Soon I’ll be in my backyard, building my rickety old sukkah, laying palm fronds on its roof, trying not to kill myself with a falling beam, cursing out my clumsiness and the thorns or splinters that come my way. My sukkah-building has been the butt of family jokes for decades. But no one complains as they dine among the decorations on a beautiful autumn evening. I love Sukkot’s earthiness, the glow of Hanukkah’s candles piercing winter’s darkness, and singing until our voices give out at our Passover Seder. Each festival brings unbridled joy, celebrated in the warm company of family, friends, and community.
By David Waksberg
Many years ago, I was in an area in the Soviet Union that had been a Nazi killing field during the Holocaust. Thousands of Jews had been murdered there. But there was no plaque there, no stone, nothing to mark the graves of the victims or even to acknowledge what had happened there. The fact that Jews had been exterminated there – this was covered up for years. In fact, the government built a housing project on the site.
I was there 45 years after the end of the war. And what had happened at that place was still shrouded in silence and denial. But, around that time, some of the buildings were falling apart. It turned out the bones of the victims were coming up from beneath the earth and destabilizing what had been built on top of them.
The lie that had been constructed was literally crumbling.
I guess that was the first time I truly saw and understood the cost of silence and denial.
Here is a story from Rachel Lev’s Shine a Light:
“I had no place to run,” writes a survivor of sexual abuse, “no place to hide, no place to find someone I could count on – not my rabbi, not my religious school-teachers, not even my Jewish neighbors. I had no choice but to submit and muddle through.”
Survivors’ stories are about trust and the betrayal of trust. And who is the betrayer? The betrayer is the one in whom trust is placed, and who violates that trust. First and foremost it’s the abuser, of course – so often someone in a position of trust, power, authority.
But consider –
“No place to find someone I could count on – not my rabbi, not my religious school-teachers, not even my Jewish neighbors”
She placed her trust first in her family – but that’s where the abuse was; and then, in the community (her neighbors), her teachers, and her rabbi.
That’s what I would do. If I needed help, where would I turn? Who would I count on? My family, my community, my teachers, my rabbi.
Her experience (and her experience is all we have and, let’s face it, all that’s truly relevant) is that she is let down. She’s seeking people she can count on. She finds none.
Is not this too a betrayal of trust?
Now, we don’t really know what happened with her neighbors and her teachers and her rabbi. We don’t know if she reached out to them and was let down or if she simply perceived that she would be let down and was too frightened to try.
Does it really matter?
Do I ever want someone – someone who is in a vulnerable position, someone who needs help – to feel that they can’t count on me? Because – even if they could count on me – if they didn’t know that they could, then what difference did it make?
It’s not enough to be rock solid. The person in need must really know that we are rock solid.
Most of us here – clergy, educators, counselors, Jewish professionals –consider what we do important and even noble and sacred. All of us serve people, serve our communities. And all of us have people who count on us. Have we done what we need to do to let them know that they can count on us? What steps can we take to make that so?
Survivors’ stories are about trust and the betrayal of trust. And, like so much of Jewish history and experience, they are about power and powerlessness.
In this story – we are the powerful ones. We are the ones with the opportunity to come through; we have the power to protect, to heal. Or not. But let’s not fool ourselves – there is no middle ground. There is no such thing as neutrality here. We either continue and compound the betrayal of trust or we are the ones who interrupt it.
Alice Walker wrote: “What is painful is that what I am writing, someone right now is living.”
We learned that 1 in 5 children in this country is sexually assaulted before the age of 18. Research tells us that patterns among Jews don’t differ that much from the general population – certainly, we are less exceptional than we wish to believe. Which means that – while we’ve been meeting today, a Jewish child somewhere has experienced incredible pain and horror.
Actually – when I first wrote that, I wrote – “unspeakable pain and horror.” But I’m not going to say that. “Unspeakable” is the word I’m not going to say any more. The fact that this issue has felt unspeakable for so long is such a big part of the problem. We must end that and the only way to end it is to speak the unspeakable and make visible that which has been hidden.
The single most powerful factor contributing to child sexual abuse is the ability to get away with it. And the ability to get away with it depends on its unspeakability; and on our collusion, our denial, our silence, our fear. Silence is the enemy.
We are all here because we know we have the capacity to make a difference. Let’s be honest, we can leave here feeling a little better about ourselves or we can leave here with an intention and a plan to actually make change – to break the cycle of betrayal, to use our power to heal. We are leaders. We can and must be the change we seek.
No single individual can provide the answers. I don’t believe that is how collective impact works. But I do have some questions, that I hope will help us to develop those answers together.
We’ve learned an enormous amount today – thanks to our wonderful presenters. The question now is what we do with what we learned.
Those of us who work in and represent institutions –
- What did we learn today that is actionable in our professional capacities?
- Do we have a set of protocols in our congregation, school, or agency? Did we learn enough to create one? If not, do we know who to reach out to for help?
- Do we have a plan to share what we learned with others? And how will we do that?
- Are our staffs educated? Do they know how to identify signs of abuse? Are they equipped to respond appropriately? Do they understand reporting requirements? Do they know how to report?
- Do those most vulnerable understand how and where to get help? Are our stakeholders aware of this issue and aware of our policies?
- Have we created a culture and an environment that make is as clear as possible that we CAN be counted on? A culture in which children (and anyone really) feel safe coming to us? And what would it take to make it so?
- Are we equipped to provide the spiritual and emotional support needed for healing? Are we equipped to provide this support to ourselves? Are we ready to receive it?
For each of us as individuals – are we prepared to deal with survivors with open ears, open minds, and open hearts? Are we prepared to be their advocates? Do we understand how this issue relates with Jewish values around teshuva/repentance, and around the power of words? What personal and professional learning must we still do and do we know where and how to get that learning?
And what if the accused is a colleague, a friend, a respected mentor? What then? Can we be counted on then? That’s where the rubber hits the road, doesn’t it? Will we have the courage to still listen with open minds and hearts to something so hard and so painful to hear? Or will we take the easy road of denial and join the long line of rabbis, teachers, leaders, and neighbors who, when push came to shove, couldn’t be counted on. This is where leadership of strength, courage, and compassion is needed.
And then there is the communal level. How do we ripple beyond our own institutions? So many of us participate in collegial networks. We have an educators’ council. Our Day School Heads have their own network. Our synagogue executives have BATA. We have networks of teen educators, of early childhood educators. The Board of Rabbis. How can we use these networks to share information, learn from one another and help our community get beyond silence? And how can we use these networks to multiply and magnify our impact? And how might we build on this network – the 150 of us who came together today – to build on what we learned and shared together, to create collective impact for our community?
And what about those i who don’t belong to our shuls, who don’t go to our schools? We who are leaders in our community – do our responsibilities end at the edge of our real estate? And is there no correlation between the experience from the survivor I quoted – that she could find no one in our community she could count on – and an individual’s decision not to affiliate? If that were your experience – would you?
How can we take what we learned today to make our community a safe haven? Or, at the very least – a safer haven.
This is a story of power and powerlessness. And we are the powerful ones.
Many of us think of our institution as a kehillah kedoshah – a place where holiness resides; a place where we are in the continual state of striving for and creating holiness. And we should, because – whether they are searching for God or knowledge or for community – our stakeholders are looking for holiness. They seek it in our institutions and they seek it in our community.
Holiness is what our tradition is after. It is about understanding what it means to be holy, and then – doing it.
There are many ways we can be holy and many ways to make our institutions holy. The rabbis might say that holiness has 70 faces. But this we know - holiness cannot coexist with violence and abuse. It just can’t. And trying to create a community of holiness in a place of silence and denial of abuse, is, l’havdil, kind of like trying to build a housing project and pretending that the housing project is not sitting on a killing field. It’s bound to crumble.
I think that’s why we are all here, why we all took a whole day out of our busy schedules – because we understand that this work is not a “nice to have.” It is essential to who we are – as individuals, as institutions, and as a community.
Which is why we can’t let this end here.
I am grateful to my colleagues on the organizing committee for their leadership and we are all grateful to you for your leadership – in being here, and for your leadership going forward.
Remember that silence is our enemy. Silence is denial. Silence is pain. Silence is betrayal.
Beyond silence means we leave silence behind – as individuals, as institutions, and as a community. It’s the path – and the only path – of hope and of holiness.
Chazak v’amatz, v’rachmanut. May we possess the strength, courage, and compassion, and may we give to one another and to our colleagues, our congregants, our students, the strength, courage, and compassion to make it so.
By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
Processing last week's tragic events in Paris will continue in the days and weeks ahead. First, we remember and honor the victims and send comfort to their families. Our tradition offers us some guidance:
The traditional Jewish response to death is “Baruch Dayan Emet “ (blessed is the true judge). There are many explanations for this blessing, which derives from the Mishnah. We’ll share one, from Bay Area Rabbi Ruth Adar:
“The moment of death is a time when no words suffice, but we are relentless with our words…Baruch Dayan emet” – ultimately it says, I have no words for this. We stand with the mourner in the presence of the greatest mystery of life...”
The Jewish way is to tell mourners – May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. At the heart of these words: You are not alone.
When we engage in study, it is traditional to begin with a blessing. It is also the custom of some to dedicate our study to another’s memory. Those who murder patrons of a kosher market seek to kill Jews and Judaism. One response can be to embrace Jewish life all the more so. And embracing Jewish life involves learning. As we engage in Jewish study we might dedicate our learning to Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Phillippe Braham, and Francois-Michel Saad – the four victims of Friday’s attack.
Yohan Cohen, 20, was of North African descent. When the attacker threatened to kill a 3 year old, Yohan tried to grab his gun and was shot in the head. On Facebook, one mourner wrote: “Yohan, you were an example of kindness and goodness, you were the pride of your family and all your friends!”
Phillippe Braham, 45, was a father of four. "He loved Israel...He was an observant man who never harmed anyone,” said his brother, a French rabbi.
Yoav Hattab, 21, had just returned to Paris from a Taglit-Birthright project in Israel. The son of a Tunisian rabbi, Yoav was studying in Paris. “It’s better to live in peace, there are no other options,” Yoav wrote during the Gaza War last summer.
Francois-Michel Saada, a father of two, was 63. Born in Tunis, Francois-Michel was a pension fund manager. “He led his life for the happiness of his family. A husband and an exemplary father,” one of his friends said.
May their memories live on as a blessing. May their families and friends be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
For years we did not fast on Tisha b'Av. The 9th of Av, a Jewish day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temple, along with other calamities through history.
We didn't fast because, well, it's complicated. In my youth, I'd learned that we fast on Tisha b'Av to mourn the destruction of the Temple. In the long run, I didn't think the destruction of the Temple was such a bad thing - Judaism adapted and evolved. We were again, as Hatikvah notes, a free people in our land. I'd moved on and I was not interested in a third Temple.
But my purpose is not to explain why I stopped fasting; rather, about why I started again. This year.
The rabbis attributed the destruction of the Temples to sinat chinam (causeless hatred). That phrase - causeless hatred - always struck me. Is there such a thing as causeful hatred? I get it, causeless hatred referred to hatred without reason (among ourselves). But when is there a good reason to hate?
But again, I digress. I came to realize that my Jewish education failed me. Because the thing to mourn on Tisha b'Av is not the Temple, but the sinat chinam - the hatred that caused its destruction. The hatred among Jews. The hatred of the Babylonians toward the Jews. The hatred of the Romans. The hatred of England toward its Jews, who were expelled on the 9th of Av, 1290. The hatred of the Spanish Inquisition that led to, on the 9th of Av in 1492, the expulsion of every Jew after centuries of life in Spain. The hatred of the Nazis, who began to deport the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps on the 9th of Av, 1942.
My Jewish education failed me because what I learned about Tisha b'Av was the most basic and least interesting aspects. I felt scant connection to the Temple and its rituals. But hatred, pettiness and dehumanization - these were and are all around me.
When has "causeless hatred" been more alive than today? It was among those Palestinians who kidnapped and murdered Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yiftach, and Gilad Shaar. Among those Jews who abducted and burned alive Mohammed Khdeir. It is alive in Nigeria, where school girls "disappear" and Boko Haram has killed more than 3,000 people this year. And it is thriving in Syria - where the death toll is nearing 200,000 (most of them non-combatants) and in Iraq, where Sunni ISIS fighters are targeting Shia, Christians and other non-Sunni groups - the death toll there is nearing 10,000 civilians during the last 12 months and Christians are being singled out for forced conversion, expulsion, or death.
Will my fasting today end hatred tomorrow? Not likely. But why do we fast in the first place? To focus our attention and look inward. So I'm starting with myself - reflecting on the dark corners of my own heart. I'll see where that takes me.
RESOURCES and RUMINATIONS
Tisha b'Av and Non-Violence
by Vavi Toran
Your Kids Are Ready To Talk About Israel. Are You?
Discussing crisis with civility
Leaving Baggage and Blame at the Door
A Simple Guide to talking to your friends
from Stories Without Borders
Useful questions for educators to pursue
From the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education
Seeking new insights into difficult questions
Peoplehood questions and the crisis in Israel
Yesterday we received the tragic news that Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach will not be returning to their families alive. For the last two weeks we have felt these boys to be our own. We were unified in solidarity with them and their families, and we are unified in our grief.
As educators and as parents, these events pose challenges to us - how do we address such tragedies in our teaching? What do our students need from us?
We've compiled a few resources that may be helpful to teachers, camp counselors, youth group leaders, and parents. Some of these address helping young people cope with loss and terror, and some of them help to address some of the toughest questions this tragedy raises. Many of these are not explicitly labeled for specific ages - so we must use our judgment as to what is age appropriate.
I'm sharing this with a wider list than only our educators for a couple of reasons. Many of us are parents and these resources could be helpful to parents as well as educators. And, I suspect that young people are not the only ones who may have some difficulty in sorting out their thoughts and feelings. In my experience, we often feel frustrated and powerless in the aftermath of such events, and those feelings of powerlessness can take us in many directions. Not all of those directions are healthy or useful. Some of these resources may be of help to all of us.
And, there is one other reason.
That all of us are in some state of shock or mourning for three boys we never met says something about us, and about our relationship with one another. We all feel this loss; we all feel, in some way, that we lost family. Because, in some way, we did.
We don't have a shiva service to attend and we are not in direct relationship with the Frenkel, Shaar, and Yifrach families. And yet, most of us feel the need to do something, to reach out to someone. I've been struck by all the emails I've received from Jewish organizations mourning the loss of these three boys; and all the Facebook posts of friends. I think, in some way, we all have a need to grieve together, to give and to receive strength and comfort from each other. That is what happens with families who experience loss. That is part of what peoplehood is about.
So, here's our expression of condolence. Because we are educators, we honor their memory by remembering them and by sharing what knowledge and wisdom we can gather. If you can use these resources - please do so, and, in your teaching or parenting - honor the memory of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal. For those of us who are parents, we might use this opportunity to embrace our children and remind them that they are loved and that they are safe. And for those of us who whose hearts have been broken yet again, may we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion, may we comfort one another, and may the memories of Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal be as a blessing.
From our colleagues at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, this excellent compendium for Responding to Crisis.
From our friends at the iCenter, this guide with resources for discussing tragedy in Israel.
From the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University in Israel, this Islands of Resiliency site focuses on dealing assisting children in dealing with crisis and tragedy.
From Yeshiva University - this article on helping children and adolescents cope with loss and terror.
We hope some of these may help. If you know other other good resources, please let us know so we can share them with other educators.
Jewish LearningWorks | Chief Executive Officer
A letter to our Board and to the many supporters who enable our work
I spent a few hours this weekend up at our Special Needs Family Camp, as usual, I was blown away.
My wife, Ellen and I attended the talent show Saturday night. This is an annual highlight when (mostly) the kids perform. Some parents, some staff but mostly the kids. And by the kids, I mean those kids who are there because of their special needs and also some of their siblings for whom the opportunity to be the center of attention is itself a rare one.
Kids ages 6 to 24 from the Peninsula to Sacramento, San Francisco to the East Bay took the stage to perform "from each according to their ability."
Performances included singing songs, playing an instrument, doing a dance, or even just blowing one note on a recorder. The audience – kids, siblings, parents, staff, guests – all took enormous delight with each performance.
After the talent show – there was a pajama party for the kids and a wine reception for the parents. These are, for the most part, parents who are rarely, if ever, able to hire a baby-sitter; one of the great benefits of this weekend is our 1:1 staff-camper ratio gives them much needed respite. As one dad told us: “I actually took a nap today. I can’t remember the last time I was able to just take a nap.”
Our staff consists of adults and teens from a variety of backgrounds. Several Jewish LearningWorks staff (present and past) VOLUNTEER and we also rely on Sonoma State students– which means a ton of youthful energy. We had some teen volunteers and seasoned volunteers as well as some experts brought in to lead workshops for parents (e.g., speech pathology, financial planning, etc). Rabbi Rick Winer (Fresno) was our designated spiritual leader, along with his wife, educator Rabbi Laura Novak-Winer and their son Max Winer who was our Song leader. Rabbi Meredith Cahn and Reb Irwin, former Family Camp Spiritual leaders, as well as Dance Specialist Bruce Bierman also joined us. David Neufeld was there, of course; we contract the wonderful Cheryl Cohen, an East Bay educator, to direct the camp.
When I attend INCLUDE events, parents always come up to thank me – which is odd because I have less to do with the camp than any other staffer there. I try to act humble, but the fact is – they are thanking me as the representative of YOU. They know that this project costs money – they are thanking me, they explain, because Jewish LearningWorks continues to make them and their kids a priority. Because we, by virtue of this camp, continue to remind them that they are part of the Jewish people, and that they and their children are important to us and our community. This is, unfortunately, not always obvious to them and not always reinforced in their interactions with the Jewish community (this is what we are trying to change, right?).
Our tag line for “Creating Inclusive Jewish Community” reads – “Creating safe space for all families to feel welcomed and included in Jewish communal experience, regardless of background or ability.”
That is exactly what I take away from Special Needs Family Camp each year and that is why we do it.
So, again, on behalf of the parents, I convey their message to you: Thank you.
David Waksberg, CEO
From David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
We had not even left Egypt before Moses passes along the commandment to "Remember this day, on which you went from Egypt, the house of enslavement..."
Passover bombards our senses to remind us of this seminal moment of liberation. The maror, the haroset, even the matzah evoke the bitterness, the harsh labor, the affliction of slavery. The Torah instructs us to explain to our children - "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt." The Haggadah calls upon us to see ourselves as having personally gone out from Egypt.
With this heightened awareness - we are instructed not to oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt. And Passover helps us REMEMBER WHAT THAT FEELS LIKE.
How strange then, to be at a Seder, celebrating our freedom, and realize we are eating chocolate, drinking coffee, and wearing clothing produced by slaves.
Slavery remains very much alive in our world and in our lives. In fact, abolitionists assert that there are more than 20 million people in some form of slavery today - more than at the peak of the slave trade two centuries ago. In collaboration with our partners at Fair Trade Judaica, we began to learn how to make our Passover Seders slave-free. And then we realized - as educators, we strive to empower our students to apply the wisdom of our tradition to the reality of their lives. Passover offers a wonderful opportunity to shine a light on contemporary slavery. Just as Passover calls upon us to feel as if we ourselves were slaves, it calls upon us to not avert our eyes to the trafficking and bondage that surround us.
Therefore, we have compiled some slavery-free resources to help us learn and teach. They include:
- Curricular materials for educators about contemporary slavery through a Jewish lens;
- Texts/source material related to slavery/trafficking/unfair & exploitive labor practices
- Supplementary material for Seders dealing with contemporary slavery/trafficking;
- Information on Fair Trade products
- Background information on contemporary slavery and trafficking in our world, our products, our community, and our lives, and what we can do about it.
We are indebted to our friends at Fair Trade Judaica for their partnership in preparing these materials. We hope you find them useful.
From David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
Late one night last month, my wife was sharing three things for which she was grateful - a daily practice we'd begun together. I didn't respond - not entirely unusual; my distractedness is not something for which she is grateful.
I was distracted by an electrical short in an extension cord, shooting sparks onto the carpet. In a moment, we had a full-blown fire in our bedroom.
Three fire engines later, the fire was contained, no one was hurt and aside from the insurance deductible and the inconvenience of living at a hotel for the last month, we emerged unscathed. When we finally arrived at a motel in the wee hours of that first night, we picked up where we had left off: we were grateful that the fire was not worse, that we were awake when it happened, and that no one was hurt.
The fire was the latest in a string of "unfortunate incidents" that have filled a year of near misses. Among them - a bicycle accident in which I broke my hip, leading to surgery and a lengthy convalescence.
As I was recovering, I was struck by how grateful I was - that it was not worse, that I received excellent medical care, that I had good health insurance, that so many family and friends helped out. Though my life was arguably better the day before my accident, I had not been filled with gratitude then - far from it. Noting how each calamity during this year only increased my sense of gratitude, I wondered why it was that my gratefulness increased when things were "bad." Perhaps it was the near-miss quality of these events. Like the man in the story, "It Can Always Be Worse" - who complains that his house is too small until the rabbi advises him to bring a goat, a chicken and a cow into his house - these events highlighted how much worse it could have been and helped me to appreciate what we have, and what had not been lost. Mykavanah (intention) became - to feel gratitude EVEN WHEN THINGS ARE GOING WELL.
Gratitude is a core Jewish value. Our very name (Jew) is derived from the Hebrew word for thanks - we, the Jewish people, are the people of gratitude. But what does this mean?
"Who is wealthy?" asks Pirke Avot. "HaSameach b'chelko - One who is happy with their portion." But is that it? Is contentment with our lot the key to happiness?
In his story Bontsha the Silent, the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz lampoons the extreme humility of diaspora Jewry embodied by the title character whose deepest desire is for nothing more than a hot roll with butter each morning. Observing our gratitude in the face of a series of calamities, some of my friends questioned its authenticity. "It's ok to feel anger about all this," they counseled. Which led me to wonder - can gratitude be a form of denial? Or surrender, accepting what should not be accepted?
Historically, the Jews have not been known for being happy with our portion. From Jacob, wrestling with angels to so many modern Jews in the vanguard of so many social justice and revolutionary movements - acceptance of the status quo is not the dominant image of the Jewish people. We are, as Moses continually reminds us over 40 years of wandering, a troublesome and cranky people.
Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has devoted his career to the subject, defines gratitude as the acknowledgement of having received a gift, recognition of the goodness of the gift and of the fact that the source of the gift is from outside of ourselves. In other words, not a blind acceptance or settling for what is, but the ability to take note of goodness and to understand that it is not an entitlement.
This is consistent with the Jewish definition of gratitude -hakarat hatov(recognizing the good). In the last century, Abraham Joshua Heschel elevated this notion to a sense of wonder or, as he called it, radical amazement. "...to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted...To be spiritual," Heschel asserted, "is to be amazed." Gratitude is about being present in order to appreciate the gifts we receive.
In this sense, gratitude becomes not simply the attitude of gratefulness, but a cognitive process - a way of perceiving the world. There is a midrash, a story of two men among the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. They are amidst the entire nation - hundreds of thousands of people - crossing from Egypt to Sinai. In this sea of humanity, they could not see Moses, they could not see the parting of the waters. Their heads down, they only notice that they are traipsing through mud. "We had mud in Egypt, and here we have more mud. What's the difference?" they kvetch. Surrounded by a miracle, they only see mud. "Wonder," Heschel suggests, "is a state of mind in which...nothing is taken for granted."
Who is wealthy? Asks Pirke Avot. Perhaps a richer translation of HaSameach b'chelko would be - one who rejoices in their blessings. If we learn this lesson well, we will indeed be "the people of gratitude."
From David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
An airplane plunges into the ocean, killing all onboard. The ensuing investigation pits safety experts investigating what went wrong against officials trying to deflect blame. “One of the world’s important divides,” observed a writer, “lies between nations that react well to accidents and nations that do not…The first requirement…the intention to get the story right, wherever the blame may lie.”
Denial is a powerful impulse – for governments, organizations, and people. We’ve evolved to protect ourselves from threats and we often perceive information as threatening.
No one enjoys coming to grips with their flaws; we construct narratives that cast ourselves in a positive light. We judge others by their actions, because it is their actions we experience. We judge ourselves by our intentions, which are often more noble than our actions. However things turned out, we know we meant well. Cognitively, we are set up to give ourselves a pass. Getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie is a tall order.
Getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie, is at the heart of the six-week process that began on Rosh Hodesh Ellul in early August and ends with the Neilah (concluding) service on Yom Kippur. That process is often referred to as teshuvah (repentance) and cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul). In a sense, the tradition sets us up to conduct our own personal investigation. For sure there has been a mishap or two over the past year, if not a full-blown crash. Teshuvah is about getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie.
Teshuvah is a brilliant invention. It’s better to know what caused a crash, than to protect someone’s job or national pride. In the long run, it’s better for our relationships and our souls to understand how we have caused hurt and pain than to protect our egos. This is difficult and counter-intuitive. Teshuvah offers a guide for conducting this investigation.
Ethicist Louis Newman, in his book, Teshuvah, outlines seven steps: culpability, remorse, confession, apology, restitution, soul reckoning and transformation.
These seven steps contribute to what eminent 20th century Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik referred to as the double purpose of Yom Kippur. The first is kapparah, acquittal or atonement. This is transactional between us and the person we’ve harmed, between us and God). The second purpose istaharah, purification . Soloveitchik held that sin pollutes our souls, and the process of teshuvah helps us “get the story right” so we might learn from our past errors in order to transform ourselves. This is why “soul reckoning” and “transformation” are the final steps in the teshuvah process. Tellingly, Soloveitchik also translated taharah as catharsis – a clue that something substantial is required.
Most of us avoid the catharsis Soloveitchik recommends. Non-specific and conditional, the common phrase “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you during the past year” may be well-intended, but it approaches forgiveness as an entitlement. Newman points out the difference between “I’m sorry you took offense at what I did” (insincere) and “I’m sorry for having acted in a way that offended you” (sincere). Forgiveness is available, but if it is meaningful, it can’t be obtained on the cheap.
Teshuvah is, firstly, a learning process with common, yet profound learning outcomes:
- Cognitive (knowing) – we become aware of our transgressions. The weeks leading up to the Day of Atonement are intended for this purpose, as is the High Holy Day liturgy – all that breast beating is intended to help us reflect on how we ourselves have engaged in these specific behaviors.
- Affective (feeling) – we feel responsibility and remorse.
- Behavioral (doing) – we act – apologize, make restitution, and behave differently going forward.
Soloveitchik and Newman add a fourth outcome – spiritual transformation. By the process of atonement, our souls are purified and our spirits are transformed through KNOWING, FEELING, AND DOING, as demanded by the teshuvah process.
Teshuvah, a sophisticated learning system, developed over thousands of years, takes work, study, and practice. As with any serious subject of study (and the subject here is our lives, our relationships, our souls) – there are no shortcuts. So often, our attention, our teaching, our learning, involves the trappings of these holidays, at the expense of the essence. It is the season of soul renewal.
We can’t do accounting of our souls all the time – we’d never get anything done. The tradition sets aside time for serious reflection, accountability, and atonement. Now is that time. Holiness may be the end goal, but there are many other benefits, including healing and forgiveness. Real teshuvah is not trivial, but neither is it impossible. As Moses says in the Torah portion for the week of August 31, “it is not distant, it is not in heaven…rather it is very near you, in your mouth and your heart.”
We at Jewish LearningWorks wish you a happy, healthy, and sweet new year, a year of learning, growing, and healing.
From David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
“How desolate lies the city, once so full of people,” begins the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah’s wail of grief over the (first) destruction of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was laid waste and Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.
In Lamentations, which Jews read on Tisha B’Av (9th of Av -tonight and tomorrow), Jeremiah assigns blame for the catastrophe, not with Nebuchadnezzer (the Babylonian king), but at the feet of the Jews themselves - it was our own behavior that brought on this calamity.
Six hundred years later history repeats itself as the rebuilt Temple and Jerusalem are again destroyed, this time by the Romans. Incredibly, both events occurred on Tisha B’Av.
The destruction of the 2nd Temple is an event that weighed heavily on the rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the centuries following that tragedy. They sought to explain the cause of the disaster. Like Jeremiah, they found the need to look no further than a mirror.
Sinat chinam or “groundless hatred” -led to their downfall, the rabbis claim. Groundless hatred does not refer to disputes or controversy. Makhloket l’shem shamayim,a “dispute for the sake of heaven,” celebrates the notion that we can disagree and even argue over important matters. In the Talmud, even when the rabbis agree on an interpretation - the alternative approach is presented as well.
At the end of a dispute over law between the followers of Hillel and those of Shammai, the Talmud reports a heavenly voice saying: Elu v’elu devrei elohim chayim - “These and those are the words of the living God.” It proclaims both sides of the disagreement are worthy. “But the law follows Hillel,” concludes the heavenly voice. Why? Because the followers of Hillel were “kindly and modest and studied both their rulings and those of Shammai.” (Eruvin 13b)
We are a disputatious people. Part of Jewish education involves learning how to manage these “disputes for the sake of Heaven” without tearing ourselves apart in sinat chinam, petty and groundless hatred.
The last vestige of the destroyed Temple is haKotel, the Western Wall. In a religion that exalts time, the Wall is the closest we Jews get to sacred space and once again it is in our sacred space that sinat chinam has reemerged. Visions differ on how that space should be used. These could be respectful “arguments for the sake of heaven,” however, the Women of the Wall have seen more of the sinat chinam that our rabbis suggest brought about the destruction of the Temple.
Last month, as their prayer service was disrupted, a woman carried a note from a friend fighting cancer, a prayer for healing to be placed in a crack in the wall. Once it was clear she would not get near the wall, the woman asked those who were blocking their way if one of them would please take the note and place it in the wall. “Your friend should die,” was the response.
In his Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis cites Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of “these and those are the words of the living God.”
“...the truth of the light of the world will be constructed from many points of view and varying approaches, for “both these and those are the words of the living God.”... the multiplicity of views that emerges from the differences of souls and education is just that which enriches wisdom ...”
In Rabbi Lewis’s view, Rav Kook challenges the equation of peace with “oneness.” He suggests that peace (shalom has the same root as shalem - wholeness) emerges out of the “diversity that includes all of the unnumbered dimensions and pathways to wisdom” (R. Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation).
The young men and women in Jerusalem who have been mobilized in violent opposition to the Women of the Wall are being indoctrinated in the ways of groundless hatred rather than educated in the ways of arguing for the sake of heaven. Education, in contrast to indoctrination, equips our minds with the kind of critical thinking the rabbis of the Talmud modeled for us, and it is this critical thinking that enables us to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue with one another.
The Jewish world is filled with disagreement - religious, political, cultural. The lessons from Tisha B’Av are not to engage in zealotry and dehumanization of the “other” in a never-ending spiral of hatred. They are, rather, to find and respect the humanity and merit even in ardent dispute.
As we prepare for Tisha B’Av and mourn the destruction that has accompanied this day, let us mourn and challenge sinat chinam, the groundless hatred that plagues us still. And may our educators prepare our students for a meaningful Jewish life which requires engagement in meaningful and respectful “disputes for the sake of heaven.”
By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King declared fifty years ago before a quarter-million people gathered on the Washington Mall. Those who watched the news on our black & white TVs knew the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was all about racial equality, or its absence, in our country. The March addressed changing laws to advance equality. The March and King’s speech also influenced the way others in this country saw people of color, and how they saw themselves.
The contemporary corollary to the civil rights movement of those days is the push for equal rights regardless of sexual orientation. It is LGBT Pride Month, with LGBT Pride Shabbatot and other events occurring throughout our community, and organizations like Keshet and A Wider Bridge working to advance LGBT inclusion in Jewish life.
In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, king of Moab, fears the Israelites and commissions a prophet, Balaam, to curse them. When Balaam finally sees the Israelites, he does not curse them; instead he blesses them. “How fine are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel,” he famously pronounces. “Blessed are they who bless you,” he concludes, “and cursed are they who curse you.”
Balaam was hired to curse people he didn’t know. It is easier to demonize people you have not met. When he was able to actually see them – really see them, and see their humanity – he could not help but bless them.
Did you ever have a pre-conceived notion about someone and have that image turned upside down upon actually meeting them? Who knows how long it would have taken me to overcome my own homophobia if two of my best friends in high school had not come out as gay?
Vision plays an important role in Balaam’s story. At first, Balaam’s vision is impaired – he cannot see an angel that is visible even to his donkey. Perhaps God’s role was to enable Balaam to see beyond the stereotypes, myths, and fears he was fed and to see the Israelites for who they truly were – deserving of blessing. Perhaps that is God’s role with us still.
The focus of the March on Washington in 1963 was on the REST of America –a call to change our perspectives. Soon thereafter, much focus in the African-American community shifted inward. “Black is Beautiful” advanced pride in who you were – regardless of the state of white racism.
Growing up, I related to “Black is Beautiful” as a Jew; it helped me focus less on external anti-Semitism and more on my own Jewish pride. Pride, as opposed to shame – that emotion that so perniciously embeds itself into the hearts and minds of the oppressed (and seems so absent among the oppressors).
LGBT Pride Month is very much about Pride as opposed to shame. I’ve noticed that at some synagogues, the mere existence of an LGBT Pride Shabbat has inspired LGBT teens to participate with pride in their synagogue. It helps them feel whole and wholly included in their community.
We can celebrate this week’s legal victory for marriage rights for the historic landmark that it is. What must accompany the march for legal equality is the change within our hearts and minds – the change that occurred in Balaam - to see one another, and ourselves, not as stereotypes, but B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God).
Join the celebration and the conversation on Facebook.
By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
We tend to label ourselves and one another. So-and-so is secular, and that guy is observant. This one is Reform and she’s an environmentalist. And so on. There is no end to the labels and distinctions.
But when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai – an event commemorated on Shavuot and one at which, according to tradition, we were all present – there’s no record of labels. We were all the children of Israel and the Torah was given to us all.
Receiving the Torah, as Vavi Toran writes in our blog , is a daily practice for many observant Jews. Increasingly, others are getting into the act – understanding that Torah and Jewish learning are our birthright.
Shavuot – zman matan haTorah - the Time of the Giving of the Torah - has emerged as a festival of Jewish learning. Jews around the world gather to study together, recreating the experience Shavuot commemorates - the experience of the children of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Across Northern California, Jews will gather for Tikkuney leyl Shavuot – Shavuot study sessions, where all are welcome.
My most powerful and meaningful learning has often happened in the wee hours of the night on Shavuot – when defenses are down and small groups of Jews – with different backgrounds (and no labels) sit and study together and grapple with our tradition and how it relates to our own lives. If you’ve never participated in one, perhaps this is the year for you to begin and join with other Jews who will feel as if we ourselves are receiving the Torah for the first time at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Because today, no less than on that day, the Torah belongs to us all.
By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks
We sometimes refer to ourselves as the “people of the book.” What does this mean and what does it say about who we think we are?
The expression’s origin is not Jewish – it is Islamic. Ahl al-kitab (Arabic for People of the Book) refers to non-Muslims who adhere to a previous/alternative documented divine revelation – this refers to Jews, Christians, and a few other monotheistic groups from the Middle East in the time of Mohammed.
For us Jews, Am ha-Sefer (People of the Book in Hebrew), refers to THE Book – Torah, which each of us is commanded to study (“Torah tziva lanu Moshe morashat kehillat Yaakov” – just before Moses dies, we are told that the Torah is commanded to us, that it is our inheritance).
But what does “Torah” mean? The Torah is five books, the Tanach includes those, plus eight additional books of the prophets and eleven additional books of writings for a total of 24. But Torah is generally understood to include Torah b’al peh (the oral law) – the Talmud, which includes another 63 tractates. And then there is nearly two millennia of Responsa – a never ending conversation about Torah among rabbis that continues to this day.
For many Jews, People of the Book, goes beyond Bible and Talmud. Torah began the Jewish love affair with books. It did not end there.
How do you relate to this idea?