How To Respond When Everything Falls Apart

Photo by Spenser via
Photo by Spenser via

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman creates welcoming, inclusive spiritual experiences that open hearts and build Jewish community. In 2011, she founded the Jewish Mindfulness Network as well as an online subscription-based community, Hineni: The Mindful Heart Community. This essay is reproduced here from her website,

When everything falls apart, you learn what you are made of by how you respond. Yes, first you mourn and cry out in pain and despair. And then, when you find that you have endured, perhaps the worst you could have imagined, you have choices to make.

How do you hold what has happened and how do you walk toward healing?

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

When adversity confronts –

Do you stay broken and battered on the ground, soaking in the unfairness of it all? Truth be told, until you can come to simple acceptance of what happened, that may be the most appropriate response.

Do you decide at some point, that you need to brush yourself off? Do you seek to make meaning out of what has occurred?

And finally, do you move forward and create a new life in the wake of what happened?

A Teaching About When Everything Fell Apart

I would like to share with you a compelling and I believe universal teaching about tragedy and the aftermath. It is be found in the rabbis’ responses to the ancient destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem.

Prior to the Holocaust, these two incidents were the most devastating occurrences to happen in the history of the Jewish people. Everything sacred crashed.

The center of Jewish life did not hold.

Everything fell apart.

Each event brought cataclysmic despair: exile, starvation and the loss of nearly everything.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

The truth was that each Temple’s destruction was the result of two massive empire (Babylonian & Roman) invasions. The Jewish people literally had no chance.

While the facts themselves were uncontested, it’s what the rabbis did next that contain the profound teaching.

First, In the face of the tragedy, the rabbis sought to make meaning. They asked these questions:

“In what ways did we contribute to the downfall?”

“What weakened us, internally, such that we were susceptible?”

The purpose of these questions was not to “blame the victim” or to deny the facts on the ground.

No – these questions were what allowed the people to take their power back and move forward.

The Seeds of Renewal

The rabbis insisted that we learn from this falling apart. They did not claim that what happened was “good”, but they asserted that we can learn and be better humans even in the face of adversity – and this is inherently and profoundly hopeful.

In the rabbis’ sometimes wild and illogical responses to these questions lay the seeds of renewal.

For example, the rabbis maintained that the reason the 1st temple was destroyed was because of the people’s “idolatry”. Basically, they reasoned that the people were worshipping other things, like wealth and power, and not pursuing justice and compassion. There was truth to this.

Photo by Valentin Salja on Unsplash

With the 2nd temple destruction, the rabbis declared that the Temple fell because of “baseless hatred sinat chinam” among the various sects at the time. This, also, was true.

You may say that no matter what the Jews did, they could not have defeated these empires

And in a purely factual way, you would be right.

But the rabbis were asking deeper spiritual questions.

They were determined to make meaning out of loss.

They were interested in:

How do we return to justice and compassion? How do we create a society that is not fractured from within?

So, how do you bring this teaching forward to today or any time you are beset by the painful facts of profound systemic failure or devastating personal loss?

How do you make meaning out of the pain? What can you learn about yourself?

There is a second part of this wisdom. It is that after everything crashes and burns and falls apart, after we heal for as long as is necessary, we also need to ask: what new thing can be created out of the ashes?

The Creation of A New World

I have a friend whose husband developed a stubborn cough, saw the doctor and was immediately diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer out of nowhere. He died within two weeks. Bam – her family’s life was torn asunder, without warning.

She grieved for a long time. And then, she created and funded a preschool in her husband’s memory. As the Psalmist writes, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” (Psalm 30:12)

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

The prophet Micah, who was the first person to warn of the 1st Temple’s possible destruction, had a simple prescription for creating a new life after devastation:

“(Here’s) what the Eternal requires of you: Only to do justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

The audacious spiritual question in the aftermath of devastation is not “why did this happen?” — instead, it is: how do I bring justice, kindness, and humility to my life right now?

Not only will this continue to help us heal, but we will also have created a new world.

Blessings on your journey –

Rabbi Jill

About Rabbi Jill Zimmerman 3 Articles
Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman is a visionary with a plan and a lifelong seeker. She is dedicated to a Judaism that makes a difference in people’s every day lives; a Judaism based in mindfulness, and welcome. At every step along the way, Jill has lived her vision of building and sustaining community, taking her from teacher, activist, organizational development consultant, local and national lay leader and master gardener, mother and wife culminating with her decision to become a rabbi at age 47. In 1999, Jill was fortunate enough to study with Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who opened up the world of Jewish mysticism, Chasidic texts, and Torah study. A light was ignited. With only a “culturally Jewish” background and a surface-level understanding, Rabbi Jill was deeply moved and intrigued. She felt that she had discovered a treasure in her own backyard. She immersed herself in Jewish study and practice, and ultimately decided to devote the “second half” of her life to Jewish teaching and learning and helping others find the joy and meaning she had found in Jewish texts, rituals, and community. After her ordination in 2009 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion, she served as a congregational rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Rabbi Jill’s position at Temple Emanuel was centered on building community and building membership. She revived the Caring Community and chavurot (friendship) circles, and worked with congregants on creating a welcoming atmosphere at the temple. She was blessed to work with Rabbi Laura Geller. Rabbi Jill’s deep involvement in Jewish mindfulness and meditation led her to the two-year Clergy Leadership program in spiritual practice and mindful leadership from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. In addition, she received a certificate from the Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teaching Training program. In 2011, Rabbi Jill decided to leave the congregational rabbinate to laser-focus her energy on Jewish mindfulness: Judaism through the lens of mindfulness, and mindfulness through the perspective of Judaism. She founded The Jewish Mindfulness Network (JMN) to create a variety of welcoming experiences and environments to help people discover personal meaning within Jewish texts and the power of mindfulness practices within community. In 2016, Rabbi Jill created Hineni: the Mindful Heart Community, a digital online program. She continues to teach locally and nationally, as well as offer online courses. She is also a frequent scholar-in-residence at congregations across the country. Rabbi Jill has served congregations and Jewish organizations both in the States and in Israel. In addition to her position at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, CA (Director of Building Community and Membership), she worked with Temple Beth El in Riverside and Etz Rimon in Carlsbad, CA. In Jerusalem, she worked at the World Union for Progressive Judaism, assisting them in carrying out their Strategic Plan. She is an avid photographer. She has an insatiable love of reading and books. Originally from Skokie, Illnois, Rabbi Jill currently lives in Orange County with her husband, Ely. They have two sons, Josh and Ben.

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