Threefold Path of Action
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
Even before the horrific massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh this past Shabbat, it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the state of the world. The forces at play are so huge and the stakes are so high. How do we muster the courage to act? How do we even discern what actions to take?
Following the teaching of Joanna Macy, we might consider three different paths: holding and taking care of those who urgently need our care; developing new life-sustaining structures for a better world; and cultivating a shift in consciousness, the ability to deeply take in and know how profoundly interconnected we all are.
These three paths themselves are interconnected, of course, and there is extraordinary work happening in all three areas. The goal of IJS’s teaching is rooted in the third path. Our practices, whether they are meditation, prayer, text study, middot work or body awareness, are all for the sake of opening our eyes to the underlying unity that is the hidden fabric of the universe. This is an essential knowing that can also inspire and support those who are immediately engaged in taking care of others and in leading us out of the darkness that is all around us.
And what a blessing to know that there are others on this path with us. Last week we held a retreat for our Kivvun cohort at the Trinity Retreat Center. We had frequently used this retreat center for our east coast retreats, enjoying the beautiful setting on the Housatonic River and the famously fantastic food, until they closed in the fall of 2013. But they recently reopened their doors and we went back, trying not to bring a comparing mind with us.
What we found was the highest standard of loving hospitality. Hakima, the Algerian women at the front desk, had boned up on her Hebrew and greeted us with a joyful, “Boker tov!” Julia and Heidi in the kitchen offered simple meals that were fresh, healthy, delightfully seasoned and absolutely delicious. But it was more than that. Without us asking, the staff removed the Christian iconography from the chapel so we could pray there for Kabbalat Shabbat without being uncomfortable. And on Sunday morning as they gathered for their own prayer, they sounded the church bell eleven times, one for each precious life that was violently ended during worship the day before in Pittsburgh.
Our Christian hosts embodied that loving unity for us, so that our experience of that interconnectedness could help us strengthen our own capacity to embody it and offer it to others. That is a profound action. As we go out and take care of others, build new structures, and yes, vote, let’s not forget the importance of cultivating that new sense of knowing as the loving ground for it all.
We wish the very best for Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, who will be leaving IJS at the end of November to become the Executive Director at Camp Ramah in Toronto. It is a wonderful opportunity for Jordan and it is a great loss for us. We know from our practice that everything changes, that there is a time for arriving and a time for departing, and that love is stronger than separation. So please join us in sending blessings to Jordan and telling him how much he will be missed.
Rabbi Marc Margolius
The kabbalistic sephirah of Netzach (“endurance”) represents Divine energy flowing towards sacred purpose. As human beings, we manifest this flow of energy within us by practicing the middah (spiritual/ethical trait) of zerizut: prompt, energetic response. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that since we human beings are formed in the Divine Image, “everything we do should be with energy and dedication (b’zerizut), since in every act we are able to serve God.”
In Mesilat Yesharim (“The Path of the Just”), the great Jewish ethicist Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato describes two aspects of this middah: zerizut prior to and after taking an action. The first aspect of zerizut involves responding immediately when an opportunity to act arises. We are not to allow a potential sacred action to become chametz, or spoiled:
Rather, when the time of its performance comes, or when it happens to present itself, or when the thought of performing it enters one’s mind, one should hurry and hasten to seize hold of it and perform it, and not allow time to go by in between… [E]ach new second that arises can bring with it a new impediment to the good deed.
The second aspect of zerizut, according to Luzzato, is the kind of persistent effort we associate with following through or “going the distance.” When one performs a sacred action swiftly, he teaches, “this will move one’s inner being to kindle aflame also, and the desire and want will increasingly intensify within. But if one acts in a sluggish manner in the movement of one’s limbs, so too the movement of one’s spirit will die down and extinguish.”
Each middah has “fallen” or “shadow” aspects which we are meant to elevate, or from which we are to extract the light. Lethargy represents such a “shadow aspect” of zerizut. Our habitual inclination to delay when facing a challenging task may reflect underlying patterns of thought and emotion designed to shield us from fear or pain. For instance, perfectionism may reflect fear of revealing one’s limitations. Or we may delay or avoid because we feel overwhelmed by tasks which seem enormous or complex.
In mindfulness practice, we explore without judgment how our mind generates justifications to rationalize our instinct to delay. We apply compassion rather than judgment, “befriending” our underlying anxieties or pain. We remember that perfection is unattainable and that, as Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot 2:20-21, while a task may seem overwhelming, we are called only to engage in our small part in fulfilling it: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work; neither are you free to desist from it.”
In softening the grip of our fear, we can free the sacred energy within and manifest zerizut through immediate action and perseverance. May we soothe our fears enough to meet injustice at all times with wisdom and determination. Nevertheless, despite the obstacles within and without, may we persist.
As professional and volunteer Jewish leaders one of our most important leadership tools is mindfulness. The qualities that emerge from our practice and tradition can deepen our leadership effectiveness in our organizations and communal institutions. Together we will explore these qualities and use our practice to hone them.
Click here to download the source sheets for this webinar:
Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg
It may sound trivial, but these days, the simple act of returning a lost object to a stranger brings me joy. This week, when my neighbor’s Amazon delivery mistakenly came to my door and when I returned a wallet I saw fall from the bag of a passerby on the sidewalk, I felt a sweet warmth in my body, and a smile found its way to my face. It felt so easy to be generous in those moments, and that ease led to some real happiness. When hatred rears up on a national and global scale, in acts of intimidation and terror, small acts of kindness remind me that the natural compassion of the mind and heart is still with us humans. I still have chesed inside of me, which means that others must have it too.
The Torah reminds us that in our daily lives, as we walk down the street, when we build a house, in the ways we run our businesses, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to bring dignity and safety to our fellow human beings. We are expected to ease the burdens of our neighbors and restore their sense of wholeness to the best of our abilities.
It isn’t always a matter of not being generous or good. In our country, where we emphasize the individual’s responsibility to prioritize their own care, and where we protect privacy, it can feel like a counter-cultural act to show up. It feels risky to get involved in someone else’s life, especially the life of a stranger. Reaching out, knocking on someone’s door to ask how they are doing: this behavior can make us uncomfortable. When we see a friend or neighbor in pain or in need, our gut reaction is often to want to make ourselves disappear – l’hitalem – and our society reinforces this response.
Showing up for others requires clear seeing, clear thinking, and intentional action. And this clarity comes from our own practice of awareness and chesed, of noticing and gently being with our own internal doubt, worry and fear. Showing up for others – not disappearing or being indifferent – requires us showing up for ourselves – not being indifferent to our own suffering.
The Torah encourages us to participate in a virtuous cycle of showing up, cultivating chesed for other humans and for all living beings in simple daily acts, and then finding blessing and wellbeing for ourselves in the process. Through this process we strengthen our ability to not be indifferent, even in challenging situations when our instinct may be to hide. Through this process, we habituate ourselves to a new way of being – one of showing up for others and for ourselves.
Instructions for Practice:
Let us practice showing up for ourselves and others by returning to lovingkindness or blessing practice. We will especially focus on blessing fellow human beings and animals, both in the seated practice and in daily life.
Take a seat and find a stable, open, relaxed position. Sit with dignity, feeling the spine extend up from the tailbone, up the back and the back of the neck, with the top of the head energetically reaching heavenwards and the chin gently tucked. Allow the eyes to close or to rest softly on a point on the floor in front of you. Take a few deep breaths all the way in and all the way out, settling and releasing any tension. Allow the breath to return to its natural rhythm.
Notice what is present in the realm of feeling and thought, noting pleasant and unpleasant as they come and go.
Repeat the phrases below, or other phrases that you may already work with, directing them first towards yourself. After a few rounds, you can either stay with yourself or choose someone in your life who is easy to bless. In this sit, do take some time in particular to bless a fellow human being you don’t know very well – a neutral person whom whose face you can remember. You can also direct these blessing towards a pet or an animal that appears in your life.
Here are the phrases:
May I feel safe.
May I feel happy.
May I feel strong.
May I live with ease.
May you feel safe.
May you feel happy.
May you feel strong.
May you live with ease.
This piece has been excerpted and adapted from Rachel’s teaching on parshat Ki Teitzei from her Text Study course, “Connecting Inner and Outer Worlds: Mindfulness, Torah, and Social Justice.” Click here to read or download the full teaching. To purchase access to the full year of Rachel’s teachings, click here. For more of Rachel’s work, follow her on Facebook at Malkhut.
Mindful Action: The Result of Our Practice
Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell