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At this time of year, many Jews are “counting the Omer,” literally counting the days and weeks each night for the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. In mystical tradition, this is a time to work on our personal qualities and refine our character. (Check out this online series with meditations, learning and activities for the Omer: Planting Our Souls: Meditations and Practices Through the Omer.)
Sevens are important in Jewish lore. We have the seventh day of the week: Shabbat, the day of rest, holiness, and joy. We have the aforementioned seven week Omer time for personal growth each spring. (You might even like to use a Wellsprings of Wisdom path to review your life’s journey in seven year increments.)
And then every seven years we have another special event: the Shmita, a Sabbatical year of rest for the land and restoration for people. In ancient times, and to some degree in modern Israel, the land was allowed to rest and replenish, and in addition debts were forgiven. But over the centuries, the spirit of this revolutionary idea has faded somewhat.
The next Shmita year starts this Rosh Hashanah, fall of 2021! Jewish environmental and social activists are rediscovering and renewing the potential of this ancient observance. Wellsprings of Wisdom is proud to be a partner of the Shmita Project. Take a look at their site: https://shmitaproject.org/ to learn about the potential of this ancient way of honoring the earth and restoring society, and while you are there, look into the Shmita prizes, that will be awarded for creative endeavors on the theme of the Shmita.
As Passover approaches, be sure to check out these Wellsprings Pathways (posts) that relate to themes of the season:
Splitting the Sea With Wind looks at the Biblical account of the Exodus and invites us to explore the nature of miracles.
MIriam’s Well explores a famous legend related to the Exodus, of MIriam’s miraculous desert well. After you read it, you can enjoy a Guided Meditation on the theme of Miriam’s well and finding your inner resources, and consider having a Cup of Miriam at your Seder.
I will be one of the leaders for an online creative gathering about Miriam, Saturday night (ET), March 20. Sign up here.
And also related to the Seder, explore this pathway about the Bitter and the Sweet of the Garden for your Passover table. Learn about different customs and interpretations of the Passover bitter and sweet symbols, and how to make them from locally grown foods.
At Passover, we read the Biblical Song of Songs. Learn more about this book of Biblical love poetry, with new chants by Rabbi Shefa Gold.
Enjoy a video of Passover in the Desert, a new-old way to celebrate Passover with an outing with Wilderness Torah, an organization devoted to discovering Jewish spirituality in the outdoors. And journey with Rabbi Barry Leff to explore Israel’s Negev Desert, Finding God in the Wilderness like our ancestors.
Speaking of the outdoors, here are a couple of pathways that focus on the spring itself:
Passover celebrates freedom and the rebirth of spring. Experience a bit of springtime in Israel with this Gallery of the Mediterranean Sea in Israel in Spring by Daphna Rosenberg.
Finally, for a fresh perspective on the organic cycle of the Jewish Year, The Reason for the Season, by Rabbi David Zaslow, shares the story of his trip to Brazil with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and a consideration of when the “Festival of Spring” should be celebrated in the Southern Hemisphere.
Wishing you a joyful and liberating Passover season!
Here is my slideshow of nature photos, in the spirit of the Songs of Songs to welcome spring!
Today is Purim, the full moon of the Hebrew month of Adar, and the Feast of Esther. Happy Purim to all who celebrate…and you might want to enrich your celebration even more by learning about the Moon in Jewish tradition. In Jewish legends, the Moon is a symbol of the divine feminine, much like Queen Esther. The very name Esther is from a Hebrew root meaning “hidden,” and the moon, too is hidden from our gaze once a month but returns to its full light, giving us a regular reminder of restoration and renewal. Enjoy the gateway of the Moon and enjoy Purim!
This week marks Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. The Gateway of Trees on this site is a perfect place to learn about Trees in Jewish lore and in our lives. The Tu Bishvat Seder is a mystical custom to honor trees and the earth. I will be leading a Tu Bishvat and Shabbat Seder online on Friday, January 29, 7:30pm ET. Please contact me (you can use the contact form ) for details of what to prepare and how to log on.
Also this week, in honor of Tu Bishvat, Hazon, the premier Jewish environmental organization, is holding the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest. There are many free online programs for everyone! I hope you will find something there to enjoy and to learn from.
Midway down this page in the Gateway of Mountains, you can find a recording of speech selections by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., set to traditional Haftarah (prophetic reading) trope (melody) by Hazzan Jack Kessler. Thank you, Cantor Jack, for sharing this inspiring way of sharing Dr. King’s messages.
On this day of national reflection and service, I’m considering how the last year has shown the courage and caring of so many people, even as it has thrown the inequality and painful racist legacies of our history into sharp relief. In the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, an ally of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Let us each find our way to contribute to justice, equality, and healing in our nation not only on this day, but at this crucial juncture in our history.
Shalom, Friends! A colleague was asking for Jewish sources and practices on forgiveness, and I remembered this sermon that I gave some years ago. It includes a guided meditation on forgiveness. I hope it will be helpful to someone. I’m sure that I can use this myself.
[I love to start with a joke.]
One day at the gym, Nate asked Dave, “Say, do you know Sol Roth?”
“Do I know Sol Roth? Of course I know him! He cheats at business, he’s a lousy husband and a terrible father. An all around bum.”
“Wow…how do you know all that about him?”
“Hey, Sol–he’s my best friend!”
Sometimes the people with whom we are closest are the most difficult ones to forgive. In a small and tight-knit community, we can feel almost like family. Unfortunately, part of being in a family can include all sorts of feuds, resentments, and old grudges. Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when it should be a bit easier to examine these issues.
Yom Kippur is a time when we speak easily of forgiveness. But forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is an enormous concept. Tonight I’m not speaking of existential questions like, “Can the Jews forgive their persecutors?” Neither am I speaking tonight of heroic forgiveness, of a Judea Pearl or a Yitzhak Frankenthaler, who responded to their respective sons’ brutal murders at the hands of terrorists to work for peace and reconciliation. I’m not even focusing on really tough issues like forgiveness toward a person who has been abusive. These are all special and complicated cases about which Jewish law and tradition has a lot to offer. But in our short time tonight, I’m speaking tonight of something much more prosaic, down to earth, and ordinary: forgiveness in our daily lives, families and community.
A rabbi takes two women into her study the week before Yom Kippur, and says, “The two of you have been feuding for too long. Now before Yom Kippur comes, it’s time for each of you to apologize to the other.”
The women are embarrassed for the way they’ve been acting, and they apologize and hug. After Yom Kippur, one of them comes to the other, and says, “You know, after our talk in the Rabbi’s study, I just want to say…Whatever you were praying for me today, I was praying for you, too.”
The other one turns to her and says, “Starting up already?”
Let’s Get Real
It’s hard for rabbis to do things like this in real life. Instead, we give the obligatory devar torah about teshuvah and forgiveness, and everyone acknowledges that it’s a fine sermon, but no one thinks it applies to them. It only applies to the other person.
After all, we have heard many times that Judaism demands responsibility, that real forgiveness can only come when the offender regrets what he or she has done, asks forgiveness sincerely and resolves to be different in the future. That’s teshuvah; that’s repentance. And how many times has someone come up to you and offered to do teshuvah? It seems that we are off the hook as far as seeking or granting forgiveness.
And yet…the Torah in Leviticus 19 has those difficult commandments: “Do not hate your brother or sister human being in your heart…hocheach tochiah have the courage to tell them directly when they’re being hurtful so that you won’t be partly responsible for their continued mistakes…do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge among your people. Love your companion as yourself.” One of my mother’s mottos is a saying of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The Torah tells us to love our companion as ourselves. That must mean that we can.”* So we’re not off the hook. Ninety percent of the time, another person won’t come to us asking forgiveness, trying to do sincere teshuvah. Often we are in mutual conflict in which each of us feels justified in our side of the issue (of course I’m only 2 percent to blame and the other person is 98 percent J), and the burden is on us-to hold the grudge in violation of the Torah, or to forgive and lighten our hearts.
So I will try not to give another generic sermon about forgiveness. I’ll try to be real and practical. As they say, the job of a rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But it is really a hard to give such a sermon, because a lot of people may think it’s about them. And in fact, it is about most of us…it’s about you and me; it’s about being human and being in community.
We are engaged in the sacred task of creating an intentional community in which everyone is loyal and respectful to everyone else. But if you’ve been in a community for a while, there are some people who are your good friends, and others who rub you the wrong way. There is probably at least one person whose personality irritates you, or at least one person who has offended you or hurt your feelings (maybe even years ago). There may be someone you disagreed with on a congregational decision, or someone who was on the other side of an issue in the larger community or embroiled in a controversy at work. [And if there isn’t anyone like that…you’re probably new!J] If there is someone you can’t bear to speak to, volunteer, study, or socialize with …then the offense may well be theirs, but the corrosive pain of bearing a grudge is yours.
Then there is forgiveness in the family. While a rabbi can find lack of forgiveness in the community very frustrating, she can find lack of forgiveness in families tragic. People become estranged for decades, even lifetimes, until it’s too late, until death. Sometimes the falling out is based on true offenses but often it is the result of old rivalries and personality conflicts.
The inability to forgive can weaken communities and devastate families. But there are also completely selfish reasons to learn to forgive. There have been various studies that show that forgiveness is good for us. I disclaim giving medical advice, but forgiveness is said to reduce stress, be better for our heart and cardiovascular system, help with pain management, lead to better relationships, enhance psychological well being and create more happiness. We know that forgiving is good for us, but we don’t always know how to go about it.
How can we learn to forgive?
I found it very instructive to read an essay by Rabbi David Blumenthal, in which he describes three levels of forgiveness: mehilah (letting go), selichah (forgiving), and kaparah (atoning). Mechilah is the most superficial level. It is letting go, forgiving an emotional debt that the other person owes us.
“The second kind of forgiveness is … selicháh. It is an act of the heart. It is achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selichah…is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy.” “The third kind of forgiveness is ‘atonement’ (kappará)…This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness.
It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but [according to Blumenthal] it is only granted by God.”
To personalize these, I can say that I have granted mechilah many times. I’ve let go; I’ve moved on. Often, I haven’t waited for the other person to do teshuvah. I just needed to let go for my own peace of mind. And there have been rarer cases in which I’ve experienced true selichah-I’ve really healed my feelings about the person and forgiven them, because I realize that it was their own emotional distress or perhaps even an emotional illness that caused the person to offend. And the rarest of all have been that times that I have experienced kapparah. Yes, true kaparah, true atonement, can only be granted by God. But sometimes our outlook can be godly, when we get to the level where we realize that we are “at one,” that we are not really separate, that we are all part of the same story, and even perhaps that things happened for a reason. Then we are open to experiencing true reconciliation, like Joseph and his brothers. Those times are the rarest and most precious of all.
A Guided Meditation on Forgiveness
Let me suggest a forgiveness exercise from an old friend of mine in Texas, Glenda Rosenberg:
Picture yourself in very safe and loving setting, in your favorite place. It is a very happy occasion. Near you, surrounding you, are those you love the most, your most intimate family or friends.
Now picture the circle getting wider. Welcome in more extended family, or more casual friends. All of them are here to celebrate you, to rejoice in your happiest occasion. Your heart is so full that you welcome everyone today. You are safe, loved, and secure.
Now imagine welcoming in people to the party about whom you feel neutral, people you don’t know as well but have no reason to dislike.
When you are totally comfortable in this most wonderful scene, with all of your loved ones there, can you welcome in just one additional person to your mental celebration, one person with whom you feel an old grudge, like an old pebble that you need to take out of your shoe? Yes, they have offended you. But can you see one good thing they ever did for you? Can you think of one “nekudat hatov,” one good point about that person, one godly spark? Can you welcome them into the circle?
Try to take that energy and get at least to the stage of mechilah, or letting go. If you can work hard within yourself this Yom Kippur and get to forgiveness level one, to mechilah, and give that person a sincere “Shanah Tovah” at the break-the-fast, you have done good spiritual work. Then you can keep going from there, maybe even to selichah.
My great-Uncle Jay was always sending me inspirational stories that I put into sermons, and this one in particular stuck with me: There were once two old friends. When one struck the other, the offended friend wrote the deed in sand. But when the offender later saved the second man’s life, the rescued friend carved an account of the deed in stone. The moral of the story was that we don’t have to just forget and forgive. We can go ahead and take note of other’s mistakes, but do it in the sand, so that the winds of time can quickly erase those recollections. But let us inscribe people’s good deeds and good qualities in stone, so that we recall them and keep them in mind.
I want to bless everyone in the most practical way possible to find one person whom you can forgive over this Yom Kippur.** At least try to get to the level of mechilah, of letting go of that burden you have tucked away in your heart. From there you can work on the higher levels of forgiveness with understanding, and of true reconciliation.
May we find at least one good point in everyone we know, write people’s failings in sand, and engrave their merits in stone. If we can do that, we will have happier and perhaps healthier lives, more loving families, and a stronger community.
* My mother passed away the next year, and that saying is on her headstone.
**Which is when I gave this sermon some years back. But we can forgive any day!
Acknowledgement: Thank you to Rabbi Liza Stern for the phrase, “creating an intentional community in which everyone is loyal and respectful to everyone else.”
Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” has become one of the most popular concepts in modern Jewish thought. (On this website, one of the main subject tags is Tikkun Olam / Social Action.) A couple of years ago, my late friend Rabbi Dr. Sarah Tauber suggested that we teach on this subject at our annual OHALAH rabbinic conference, by delving into the earliest uses of the term in the Mishnah, almost two millennia ago. Although she was unable to join me at the conference due to family circumstances, Rabbi Tauber’s initiative got me interested in the subject. I knew that there was much more to it than social action, and I continued to learn and teach on Tikkun Olam in a variety of places, from the Chautauqua Institution to my latest mini-course on Zoom. May this teaching be a tribute to my late friend and colleague, who would have continued to add so much to our learning. For the convenience of my students and anyone interested in the subject, I’ve collected a variety of resources that are linked below, so that you can learn and explore this subject on your own (or invite me to teach to your group!)
A Bird’s Eye View of Tikkun Olam Through the Centuries
Rabbinic (Early Centuries of the Common Era) Tikkun Ha-Olam, repair of the world, is found in classic Rabbinic Texts: Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud to describe rabbinic rulings made to “regulate society,” “to adjust the system,” “for the public welfare,” or “for the good order of the world” (Prof. Jacob Neusner). In practice, these enactments protect the vulnerable while also safeguarding social stability and equilibrium. Those carrying out the repairs are the rabbis themselves, fixing and changing their own system for the common good.
Liturgical (possibly Third Century onward, Babylonia) The Aleynu prayer contains the phrase: לתקן עולם במלכות שדי Letaken olam be-malchut Shaddai (“to repair the world in divine sovereignty”) as an expression of a Messianic vision of a future world rid of idol worship. Here the job of humans was to be patient, acknowledge God’s sovereignty and rely on God to manifest it in the world.
Lurianic Kabbalah (16th Century, Land of Israel): The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, and his disciple Haim Vital, taught that a cosmic rupture during the creation process resulted in shards of divine light scattered in the world. These hidden sparks can be lifted up and repaired through human intention and exercises of prayer and meditation (yihudim, “unifications”), restoring a wholly spiritual creation. “The tikkun of which Lurianic Kabbalah speaks is not that of this world, but of ‘worlds’ beyond it.” (Prof. Lawrence Fine). Some human beings with the right esoteric knowledge and correct spiritual intentions can become partners in this divine project.
Hassidic (18th Century to present): Like much of its approach to the Kabbalah, the Hassidic movement offered a personalization of the concept of Tikkun Olam, with an emphasis on making individual rectification in people’s lives/families/communities and thus hastening the arrival of the Messianic era on earth. The mystical became more psychological, if you will. The ordinary Jew, with the help of their Rebbe (spiritual leader) can begin to do their own tikkun for their own life.
Contemporary Popularization: In the past century, especially in recent decades, Tikkun Olam has morphed into a popular term including social activism, social justice, and even general good deeds. Based on the thought of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who drew on rabbinic and liturgical sources, Jewish educators begin to invoke Tikkun Olam as social activism, beginning in the 1940’s. The concept is also part of early Zionist thought and important to the theology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi in the years prior to the founding of the State of Israel, who was influenced by Lurianic Kabbalah. Both Kaplan and Kook had in common “a rejection of Jewish passivity” (Prof. Jonathan Krasner). Reform Jewish leaders embraced the term during WWII, as a call to activism and hope. Shlomo Bardin, founder of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, LA area, 1950’s, was influential in teaching about the Aleynu in a new way, as a a prayer for social justice and repair of society. By the 1970’s, the term was adopted by diverse national Jewish organizations. Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote an influential article about it in The Jewish Catalog (1973).
Important to the modern concept was the launch of Tikkun Magazine, founded in 1986 by Rabbi Michael Lerner and Nan Fink Gefen, “to heal, repair, and transform the world.” Today, the term is so well known that it has been used beyond the Jewish community. In this modern approach, anyone can become a partner in repairing the world through social action and good deeds.
Resources to Learn about Tikkun Olam
Learn More About Tikkun Olam:
Overview of the Topic: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tikkun-olam-repairing-the-world/
History of Tikkun Olam by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director of T’ruah: http://www.zeek.net/706tohu/
Article by Dr. Jonathan Krausner on “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life”; https://jcpa.org/article/place-tikkun-olam-american-jewish-life1/
Tracing the contemporary growth of the term and the growth of Jewish philanthropy and volunteerism: http://reut-institute.org/Publication.aspx?PublicationId=4064
About Rav Kook, early religious Zionist leader, and Tikkun Olam: https://jewishjournal.com/my-turn/325836/rabbi-abraham-isaac-kook-and-tikkun-olam/
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, on Tikkun Olam from an Orthodox perspective: https://advocacy.ou.org/tikkun-olam-orthodoxys-responsibility-to-perfect-g-ds-world/
The Inner Work of Tikkun Olam (Sometime called Tikkun HaLev, repair of the heart)
How social activists can use the tools of Mussar (Jewish ethical development), Shabbat, and Jewish wisdom to engage in self-development and avoid burnout while working for social change:
Book: Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change, by Rabbi David Jaffe (Highly recommended for those who want to balance social justice work with introspection and spiritual/ethical practice). A National Jewish Book Award winner.
Also see his Website and learn about groups doing this “inside out” social justice work: https://www.insideoutwisdomandaction.org/
Source Sheets and Learning Materials on Tikkun Olam:
Source sheets, articles, and in-depth study guides on Tikkun Olam by Rabbi Dr. David Seidenberg: https://neohasid.org/torah/TO/
Social Justice vs. Tikkun Olam: Old Wine in a New Bottle, or Vice-Versa, source sheet by Andrew Nusbaum, 2016: www.sefaria.org/sheets/28686
Go Deeper: Find these books at your library or order:
To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, by Emil Fackenheim, 1982, 1994. A theologian asks what kind of Tikkun is possible post Holocaust.
“How to Bring Mashiah,” (Messiah) by Arthur Waskow, in The First Jewish Catalog, Siegel, Strassfeld and Strassfeld, 1973, pp. 29-30.
Bonus: A favorite poem on Tikkun Olam: “Holding the Light,” by Stuart Kestenbaum, Poet Laureate of Maine:
Some Jewish Social Justice Organizations
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism: https://rac.org/
The Shalom Center (Rabbi Arthur Waskow): https://theshalomcenter.org/
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights: https://www.truah.org/
Hazon (Jewish environmental organization): https://hazon.org/
Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life: http://www.coejl.net/
American Jewish World Service: https://ajws.org/
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: https://www.hias.org/
The Network of Spiritual Progressives (Interfaith): https://spiritualprogressives.org/
LGBTQ rights: https://www.keshetonline.org/
Avodah, a Jewish Service Corps: https://avodah.net/
Tikkun Olam groups and initiatives from Israel: https://www.israel21c.org/opinion-tikkun-olam-israels-most-ancient-and-modern-invention/
Tevel Betzedek, Israeli organization working in Nepal, Israel, and Zambia: https://tevelbtzedek.org/#about
New Israel Fund (promoting progressive causes in Israel): https://www.nif.org/
As Hanukkah approaches, I will be teaching some online classes and invite you to join in!
Tikkun Olam Through the Ages
With Rabbi Julie Danan
A free mini-course (donations welcome). Hosted by Ruach HaMidbar, Arizona
Sundays, Dec 6, 13 and 20 – starting at 5 p.m. EASTERN time (90 minutes each)
The session on December 13 will focus on Tikkun Olam in Kabbalah and the connection to Hanukkah
Entering the Darkness – The Night Before Hanukkah
With Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
Hosted by Havurah Synagogue, Ashland, Oregon
Join us on Wednesday, December 9 at 8:00 PM Eastern Time. Sliding scale contributions: $5-$18. All welcome. Go HERE to learn more.
Music by Rabbi David Zaslow
The night AFTER this class starts the festival of light. To fully appreciate the light, first enter the darkness. We will explore the theme of darkness in Jewish tradition, then learn about a Midrashic and Kabbalistic tradition of a hidden light that may be hiding in plain sight and especially apparent at Hanukkah. Get ready to experience darkness, light, and to light up the night. Bring a single candle or oil lamp and something to light it with.
The Jewish Fall holidays are over, and I’m celebrating Spring! I just posted a slide show of some of my favorite original Spring photos that you can watch in the Gateway of Seasons. I made it to share in an online program to launch “Love at the Center,” a new initiative by Rabbi Shefa Gold, who is a wonderful teacher and pioneer of the contemporary spiritual practice of Chant, You can learn more about bringing love into the center of your spiritual practice, and subscribe here to receive a weekly email with a chant from the Biblical Song of Songs, the love poetry of the Bible. In the Song of Songs, springtime in the Holy Land is the setting for a love story that can apply to our search for love: human love, love of the soul, love of the Divine. In my husband’s Sephardic tradition, the entire book is chanted weekly before the Sabbath Eve prayers.
Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, means so much to me on many levels. For centuries people have read this sacred book in different ways: as sensuous love poetry, religious allegory, or mystical secrets. The great Rabbi Akiba taught centuries ago that this seemingly secular book is really the Holy of Holies. My own deepest spiritual experiences have taught me that while most of us look for love as individuals, and all religions and cultures search for the Divine Thou – – we are often searching outside ourselves for something deep inside us, as close as our breath, pulse, and heart.
The Divine Beloved, the ultimate lover whose face we all seek, is as close as our heart, in our own face and in the face of everyone and every creature we meet. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi inspired my explorations of this Song. He composed beautiful music for some of its verses, and often repeated a Hassidic teaching from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav on Song of Songs 5:2: Kol Dodi Dofek—”the voice of my Beloved is knocking,,” In Hebrew dofek is pulse and God is as close as our pulse.
For centuries theologians exalted the soul over the body. But for me, the greatest love story is the love of body for soul and soul for body. And on the cosmic scale, it is the love of the Transcendent for the Immanent, bringing Heaven and Earth together.
The spiritual lessons of Songs of Songs are also found in the living sanctuary of the earth, where Nature herself is the other beloved of the Song. Please enjoy the photo show, and then I hope you can get out and enjoy some nature in any season!
Here is my sermon for the Eve of Rosh Hashanah this year, 5781 / 2020. I hope it might be of help or inspiration to some of my Wellsprings of Wisdom readers:
How Jewish Tradition Can Make Us More Resilient , by Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D.
There is a song of the Days of Awe that concludes: “Let the old year and its curses end; let the new year and its blessings begin!” Certainly this year, those words resonate for many.
As I have called and spoken with many of our members over recent months, I learned that some suffered and recovered from COVID, while others sadly lost loved ones. Others have stayed physically well but dealt with anxiety or depression. Some members have lost jobs or economic security. Others are worried about their kids, their young adult children or elders they can’t even visit in person. There is a sense of collective grief over all that has been and may be lost, as well as anxiety over the fissures in our society.
We know that there is no quick solution to the current crisis. Indeed, there is no way out but through, and we don’t even know how long that will take or what the long lasting effects of the pandemic will be. However, we do know that there is one thing we can work on to help see us emerge better in the long run, and that is the inner quality known as resilience.
Psychology and Resilience
Psychologists define resilience as the process of “adapting well in the face of adversity and trauma.” It is not just about survival; it’s about growth. To paraphrase my own rabbi, Reb Zalman, this is about turning the current emergency into an emergence of something greater in ourselves. Or in the words of Sheri Mandel, whose son was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel: “Resilience is about becoming, not overcoming.”
Resilience can help us to grow from every experience, even the difficult ones. Over the past year, I have participated in a memoir writing group, composed of baby boomers like myself. Members of the group have shared stories about sexism, divorce, PTSD, and national traumas like the Vietnam War or 9-11. What emerges again and again is that we have all grown from our difficulties and without our difficulties we would not be the people we are today.
You might not be writing a memoir, but Rosh Hashanah is about writing in the Book of Life. It is a time to remember the past and envision the future. On Rosh Hashanah, we can write a story of resilience, or growth emerging from adversity.
Jewish tradition can help us be resilient
When we think about it, Jewish history and Judaism are all about resilience on a national scale. As a people, we have been through many traumas: exile, persecution, and even genocide. But we have consistently emerged stronger, continuing to inspire the world as a “light to the nations.” It’s much more than the old joke that Jewish holidays are all about, “They tried to kill us; we won, so let’s eat.”
If you look back at Jewish history, every period of struggle was followed by a flowering of creative energy and new beginnings. The destruction of the second temple was followed by the flourishing of rabbinic Judaism. The expulsion from Spain led to the the dissemination of Kabbalah. Even the greatest tragedy of all, the Holocaust, was answered not by despair, but by rebirth with the new State of Israel and by a renaissance of Jewish culture and community in the diaspora.
What is it in Jewish tradition that makes us resilient? And how can that help us now? According to psychologist Dr. John Grych, the recipe for resilience has three primary components: self-regulation, interpersonal relationships, and meaning making. In general, people are most resilient when they can manage their own emotions and actions, find a web of social support, and make meaning from their difficult experiences. It is striking that all three of these elements are present in abundance in Judaism.
First, the Jewish way of life gets us to practice self-regulation. Judaism is a religion based on personal practice. In the Orthodox community, even young children learn impulse control when it comes to observing mitzvot like Shabbat and kashrut. But even if you don’t abide by all of those traditions, Judaism has many other ways of helping us manage our emotions and impulses. Our rituals unite body, emotions, mind, and spirit, helping us to integrate our whole selves. Our holidays evoke different emotional states: from the Awe of these High Holy days to the hilarity of Purim, and Shabbat gives us time to pause and reflect, even in the midst of chaos. Another Jewish practice is Mussar; the cultivation of inner qualities such as patience, humility, or gratitude. Once observed primarily in the Orthodox world, Mussar is now popular among Reform and liberal Jews as well, with many programs available online or in person. Together, Jewish practices help us to to manage our own emotions and build our own character.
Second there is social support. This may be Judaism’s strongest contributor to resilience. Judaism is truly a religion of community. We can only pray all of our prayers with a minyan, a quorum of ten. We gather in community for every lifecycle event. Social support is particularly strong when someone suffers a loss, and friends and family surround them with love, food, and prayer. Our traditions of tzedakah and deeds of kindness lend support to the vulnerable among us. Even on these Days of Awe, we say our confessions not in the singular, but in the plural, taking responsibility for the acts of the community. In these days of COVID, we are largely unable to gather in person. BUT at the same time, I’ve seen how we continue to support one another. I’ve watched our members checking on others, shopping for others, cooking for others, sewing PPE for others, and much more.
Finally, there is meaning making. Dr. Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who survived the Holocaust and created the school of Logotherapy, based on the idea that the human search for meaning is our prime motivator in life. Meaning making involves the ways that we frame and reframe our experience, often evoking our spirituality. And here again, Judaism is strong. Our sacred texts, our rituals, our holidays, even our arguments are centered around creating meaning, even or especially in difficult experiences.
Of course, the meaning making that emerges this pandemic will be different for each person. For some, it has been a time to clarify our values and realize the importance of family and community. Others have been energized to work for social justice. Each week as we gather for our Kabbalat Shabbat and Torah Study, I ask questions that get people to think and talk about how our ancient texts relate to the meaning that we need right now.
We are all going through a difficult time, though each is affected in different ways. It makes sense to lower our goals and be happy just to get through this time. But we can also keep in mind that we may actually come out stronger, that our society, while damaged, may also be able to build back better. Judaism can contribute to our resilience by helping us manage our emotions, find community, and make meaning. Over this holiday season and the year ahead, I invite you to avail yourself of what our community and our tradition have to offer in all these areas.
May we be blessed to emerge from this time stronger than before, knowing our values and working to support them.
This sermon was offered on (Zoom) Rosh Hashanah Eve Services for Pleasantville Community Synagogue, September 18, 2020 (Rpsh Hashanah 5781)
Image: Leaf with Heart for a “nature Tashlich” at Rockefeller State Park Preseve, Julie H. Danan