Mindfulness: The Foundation for Peacemaking (Vayera 5784)

Twenty-five years ago, right out of college, I lived in Jerusalem for a year. While I grew up with a very strong Jewish identity, I didn’t receive the kind of Jewish education that would allow me to study Talmud in the original Hebrew/Aramaic or to walk into a beit midrash and know what all the books on the shelf were, much less how to open them up and study from them. In college I met people who did have that kind of education, so I decided to spend my first year after graduation acquiring it. That took me to Jerusalem.

My mom had a friend from Ann Arbor whose son was my age–he went to the high school across town, so we didn’t know each other–and who was also spending the year in Jerusalem. His name was Chris, and his family was of Palestinian Arab ancestry. Chris had studied to be a journalist and had an internship that year at the Jerusalem Times, an English-language Arab newspaper. Our mothers suggested we meet. We did, and we became friends.

Chris spent a couple afternoons a week tutoring students at Bethlehem University in English. He invited me to join him and I was excited to go. These were the heady days between the Oslo Accords and the second intifada, the days of od yavo shalom aleinu. Transportation wasn’t difficult, though it did require bringing my passport along for a ride on a bus line serving the Arab community that left from just outside Damascus Gate. An Israeli soldier boarded the bus to check everyone’s papers on the return trip. I made the journey several times.

These were still the nascent days of email and well before social media, so I confess that I’ve fallen out of touch with the people I met then, including Chris. But a few memories stand out a quarter-century later, memories I find stirring in me these days.

The first is that, while I felt safe enough to go, I did not feel safe enough to identify as a Jew. The rest of the time I lived in Jerusalem I walked around wearing a kippah and flowing tzitzit. But as I approached Damascus gate, I took off the kippah and tucked the tzitzit into my pants. As soon as I got off the bus on Derekh Hevron, on the edge of the Jewish neighborhoods of south Jerusalem, the kippah went back on and the tzitzit came back out.

Related to this, I remember an encounter with a young woman at the university. At one point she asked me, “Are you Arab?” I told her I wasn’t, but I didn’t tell her I was Jewish, either. “Amazing. You look like an Arab.”

I remember disembarking from the bus and walking down the hill toward my apartment, the sun beginning to set over Jerusalem. And I remember feeling, even in those more hopeful days, this indescribably melancholy feeling: My bus ride had been less than ten miles; genetically, it seemed, I could pass for an Arab (and of course she could pass for a Jew); and yet these two societies felt worlds apart.

The story of Abraham prompts me to reflect on some elements of my own story here: the passing (in the form of Abraham trying to pass off Sarah as his sister); the so-close-yet-so-far nature of the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac and their descendants; questions of speech and silence, of honesty and something less than it; questions of fear and courage.

While Parashat Vayera contains the Greatest Hits of the story of Abraham–welcoming the angels, standing up for the people of Sodom, the Akedah–there’s a little story nestled within it that often gets overlooked. It comes just after Hagar and Ishmael are rescued in the wilderness and before the Binding of Isaac. It’s the story of Avimelech and Abraham resolving a land dispute. Set against the backdrop of their previous history, which involved deception and the threat of sexual violence, it’s all the more remarkable: Abraham and Avimelech are able establish a kind of working trust of each other. “The two of them made a covenant,” the Torah says (Gen. 21:27) and “Abraham resided in the land of the Philistines for many days” (v. 34).

Our work at IJS is not that of policy, so it seems far out of my lane to comment on military or political strategy. And in the fog of war and the age of quick takes and misinformation, I find myself doubling down on the importance of listening, discernment, and what I’ve come to call the silence of presence. Yet one clear thing I’ve found arising for me over the last few weeks is an increasingly urgent reminder of the foundational nature of mindfulness practice for peacemaking–both within ourselves and between each other.

Peace is made possible by, among other things, our capacity to be aware of, honest about, and yet not necessarily governed by our emotions. This is the bedrock of resilient listening. When we can practice mindful awareness grounded in compassion; when we can practice setting wise boundaries while grounding ourselves in love and interconnection; when we can practice tikkun hanefesh, repair of our own hearts and spirits, then and only then can we possibly begin to create the conditions for honesty, coexistence, and peace–the conditions for genuine tikkun haolam. 

The Sound of Silence: Lekh-Lekha 5784

When I was little, I remember I would usually wake up and come out to the kitchen to find my mother sitting there with her coffee, reading a book or the newspaper. She would often have a notebook beside her, and whatever she was reading was marked up with sticky notes. In later years, the books and sticky notes weren’t there as much, and I would find her with just the coffee. I asked her about it once, and she told me that she loved the quiet time in the morning, before everyone else was up. It was her time to be alone, to listen, to think.

Like mother, like son: My best writing time (the time I’m writing this, in fact) is invariably early in the morning before anyone else in the house is around (and with coffee, of course). Most mornings I come downstairs, feed the dog and the cat, put in my earbuds and do a meditation sit. It’s my time to be quiet, to be alone, to listen, to think, before the rest of my household, the rest of the world, wakes up.

I’ve grown to cherish this time, especially these days, because of the quiet, the silence. Perhaps that’s because, like many others, I’ve been preoccupied with questions of silence and speech of late: Who is speaking up, and who is being silent? The phrase, “their silence is deafening” is all over the place. I see accusations of sinful speech or silence a lot right now: This university president or that corporate executive was silent–they didn’t say anything, or they said something but were silent about something else, and that makes them a moral failure. This is the stage we’ve reached in the current crisis.

Particularly in the age of social media, I think a lot of us feel like we have to speak. Since I was a child, I’ve been taught Elie Wiesel’s words about silence always aiding the oppressor, and so I feel a moral duty to speak. I feel Professor Wiesel’s quiet, intense moral gaze looking over me and asking, in his powerful whisper of a voice, “Josh, are you remaining silent?”

Yet Elie Wiesel was also a Hasid, and he knew the value of silence. Sama d’ukla mashtuka, silence is a balm for everything, says the Talmud (Megillah 18a). I imagine, if I were having a conversation with him, that he would have reminded me that there are multiple kinds of silence: Silence of absence, yes, but also silence of presence. There is a silence of fear, and there is a silence of courage. There is a silence that communicates disconnection, and there are silences that embody deep relatedness. And there is the silence of gestation, of creation, of possibility: The silence of the early morning, the silence that comes before the Creator says, “Let there be light.”

One of the things that makes the story of Abraham so intriguing is the seeming inconsistency between when Abraham speaks and when he is silent. Most famously we have his speech in protest at God’s planned destruction of Sodom (“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Gen. 18:25) and his silence when commanded to sacrifice his son (22:2-3). These both come in next week’s Torah portion. But we find intriguing moments of speech and silence this week, too: his plea on behalf of Ishmael (“O, that Ishmael might live by your favor!” in 17:18) versus his silence at God’s very first command, to leave everything he knows behind and go to an unknown land–and versus his deceitful speech, which is a kind of absence-through-speech, with Pharaoh (repeated with Avimelech next week) to say that Sarah is his sister and not his wife.

I’m of the last generation to come of age before the internet and social media. (We still learned how to use a card catalog in school.) Perhaps that conditions me to try to recall what life can be like when we don’t feel the constant need to make statements, to speak, when we can create room for silences of presence, silences of possibility. I don’t presume to have a full answer to the problem of speech and silence right now, and it seems to me Abraham, too, was unclear. In some moments, speech is appropriate; others call for silence. And, as Abraham shows us, sometimes, perhaps much of the time, we may not get it right. Perhaps that can help us be a little more gentle with ourselves.

By way of conclusion, I want to share that I’ve found myself going to a core Buddhist teaching in the last few weeks as I’ve been reflecting on these questions of speech and silence, the practice of shemirat hadibbur or mindful speech, namely the Buddha’s five principles for right speech. These are often formulated as questions, and I find they can be useful both as I’m contemplating my words and as I’m listening to the words of others:

      1. Are these words timely?
      2. Are they true?
      3. Are they gentle?
      4. Are they beneficial?
      5. Are they spoken with goodwill?

Jews are a people who love language. We love words. We believe the world was created through an act of speech, and our tradition conceives of every subsequent act of speech as an act of profound power–to create and nurture, to hurt or destroy. In this time of so much pain and difficulty, and in this age of so much speech, I think we could all benefit from more mindful silence for the sake of more mindful, creative, and life-sustaining speech.

Why I Went to Wadea’s Funeral: Noah 5784

On Monday morning a headline crossed my newsfeed: A six-year old boy in suburban Chicago had been brutally stabbed to death by his family’s landlord. His mother was severely injured while trying to protect him. 

The story was tragic. What made it even more significant was that the boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was, like his mother, from the Palestinian community. While the landlord was–I hate to say it, thank God–not Jewish, the authorities are treating the murder as a hate crime because it seems the landlord was activated, in part, by the Hamas pogrom in Israel on October 7.

I live in the Chicago area, and I knew right away that, if possible, I wanted to attend the boy’s funeral. I felt called to go for a few reasons: As an American, I’m heartbroken and outraged that this would happen to any family, or that anyone would feel unsafe because of who they are; as a parent, I’m shattered at the family’s loss; as a Jew and a Jewish leader, particularly in the present moment, I wanted the family and the larger Palestinian community in Chicago and the United States to know that I bear witness to their pain. If there is anything we should be able to come together on, it is that the death of children is unspeakable sorrow. We should be able to show up for one another for that. And at a time when I feel so powerless to help my own people in Israel, this act of humanity and bridge-building felt like a small concrete action I could take.

I went with a few colleagues. As we approached the neighborhood where the mosque was located, it was evident this was a huge event. Traffic was backed up. We had to park on a side street and walk ten minutes, along with hundreds of others streaming toward the mosque. The mosque filled up, and the crowd spilled outside into the parking lot. It felt like thousands of people were there.

Since I went, some have asked me whether I felt unsafe. The answer is no. In fact, I was warmly welcomed as an honored guest. Dozens of people came up to me to shake my hand and thank me for coming. A few of us hugged. Everyone I spoke with seemed to share the sentiment that what the vast majority of people want is simply to be able to raise their families and live in their communities in peace. That felt like a small glimmer of hope.

Parashat Noach is, among other things, a story of violence, terror, survival, and rebuilding. As I referred to in my post last week, it is part of the Torah’s larger meditation on the fraught nature of siblinghood, the profound difficulty humans seem to have in living together in peace. And, in the concluding story of the Tower Babel, it offers ground for reflecting on the values and complexities of languages and cultural identities–dynamics that were all present in the moment, that are all present now. There is a reason we read this book again and again: “hafoch bah v’hafoch bah, ki hakol bah–turn it and turn it, for all is within it.” 

After the flood, God promises Noah not to destroy the world again and establishes that the rainbow will serve as a sign of that commitment. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav (Likkutei Halakhot Shabbat 7:70) comments that the rainbow (KESHET) evokes the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah (teKiah, SHevarim, Truah). There are many ways we might interpret this connection: A call to repentance, a call to duty. What stands out to me is that both the shofar blasts and the rainbow contain within them a full spectrum: of emotion, experience, language, culture, people. They ask of us: Can we make room for all of that within our own hearts? Can we find a way to live with ourselves–and with one another? For that, at the end of the day, is the basic question of the covenant, whether it is the Covenant of Sinai or the Covenant of Noah. The stakes of these questions, as we are being so painfully reminded right now, are life and death.

I’ll conclude with a note about the kippah I wore (pictured): I generally only wear this kippah on Yom Kippur. On most other days I wear a black one. But at the funeral I wanted to make sure people saw I was there, that a rabbi showed up. I hope in doing so I was able to effect some modicum calling us all, inviting us all,  back to the demands, expectations, and possibilities of the Covenant of Noah. I hope I was able to perform a small act of kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of the divine name, in a time when that name has been so horribly desecrated.

May all our children know no more suffering, may our families and communities know no more sorrow.

Mindfulness as a Conflict Resolution Resource

Written by Rebecca Schisler in 2021, edited and adapted 10/2023

The Mishnah, the core text of the Talmud, relays a concept called “mahloket l’shem shamayim” – conflict ‘for the sake of heaven.’ The ancient rabbis valued an approach to engaging in difficult discourse which has the potential to preserve and even deepen or strengthen relationships, rather than harm them.

The critical role of mindfulness in “mahloket l’shem shamayim” became apparent for me the other night while I was on the phone with a loved one. We get along well, and he is someone whose ideological perspectives and outlooks are often similar to mine. But we found ourselves in a tense, blameful and defensive conversation with the heat rising.

In the middle of it all, I asked him if we could just take a ten-minute break. We hung up and I laid on my bed and breathed. My impulse was to come up with my next line of defense to make him feel remorse for saying something hurtful – but my experience with mindfulness practice supported me in remembering that the most skillful thing to do in a non-urgent moment of heat is to pause and allow my nervous system to regulate. I practiced mindful breathing for ten minutes. It worked. My emotions settled and my mind cleared a bit.

I called him back. Our conversation continued with more space and openness, and concluded with us joking, mutually apologizing, and appreciating what had happened.

We just needed that moment of space.

Much of what reduces harm in a moment of conflict, and potentially even makes it productive, has to do with our ability to self-regulate when we get triggered. It’s crucial that we learn how to do this – and unfortunately, it’s a skill that not all of us were taught. It’s also helpful to know the science: on a physiological level, when I am experiencing a strong emotional reaction, my access to my prefrontal cortex is compromised. This is the part of the brain that is able to empathize, reason, think critically, and self-reflect.

This means that it is unwise to attempt to have a productive conversation about difficult issues – particularly with a loved one, or someone who poses no threat and whose relationship I value – when either one of us is in a heightened state of significant emotional reactivity.

When the heat is rising, it’s time to pause, take a break, and breathe – not to plan the next line of attack or defense. In this pause, it’s best to literally just breathe. I set a timer if I need to, and focus on my breath – not my thoughts. Then, the nervous system begins to self-regulate. I am able to think more clearly. And I am less likely to say something harsh or hurtful that I’ll later regret, likely won’t help get my point across anyway, and may further the divide between us.

Global tensions are high right now. We are swirling in environments of reactivity, blame, violence, and trauma. All of this has an impact on our mental and emotional stability, and interpersonal conflict is more likely to erupt.

My friend and I agreed that a frontier in leadership must be cultivating skills for engaging in conversation with people who hold different opinions and values. There would be more solidarity, collaboration, and peace among us if we could learn to effectively process our emotions and express empathy with those with whom we disagree. This can be incredibly difficult, especially when conversations trigger our own traumas. It gets personal. But it’s possible, and always worthwhile.

As someone with loved ones across political and ideological divides, I’m not a stranger to triggering conversations. Though never easy, if engaged in a skillful and compassionate way, they are often where some of the most important change, epiphany, and healing in our lives and in our communities occurs. I’ve failed plenty of times, but I’ve learned a lot and have also succeeded in moving the needle towards greater understanding and mutuality.

If you’re struggling with how to have difficult conversations with loved ones during this time, or any time, you can utilize some principles of mindfulness practice in a basic three-part process:

      1. Become aware that you are in an emotionally reactive state. You may notice your heart beating quickly, that you are holding your breath, the heat is rising, you feel emotionally overwhelmed, you can’t find the right words, etc.
      2. Choose to pause. Gently remove yourself from the interaction if needed.
      3. Take some space to focus on your breath. 5-10 minutes of mindful breathing is ideal, but even 5 to 10 deep breaths can shift the nervous system enough to have a beneficial impact.

Learning foundations of mindfulness can support us in nurturing our capacity for wise response. IJS holds daily meditations online with guest experts in the field of Jewish mindfulness, and our Gift of Awareness course is a great starting point for beginning a practice.

During these turbulent times, may we support ourselves and one another in cultivating skills for compassionate and effective communication across divides, so that we can unify our hearts in pursuit of healing and peace, both in the world and in our own communities.

Bereshit 5784: Band of Brothers

If there’s one constant to my life, it’s siblinghood. From the moment I was born, I have been the youngest of three brothers. Since my second child was born, I have been the father of siblings (pictured above on a family picnic when they were little). When my brothers and I got married, I learned what it meant to have sisters.

But my experience of siblinghood didn’t come about exclusively through biology or marriage or family life. In my rabbinic school class, we often addressed each other–half-jokingly, but also kind of seriously–as “Holy Brother!” (and often still do). In the Boy Scouts we referred to each other as brothers–the way fraternity or sorority members do, the way monks and nuns do, the way soldiers do.

And perhaps all of that has led to a lifelong preoccupation with this notion of siblinghood. What does it mean to be a brother or a sister or a sibling? Some of it has to do with sharing a language: the intimate language of family, the shared people and places and jokes. Some of it has to do with sharing experiences: shared purpose or effort or struggles. And some of it has to do with the sense of responsibility that’s present: My brothers and I know, without even asking, that we and our families can show up and stay at each other’s houses and take food from the fridge. We know, without even asking, that we can list each other as emergency contacts for our children.

The Book of Genesis is, as much as anything, an extended reflection on the meaning of siblinghood: The children of Noah, the children of Terach, Isaac and Ishmael, Rebecca and Laban, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, Joseph and Dinah and their brothers. Every Torah portion in Genesis is animated, often centrally, by questions about siblinghood–about what it means to be a brother or sister, what it means to share a common ancestor.

Of course, at root the Torah teaches us that we all–all human beings–ultimately share the same common ancestors, Adam and Eve, and beyond that, the same divine source. And thus the primordial story of siblings, that of Cain and Abel, serves as something of a touchstone for this whole exploration. This is the story that essentializes siblinghood into questions of violence and responsibility:

When they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother Abel and killed him.

God said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’

‘What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!’

(Gen. 4:8-10)

While Cain’s rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” rings in our ears as a fundamental question about human life, the words that immediately precede them are equally important. Those words are: lo yadati, I do not know. Rashi, quoting Bereshit Rabbah, captures the importance of these two words: “He became a gonev da’at elyonah” — a deceiver of the Most High, or, perhaps more literally, he stole ultimate awareness. In his moment of rage, Cain was overcome; and in the moment following, when confronted with his action, he would not or could not allow his awareness to recognize it, so he lied to himself and to the source of genuine awareness. That led him to ask a question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” which, it would seem, he meant rhetorically–“I bear no responsibility for him!” And we can understand why Cain spins this story in his mind, because when he is ultimately forced to confront the reality of his actions, he is overcome once again: “My sin is too great to bear” (4:13), he cries. In the immortal words of Jack Nicholson: He can’t handle the truth.

The question of siblinghood–who, if anyone, we call a brother or sister or sibling; who, if anyone, we label as a friend, a neutral, an enemy; who, if anyone, we call a tragic but necessary casualty; and what, on the basis of that labeling, our posture is towards them–this is one of the deepest, most difficult, and most important questions we confront. We are living through a time suffused with these questions right now. It’s why so many of us are shedding tears.

It should go without saying that the violence and brutality suffered by so many Israelis at the hands of Hamas last Shabbat were heinous desecrations of the image of God. Failing to acknowledge this is, itself, an act of “stealing ultimate awareness.” Likewise, failing to acknowledge that those who were murdered and kidnapped seem to have been targeted for no other reason than that they were Jews (or people who were with Jews at the time) is an act of seemingly unconscionable disbelief. We Jews, who have endured so much trauma through the centuries, are understandably activated by it.

And: The question of da’at, awareness, is ultimately the question that keeps coming back–day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment. Where are we directing our awareness? Toward whom? With what kind of quality or valence–curious, compassionate, angry, something else? What do we notice, and what do we–willingly or unwillingly, wisely or unwisely–overlook?

Just last week, our people read the Book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). My own wonderful rabbi, Ari Hart, like many others I expect, went to that book for guidance as the violence unfolded in shul in real time. Ari invoked Kohelet’s most famous passage: “A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.” Speaking for myself, the time isn’t right yet–I still feel too raw to create the necessary space to reflect dispassionately on where and how to train my awareness. Hostages are in harm’s way. My own loved ones are on the front lines. My practice helps, but there are still many many moments when tears cloud my vision and my thinking. And I’m not living under threat of rocket fire.

And, in the same breath, the gifts and demands of da’at, of awareness, this most basic element of our humanity and thus our status as images of the Creator–those gifts are ever-accessible, those demands are ever-present. And so I practice, and I invite you to practice, in the aspiration that, through all the fog and haze, in the midst of all the chaos and tumult in the world and in our mind-hearts, our da’at might be whole and our bodies, our spirits, and our worlds–and the bodies, spirits and worlds of our brothers and sisters and siblings, and of all beings–might be at peace.

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