A Primal Scream into the Zoom Void

Rosh Hodesh Adar 5781

It seems like it happens every single time
someone has something profound, deep, brilliant,
ever important to say, but silence abounds.
We all lean in, waiting eagerly until finally:
“You’re muted! Jen, you’re muted!”
It seems like it happens every single time
and they huff or laugh, throwing their hands up in the air.
And we smile back at them,
warmly holding their slight annoyance and frustration
as they press “Unmute” and try again.
And each time
we unmute and say whatever it is we were going to say.
But I wonder if when someone says to us
“You’re muted!”
I wonder if first we need to say:
YES.
Yes I am.
I am muted.
We are muted.
It’s not a sentence we used to say often,
but now it is almost daily occurrence,
an odd ritual of this online world in which we now live.

And what if it’s true?
What if simply the response that is true — is
YES.
It’s not that different from when someone asks
“How are you doing?”
These days, my general response is:
“We’re pandemic fine.”
We have a warm home, food, and WiFi.
Yes, of course, this has been a hard year for us, with lots to endure,
but Matan and I are actually having the best time together at home,
despite the existential boredom of deciding each night what to eat for dinner.
But we’re fine. Totally fine.
I heard someone else call it the “Covid Caveat”
because, of course, behind that answer
is that we and many like us are generally fine -
BUT, ahem, Caveat:
We’re isolated,
We haven’t seen our friends or family in months,
Kids and teachers and parents are losing it on Zoom school,
Women especially are suffering in the workplace,
The virus hurts people of color disproportionately to the rest,
Let’s not forget there was an insurrection about a month ago.
Also, when will we be vaccinated?
And there are new strains,
So how long will the vaccine protect us?
And that’s not even the most painful Covid caveat
for so many who lost loved ones this year,
to Covid or otherwise,
who are grieving.
So when asked: How are you?
It’s easier to say: Covid Caveat, we’re pandemic fine.
This is a moment in the void,
and day in and day out we are yelling into it
only to find out: YOU’RE MUTED.
“You’re muted” we say to one another.
YES.
Yes, we are.
Such is the plight of humankind in our world today.

**
The plight of humankind.
“The Chassidic masters,” Professor Shaul Magid writes,
“exhibited a sensitivity to the existential plight of humankind in the modern world.”
One such Master is the famous Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav,
great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov,
whose brilliance lives on in his teachings
focused on the highs and lows of being human
(no wonder I am drawn to him!)
Reb Nachman lived through deeply depressive states
and moments of spiritual heights.
His work focused “on the emotional angst
of the one who seeks God’s presence.”
And he was invested in a spiritual idea called
Challal HaPanui — The Divine Void.
Challal HaPanui riffs on Lurianic Kabbalah’s idea of Tzimtzum,
that the creation of the world occurred only when God retracted God’s self
to make room for the rest of us and all Creation.
In Reb Nachman’s work “The Torah of the Void,” he suggests
that this Divine Void was both necessary and excruciating.
the Divine Void, a tremendous absence,
a chasm, a gulf, a pit, a void through which
we and all humans must pass.
The Divine Void is not fully analogous to the pandemic.
To be sure, the pandemic was not necessary and did not have to happen,
but it has been excruciating as it has necessitated our staying home,
retracting ourselves from the face-to-face, breath-to-breath
daily creation of OUR worlds
to the world of Zoom screens, FaceTimes, parking lots,
bad wifi connection, and the loss of joy.
YOU’RE MUTED!
Yes!
This is a void of absence, human and divine,
through which we must pass….
So how?

Reb Nachman, in emboldening us to have faith…
doesn’t say just go to shabbat services and pray,
or give tzedakah and pray;
Rather, he gives us a tool that we are to do first.
Ready?
Reb Nachman encourages:
The primal wordless scream.
I was delighted to discover this option.
Now I usually reserve screaming for sporting events
or horror films or Edvard Munch’s artwork,
but I think Reb Nachman was on to something ever useful to us today.

Let’s try it: if you can, go to the gallery view, mute yourself, or stay muted.
And yell as loud as you can… (or act like it)…
See how it feels!
<<SCREAM INTO THE VOID>>

How was that?
Did you really make a sound?
We’ll never know!
We are muted and there are no words to describe truly how we feel right now.
But this scream, this wordless utterance,
well, it helps me to make space to breath more fully.
Professor Magid suggests that this primal scream -
“serves as a midwife… [to] new possibilities…”
For once you’ve cleared out
whatever it is in your soul that needs
to be heard to the highest heavens,
(or at least to your next door neighbors)
then you have space to find the words you need to say,
or to sing, to study, or pray.
“The scream,” he teaches, “brings one past the darkness,
through the void to the presence of God as creator
by giving birth to a new state of consciousness,
moving from the wordless to the word….”
That’s why when God creates the world,
from absence and void God speaks the world into being!
That’s why when we cross the sea to freedom,
we burst into song.
That’s why in this current series of Torah portions of revelation at Sinai,
the 10+ Commandments are actually called the 10 utterances!
We are constantly moving through the VOID
to create again, often through words.

And it may not feel like that yet — but let me orient you to our calendar.
Tu Bishvat was two weeks ago and it was then that we planted seeds.
Tonight is not only the Lunar New Year, but it is Rosh Hodesh Adar.
And you can only see the sliver of the new moon calling us to this new month,
but you know it will soon be full.
And as the saying goes: Mishe Nichnas Adar, Marbim B’simcha,
when we enter Adar, our joy increases.
This month calls upon us to be joyful because Purim is two weeks from now.
When we celebrate we will still be wearing masks,
of course, this year is not only because the celebration demands it of us,
but our Purim costume masks this year, I hope,
will help us laugh with great joy.
And two weeks after that is Daylight Savings and we get more sun.
And a week after that — it’s Spring!
We are living together in a dark void,
but we are moving through the VOID together right now.
And even though we cannot see it,
the seeds we have planted are taking root.

So YES
You’re muted!
We are muted!
It’s true.
But Reb Nachman offers us one more spiritual tool,
and it makes so much sense to me now:
the niggun, that wordless melody
that takes us from where we are,
passing through the void to where we want to be…

So while you are muted, give yourself a gift:
Scream, yell, whisper, laugh, sing!
Even though it is still dark out,
and this void, this bridge is quite narrow,
light and joy are on their way.


Sourced from a lecture by Dr. Susannah Heschel

Dr. Shaul Magid, “Through the Void: The Absence of God in R. Naḥman of Bratzlav’s “Likkutei MoHaRan,” The Harvard Theological Review, Oct., 1995, Vol. 88, №4 (Oct., 1995), Cambridge University Press, p. 495.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, The Torah of Void, Translated by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.