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

— Shifra Bemis

January 2018 Newsletter

The Whole World is a Narrow Bridge

Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Courage manifests in different ways.

Jewish tradition and text are full of narratives of courage. Abraham leaves behind a world of idols, taking a stand against the dominant religion of his homeland and family. Yocheved hides her child for three months, and gives him up in hopes of a better life with no guarantee of his safety. Nachshon ben Aminadav walks into the Sea of Reeds, moving without hesitation until the waters almost covered him, until God splits the sea.

Today, too, we have stories of Jewish courage, of Jews taking stands of bravery and resilience in the face of danger and fear. Dr. Gisella Perl saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish women in Auschwitz. Jews made up at least 30 percent of the white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South during the Civil Rights movement, risking injury and death. Just last year, nineteen rabbis were arrested in New York at a sit-in protesting anti-immigrant policy.

Rabbi Nachman tells us, “the whole world is a narrow bridge—and the most important thing is to not to fear.” Yet acting with courage is not acting with an absence of fear: it is taking action in the face of it. Courage takes many forms, big and small: Climbing a mountain. Moving across the country. Being the first person to say, “I love you.”  Being the first person to say, “I’m sorry.”

Taking the first step out onto the narrow bridge.


The Courage to be Resilient

Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell

Courage can be experienced in terms of how we orient ourselves towards a major situation or challenge. When we feel afraid, this kind of courage can be difficult to access. Jordan offers a mindfulness teaching and practice that affirm an accessible approach in which courage is to be experienced, from how we are present to what we are experiencing right now. In working with our felt experience right now, we can embody a form of courage that is not about just solving problems. We do this not about fighting or “prevailing” over our challenge, but with the confidence that “we are able.”



On courage and resilience in difficult times:

How do we train ourselves to be more resilient in difficult times?

This podcast is an interview that Rabbi Deborah Waxman, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College conducted with Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell on how mindfulness can support us in difficult times. The podcast page also contains a video recording with Jordan, offering a guided practice for cultivating resiliency–and courage–in times of challenge.

On Courage: To What are We Faithful?

Rabbi Jonathan Slater

The opposite of “courage” is…

We often associate courage with selflessness, with willingness to stand up for the other. That may be, but unless we investigate what this selflessness is, we will attribute it to saints, failing to discover it for ourselves.

In the Zohar (II 110a ff.) there is an extended passage investigating the character of Abraham, particularly as he is identified with the name “Eitan ha-Ezrachi” (cf. Ps. 89 which begins miskil l’eitan ha’ezrachi). In its characteristic way with reading the Bible, the Zohar connects this with a flowing spring, nachal eitan (cf. Deut. 21:4), and then identifies it with the “river that flows from Eden” (Gen. 2:10). This is the river of energy, love and vitality that flows, unceasingly, from the deepest recesses of divinity to sustain and enliven the world. Furthermore, Abraham is the “ezrachi (spelled aleph-zayin-resh-chet-yod)” as he was the first (aleph) to shine forth (zarach) divine love in the world. Having identified Abraham as such, the Zohar makes the claim that if this applies to Abraham, then it must also apply to Isaac, Jacob and eventually also Joseph.

The whole of this passage is framed as instruction for doing spiritual battle: to discern how to engage with the negative forces at play in the world, destructive forces; to employ the right hand to strike, while using mind and intuition – with the left hand – to find advantage.

What does this tell us about courage? First, it is not something that arises in the moment, but is cultivated over time. It is that which can run in us, like a perpetual stream. We learn this from another aspect of the “ezrachi” (see Ps. 88 which begins maskil l’heiman ha’ezrachi), which suggests “faithfulness [meheimanuta, amunah]”). Courage can run in us continually as an expression of faithfulness.

To what are we faithful? First, to the quality of Abraham: love/chesed. Courage emerges from our willingness and capacity to love whatever arises before us. Not that we love what is happening, rather accept it as part of God’s being in the world, which we must love. This love, however, must be bound to the quality of Isaac: rigor, limitation. Even as we love the world, there are things that require our active response and attempts at limitation: violence, usury, injustice. When we hold these two in balance, we attain a degree of balance, the quality of Jacob. Seeing the truth that what is cannot be otherwise, even as we are actively engaged in promoting the good and limiting the bad, we come finally to the quality of Joseph: connection.

Courage is the ability to love, even in the face of that which is painful; to respond, without doing more violence; to remain balanced, seeing the truth, so that we can connect with whatever arises. This is as we read in the prophet Amos (5:24): “let justice (another dimension of Isaac) roll down like a stream” – but this justice must finally be one of love and compassion so that it will truly flow as “righteousness (tzedakah, another aspect of Jacob) like a faithful stream (kanachal eitan).”


Ometz lev: Cultivating Heart-Strength

Rabbi Marc Margolius

Like all middot, Ometz lev is innate to us as human beings, but must be elicited through spiritual practice. This trait is personified in the character of Shifrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives in the Book of Exodus who defy Pharaoh’s genocidal orders and safely deliver Hebrew babies into the world, at great personal risk. According to the Hasidic master Rabbi Simchah Bunim, Ometz lev is intrinsic to the midwives; they shun evil in the way human beings are hardwired to flee from fire or other dangers. For some of us, like the midwives, the threat of “fire” is obvious and easily avoided. But for most of us, the peril is concealed in our yetzer hara, our ego-focused shadow side. Courage needs to be nurtured through practice.

At our annual family Passover seder, we brainstorm potential candidates for the annual “Shifrah and Puah Award,” granted to those who exhibit courage in the face of oppression. Certainly not many of us can claim we would do as they did, or that we would have acted as the “righteous gentiles” who risked everything in sheltering Jews during the Holocaust. Yet that does not mean we cannot find space to cultivate courage in our own lives.

How can we emulate the midwives’ Ometz lev, their heroic “heart-strength,” in the small and large situations of our daily lives? Here are some simple tikkun middot practices for cultivating Ometz lev, heart-strength or courage:

  • Focus phrase: Choose a simple, concise phrase to post somewhere visible, such as “walk into the fear;” “I’m not alone;” “I can do this;” or “Do the right thing.”
  • Kabbalah (a simple daily practice to actualize the middah): “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt. “You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”[1] As a kabbalah, make a list of ten items you are avoiding or procrastinating about because they generate apprehension. Make a practical plan to take an action on each.
  • Prayer: Although Psalm 27 is usually used liturgically in the penitential period from Rosh Chodesh Elul through Shemini Atzeret, its concluding verses are an apt prayer practice for focusing on Ometz lev, heart-strength. Here is a beautiful version written and arranged for the trio MIRAJ by Rabbi Margot Stein; click here to listen.

לׄוּלֵ֗ׄאׄ הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְאֹ֥ות בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים
קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

Lulay he’emanti lirot b’tuv
B’tuv Yah ba-eretz chayyim (2x
Kavey el Yah chazak v’ametz
Chazak v’ametz libeykh (2x)

I have the faith that I surely will see
God’s goodness throughout my life (2x)
Hope in God and have courage
Trust in God all day long
Hope in God and have courage
Trust that your heart will be strong

  • Poetry: In “Courage” the poet Anne Sexton describes how one might practice Ometz lev in small, seemingly mundane actions:

It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it.

if you faced the death of bombs and bullets
you did not do it with a banner,
you did it with only a hat to
cover your heart.
You did not fondle the weakness inside you
though it was there.
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing.
If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.

Next, my kinsman, you powdered your sorrow,
you gave it a back rub
and then you covered it with a blanket
and after it had slept a while
it woke to the wings of the roses
and was transformed.

Later, when you face old age
and its natural conclusion
your courage will still be shown

in the little ways,
each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen,
those you love will live in a fever of love,
and you’ll bargain with the calendar
and at the last moment
when death opens the back door
you’ll put on your carpet slippers
and stride out.

  • Music: For inspiration to cultivate Ometz lev/heart-strength, the capacity to walk into fear, try one or more of these:
  • You’ll Never Walk Alone,” here sung by Shirley Jones in the 1956 film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic “Carousel” (“When you walk through a storm/Hold your head up high/And don’t be afraid of the dark/At the end of a storm/There’s a golden sky/And the sweet silver song of a lark/Walk on through the wind/Walk on through the rain/Though your dreams be tossed and blown/Walk on, walk on/With hope in your heart/And you’ll never walk alone”). Or, try Nina Simone’s jazz piano version.
  • Brave,” Sara Bareilles’ anthem for the courage to do what is right (“You can be amazing/You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug/You can be the outcast/ Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love/Or you can start speaking up/ Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do/And they settle ‘neath your skin/Kept on the inside and no sunlight/Sometimes a shadow wins/But I wonder what would happen if you/Say what you wanna say/And let the words fall out/Honestly I wanna see you be brave”)
  • Or, attend kindly to your own “inner cowardliness:” join Bert Lahr in singing Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had the Nerve” (“Yeah, it’s sad, believe me, missy/ when you’re born to be a sissy/Without the vim and verve./But I could show my prowess/be a lion not a mou-ess/If I only had the nerve./I’m afraid there’s no denyin’/I’m just a dandelion/A fate I don’t deserve/I’d be brave as a blizzard/If I only had the nerve”).

[1] Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life (Harper and Row: 1960)

Gevurah: Embodied Practice for Standing Strong

Rabbi Myriam Klotz

Join Rabbi Myriam Klotz in this guided yoga practice for cultivating the middot of strength, focus, and compassion.

This practice originally appeared on Myriam’s CD, “Preparing the Heart.” The full CD can be purchased here.