One afternoon in rabbinical seminary, I stumbled across an ancient text that would one day change my life. It was a Mishnah, a Rabbinic teaching buried deep in a third-century Jewish legal compendium, in an arcane section that to most people appears about as riveting as the boilerplate of a cell phone contract. But as I sat at the dining room table of our cramped New York City apartment poring over the text, I couldn’t shake the sense that it held a deeper meaning, one I just couldn’t yet crack. After an hour or so, compelled by some mysterious awareness that the text’s significance might be revealed to me only over time, I photocopied the page and tucked it into my book, which I returned to the shelf.
More than a decade later, after naming babies and officiating burials and weddings, after pastoring through divorce, wildfires, economic collapse, and political turmoil, I pulled this volume off the shelf one afternoon and rediscovered the photocopied page. This time, the text fully took my breath away. I was astonished: Just a few short lines seemed to capture life’s very essence.
The text speaks of an ancient pilgrimage ritual, when hundreds of thousands of people would ascend to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the focal point of Jewish religious and political life in the ancient world. The crowd would enter the Courtyard in a mass of humanity, turning to the right and circling—counterclockwise—around the enormous complex, exiting close to where they had entered.
But someone suffering, the text tells us, the grieving, the lonely, the sick—someone to whom something awful had happened—that person would walk through the same entrance and circle in the opposite direction. Just as we do when we’re hurting: every step, against the current. And every person who passed the brokenhearted would stop and ask, “What happened to you?” “I lost my mother,” the bereaved would answer. “I miss her so much.” Or perhaps, “My husband left.” Or, “I found a lump.” “Our son is sick.” “I just feel so lost.”
And those who walked from right to left—each one of them— would look into the eyes of the ill, the bereft, and the bereaved. “May God comfort you,” they would say, one by one. “May you be wrapped in the embrace of this community.”
Two thousand years ago, the Rabbis constructed a system of ritual engagement built on a profound psychological insight: When you’re suffering, when your loved one hovers between life and death, when you feel hemmed in by the darkness, when all you want is to self-isolate—because who would understand anyway?—you show up. You root your suffering in a context of care.
But even as you step into community, you don’t pretend that you’re okay. You’re not okay, which will be obvious to anyone who looks at you. You wear your troubles on the outside: The whole world moves seamlessly in one direction and you in another. And even still, you trust that you won’t be marginalized, mocked, misunderstood. In this place, you will be held, even at the ragged edge of life.
This ancient pilgrimage ritual has been my constant companion these past many years, shaping my ever- growing understanding of the human heart and the power of community. It has taught me the transformative nature of showing up when we want to retreat, of listening deeply to each other’s pain even when we fear there are no words. Of grieving and rejoicing together, and recognizing that even though we can’t heal each other, we can and we must see each other.
Excerpted from THE AMEN EFFECT by arrangement with Avery Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2024, Sharon Brous