Originally published on Times of Israel on March 27, 2024

These are fearful times that try our souls. Our nervous systems are overwhelmed by the ongoing trauma of October 7, the devastation of the Israel-Gaza war, surging antisemitism, political turmoil, and more. Threatened on so many fronts, our default inclination as human beings is to speak and act reactively, or remain frozen in silence.

Our fear-based reactivity may feel good in the short term. Anger may temporarily dull our pain, grief, and anxiety, and create a short-term sense of safety. But over time our habitual reactions inevitably are revealed as clumsy and unwise, often destructive of others and ourselves. In such heated times, we often behave as our own worst enemy – even while feeling powerless to stop and change course.

It’s hard to act wisely when we are pummeled by waves of strong emotion. We struggle to hit the pause button – to stop, collect ourselves, notice other options, and choose the wise course. The eye of the hurricane, a place of calm and clarity in the midst of turbulence–a place we all need so much right now–eludes us.

Where can we find that place of calm and clarity? Jewish tradition teaches us that that calm place begins in our own minds and hearts–that it is always available to us, if we can access it.

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” wrote the Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl. “In that space is our power to choose. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” Whenever we act or speak immediately in reaction to external stimuli, without that much-needed space, we act from habit, a form of enslavement. There is no freedom, no choice, and no growth.

Jewish tradition and practice provides an antidote to reactivity
Shabbat provides us with an experience of stillness and quiet that is always available to us. Shabbat allows us to be rather than act. The fog of our mind can clear; our emotions can be fully felt, honored, and allowed to move through us. We can see more clearly and discern more wisely.

But Shabbat doesn’t only happen every seven days. We can bring Shabbat consciousness into our lives all the time, in every moment. Regardless of our level of traditional observance, we each can “keep Shabbat” by expanding the space between stimulus and response, pausing to breathe and suspend judgment – even for a moment. Some might describe this very Jewish practice in contemporary terms as mindfulness practice.

Judaism has a spiritual practice ideal for times like these: tikkun middot, a Jewish practice for developing character traits and aligning actions with our values. Tikkun middot practice integrates basic principles of Jewish mindfulness or “Shabbat awareness” with close attention to essential soul/ethical traits like loving connection, setting wise boundaries, humility, courage, and gratitude. Based on Judaism’s core principle that every human being is created in the Divine image, we come “factory-equipped” with these soul/ethical qualities.

Tikkun middot practice helps us insert and expand the space between stimulus and response. From within that space, we can more easily access our sacred traits so that rather than reacting instinctively from fear, we can freely choose a wise, sacred response representing our authentic selves, more aligned with our sacred values.

An ongoing Jewish spiritual practice can help us keep our balance – and tikkun middot is the ideal practice for trying times such as these. It can help us avoid falling prey to our baser instincts. It can help us maintain connection to sacred values and be true to who we are even when we are under duress.

The Omer: A Time for Tikkun Middot
The seven-week period linking Passover and Shavuot is known in Jewish tradition as the Omer, a time devoted to spiritual growth and ethical maturation. On Passover, we leave the enslavements of reactive habits. Over seven weeks, we shed these manifestations of slavery, growing daily in our capacity to make free choices more aligned with our essential self. On Shavuot, we arrive at Mount Sinai prepared to act freely from the moral wisdom with which we are imbued.

This spring, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality will offer a wonderful opportunity for engaging in just this process of spiritual and ethical growth – Awareness in Action: Cultivating Character through Mindfulness and Middot, a synchronous, online program in tikkun middot practice. Participants will join a supportive community of practice which helps them more consistently align their inner values with how they show up in the world.

Awareness in Action participants learn how to “practice Shabbat” in their daily lives by developing the capacity to hit the pause button before speaking or acting reactively and unwisely. Each week, they immerse in supported practice of a middah drawn from the theme of the respective week of the Omer: (1) Chesed, loving connection; (2) Gevurah, setting wise boundaries; (3) Anavah, balancing self and others; (4) Zerizut, acting promptly and persistently; (5) Hodayah, gratitude for life as it is; (6) Tzedek, seeking out and manifest what is fair, just, and right; and (7) Sh’mirat HaDibbur, wise communication. The program includes an additional post-Shavuot week of practice for fostering the middah of Emunah, faithfulness or steadfastness.

All materials are provided on a convenient online platform and supported by weekly live practice sessions I will host, and which will be led by guest faculty Rabbi Tamara Cohen, Kohenet Keshira haLev Fife, and Rabbi Aaron Weininger.

As Jews have throughout our history, we need now to draw upon the wisdom of our tradition and practices to buoy us and help us steer wisely through the storms of our individual and collective lives, to bring us and future generations to a better time and place. The approaching Passover, fraught with emotion, affords us all a precious opportunity to free ourselves from the enslavement of reactivity, to remember and return to who we truly are, and to choose wise pathways aligned with the divinity within us.