Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that our spiritual tradition “begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us.” But what is asked of each of us at this moment as we navigate family, work, friendships and Jewish celebration from a distance? Or deal hour after hour with an intensity of closeness if we live isolated together with a small group of family or friends? What is asked of us in a world where Zoom has replaced coffee dates, online shopping has taken the place of marketing and work—if we are fortunate to have it—exhausts us with digital overload? What is asked of us as we live deep in a place of fear and, for some—already—the reality of illness and loss?
I want to share some perspectives that have emerged from the Innovation Lab that I’ve been privileged to direct at Hebrew College this year that could be helpful now. In this lab, rabbinic students and recently ordained rabbis are developing a range of creative educational, spiritual, social justice and interfaith projects in the Greater Boston Jewish community.
In our weekly seminar, we’ve been exploring what it means to be a thought leader for Jewish life in the 21st century. Many of the issues we’ve been discussing—creative innovation, courage, hope—speak to the challenges that we face at this moment as we do our best to live with integrity, purpose and compassion at this extraordinary time.
When we speak about thought leadership in the Jewish community in North America in 2020, our seminar has been asking what emerging issues are simply being missed by our institutions, synagogues, organizations and current leadership. At its core, thought leadership begins by asking questions: As you look around you, what are the greatest needs? What is being ignored? What work needs to be done and how do you understand your stance in relation to that work?
On a deeper level, when we engage in thought leadership, we ask about the work behind the work: What frame do we use to understand what we are actually doing in our lives at this moment?
The poet Marge Piercy writes, “The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real,” and I think how important it is to cut through the barrage of digital information thrown at us now and engage with things that feel real: activities that sustain our bodies and nurture our fragile minds, actions that are value added to the lives of others.
The poet Mary Oliver writes, “My work is loving the world,” and I only wish that more leaders saw their work in the same way.
The rabbis in the Talmud teach that our work should always be balanced with learning so that we continue to develop as full ethical beings.
Over the past several years, the frame I used for my work was “resistance of the heart against business as usual.” But these days, nothing is “business as usual,” so it is essentially important to develop a personal frame of reference to understand the life work before us at this unprecedented moment.
Generosity of spirit sometimes goes further than we imagine. As I jockeyed for position with my shopping cart waiting to be let into Trader Joe’s, I watched the 20-something woman employee doing her best to control the crowd of shoppers, all anxious to get into the store. I smiled at her and said, “You’re doing a really good job.” She looked back at me, teared up and said, “You have no idea how important those words are to me.” At a time when so many people are living with amplified anxiety, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of simply being kind, supportive and calm.
At a time when our country, our world, is so polarized, we can model our tradition’s value of engaged, respectful disagreement, where we are willing to say that even when we disagree, the human being on the other end of the email is precious and holy. At a time of public fear and psychic disruption, we can model our tradition’s commitment to hope and a belief in our ability l’taken olam beMalchut Shaddai, to transform our communities into places of compassionate response. It is neither an exaggeration nor self-aggrandizing to say that the stance we project and the attitude we radiate are shaping the future of our children, friends, families and communities.
Courage and the “Everyday Necessities of Being Alive”
It’s easy to become rigid and fall back on unhelpful patterns when crisis shapes our vision. Entering this current reality is like traveling to a new country, unknown and unexplored. But this is not the first time we, as a people, have been here. In the 1940s, the French writer Anais Nin said, “We all lose some of our faith under the oppression of mad leaders, insane history, pathologic cruelties of daily life.” And still, Nin asserted the importance of remembering to live with “curiosity and … exploration.” She wrote, “I am by nature always beginning and believing. I like to live always at the beginnings of life, not at their end.”
So, in its essence, thought leadership is living at the beginnings, being proactive, believing in and asserting our own agency. We can’t totally ignore news reports, emails and the flood of articles and videos in our inboxes, but we can choose not to be taken over and consumed by them. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Life consists of what a person is thinking all day long.” Part of living well at a difficult time is more in our power than we imagine. But it necessitates becoming clearer about what our life work is now and stubbornly focusing on the values and thoughts that we want to inform our days.
Addressing these challenges is not for the faint of heart. These are scary times and we need to ask: What does courage look like in our lives now? Increasingly, raising a courageous voice is the work of regular people, living lives with grace and generosity, modeling new visions of community and connection. The poet David Whyte writes, “To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.”
On one level, it takes courage to just get dressed in the morning and face a world that seems to change every day. It takes courage to live with grace and compassion when we fear for our own health and for the health of people we love. And it takes courage to remain hopeful when so much is blurry and unsure.
Hope With a Side Order of Reality
Some of us have mantras—phrases that keep running through our mind—in times of challenge. I realized that one of mine is from “Hatikvah,” Ode lo avdah tikvatenu, Hatikvah bat shanot alpayim. We have not lost our hope, the hope that has persisted for thousands of years.
I know from my rabbinic work with families in grief that a key to a family’s recovery after experiencing tragedy is having one person in that family who holds and articulates a vision of hope. Many families will make it through a difficult time if just one person is able to look through to the other side of a crisis and continues to say that things will eventually be all right. Living well through this situation is being able to convey to the people around us, even in our fear and uncertainty, that there will be a time when we will clasp hands, hug one another, feel safe again, celebrate in actual community and come together for work and play.
At the same time, because I’m Jewish, I like my hope served with a side order of reality. So I’m drawn to the work of cultural critic Maria Popova as she discusses how the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit “maps the uneven terrain of our grounds for hope.” Solnit writes, “It’s important to say what hope is not: It is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. …Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes—you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others.”
As we prepare to celebrate a Passover different from all other Passovers, I want to share how the writer and animator Hanan Harchol underscores how we have “room to act” in our lives. In his wonderful animation “Maror (Bitter Herbs),” Harchol says that we choose to consume the bitter herbs rather than to passively let the bitterness of life consume and overwhelm us. We have the power to act. We did not choose to be in this difficult time but we can manage the bitterness, choose what we will model and teach as we experience these difficulties.
While I am not at all in a “silver lining” frame of mind, it is true that for many people the experience of living through—and leading in—crisis is the refiner’s fire that shapes our life and our work going forward. There will be a time when this will be over and I want to be able to look back and say that I comported myself well, that I found ways to be value added to the lives of the people whom I love and the people who came to know me online. I want to be able to say that I lived with courage and I held out the hope that we would use the lessons we learned to think deeply and bring more love, compassion and hope into our many worlds.
Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D., is the director of Hebrew College’s Innovation Lab. He is a senior consultant for Hillel International and research professor in the Department of Music at Tufts University.
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