June 2019 Newsletter

Rage and Love: Reaching Out

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein


Last week we offered a meditation retreat for activists from across the country, thanks to a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation in memory of Rabbi Rachel Cowan. At the end of a few days of cultivating a loving heart through meditation, prayer and silence, the participants shared their thoughts and experiences of connecting contemplative practice with their work as activists. Several of them expressed the tension between the rage they felt in response to their own experiences of oppression which then fuels their work and the healing power of reaching out – and in – in love. It was such a relief to immerse in love. But what about the justifiable anger at all that is hurtful and unjust in our world?

This question caused me to reflect in turn on an experience of conflict that arose in my own life. In the aftermath of my own anger and hurt, I struggled with my habitual response of withdrawing, of creating greater separation between myself and the other. I know that separation may initially feel comforting, but it also brings greater suffering. I often teach the midrash that says that when God separated the upper waters from the lower waters on the second day of creation, the lower waters wept over the separation. Out of compassion for their anger and hurt, God refrained from saying “It is good” and indeed the Torah does not include that blessing for the second day. Separation does deepen suffering; in fact, one of the aspects of the suffering is that when we are in its grip, it is more difficult to reach out in love.

And yet, as one of the participants commented, aren’t we all deeply yearning for more love?

Perhaps the answer is to hold it all, to make space for the anger and hurt, these difficult but important human experiences that both protect us and separate us from others. After all, separation was essential for creation to happen. The practice can be not to get stuck there. From the separation it is sometimes possible to reach out again in love which can lead to healing. In the case of the conflict I experienced, the conversations that took place afterwards created a new sense of closeness and understanding. That is not always possible. But even when it is not, to reach in with love and compassion for our own suffering can be a transformative intention. And that itself is a blessing.



Kesher: the Middah By Which We Cultivate Connection

Rabbi Marc Margolius


Jewish theology posits a fundamental Unity to existence. The Shema holds that the Divine embraces every aspect of creation; each person, experience, and moment is inextricably part of a single whole. God is One. At the same time, Jewish tradition affirms that reality is fragmented. We experience alienation from ourselves and others. Because reality is fractured, disordered, and unjust, we conclude our prayers with Aleinu, envisioning a time when God will be One and God’s Name will be One. Reality does not reflect the wholeness we affirm in the Shema; God is “not yet” One.

Lurianic Kabbalah’s mythic account of creation seeks to reconcile this paradox of Oneness and not-yet-Oneness, connection and disconnection. It postulates that God created the material universe by contracting (tzimtzum) to allow space for the corporeal world, represented by keilim (vessels), into which God “poured” the Divine Light of Creation. Because this primordial light was too powerful for the vessels, they shattered (sh’virat ha-keilim, shattering of the vessels), leaving sacred sparks of light trapped within the fractured pieces (kelippot, husks).

These scattered sparks of light, trapped in the shards, yearn to reunite. The shattered pieces symbolize broken reality. The sparks and their pull towards each other represent a powerful drive towards kesher, connection. Kesher thus is a middah, a spiritual/ethical quality or sacred energy within each of us, the integrative energy within us rendering us conscious of and uncomfortable with disconnection, and generating an instinct to reach out and foster connection. We manifest kesher by growing in awareness of and fostering greater connectedness and wholeness within ourselves, with others, and within the world.

We can experience kesher in a vertical dimension when we seek to “unite heaven and earth,” when we reach out to connect with the Divine Presence in each moment, place, and person. We can experience kesher in a horizontal dimension when we reach out to connect with others, and when we reach out to “collect the scattered sparks” and engage in acts of tzedek, justice and righteousness, and shalom, fostering peace and wholeness within ourselves and in our world.

When we attend to a middah, we can see more clearly how that divine quality may be concealed beneath the surface, within the klippot (“husks”) of the material world. We may notice within ourselves both an inclination to connect as well as defenses protecting us from the anticipated pain of rejection. Fears of difference and rejection may keep us from reaching towards connection with others. Guilt or concern that our actions will be futile and inadequate may hold us back from acts of justice and healing.

Within such “husks,” we can discern a sense of kesher, the yearning to reach out to others and the Divine. Loneliness can awakens us to disconnection from those we love, but from whom we may have drifted apart due to time and distance. Kesher leads us to consider what holds us back from maintaining these connections, whether they are best left alone, or whether they call for our attention and for actions of reconnection.

With so much bitterly dividing us today, and a prevailing sense of disconnection from our fellow creatures and the planet we share, we would be wise to cultivate the middah of kesher: reaching out to realize the latent connections uniting everyone and everything. In so doing, we infuse multiplicity with consciousness of common origin and purpose; we remember that all aspects of Creation flow from a common, single source.




Reaching Out and Reaching In

Rabbi Jonathan Slater


Mindfulness practice can seem paradoxical. That is, we bring our attention to our own direct experience – but do so, ultimately, for the sake of the world.

Through meditation we may gain insight into our own ephemeral nature. The breath comes and goes, each one different from the other. Who we are in this moment is not who we are in the next; how we behave around this person is not how we are with that one; how we look or feel today unlike yesterday. And, surely, we come to recognize that whatever we think we know about the future is fantasy, projection, imaginary.

Realizing that whatever we seek to hold on to passes away, our hearts break. First, they break for ourselves. It is painful to suffer loss, in any dimension. And, we fear the unknown. Eventually, though, through practice we come to accept the losses we do experience in our own lives. We develop a degree of equanimity for ourselves.

But, then, our hearts break for everyone else. We realize that the pain we felt is felt by all people, all beings. As the Torah describes the night of the Tenth Plague: “there was no house unvisited by death.” Everyone’s hearts are broken, all the time.

But not necessarily all at the same time. We know this ourselves, as even in the midst of our equanimity we experience pain, and may be overwhelmed for a period by loss. We see it in others: some are happy while others are sad. And then, everything changes. But, when we are a bit more balanced, we realize that we wish that all beings might be free of suffering; that no one add suffering to their pain; that all might find happiness in life as it is.

We extend comfort, and receive it when we are in pain. We look out for those in need, and accept help when we needed. This is the nature of reaching out: it comes first from reaching in. And, in reaching out we open ourselves to others.

Yechiel Mikhel of Zlotchov (an early Hasidic teacher, 1721-1786) is reported to have taught: “Before I pray I connect myself with all Jews, both great and small. I connect with those greater than I so, in that manner, they can help raise me up. And, I connect with those lesser than I so that I can raise them up.”

Whenever we reach out, we are reaching in. Whenever we reach in, we are reaching out.





Reaching Out in Compassion: The Practice of “Just Like Me”

 Rabbi Sam Feinsmith


In this meditation, we explore the ways in which our own inability to be with discomfort can hinder our ability to reach out in compassion. We use the practice of hishtavut, equating ourselves with another, to deepen our compassion and reach out more lovingly. This 20-minute recording begins with a 5-minute teaching followed by 15 minutes of guided meditation.




Reaching Out: Chesed and Kavod

Shelly Nelson-Shore


Judaism is a religion of connection. Though many of our prayers and practices can be done in solitude, and in fact encouraged to be personal and internal, Jewish practice is, at its core, communal. From the very opening of Genesis, where we learn that “It is not good for [one] to be alone” (Gen 2:18) to our modern scholars and study texts writing that “personhood is shaped, nourished and sustained in community” (Judith Plakow, Standing Again at Sinai), we are raised in the belief that connection to others is as inherent to a Jewish life as a connection to God. Cultivating the ability to reach out to others and to allow others to reach out to us becomes a prayer practice of sorts—unique in many ways to the individual, but nonetheless united by concepts and principles that define Jewish values.

At its core, the practice of reaching out can be reduced to the cultivation of two middot, or ethical characteristics: chesed (lovingkindness) and kavod (respect, dignity, honor).

Chesed is a mitzvah with no minimum or quota: any act of kindness, towards another person, towards animals, towards the world, counts. Rabbi David Jaffe writes, “Rabbi Wolbe includes in his chesed practices smiling warmly, judging others favorably, and bearing another’s burden with him or her. These are actions that weave the fabric of a community. chesed puts us in regular, intimate contact with those around us. In all these ways, chesed builds the world” (Tikkun Middot Curriculum, Institute for Jewish Spirituality).

Just as chesed is the act of reaching out to others in kindness in love, kavod is the practice of treating others—and ourselves!—in such a way that we reflect the value of b’tzelem elohim: the idea that we are all created in the Divine image. As Rabbi Jaffe writes, “If we want to understand kavod, we need to open our hearts to sense the holiness in ourselves, in others and in the world” (Tikkun Middot Curriculum, Institute for Jewish Spirituality).

When these two middot work together, we are able to recognize the dignity and holiness in the aspects of the world outside ourselves, and reach out in ways that are loving, respectful, and kind. We are better able to respond to the needs of others in ways that honor their wholeness and autonomy, and at the same time, better able to recognize our own needs and ask for help in sharing our own burdens. We can see the ways we need our communities to nourish us and seek out that care, and simultaneously act with love when others ask for nourishment from us. When the burdens of others cause us to feel discomfort or resistance—or when we notice our own resistance to reaching out for a helping hand—the cultivation of these middot allow us to respond to that resistance with tenderness. Through the work of these middot, we can build holy, connected communities: for ourselves, for others, and for the world.


Tikkun Middot Practices for Chesed and Kavod, excerpted from the IJS Tikkun Middot Curriculum


  1. Give your best, warm attention and a smile to at least three different people each day. Try to really notice the people to whom you are giving your attention. Again, the goal of the exercise is not simply to smile and give attention to people, but to notice what it is like for you to do this.
  2. Once each day, notice someone else doing something good, or doing something well.
  3. Choose one 30 minute period during the day during which you do something to honor anyone who comes your way.
  4. Focus Phrase:
    1. Haveh Mekabel et Kol Ha’adam b’sever panim yafot (Pirkei Avot 1:15) / Greet each person (the whole person) with a warm smile
  5. Questions to consider:
    1. How do you like to receive love?
    2. In what ways do you find yourself showing love to others?
    3. In what ways do you seek praise and recognition?
    4. Is it easier or harder to give respect to certain people? Why do you think? What does that resistance feel like?
    5. What experience do you have with the relationship between self-kavod and giving kavod to others?