“I just returned from an amazing three day retreat that inspired me to new levels of love and appreciation of everything Jewish.”

— Shifra Bemis

Posts Categorized: Executive Director’s Blog

Act Kindly (Demand Justice)

Symbol of scales is made of stones on the cliffThe first time I led a seder was my sophomore year in college. There were nine of us in Perkins Hall, three Jews and six Catholics. I was so proud of my charoset and matzah balls. I borrowed haggadot from Hillel and confidently led us through the readings. But when we started the part after the meal, I stopped in confusion. “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You…for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation?” What was this? I had never noticed it before. It made me intensely uncomfortable. How did it square away with my favorite midrash, recounted when we diminish the wine in our cups for the Ten Plagues, about the ministering angels bursting into song at the Sea of Reeds and God rebuking them, saying, “My children are dead on the shores of the Sea and you want to sing?”

We speak a lot about the experience of interconnectedness and how spiritual practice helps us cultivate greater capacity for forgiveness and compassion. We often see this as a corrective towards the judgmentalism, which, while not being a uniquely Jewish trait, is certainly honed to an art form in many Jewish circles. Many of us have experienced how painful that judgment can be and strive to be gentler with ourselves and others. We seek a kindness in response to suffering, not vengeance. It is inspiring to read of God’s grieving for the dead Egyptians, even though they were the instigators of our slavery and our oppression.

But judgment is also a Divine attribute. The balance to chesed, or loving-kindness, is din, judgment. Judgment is necessary for justice to flourish. Cruelty should have consequences, not just for the victim, but for the perpetrator as well. The cry at the end of the haggadah is a cri de coeur: “We are still living under oppression! We need justice!” Many of us who know firsthand what it is like to be terrorized by another understand the righteousness of this plea.

It is a paradox. And yet, it seems to me that the spiritually grounded goal might be to develop the ability to demand justice while still remaining connected to the essential truth: that at our core, we are indeed all God’s children. Even those people we despise, even those we are scared of, even those we distain. On some fundamental level, we are not separate from them. It doesn’t mean that we have to acquiesce to them. But it means that we might try to see the me’at tov, the little bit of goodness in them that is a reflection of Divine goodness.

It’s a tall order. But perhaps if we were to catch glimpses of that truth, it might lead to the true liberation we all desire.

Teach Me Your Way

Part of my daily practice includes a fragment of a teaching from the Piaseczner Rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira. He instructed his students to work with Psalm 86:11: “Teach me, YHVH, your way that I may walk in your truth. Unify my heart to revere your name.” He taught a particular melody for the verse which I learned from Rabbi Nehemia Polen. I chant it to myself at the end of my meditation and before my prayer.

When I began working with this verse, I was struck by the goal of learning to revere God’s name. I am not typically drawn to yirah, the particular combination of fear and awe that is the mainstay of so much “Old Testament” religion. Jewish spiritual masters focus on both love and reverence as the twin hallmarks of devotion and in this day and age, don’t we need more love? Don’t we have enough fear?

And yet, this verse calls to me. It is becoming a more and more compelling instruction in humility which opens the possibility of living my life in attunement to something much beyond myself that also includes myself. And it turns out that yirah is the key.

Here is how I am working with the verse as an intention for my day. When I say, “Teach me your way that I may walk in your truth,” I remind myself that there are so many ways to go through the day before me. I will doubtlessly encounter all kinds of people; I will probably be annoyed at some point; I hopefully will experience a little connection. However, no matter what greets me, the one thing I can be sure of is that some spark of Divinity will be present in it. Whether I see it or not is up to me. I place myself in the position of the student: teach me, God, to go through my day seeing you in everything I encounter. I don’t really know how to do this. But if I see you, maybe I will respond more wisely and appropriately.

“Unify my heart to revere your name.” This part of the verse gives me the chance to bring a little compassion to the fragmentation of my own heart, all its distractions, its insecurities, the fragile ego that always wants more love, more affirmation. And then it reminds me that the greatness in the world is not my ego after all. It is that life force in everything, that flows in me and through me and which I seek to serve. When I can remember that, my life takes on its greatest meaning.

To me, this whole practice is a practice of humility, of remembering that the value of my day is not whether it was a “good” day or not, or whether pleasant things happened to me. The value of my day is in how I learn to see the teeming network of life that I am a part of, that I contribute to and am impacted by. Yirah, fear and awe, opens to ahavah, flowing love. I am ready for my day.

Add More Light

"Resist" spraypainted on brick wall

There are times when joy is an act of resistance.

I have to remind myself of that occasionally. On these days when there is so little daylight, when the headlines are so dire, when my beloved home state of California has been engulfed in flames, joy can feel like an effort that is just too heavy.

Sometimes joy is characterized as wimpy or self-indulgent. It is seen as being something private or even selfish, with little or no bearing on the larger community. But part of what we come to know experientially through our practice is how interconnected things are. Through contemplatives practices I come to see how much my inner experience is shaped by the expectations and habits of the world around us and how I contribute in seen and unseen ways back into the expectations and habits of the world.

So when fear, greed or anger are dominant around me, I often experience those unpleasant emotions more readily. And when I experience these things – and even more so when I act upon them – I add more fear, greed or anger back into the system.

Alternatively, when joy, generosity or gratitude are dominant around us, I can experience those emotions more readily. When I act upon them, I can strengthen those middot in the larger culture. Our joy is so much more than our own small story. It is an expansive energy that reaches out with a light heart towards connection, forgiveness and possibilities. Real joy can be contagious and ripple outward.

That’s why joy can be an act of resistance. Cultivating a joyful heart can be a way of saying no to fear, greed and anger. It can defy the diminishing light, both real and figurative. It can clear away the space for an opening, for newness, for real delight.

In the Talmud, the House of Hillel disagreed with the House of Shammai as to why we light Hanukkah candles. Shammai’s version was more reliably grounded in the historical record, but Hillel’s argument was simple: Adding more light adds more holiness. My experience over Hanukkah showed that Hillel had it right. The growing light, night to night, lifted my heart. I felt my joy growing too from its hidden holy source. It is not so easily extinguished, after all. And that is a true blessing.

Photo Credit: Huffington Post

Creating and Destroying Worlds

multiple hills of plowed fields

Although occasionally I am told that I should have been a lawyer, the truth is that I really don’t like arguing very much. As a child and young woman, arguments and disagreements frightened me. But since, like it or not, arguments are part of how this life is, I have tried to learn how to conduct them wisely, whether they happen over the Thanksgiving table or on the larger political scene.

One of my great teachers in this endeavor has been Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. He teaches that a machloket, an argument, has the power both to destroy worlds and to create them. The difference is a question of emunah, of faith.

Nachman says that when an argument arises, it can create a space in which new ideas can proliferate. These new ideas lead to the Torah itself becoming more and more complete. Since according to tradition, Torah is the blueprint of creation, if there is more Torah, there are more worlds with all their details and wonders and possibilities. But if there is a lack of faith, this doesn’t happen and instead, arguments become tools of destruction, tearing people and things down.

The example from the Torah is the pivotal story in which the Israelites were in the desert and worried about not having enough water to drink. They rebelled against Moses, not believing in his ability to take care of them. God instructed Moses to speak to a rock, but instead he struck it twice. Water started flowing, which took care of the people’s thirst, but because Moses did not show faith in God, he was not allowed to enter into the Land of Israel.

So what is this faith that Moses and the people failed to show? Perhaps it is an open, spacious acceptance of not knowing right now. This is the opposite of fear. The people were clearly afraid. They couldn’t see how they were going to be taken care of. And Moses, instead of modeling calmness and helping them trust that things were going to be okay, got hooked by their fear and hostility and reacted with harshness and violence. It can happen to the best of us. But he destroyed, instead of creating. He sullied the quality of emunah. And he paid the price.

Nachman adds that if Moses had turned towards his faith, he could have brought forth new pure waters from the rock, a metaphor for all the elusive, vital teachings that could have emerged from that challenging place. Perhaps those lost teachings are exactly the ones we need today.

We live in times when arguments and conflicts are proliferating on many scales. We are standing in the balance between the potential for new, vital, creative understandings that will help us move forward together and the potential for more violence, harshness and destruction. By cultivating this kind of faith, an open spacious acceptance, this Thanksgiving, perhaps we will bring new pure waters into the world and help tip the balance towards creativity and light. Then we will have even more to be grateful for.

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

The Place Where We Are Right
Yehuda Amichai

Beneath the Surface to the Heart

My husband and I are almost finished with a course that is preparing us to be foster parents. Neither one of us has parented before and we are eagerly learning the theories that will hopefully help us once we have been certified and can bring children into our home.

For example, we know that children who have been removed from their families of origin carry with them various levels of trauma. Traumatic experiences are written on our bodies and expressed through them, even in the youngest children. The destructive behaviors that foster children sometimes exhibit often stem from rage or grief. Our teacher emphasizes that in children behaviors are indicators of feelings, and it is part of our role (and our privilege) as the caregivers to them to help children name the difficult feelings and try to find other, more wholesome ways of express those feelings.

Of course, this is not just true of traumatized children. We all carry the marks of our emotions in our bodies, and may struggle to recognize them – in ourselves as much as in others. So much of mindfulness practice is about creating a spaciousness in which we can better discern what the underlying feeling is, how it expresses itself in the body, how it might move and change, and how we might respond in the wisest way possible.

Because we know from our own practice how hard that can be, and because we are learning how much suffering foster children have been through, we expect that it should be easy to bring empathy to them – at least in the abstract. But I find myself sitting with a feeling of apprehension, a worry that we will be caught in our own need to be seen and heard, and unable to see the true emotions our foster children are trying to show us.

But isn’t that exactly the challenge? It is easy to bring a loving heart to others as long as our own vulnerabilities don’t get touched. And yet, how can we bring a loving heart without our vulnerabilities? What kind of practice do we need to keep our hearts open even when we are triggered, even when we are scared, even when we are frustrated and angry?

Perhaps one answer is setting aside a particular time for crying out. I recently studied a passage from Likkutei Halachot which said that on the spiritual realm, nothing stands in the way of crying out and teshuvah (repentance). In fact, crying out is a worthy act even after the Divine judgment has been made and in some cases, it can actually undo that judgment.

When we cry out and actually feel our own pain, we have the opportunity to bring compassion to our own weary, aching hearts. We can take off the brave faces we wear. We can open ourselves to the not-so-pretty, not-so-balanced side of emotional expression. We too can grieve and rage, and recognize the grief and rage in others.

And perhaps, slowly, we can find healing.