Moses and Miriam’s Friendship of Trust

Our sidra this week is Chukat which includes the mysterious telling of Moses emotionally striking the rock in the wilderness of Zin to bring forth much needed water for the people of Israel (Num. 20:10-11). For this, Moses was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes this is the first trial that Moses had to face as a leader without his sister Miriam who had recently passed away. Rabbi Sacks explains that the early life of Moses suggests that Miriam was Moses’ trusted friend and confidante. “Maimonides calls it the ‘friendship of trust’ (chaver habitachon) and describes it as having someone in whom ‘you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded.’” Even Moses needed a human friend that he could trust.

My fellow student Tirtzah says this is also what we need to help heal our world today. My heart has been aching since the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas policemen Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. I asked Tirtzah what can we do? She told me of her Englewood neighbors and their ‘network of trust’. These eight households began neighbor-by-neighbor to be open, unguarded and authentic with each other. Leaders such as Moses and neighbors such as you and I need friends and family we can trust.

This is one thing we can do. Give those we meet reason to trust us. Be a kind listener. Be a trusted problem-solver. Talk openly about your fears and sanctify the gift of each day by being kind.

Here is another thing we can do. Jewish law influenced Roman law, English law, and our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Men of the Great Assembly said, “”Be deliberate in judgement,’ because there is no greater act of loving-kindness than saving the oppressed (from those who would wrong them) by rendering fair judgement.” (Kehati on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 2.)

In the words of contemporary author George Saunders, “… to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespear’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

 

 

 

Practicing Kindness

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

Stop the madness!!!  —   I want to get off!!!
by Tirtzah Israel

Where’s our compassion for one another?  What happened to kindness?  Why are we so afraid to acknowledge its need and purpose in everyday life?  The power of kindness is here in our world waiting to be accessed as a collective resource, even as a preventive measure to counteract violence.

We are all sickened by the latest wake of mass killings and gun-violence due to bigotry and hatred.  Right now the earth seems to be filled with strife and malcontent.  I am reminded of the pre-flood portion to the Noach story where in his time the earth was filled with so much corruption that God decided to destroy the earth.  In our own time, we live in a society where both politician and gunman present themselves as demigods with the  “ultimate” solution for the world that appeals only to the lowest denominator of human existence.  They “fan the fires” for violence, divisiveness, power and influence both physically and psychological as a rationale for problem-solving.  These people, in my opinion, act out of ignorance, mis-information, mis-education, fear or/and are mentally deranged.

In real-time, the news outlets inundate viewers and readers with the gruesome details of human carnage that both sensationalize and desensitized the suffering of others so much so that we are rendered helpless in our grief.  We re-live these traumatic events and are shakened to the very core of our existence, yet too frightened to act as a collective body for the sake humanity.

Sure, there’s a collective, world-wide outpouring of kindness in response to these tragedies.  Yes, we are energized in those moments to support one another during the horrific initial emotional realization of raw cruelty.  However, no amount of kindness can offset the impact of the trauma perpetrated upon humanity when the outpouring of kindness occurs only in response to specific tragedies.  Without these horrific events, we too easily slip back into our self-serving and self protecting mode wishing for  safety as we desperately hold-on to our preferred lifestyle.  The test for all of us is for us to realize that we are all one people, intimately connected as one race; the human-race.  We all belong to one another and we are all responsible for one another as a collective human society.   Basically, we all want the same things out of life.  We all want to have the reasonable opportunity to be able to reach our potential, to be successful and prosperous, to be safe, happy, healthy, and no one wants to be made to feel “left-out.”  We naturally strive towards sharing — and when that doesn’t happen an eruption occurs.

Collectively, we have access to some of the most powerful tools in the world; more powerful than bullets and bombs in the form of love, compassion and kindness.   Yes, people we are designed to be kind because we all naturally gravitate towards it.  We seek kindness in one another.  Yet, it appears at least on the outside, as if we have forgotten or maybe we are ashamed of accessing that which is inherently fulfilling, intimately close and intrinsically healing  — Kindness/compassion.    These attributes are divinely bestowed upon us by The Creator.  They are part of our Universe.  In particular, kindness/compassion allows us to fulfill our highest purpose at being a shared and common humanity.  Kindness can be stress relieving.  Kindness is benevolent; Kindness fulfills our desire to do good and charitable deeds that benefits others.  And it begins with each and everyone of us, individually, to activate the kindness within ourselves; to love ourselves and to experience compassion for ourselves that can be shared by others.

If we could imagine our world without strife, without hatred and bigotry then we can actualize it.  It’s not impossible.  Together, we have the ability and power within us to make this dream a reality.  However, we  must decide to do this together.  We can simply begin by forming prayer networks that pray for the activation of kindness and compassion.  We can pray to activate healing the world; and to pray for a shared compassion that ends suffering.  It can become a contagious movement, neigborhood by neigborhood, community by community.  But, it begins with just one person — visualizing; imagining; and engaging their power to heighten kindness; compassion and love.  For the pessimist among us, I say to them I’m not suggesting we all hold hands and sing “kum-bi-ya” around the campfire (although, that’s not a bad thought).  No, I referring to a clear sense of responsibilty, and active-state of mindful kindness that honors life.

If we could just stop being so damagingly competitive, stop trying to be “the winner” and “king of the hill” for just a moment, it could create an intutive-moment that allows us to find that balance towards wholeness.  We can actually heal the world.  It’s within our power to do so because we are all connected to one another whether we like it or not.  When you are not healed, I’m not healed.  When I’m not healed, you are not healed.  But colllectively, we have the ability to end violence in our world and to achieve the wealth of balance by actively participating.     We each have the responsibilty.  We each have the power.  We each can help to turn our world around.

Please don’t be that one person who may be holding out from the rest of us impending us from achieving our goal for harmony.  It’s not too late.  The world is waiting for the power of your kind prayers with compassion.  I thank you for praying with me.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Be Brave and Balanced

 

From the Pen of Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison C. Brown

20 May, 9 Iyar marks 28 days of Counting the Omer. Tonight we reflect upon ourselves through the lens of Malchut sheb’Netzach. Malchut is the Sefirah that corresponds to our completeness in the physical realm and the Shechinah, the divine within, our source of spiritual strength. With the holographic augmentation of Netzach we reflect tonight upon our “capacity to stand up for what is right and just,” writes Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

Our election cycle offers examples of how to stand up for what is right and just. A female Senator bravely tweeted this week, “Your policies are dangerous. Your words are reckless.” While we count the Omer, we look honestly within about our policies, our attitude, our work, and our words. When we look at our thoughts and our choices honestly and with integrity it makes it possible to also critically follow the election news.

Don’t believe me.

Don’t believe everything you hear and read.

Bring clear eyes and a full heart to your day, your reflections and the election cycle.

We seek balance during these 49 days of the Omer. On Passover, we left Egypt inexperienced with freedom. We have 49 days to get accustomed to this freedom and learn to use it wisely. On the 50th day we once again receive the Torah. As we count the Omer each year and look within for our true selves, we clarify and refine our Sefirot, our transformers of God’s energy.

My husband and I have been easing our twin seniors into more freedoms this year; even so, they will be unaccustomed to the freedoms of college. I recently discovered that one of my favorite writers, George Saunders gave a commencement speech a couple of years ago. He half-jested that we are born with built-in confusions, such as the belief that our personal story is the only story and that we’re separate from the universe. “There’s us and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing sets and the state of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people.” We intellectually know better than to really believe these things, Saunders writes, but we live by them. We prioritize our own needs first.

In America we are free. We are free to meet our needs. Some are louder about this than others; some have no voice at all. Many of us are somewhere in the middle stages of our life of freedom. We manage to meet our needs and we have enough comforts that we can factor the needs of others into our priorities. Some of us are brave, both within and without our means, because we know that inner balance is found through kindness and love.

Go ahead, be ambitious Saunders told the graduates, “but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

Take stock of yourself in these days of freedom. The Source of all is nudging you to be balanced and brave.

 

Parts I through IV of this Omer series are posted on the HS Facebook Page.