Of Black Swans and Sabbatical Years

Of Black Swans and Sabbatical Years

If you haven’t seen it yet, take a minute to watch the finish from this year’s Kentucky Derby. It’s a sight to behold.

The two leading horses are racing neck-and-neck (literally), jockeying for position (again, literally), as they make the final turn of the one-and-a-quarter-mile track at Churchill Downs. Slowly and then suddenly, Rich Strike, a horse no one even expected to be in the race, comes out of nowhere to win. It’s shocking on every level: Rich Strike had 80-1 odds of winning, the second-highest odds in the history of the 148-year old race. He only became eligible for the Derby a day earlier due to another horse being scratched from the race with 30 seconds to spare before the registration deadline. And then, to top it off, he comes out of nowhere to win the biggest event in horse racing. Someone in Hollywood is surely working on a script already.

The day after the Derby, the writer and climate activist Rebecca Solnit posted a link to the race video on Facebook, calling attention to Rich Strike’s win as a “black swan event.” The term, popularized two decades ago by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, refers to an event that most people assumed simply couldn’t happen—and that, therefore, whole ways of thinking became devoted to assuming it couldn’t happen either. That is, it wasn’t simply an objective question of whether or not something was possible; it was also a psychological question: If my/our worldview depends on the impossibility of this idea, how could I entertain the notion that it might occur? My/our whole world would unravel! So we tend to treat black swan events as not just logical impossibilities; rather, we become emotionally invested in verifying the narrative of their impossibility.

As a climate activist, Solnit encounters this phenomenon a lot. If we read the news, we have good reason to feel like solving the problem of climate change is a black swan. The odds seem increasingly remote that we will keep global temperatures from rising past 2 degrees Celsius. The polar ice sheets are already melting. The invasion of Ukraine isn’t helping. It is totally understandable that a lot of us feel pretty grim about the future. And when we start telling ourselves that narrative, our human tendency toward confirmation bias leads us to reject news that might counter it and embrace news that reinforces it.

But, as Solnit has been doggedly pointing out on her Facebook page for months, there’s a lot of good climate news! Most significantly, advances in battery storage, solar, and wind technology are causing the price of renewables to drop quickly and, correspondingly, their use to increase rapidly. And, while the odds remain quite long, Solnit seems committed to helping the rest of us see the possibility of a black swan. Epicenter and Zandon, the two favorite horses at the Derby this year, had odds of 7-2 and 3-1, respectively. They were the horses racing neck-and-neck to win. The race was playing out precisely the way the math told us it would. Until it didn’t. The lesson for climate? While it’s still a major league longshot, we might, just might, be able to get it together for greener forms of energy to come out of the back of the pack and win the climate derby. (Likewise, Donald Trump was projected as having a 7 percent chance of being elected president in 2016. Black swans don’t take sides; they just describe longshots.)

On the Jewish calendar, we are deep into a Sabbatical year, a year of shemitah. The Torah’s expectations for this year, and for the larger Jubilee cycle in which it occurs, might strike us as fanciful, preposterous even. We are commanded not to farm the land, but only to live off whatever naturally grows. We are expected to forgive debts and release indentured servants. Every 49 years, we are expected to return the land to its ancestral owners. In short, we are, it seems, expected to overthrow the economic table and start anew. It is nothing short of a radical resetting, a recalibration of society.

If this might have seemed difficult to imagine two or three thousand years ago, it feels even more so now. Yet the Torah is not alone in deploying sacred ritual to reconfigure the social order. As David Graeber and David Wengrow demonstrate in their book The Dawn of Everything, societies the world over have done similar things throughout human history. From Native American communities to Neolithic Europe and Mesopotamia and beyond, human beings have shown a remarkable propensity to order our societies in many different ways—and to consciously reorder them when necessary and desirable.

Contra Rousseau, there is no “state of nature,” according to Graeber and Wengrow. Rather, there are innumerable different ways humans have configured social and political life. “If something did go terribly wrong in human history—and given the current state of the world, it’s hard to deny something did,” they write, “then perhaps it began to go wrong precisely when people started losing that freedom to imagine and enact other forms of social existence, to such a degree that some now feel this particular type of freedom hardly even existed, or was barely exercised, for the greater part of human history.”

That, perhaps, is the greatest challenge we face: that we accept that this is the way things are and will be—whatever that way is. We are so invested in the current scheme of things that we discount the possibility that anything could be otherwise. We lose imagination, we lose freedom, we become fatalists.

The Torah, like other wisdom traditions, invites us to practice a different way of being, the touchstone of which is yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. What was is not what must be. What seems inevitable is not destiny. Just because life seems good right now doesn’t mean it’s going to remain that way; just because life looks horrible right now doesn’t mean it will always be so. When we cut ourselves off from the unfolding nature of the world, when we become so invested in a particular way of encountering it, we practice a kind of idolatry, we drive the Divine presence from the world.

Our calling and mission is to do the opposite: to live with mindful presence, aware of the contingency and ongoing becoming of a world which is constantly recreated anew, aware of our interconnection with all other beings, with the earth, with life itself. That is the practice of Shemitah, the practice of Shabbat. It is the practice that enables us to resist our confirmation bias, our fatalism about climate, and to remain open to the possibility—however long a shot it is—that the unexpected might just come about.

 

This piece was published in the Times of Israel on May 12, 2022.

A Reflection on Jewish Mindfulness and Habits of the Heart

A Reflection on Jewish Mindfulness and Habits of the Heart

It often feels these days that we’re living through a Great Unraveling. Institutions, those deposits of trust that enable things to be—or at least seem to be—settled, are coming apart. News media, public health, elections, representative government, the weather, the forests, the shoreline, truth, language itself: In so many places, things I took to be more or less stable are revealing themselves to be far shakier than I could have imagined.

I find my mind racing with questions I could scarcely have contemplated asking even a couple of years ago: Is the person standing next to me in the grocery store vaccinated? Is the man at the post office carrying a concealed weapon? Writing in the shadow of the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, those questions include ones like, Will a mob storm the Capitol? Will a state legislature overturn an election?

Like all shadows, this Great Unraveling has its brighter side too. Much of it is driven by the democratization of media. Where Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and TikTok seem to lead us to collectively ever-shorter attention spans, they also give opportunities for far more people to have a voice, for more of us to expand our awareness of people and issues than would have been in our view otherwise.

Whether we view it as an invitation or an externally-imposed compulsion, it seems to me that this moment calls each of us to deeper personal responsibility and agency: the responsibility to be vaccinated, to engage in democracy non-violently, to practice speech that is mindful, wise, and courageous. And when I reflect on that, I realize that, though it may feel more intense today, that is really our calling all the time: to be vessels for the Divine presence; to reflect and enhance the image of God in the world; to free and help every image of God to be present.

In his bestselling classic The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz describes how one of IJS’s founders, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, summed up his personal spiritual path, which he referred to as keter malchut, or the crown of sovereignty, to the Dalai Lama: “To be a sovereign human being, to be a king, to be not reactive, but active, to know one’s place in the world, to be conscious. And it is extremely hard work. The ego always gets in the way, all the needs get in the way; it is a long, long path. But the path is very specific” (196).

In a democracy, as opposed to a monarchy, each and every citizen is a part of the sovereign; each of us wears a part of the crown. Thus Jonathan’s description of this spiritual work—to become a sovereign human being, a sovereign image of God—is, to my mind, the core of the “habits of the heart” about which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote nearly 200 years ago as being essential to the democratic project. At root, this heart work is about the most basic questions: How do we become aware of yet not beholden to the thoughts and emotions that arise in us—the results of our conditioning—when we encounter beings other than ourselves? How do we hold space for difference? How do we live together? How do we trust each other?

Nurturing and sustaining trust is the name of the game. It is essential to the infant who must trust adults to feed, clothe, shelter, and bathe them; it is essential to coworkers who must trust one another to work together; it is essential to neighbors and fellow citizens and residents who must trust that the people they encounter do not seek their harm; it is essential to voters who must trust that elected officials will act with honor and not for personal power or enrichment. Trust, Emunah, is essential for a life lived in relationship with the Divine. And, “In God We Trust”—our trusting both reflects and generates the possibility for the Divine presence to be visible. It is, on the most fundamental level, essential for democratic life.

That mutually supportive web of trust begins and is sustained by our continual work on our hearts—avodah shebalev, what the Talmud refers to as prayer and what we might expand to include the spiritual practices of democracy. I don’t know whether those practices by themselves are enough to calm the baser forces of fear, anger, and resentment that seem to be fueling this Great Unraveling. But I know they are essential for me—perhaps for you, too—to live through it. And I have a strong sense that they offer us a way through. May we support one another in cultivating them.

Living and Leading with Courage, Resilience, and Sacred Purpose

Living and Leading with Courage, Resilience, and Sacred Purpose

Dear friends and colleagues,

When I started in my position just a month and a half ago, the world was a different place. My big ambition for my first year was to lead us through a strategic planning and business modeling process that would result in a rearticulated vision, mission, and strategy with a multi-year business plan. My assumption was that we would secure new funding for that project this spring, start the process in the summer, and complete it by a year from now.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cessation of most normal activity, and what will be a major economic recession, I feel like we can plan about as far as lunchtime. If we needed any reminder of the limits of our power as human beings and the fragility of life on the planet we share, I think we can unequivocally say: Message received and understood.

IJS has all of the building blocks we need to weather the storm. Most important, have something of great value to offer: Our Torah and the people who teach it. Our Torah includes not only concepts and ideas but, crucially, 1) practices that respond to the challenges of the moment and reach the most innermost parts of our lives, and 2) community that can be experienced even in isolation. These differentiate us from many other organizations. Beyond that, we have great admiration, loyalty, and love among those who know us. We have a board and funders who are committed to us. And we have a staff team that knows how to work together and is proving agile and nimble, which we must be right now.

Mission

Yet the moment demands that we articulate who we are and what we do at this crucial moment, in this world that has been turned upside down. So here is our response to that challenge.

IJS’s mission right now is this: To empower Jews to live and lead with courage, resilience, and a sense of sacred purpose.

This frankly isn’t so different from what our mission has always been. But it is a rearticulation for this moment of crisis, with a few key points:

  • We must continue to support leadership, including rabbis and cantors who are on the front lines of caring for their congregations—both those who are among our Hevraya and those who aren’t yet.
  • We must also serve other leaders: Lay leaders, Jewish professionals, and Jews who lead schools, organizations, businesses, communities, and families—again, including those who are already part of the IJS community and those who are just finding us.
  • We must serve Jews, whether or not they hold formal positions of leadership. As one of our great teachers Parker Palmer writes, “Leadership simply comes with the territory called being human… As long as I am here, doing whatever I am doing, I am leading, for better or for worse. And, if I may say so, so are you.” This is of a piece with our own IJS Torah: Simply by virtue of being humans who live in an interconnected relationship with others, we exercise leadership. Our work serves this large group, too.
  • In addition to courage and resilience, which are so necessary right now, IJS is distinguished by grounding our work in the reality of our relationship with the divine, what I refer to here as helping Jews live and lead with a sense of sacred purpose. We teach this practice because we believe human beings were created in God’s image, breathed into being by a divine breath, and put here to serve and protect creation (l’ovdah u’lshomrah). While a mindfulness practice can help manage stress and anxiety, we are not only another mindfulness app we are an Institute that teaches a Jewish approach to spiritual living.

Strategic Objectives

Beyond rearticulating our mission in what I hope is a succinct and powerful way, it is also important right now to state our strategic objectives. Given that we cannot know when we may be able to resume regular retreats, for the time being we have to assume that all of our work will take place through virtual means. The very encouraging news here is that we are in a better position than many others to do this. We have a functioning online platform, revenue-generating online courses, experience teaching via Zoom, and a rich archive of material we can share. We will leverage and build upon these resources in the coming days and weeks with the following key strategic aims in mind.

  1. We will offer valuable teachings and experiences in service of our mission. The key word here is offer. We must be generous and be perceived as such. This is not a time to be transactional. The Jewish people needs us right now and we must show up for them. If we demonstrate generosity in this moment, it will be reciprocated when we ask for the support we need to operate.
  2. We will be an ark in the sea. Over the last 20 years, IJS has been extraordinarily successful in seeding the ground of Jewish mindfulness. We are a tree that has sprouted an orchard. And yet in this moment of economic crisis, many of our saplings are struggling. To switch metaphors, our job in this moment is to be a Noah’s ark for the many Jewish meditation teachers and smaller Jewish mindfulness organizations who do not have the infrastructure we have. To that end, we should wisely and smartly engage the fellow-travelers in the Jewish mindfulness world, invite them to teach for us, and promote their events.
  3. We will grow our audience. Before this crisis, I frequently said that IJS is the most important organization that most people have never heard of. This moment is an opportunity for many more people to learn who we are and what we have to offer. People want and need what we have. We will energetically engage with partner organizations and market ourselves so that far more people know IJS’s name than before, have joined our email list, and are benefiting from our offerings.

Key Values

It is crucial during this period that we stay true to our values. I believe the following can serve as our north star during this intense moment:

  1. פיקוח נפש דוחה את השבתPikuach Nefesh: Saving life is the greatest of Jewish values. In the current situation that means that everyone’s first priority must be to take care of themselves, their loved ones, and other human beings. We have adapted our sick leave policy to this effect, but more broadly this value translates into recognizing that all of us are profoundly affected by the crisis and will only become more so in the days and weeks ahead. We will be understanding, supportive, and caring for ourselves and one another.
  2. אדם בצלם אלהים נברא – Adam b’tzelem Elohim nivra: All people are created in God’s image. This is always a value for us, and we cannot lose sight of it. All humans are endowed with the dignities of infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. Even and especially at this acute moment, we must maintain a broad field of vision that includes the most vulnerable, those who are apt to be marginalized or forgotten, and to ensure that our teaching and our work includes the full range of human beings.
  3. עת לעשות לה׳ הפרו תורתך – Et la’asot laShem heferu toratecha: This is an exigent moment and it calls for extraordinary responses.
    a. We will be flexible. In addition to the toll of illness and physical suffering, we must adjust to the profound changes to the rhythms of our lives. We will do our work as we are able, with creative schedules when we need them.
    b. We will do less, better. We will be judicious and wise about what we take on and what we leave behind, prioritizing those things that can best advance our mission and strategic goals.
    c. We will be responsive, not reactive. We will move quickly and skillfully to respond to the demands and invitations of reality as it shifts.
    d. We will be disciplined. As much as we need to be entrepreneurial, we have to do it smartly and with respect for our colleagues and teammates. We will ensure that we work as an efficient and aligned team, following processes and procedures for committing organizational resources.
    e. We will communicate. We will ensure transparency in communications for members of our team and keep our board and supporters regularly apprised of and engaged in our efforts.
    f. We will have faith in each other. We will support and encourage one another. We will show gratitude. We will maintain an environment in which we can be passionate about our work, both because the world needs us and because we want to keep our business going.
  4. פותח את ידיך ומשביע לכל חי רצון – Poteach et yadecha umasbia l’chol chai ratzon: We will operate with a spirit of abundance. As our own individual worlds become confined to the walls of our homes, it will be beyond tempting to fall into a narrowness and constriction of spirit. Yet I return to what I wrote at the outset: We have what we need. We have a Torah and outstanding teachers for this moment. We have people who love and support us as an organization. We have an online platform. In short, we have the essential things to make it and even, with cautious optimism, to grow. So we will remind each other of that and continue to hold open our minds and hearts.

None of us have ever faced anything like this before. It is utterly new and unprecedented. We cannot anticipate all of the challenges to come. At the same time, IJS’s own Torah teach us that, on a certain level, this moment is an intensified version of much of life in general. The challenge of remaining open, grounded, wise, compassionate, courageous and resilient in the face of the reality of suffering is always with us. Right now we feel it even more acutely. So we must encourage each other, remain focused and disciplined, be forgiving, caring, and loving.

This is the moment we’ve been practicing for. We will rise to the occasion.

With blessings for health and courage, with gratitude and faith,

Rabbi Josh Feigelson, PhD
Executive Director