Celebrating Jewish Literature: Yearning for real connections

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Americans are facing an epidemic of loneliness, at least according to newspaper articles. These reports note that people feel they have few friends and even fewer people they can count on in times of need. Rabbi Sharon Brous recognizes this desire for connections – to have people stand by you when you need strength and who allow you to lend them your strength when they are in need. Finding ways to accomplish this is the impetus behind her book “The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World” (Avery). Brous offers stories portraying what she calls sacred companionship and shows how people can become a part of those communities. Underlying this effort is “the power of saying ‘Amen’ to one another’s grief and joy, sorrow and celebration with our very presence. Of bearing witness to profound suffering and protesting injustice with our very presence. Of comforting and consoling, surviving and thriving with our very presence.” 

Brous calls this desire for connection the Amen Effect, much as how saying amen after a prayer means the person agrees with the essence of those words. To show how this works in practice, she offers wisdom from Jewish stories, although readers should note that her book does not feature in-depth study of these texts. The periodic stories/examples from Jewish writings are used as a segue into the stories of real-life people from her religious community – she is the spiritual leader of IKAR in Los Angeles – and others whom she has met in the course of her rabbinate. 

The story that sets the tone for her work is from the Mishnah and discusses what occurred when pilgrims heading to the Temple in Jerusalem entered the Temple courtyard. The majority of the pilgrims would turn to the right and make a counterclockwise circuit around the area. However, anyone who was suffering, those whom the author calls “the grieving, the lonely, the sick – someone to whom something awful had happened,” would turn to the left and make a clockwise circuit. Those moving in the counterclockwise direction were to stop and ask what had happened, and offer comfort. Brous notes that, at some point in our lives, almost everyone would need to walk clockwise. The story also makes clear that the community – those who were not directly dealing with sorrow – were required to lessen their suffering. 

The problem is many people are at loss at how to put this idea into action. A major component of Brous’ book is the specific examples she offers on how to accomplish this. They are all based on a very simple idea: showing up for joyous occasions and for sad ones. It means sitting with someone even if you don’t know the right words to say. It means offering to others the same aid you’ve received during times of sorrow. It means acknowledging someone’s suffering, even if you don’t understand what they are going through. Brous notes that the greatest words of comfort are simply, “I see you... You are not alone.” 

Being a member of a religious community is also something she sees as important. Brous writes, “We now know that walking together, singing together, seeing and being seen by each other – all these things enhance our emotional health and deepen our sense of connectedness. They alter the physical and psychological landscape of a group and the people in it.” This is the impetus behind IKAR and something she believes should be the driving force of every synagogue community. 

Brous illustrates the importance of comfort by offering a story from her own life. After receiving news of a family death when she was alone at a retreat center, she experienced physical pain, pain so bad that she wondered if she had damaged a nerve. But a healer, who was also at the center, noticed her pain and asked Brous if someone she knew had died. The healer also suggested that Brous was carrying years of pain and grief in her muscles. Even those who normally are the strong ones – the ones people lean on – need to recognize when they need help. They need to admit to themselves that someday they “will walk in the direction of the bereaved and broken-hearted. And to trust that when we do, there will be someone to hold us, to tenderly release the grief frozen in our bodies, to bring us raspberries and weep with us, too.” She notes that this ability to let others offer help will lead us to “be[ing] revitalized not only with greater humility, but with deeper compassion – for ourselves and with those we love.”

Brous concludes her book with a section called “Practices” that offers practical suggestions on how readers can incorporate the Amen Effect into their lives. They include simple things like “Go to the Funeral” and “Meet Your Neighbors.” Others may be more difficult to implement – for example, “Honor the Divine Image” and “Take a Joy-Break.” However, the author believes following these practices will bring people together and create space for the joys and sorrows that will inevitably come to every life.

Brous writes well, which, on the one hand, makes the “The Amen Effect” easy to read. However, it contains many tales of grief and sorrow that might trigger emotional responses in those who have suffered similar experiences. But that is the point of her work: teaching us how to reach out to those in grief to help them and us heal. Brous sees these meetings as sacred encounters, leading all involved to a deeper understanding and recognition of each other’s humanity.