Turns of Fate

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

The Joseph story with its many turns of fate is compelling on many levels.  The events of his life speak to us of the vicissitudes of mind, body, and spirit that we all experience.  I too have found myself at the bottom of a pit hollowed out by the loss of a loved one.  While we all intellectually understand the bittersweet nature of human existence, when there is seemingly no way out and the bitter becomes caustic it’s impossible to make sense of it.

Work as we may to focus on the sweet gifts of life, the daily news tosses us time and time again into more pits: a toddler is gunned down, terror is orchestrated in Paris, our kinsmen stabbed in Israel.  I close my eyes and find footing in the Shema.  Connecting with the One I hear myself asking, “help me keep the faith in me and in You”, You who are the One and Whole of everything and everyone.  Shaleim, whole, comes from the Hebrew root as shalom, peace.  When we are of the Whole we find peace.  Help me keep faith in my being a part of the Whole, a resourceful, loving part of the Whole — a kind and justice-seeking part of God.  Help me help.

In Gen. 37:13 Israel tells Joseph to check on his brother’s welfare.  Joseph says “hinneni”.  Rashi, who earlier interpreted hinneni to mean, “I am here, at your service,” tells us that Joseph’s hinneni includes humility as well as readiness.  Cast into one of life’s pits are we humbly ready to do whatever needs doing?  To climb out of the pit, to do what needs doing takes faith.  We need faith in our self that we will find the courage, the stamina to move through the bitter times in life.  We, like Joseph, are sometimes part of plot we don’t understand yet with intent we can play our part in support of the Whole.

My Shema moments remind me to get out of my own head, to be in communication with all of creation, all of the worlds, beyond space and time.  To move beyond what seems to be going right or wrong, easy or difficult for me.  When tested, Joseph finds his inner strength.  We too can find ours, but we have to listen.  A moment of Hitbodedut (meditation), a Shema moment, or walking in a forest preserve allows us to climb out of the pit and with humility meet the task we have been given.  Every story has elements of choice.  May we make our choices from makom shalom, from a place of peace, a place of the Whole.

Practice Kindness

We asked our students for their thoughts on practicing kindness.  We are pleased to share some of their essays.

Kindness in the Grey Zone
by Matthew Katz

One of our tradition’s most esteemed scholars was Rabbi Hillel, who is perhaps most renowned for his gratifying a potential convert’s challenge to teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg, by responding, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; this, in a few words, is the entire Torah; — all the rest is but an elaboration of this one, central point.  Now, go and learn it.”  This seemingly simple admonition, enshrined in our Babylonian Talmud at Shabbos 31a, is, however, arguably, the greatest puzzle in the history of humanity because we have not yet learned how to apply this “golden” rule.

There are easier ways to apply this rule, such as not throwing a knife at a your friend’s face, or not stealing another’s car.  We hear about violent incidents and crimes like these on the news each night and feel proud that we’re not like “those people” who don’t know how to follow the golden rule like we do because we opt to not engage in those horrid acts.  But there are many harder tests of our character that we get wrong every day, such as speaking negatively about others or not cautioning others for doing so, or failing to act to prevent state violence or economic animosity against others.

Yale ethicist Thomas Pogge is author of the widely acclaimed 2002 work, World Poverty and Human Rights, which indicts our institutionalized complicity in the very nature of our being first world consumers: some 270 million preventable poverty related deaths have occurred since the end of the Cold War up to the book’s publication, alone.  How many more have died since or have died today but for access to what you and I spent on one beverage?  I studied Pogge as part of an ethics course last fall titled “Rights and Justice” wherein we tackled the deep questions like what are our obligations to the 800 million people who regularly go an entire day with nothing to eat.

Forever living in what Primo Levi dubbed the “Grey Zone” we can’t but continue our quest for answers to the great questions of how to apply the golden rule—of how to embody kindness in our actions toward our friends, our enemies, those we don’t know or will likely never meet, and in where to draw the line between caring for and protecting against.  It is into this void where the teachings of Hillel and his progeny offer profound instruction regarding where to orient our behavior and how to refine our character in search of an ethical world, a world where kindness would be easy to discern and apply without artificial and arbitrarily imposed borders not of our making.

Last semester Rabbi Dr. Goldhammer introduced us to Aryeh Kaplan, who in his Meditation and Kabbalah actually discerns the five stages of character development that will establish us on the road to prophecy, imaginably the highest level of righteousness we can attain:

  1. Devekut—attachment to God in all of one’s thoughts, as in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s instruction to forever act in compassion for God’s frustration for the state of the world;
  2. Hishtavut—meaning stoicism, or as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov instructed, having no preference in ego matters, i.e., “all things should be equal to you.” This, according to Rabbi Kaplan, was the test determinative of a prospective student’s readiness for Kabbalah study, who would be asked by the would be instructors, “Do you prefer one who speaks well of you to one who speaks badly of you?”  If the answer was yes, the rabbis said keep trying and come back when you’re there;
  3. Hitbodedut—meditation in isolation to reach higher states of consciousness;
  4. Ruach HaKodesh—reception of the holy spirit and enlightenment;
  5. Prophecy.

Finally, as hard as we try, as disciplined and as studious as we might be, we probably won’t reach the level of prophecy.  That said, if consistently more of us, more diligently and more committedly, continue to work on new solutions to these millennia old problems of how to be able to be kind, to not be hateful to our fellow, in Hillel’s words, we just might see progress toward that kind of world.  It would presumably be a world in which we are not complicit in a system of depravity and injustice to billions every time we turn on the tap water or buy a cup of coffee.  It would perchance be a world where all of God’s creation would be treated as sacred, and thereby worthy of God’s presence.  I look forward to learning from you as we search together.