart merely photo-bombed his intestinal tract. I was not surprised because big heartedness has always been my dad’s way, and that anatomy might imitate character seemed somehow to fit within the rules of logic.
Having a big heart, when it is not the type that sends you for EKG’s and visits with cardiac surgeons, is a pretty special attribute. It can present in many different ways; in speaking with panhandlers and giving freely, in caring deeply about those with whom you work, in offering small kindnesses when there is nobody there to notice. These are but a few of the ways that I knew from my youngest days that my dad was a mentsch. We weren’t instructed to pay special attention to these acts of loving kindness, rather we were meant to see them merely as the background upon which life was lived. They were the regular, the constant, the beating of the heart that might otherwise go unnoticed, but whose efforts infused life with all of its nourishing goodness.
There has been something particularly heartbreaking in the months since Trump’s election about trying to explain this disastrous result to small children. “But, I thought he was the bully” one of my kids said on the morning after the election. How did I respond? That I can’t remember is likely an indication of something fumbling, inarticulate. Maybe, “Bullies only win for a minute. In the end, kindness always wins.” When your theology is built around people’s inclination towards goodness, there is something deeply dispiriting about the democratic triumph of intolerance. This is not what I want for my kids. I want them to live in a world in which the values of leadership are reflected by the president. Yet, in all honesty, as my mind turns to what I most want for my children, I think of my dad. I want them to know him, to laugh with him and learn from him. My large-scale political fears are displaced by the small-scale, the bodily.
There is a verse from Psalm 147 that is found in the morning liturgy “harofeh lishvurei lev/ the Healer of broken hearts” that has always spoken to my groggy but hopeful early-morning sensibilities. What better way to start my day than with the reminder that what is broken can once again be made whole, that our heartache is human and real and from time to time will be healed. It is a line that has been on my mind in these past days as I pray that hearts can be mended. My prayer is a song of longing that my dad will wake renewed and more full of life. My prayer is a lament for the wound inflicted on this country by fear and anger and greed. My prayer is just air that is slipping through my lips; words and hopes that things might be set right. It is ineffectual and it is everything I have- it is the essence of my humanity and it is utter weightlessness. I pray for repair; on the cosmic level and within our very beings, generally and very, very specifically.