Loved, Clear, Courageous
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
Hanukkah is almost upon us and with it the aptness of all the metaphors of bringing light into the darkness. A less examined theme of the holiday, however, at least in many spiritual circles, is holy boldness – the decisive action that the Macabees took in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that enabled them to defeat the wicked government that vastly outweighed them.
We tend to shy away from exploring this kind of strong action because it can seem so antithetical to the spiritual endeavor of finding inner peacefulness and because it can too easily veer into bold fanaticism, as the Hasmonians themselves exemplified. And yet, holy boldness, the courage of the spiritual warrior, is an important middah, or trait, even (and maybe especially) for the contemplative repertoire.
One teaching on how to approach this boldness comes from the daily liturgy. In the morning service, the first prayer before the Shema offers an image of angels. The prayer book describes the angels in vivid terms: “They are all loved, they are all clear, they are all bold and they all do the will of their Maker with fear and awe.”
At first, the description appears rather random. Why those three particular adjectives, other than the fact that the Hebrew words for “loved,” “clear” and “bold” follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet? But if we look carefully, using what we know from our contemplative practice, something quite beautiful emerges.
First, the angels know that they are ahuvim, loved. This is the crucial first step, to take in the awareness of being precious, seen, cherished. From that place of warmth and connection, they can be brurim, clear. Feeling loved can help clear the delusions so that we can see with greater clarity what needs to be done, as well as our motivation for acting. And then, when the path forward is clear, the angels can act as giborim, as courageous and bold heroes. But even here, they are aligning themselves with humility and a sense of serving – not of their own will, but of the great Source of life and creativity in the universe.
What marvelous instructions! A courage that is rooted in love, shone through with clarity and in humble alignment with what needs to happen. May this Hanukah provide us with opportunities to explore this holy boldness so that we can through our actions help bring more light into this dark season.
Rabbi Jonathan Slater
Likkutei MoHaRa”N I 22:4 (end)
“All the sounds – whether of crying-prayer, of sighing, of the voice of the shofar or the sound of song – all have the quality of boldness, as in the phrase “He gives forth in His voice, the sound of power (kol oz)” (Ps. 68:34).”
I participated in a program before the first cohort of the IJS called “Mindfulness Leaders Training” – a sort of precursor to our own Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training. At the end of the program, the participants were invited to reflect on their experience, and on what they had learned. I was moved by the highly emotional and heart-felt words of a colleague. This was a rabbi whose work was primarily in the realm of social justice and human rights.
He described his childhood in South Africa, where his rabbi emphasized the teachings of Isaiah and Amos: the call for justice; the passion for caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow; the attention focused on the disempowered over those who wield power. The God he met in those teachings, the God who inspired him in his work, he characterized as “the God of what should be.” He had dedicated his life to serving this God, called ever to the fore to change what is to what yet needed to become.
Through his practice of mindfulness meditation, this rabbi met “the God of what is.” Sitting silently he was able to witness the arising of anger, of pain, of fear, of yearning. He learned to hold each of these in a field of compassion and equanimity. His heart could break for those who suffered at the hands of others; he could feel anguish at his inability, alone, to make things better. He was able – from moment to moment – to allow what is to be (because in this moment it could not be otherwise), with love. And, loving what is, including himself, he could recognize God’s presence, even in the midst of suffering.
From the place of rest, of love and compassion, where we serve “the God of what is,” we gain stability and strength. It is from there that we are able to generate holy boldness (azut d’kedushah). We can call out in prayer, or sigh, recognizing our limited abilities in this moment. And, at the same time, we can call out like the shofar – calling for redemption and transformation, for justice and a new world. We turn to “the God of what should be” and stake a claim: Do Something! Do Something With Us! Do Not Abandon Us!
And, then, we sing. For singing in the face of what is, with a broken heart, is itself an act of holy boldness.
Rabbi Myriam Klotz
Holy boldness is more than just taking action: it is strength guided by compassion, courage guided by wisdom, steps toward justice guided by love. In this yoga practice, Rabbi Myriam Klotz leads us in the cultivation of gevurah, strength through the middot of compassion and wisdom.
Rabbi Marc Margolius
While rabbinic Judaism often prescribes a spiritual path characterized by self-effacement, the sage Yehudah ben Teimah in Pirkei Avot 5:20 praises the middah or sacred quality of “holy boldness:”
“Be av kanamer, bold like the leopard, light like the eagle, swift like the deer, and mighty like the lion to do the Will of your Parent Who is in Heaven.” He used to say: az panim, [the] bold-faced [are bound] for Gehinnom (Purgatory), and boshet panim, [the] shamefaced, [are bound] for the Garden of Eden.”
Paradoxically, Yehudah ben Teimah praises the quality of azut or boldness while warning against becoming az panim: “bold-faced,” arrogant or self-righteous. Maimonides interprets the passage to mean that while boldness generally is a problematic trait, we may utilize it wisely under certain conditions, to “rebuke rebels,” pursue truth, and fulfill the will of the Divine. He teaches that it is appropriate to “use a little of the vices in their [correct] place for the will of God and God’s truth.”
Less cautiously, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav in Likkutei Mohoran 147:1understands the Pirkei Avot passage as fully embracing the quality of azut dekudshah, “holy boldness:’
“One who is lowly and shame-ridden has no “holy boldness” and no portion in Torah, as it is said, “Why was the Torah given to the Jewish people? Because they are bold” [Babylonian Talmud Beitzah 25b], which is why it is taught, “be bold like a leopard.” … One receives “holy boldness” from the Holy One of Blessing, which is the Divine aspect of “t’nu oz leilohim, ascribe boldness to God, whose majesty is over Israel, whose might is in the skies” [Psalm 68:35]. … [W]e are imbued with azut dekedushah, holy boldness with which to overcome all obstacles which arise against us.”
These texts bring awareness to our internal quality of azut dekedushah: our capacity in the moment to act instinctively in pursuing that which is true and just. They also remind us that this same sacred instinct can pull us into its “shadow” aspects, such as impulsivity, self-importance, and self-righteousness.
In mindfulness practice, we cultivate greater clarity of mind, body and spirit to discern, moment to moment, when and how to apply our innate “holy boldness,” our “inner leopard,” to meet and defeat the varied and daunting trials we face. May we, fully cognizant of its sacred origins and potential pitfalls, apply our “holy boldness” wisely and without hesitation to overcome the challenges of our day.