Friday, May 18, 2018

Shavuot: Our Origin Story

Superman is the last son of dead planet, raised by salt-of-the-earth parents who taught him to use his power to help others, in support of “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Wonder Woman lived her entire life on an island of peace and prosperity; learning of the injustice and imbalance in the larger world she commits herself to being an ambassador of peace and defender of the weak.

Spider-Man is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains the proportional strength and abilities of a spider; he chooses to be a super hero because of the lesson from his uncle that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt and in fear for their lives, the children of Israel escape their bondage and travel to a mysterious desert mountain, where they are gifted with a moral code and a mission: to be a holy people.

On Shavuot we celebrate the revelation of the Torah, and our acceptance of our unique destiny. On Passover we reenact our liberation from slavery, but on Shavuot we understand what it means for us to be free and how it shapes us and guides our actions in thew world.

Comic book origin stories are familiar to many of us; they tell us not just what happened to these characters, but why they choose to be heroes. Michael Chabon, in his fictionalized history of comics, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, points out that what many of the superheroes do is very similar — they fight crime — but the important thing is not if they fly or have super strength. What makes superheroes interesting, the reason people read comic books and come back to these stores over and over, even knowing that the plot follows a pattern (the hero will defeat the villain and save the world), is that even superhero characters have depth. We are intrigued by the why: why do they do what they do?

Shavuot is tied to the giving of the Torah, connected to Pesach from the counting of the Omer. Our “why” is because we were slaves in Egypt. The first commandment is our “why”: “I am Adonai your God who led you out of Egypt to be your God.” Our sense of commandedness is far more than just the first ten commandments — it comes from our often complex relationship with the Divine.

Much has been said about the “Nones”— the growing number of people who, when asked about religion, reply “None” — and there is an argument that one does not need to be religious to be moral… which is true. There are lots of paths to ethical behavior, but what makes Judaism interesting, and relevant today, is our struggle with the “why.” Does it matter if I am donating to a food pantry out of a sense of fairness, or because I feel commanded to, or because this mitzvah fulfills my Jewish soul? Ultimately, if everyone contributes no matter what the reasons, the food pantry will be full, but if I am obligated to do this mitzvah, if I see myself as a partner with God, it will not matter if I feel like it, or if I’m feeling generous or fair or sympathetic — I will continue to do this mitzvah even when I am not in the mood, because Torah is my reason why. 

Rabbi Larry Hoffman offers this translation for the first commandment: “I am the One who frees people from what enslaves them” — our origin story and our mission, our moment of realizing what we must do and how we should strive to act in the world. Yes, anyone can be ethical. Everyone can and should work to make this world a better place. On Shavuot, we affirm that it is our Judaism and our commitment to Torah that shapes us and we invite the depth and complexity and meaning it adds to our story.

written with my husband, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik

Monday, March 26, 2018

When It's Time to Stop Praying and Start Marching.

This past weekend many of us took to the streets with our communities to “March For Our Lives,” and this week we welcome the festival of Passover, which makes it a good time to remember that the Torah tells us “thoughts and prayers” can only do so much; we need action to move forward.

In Exodus 14 we read that when the Israelites were stopped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptians fast approaching behind them, Moses began to pray. The people were distressed and feared for their lives and were demanding action — and Moses offered prayers. God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” The Torah is pretty clear that there is a time for words, but when trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea, it’s time for action.

Our sages expanded on this idea in the Talmud, which teaches us that as the Jews were standing at the shore of the sea, Moses was prolonging his prayer. God said to him, “My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me?” Moses replied, “But what can I do?” God said, “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand.”

There’s a midrash that imagines God saying, “My loved ones are drowning in the sea, and the sea is raging, and the foe is pursuing, and you stand and wax long in prayer?” To which Moses replied, “God of the universe, what can I do?” And this is when God replies with the words from Exodus 14.

A story in the Talmud teaches that while Moses was busy praying, one person — Nachshon — stepped into the sea and began to walk. Nachshon had faith that God would see them to safety on the other side, and demonstrated his faith by stepping into the water.

Even in a tradition that annually celebrates the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, it is clear that we can not just cry out or send “thoughts and prayers” – we must take action. Faith is not waiting around for God to do the work, but taking that first step – speaking out and raising your hand.

That is what the teens are trying to teach us: there is a time for thoughts and prayers (and often that is where we find comfort in the face of tragedy), but the Torah teaches us that when you life is in danger, you don’t stand around praying; you have to speak to the people and take action.

This is faith. Not that God will fix it, but that we have within us the power to change the world for the better; that even when it looks as if there is no way forward, we can find a way; that even when enemies are fast approaching and threatening us, we have the strength to keep going. Faith is working together to bring a future where everyone is free from violence.

The Four Children of Metropolis

Four times the Torah tells us to teach our children about the redemption from Egypt, and from this comes a midrash that there must be four types of children who each learn in a different way. That midrash has become part of the Haggadah; every year we talk about these four types of children: the Wise One, the Wicked One, the Simple One and The One Who Does Not Know How to Ask.

Today that sounds like an internet quiz: “Answer these four questions and we can tell you which child from the Haggadah you are!”

Pop culture can give us new ways to connect to our tradition. The main characters in Superman, when taken together, can give us new insight into the four types of learners that our midrash teaches about. 

The Wise One
Lois Lane is the wise child. She is an investigative reporter, whose job requires a depth of knowledge and ability beyond the average citizen… but which also requires her to constantly ask questions in hopes of finding deeper meaning. Lois wants more – she actively seeks out knowledge, and she wants to share it with others. She knows so much about the world; what can we tell Lois that will add to her understanding of the Passover story?

The Wicked One
Lex Luthor is one of the smartest people in Metropolis, but as with any villain he makes everything about himself. “What does this have to do with me? Why should I care?” He fears what Superman brings to the world, and sees himself as better than everyone else. What can we tell Lex to help him understand that he is a part of the story, but not its center? How do we help him connect to something bigger than himself?

The Simple One
Superman is a stranger among us. No matter how much he learns about Earth and the humans who inhabit it, he always struggles to understand the strange world he landed in as a baby. He wants to understand what it is to be human, and how he can be a part of our story, but he doesn’t always see how he fits. How can we tell him our story in such a way that he will understand, and find his place within it?

The One Who Doesn’t Know How to Ask

Jimmy Olsen is always just trying to keep up. When something happens he’s right by Lois’s side with his camera, ready to point it at whatever’s happening to capture it, but he doesn’t understand what it all means. He’s easily distracted, and a bit of a goofball. He is willing, but needs our guidance. How we do we give him the tools to engage with the story? How do we help him to learn how to use his voice to ask questions and seek answers?

There are, of course, many other people living in Metropolis. Who would you pick as each of the four children?

Written with my husband, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik

Friday, December 22, 2017

How to approach life - a Dvar Torah on Vayigash for Limmud

How do you approach life?

After Joseph imprisons Benjamin his brothers come to plead for his release, Parashat Vayigash begins when Judah approaches Joseph. The midrash wonders why Judah “approaches” — he is already there in the room, having a conversation with Joseph. In Bresheit Rabbah the sages suggest different reasons for the use of the verb “vayigash” (he approached).

Rabbi Yehudah said it implies an approach to battle, as in 2 Samuel 10:13: “So Yoav and the people that were with him approached for battle.”

Rabbi Nechemiah said it implies coming near for conciliation, as in Joshua 14:6: “Then the children of Judah approached Joshua.”

Others said it implies coming near for prayer, as in 1 Kings 18:36: “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet approached.”

Rabbi Eleazar combined all these views, saying that Judah approached Joseph for all three. He imagined Judah saying to himself, “I’m here, whether it is for battle, for placating, or prayer. Whatever it is, I’m ready.”

Rabbi Simchah Bunam (1765-1827), in his commentary, suggested that prayer is only accepted favorably if it comes “from the depths of the heart and the essence of the soul,” and likewise one must prepare for war or conciliation  “with all one’s inner powers.” Therefore, Bunam concludes, the use of this word means “that Judah came closer to his own essence."

Judah is wholly present in the moment and he approaches Joseph with his whole self — hopeful that his appeal will be successful, but prepared to argue or placate. He knows that he must be prepared for any eventuality.

We often use the word approach in another way — not just for physical proximity, but when we talk about how we apply ourselves, such as our approach to a subject we are studying, our approach to work, or our approach to life.

Just as Judah did, we have the opportunity to approach things wholeheartedly, ready for whatever might come our way; but it is not always easy. It is sometimes easier, and far less risky to our sense of self, if we keep part of ourselves back. After all — we mistakenly imagine — if we are not successful in our endeavors, failure will be less painful because we were not really giving it our full effort.

Judah does not have that luxury. He is sure that his failure will result in his father’s death of a broken heart, and perhaps he knows he could not bear the guilt of betraying another brother. He has to bring his whole essence to the moment — it is too important to bring anything less as he approaches Joseph.

In all of our interactions we too can approach people or experiences by being fully present, bringing our whole essence to our endeavors and knowing that we are prepared to handle whatever may come our way. For Judah, this results in a reunion with his brother, as Joseph is so moved by Judah’s words that he bursts into tears and reveals his true identity — and ultimately, this leads to the entire family being reunited.

May we too approach life with our whole essence, just like Judah: prepared to be challenged, prepared to make peace, and prepared to find holiness in this world.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The World Needs Less Empathy - Kol Nidre 5778

The world needs less empathy. 

Not what you were expecting me to say? 

I’m a bit surprised myself; I have stood in this spot before teaching about the importance of empathy — how our experience as strangers in Egypt is supposed to lead us to empathize with other people suffering today and that our empathy should motivate us to work for causes that support the poor, refugees, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, equality, health care and more. But it turns out that inspiring empathy is not the best way to increase moral behavior and that empathy is not enough.

Empathy is often understood to be the root of compassion and moral behavior: if I feel how you feel, if I’m hurt when you hurt, then I will do whatever I can to alleviate your suffering. Empathy can lead to good outcomes — we might be more likely to help someone if we empathize with them — but empathy is not a good enough motivator for moral action, and can not fix the world by itself. To truly fix the world, we need less empathy.

In his book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom argues that empathy, “the act of feeling what you think others are feeling is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good. From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without [empathy].”

Empathy is actually a relatively new word; it didn’t enter the English language until the 20th century. Empathy is when we try to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and see from their perspective, to feel what they feel; if they are happy we are happy, if they are in pain, we feel their pain.

Bloom explains that “The English word empathy really is the best way to refer to this mirroring of others’ feelings. …terms like sympathy and pity are about your reaction to the feelings of others, not the mirroring of them. If you feel bad for someone who is bored, that’s sympathy, but if you feel bored, that’s empathy. If you feel bad for someone in pain, that’s sympathy, but if you feel their pain, that’s empathy.” While it may seem counter-intuitive, more empathy does not increase moral behavior, and it does not lead to doing the most good in the world.

Why is empathy failing us? Bloom explains that empathy is like a spotlight, directing our attention to where it’s needed. But spotlights have a narrow focus, he writes, and therein lies the problem. In a world where there are so many people in need, kindness driven by empathy alone can lead to greater suffering.

This summer was filled with examples of how empathy fails us. We have seen catastrophic flooding around the world. Hurricanes and severe weather and earthquakes have destroyed lives and property, leaving thousands homeless and hundreds dead. Here in the United States we were all horrified as we watched Houston virtually sink beneath rising flood waters; Hurricane Harvey was devastating and we could not help but empathize with those who had lost everything.

That’s what our empathy does – it enables us to feel the pain of others and perhaps motivate us to help them. It is easy for us to empathize with those in Houston and Florida. The people being rescued look just like us, their neighborhoods look like ours, the belongings they lost and their destroyed homes could have been ours. And yet at the same time this summer, flooding in West Africa and Southeast Asia was even more devastating. Thousands of people were killed in Sierra Leone, Nepal and Bangladesh. The pictures are just as horrifying — thousands of people lost everything and buried their loved ones. But their neighborhoods don’t look like ours… and they are so very far away… they speak another language… so they did not arouse as much empathy and we were not as quick to open our wallets or our hearts.

This spotlight effect causes us to feel empathy for some people but not for others. We are more likely to feel empathy for people more like ourselves — human beings have evolved to put our own tribe first.

We also have a hard time empathizing on a large scale. We are just not capable of that kind of empathy; it is beyond the limits of the human brain. It is why we find it much easier to focus on one person and their pain than to think about the big picture. This is why more than two million dollars were crowdfunded for a single terminally ill baby in England this summer, while at the same time 60 children died in a hospital in India due to an unpaid oxygen bill of less than $100,000. It is unfathomable to consider that those 60 children would have lived, if not for an unpaid bill, but it is much easier to empathize with one particular family than with 60 unnamed families. 

Mother Teresa describes it this way: “If I look at the masses, I won’t act, but if I look at one, I will.” Northwestern University Professor Adam Waytz says that extending our compassion to every other person on Earth is psychologically impossible. It comes to this: we can not feel empathy for more than one person or group at a time.

When we are overwhelmed by so many people in pain, we become numb to it — we experience empathy collapse. With disaster after disaster, hurricane after hurricane and then earthquakes in Mexico, it became harder and harder to generate empathy. Harvey was the topic of national conversation; by the time Maria hit Puerto Rico, with its significant devastation impacting 3.4 million lives, we were overwhelmed. Empathy fatigue makes us slow to respond. When we feel the pain of others too often, we lose our ability to feel empathy. At some point it becomes too much. Empathy is a limited resource: when we run out of it, we lose our motivation and we fail to act.

Our empathy is also limited when we think a person deserves what is happening to them. We feel far less empathy for people suffering from disease if we think they brought it upon themselves with drug use or unhealthy living. 

The limits of empathy can hinder us from doing the right thing – and misplaced empathy can lead to evil. The rabbis knew this when they taught that “if you are compassionate to people who are cruel, you will ultimately be cruel to people who are compassionate.”

Empathy to one can be cruelty to another, and this is how empathy can lead to immoral behavior. When student athlete Brock Turner was found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault he was given a light sentence because the judge had empathy for him — he was young, athletic and had a bright future ahead of him; the judge, who was also an athlete as a student, did not want to ruin the rest of his life. There was little empathy for the woman Brock assaulted.

Empathy for men who commit sexual assault leads to cruelty toward those who are assaulted. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has empathy for the men who are accused of those crime and is eliminating protections for women who are victims of sexual assault. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, has said that this “weakens sexual violence protections and will unravel the progress that so many schools have made,” and there is no doubt that this will result in fewer women reporting sexual assault.  

There is also an arrogance to empathy — acting on the belief that we think we know how another person feels. And of course sometimes we’re wrong — otherwise there would never be a terrible birthday present or unwanted surprise party. We hear about the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you want them to do unto you,” but the Jewish version comes from Rabbi Hillel: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another person.” There is a subtle but critical difference between assuming that someone else will like the same things we do, and avoiding doing the things that we don’t like to someone else.

And we don’t always need or even want empathy. When you are anxious and stressed, empathy is the last thing you need. You don’t want your friend or doctor to get anxious along with you; you want calm and compassion. We don’t have to be in pain to want to ease someone else’s. We don’t have to live through a hurricane to know that people need help.

It’s not that empathy is itself is terrible, but it does not always lead to moral behavior and it is not the best motivator to do good. We need less empathy and more kindness.

You don’t need empathy to generate compassion. Compassion is not the same as empathy, and it is a much stronger motivator toward good. Paul Bloom writes that the difference between the two is critical, and is supported by neuroscience research. Researchers Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki point out that compassion does not mean sharing someone else’s suffering; “rather,” they write, “it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

Compassion allows us to focus on helping others without necessarily feeling their pain, and that distance from emotion  might also be the cure for empathy fatigue. In studies where people are trained to foster either empathy or compassion, the group that improved their ability to empathize felt worse and did less, while the compassionate group not only felt better — they also did more to help others.

Empathy leads to donations for individuals; compassion can lead to much greater results.

If we were informed about the crisis in India and were motivated by compassion for families with sick children, donations to health organizations in India could have saved those 60 children’s lives this summer. 

Empathy is not the answer; we need responsibility and compassion. So how do we develop those things? The answer, as always, is in Torah. As Jews we are commanded to act compassionately. It is not about feeling empathy; it is about doing the right thing. Tzedaka does not mean charity — it means justice, and a mitzvah is not a good deed — it is a commandment. 

We often mix up the Yiddish, mitzveh, which is a good deed, with the Hebrew word mitzvah, commandment, because they sound so close. Both doing a mitzvah and mitzveh are good, but there is a difference between doing something because you are inspired and doing something because it is required. The Talmud teaches that “Greater is the one who is commanded and does something, than one who does the same thing without being commanded.” Why? Because if you are only welcoming the stranger or feeding the hungry because you feel like it, you might not feel like it next time. Judaism, and the obligations that go along with it, push us toward compassion —regardless of whether we feel empathy. 

Yom Kippur demands that we make amends with people we have hurt, but we might not have much empathy for those people, because we don’t realize how much we have hurt them. We tend to think the pain that we caused was accidental, or incidental; we excuse our actions as tough calls, hard choices and honest mistakes. But we are not as quick to offer excuses for those that hurt us; wrongs that other do to us seem worse: intentional and cruel. We don't weigh the pain we caused to someone else as much as we weigh the pain we experienced ourselves because it did not happen to us. This is called the moralization gap: the tendency to diminish the severity of our own acts relative to others.

Our communal confessional on Yom Kippur helps us put ourselves on even ground with others; it is a reminder that the hurt we have caused others is just as damaging to them as the hurt we have experienced ourselves. We may not be able to feel as much empathy for those we have harmed, but we can be compassionate. 

Jewish values guide us toward compassion. Tomorrow afternoon we will read from the book of Vayikra — Leviticus — from the section called the Holiness Code. We are told exactly what we need to do to be compassionate, regardless of whether we feel empathy. We are taught not to harvest the corners of our fields, and to leave some for the poor and the stranger. We are taught not to steal, lie or bear false witness. Not to exploit our neighbor. Not keep a worker’s wages overnight. Not curse the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind. To be fair in judgement, and not to favor the weak or defer to the powerful. Not to spread slander. Not to stand idly by the blood of a neighbor. Not to seek vengeance or bear grudges. Not to wrong a stranger, not cheat in business dealings. We are told we are required to love our neighbor, to respect the elderly and to treat strangers among us like citizens. This is what makes us holy, and this is what we are commanded to do.

We do these things not because we know what it feels like to be hungry or cheated, not because we know what it feels like to need your wages on the day you earn them, not because we know the pain of being the subject of gossip or the victim of a scam. We do these things because they are mitzvot — they are commandments. Obligation pushes us toward moral action — toward compassion for others. We don’t need empathy for our employees or for the elderly — we are obligated to treat them well. And while it is nice to proclaim that we empathize with the stranger, because we were once strangers in Egypt, we are obligated to welcome the stranger even if we don’t have any empathy for them.

The kind of compassion that the Torah demands can also help us continue to do good when empathy fatigue sets in. There are so many things that need our attention right now and if we are trying to fight for racial justice, protect the environment, ensure that people have access to health care, preserve voting rights, defend LGBTQ rights, stand up for immigrants, help the people of Puerto Rico and… well, it is overwhelming and far too easy to just turn it off. Empathy fatigue paralyzes us and we fail to act. The Torah demands that we take action for all of these things — not out of empathy, but out of justice and compassion.

These core Jewish values, at the very center of the Torah, guide our actions. And unlike deeds motivated by empathy, it does not matter if if feels good to do them or if we don’t feel like it; this is what needs to be done.

So practice rational compassion in your giving. In addition to giving to causes that arouse your empathy, research where your dollars will do the most good for the most people and give some there too. Find out what the organization really needs and give what you can. And then work to change the system — if you donate to a GoFundMe page to help pay for a friend’s medical care, write and call your congressperson to demand health care for all; if you are sending money to hurricane victims, be sure to demand that our government take climate change seriously; if you are moved by the story of one family in poverty, make a commitment to bring an item for the SOVA bin every time you enter this building, because that is what the Torah demands.

The Torah is our ever-renewing resource in our fight for justice and peace. 

May the lessons of Torah and our sages teach us how to repair the brokenness in our world. 

May we always act with kindness and compassion, even when our empathy fails us. 

Footnotes and sources available upon request.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Rosh Hashanah Letter to My College-Bound Daughter

This summer at camp there was a family of birds nesting in one of the trees right outside the dining hall. There were a few days early in the summer when we were told to keep our distance — the baby birds were learning to fly and the parents were not thrilled with humans standing next to their tree. One morning, one baby bird plummeted onto the table where we were having a meeting. After some adorable and awkward hopping and flapping the small bird wound up on the ground in the bushes and throughout the meeting we would look over to see if it was still OK. Was it stuck? Did it need help? Where were this bird’s parents? I was worried about the baby bird.

You probably realized far sooner than I had what was really going on. In two days my oldest daughter, Mira, is starting college and leaving our nest. Many of you have been through this before; you know the combination of intense pride and happiness that comes along with a vague sense of loss. In the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca, made popular by the band Semisonic, “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Things are changing, and while it is a good and welcome change, it is still a bit of a shock when your kid does the thing you have been talking about for the last 18 years.

So last month, when I called my sister to discuss in great detail the pros and cons of a particular beach towel I was buying for Mira, she listened patiently before pointing out to me that I was nesting again — that my disproportionate concern about the size and color of a beach towel relative to another almost identical beach towel was similar to how I prepared for her birth more than 18 years ago.

Beach towels and bath caddies are the easy things, but what I really hope I’m sending her off to college with is the Jewish wisdom that will sustain and nurture her as she continues to grow into adulthood. What I really hope is that Judaism will continue to guide her, as it continues to guide me.

And so, I wrote a letter to my daughter to pass along some of that wisdom — and realized that starting college has much in common with starting the New Year. There are moments when we can feel that changes are coming— when we can look at a date or pass a milestone and know that from this moment on, things will be different. Some transitions are happy and welcome, like the first move-in date for college, getting married, watching your children get married, the birth of child or grandchild, starting a new job, starting retirement, moving to a new house. Others are not-so-welcome, like the diagnosis of a disease, the end of a relationship, losing a job, friends moving away, the death of a loved one.

We are all sitting here tonight on the verge of changes — some eagerly anticipated, others with more trepidation. None of us know what this new year will bring. We are all starting something new and unknown, right here, tonight, on Rosh Hashanah. So, while I may be addressing my daughter, this is for you as well. 

First day of kindergarten
Dear Mira,

You are about to go forward into the unknown, starting a new chapter in your life. Our tradition teaches us how to go forward into the unknown. Abraham and Sarah follow God’s command to go to the land God will show them — they do not ask questions; they just leave everything they know and head for somewhere they have never been before. This must have been terrifying, to start a journey without knowing the destination, and yet they go anyway. They have faith that the journey will be worth it despite any hardships, and that they will find meaning and purpose along the way. Their path is not easy, nor without trials and heartbreak, and yet Abraham and Sarah become the first human beings in the world to bless other people.

Your path may not always be easy or straightforward, and as with our ancestors it is up to you to create meaning and purpose in your life’s journey. Sometimes you will find yourself exactly where you thought you would be, and at other times on a path that is more wonderful than you could have imagined or one that you would never have chosen or expected; like Abraham and Sarah, look for blessings and find an opportunity to share those blessings with others.

You will make mistakes. Some will be small and easily repaired, like missing a deadline. Others will be devastating and not so easily repaired. There are some things that you will only learn the hard way, and it will be painful. Mistakes are a part of life and part of growing up and learning; and you can’t avoid them no matter how old you are. It is up to you to decide to learn from your mistakes. The lessons of the High Holy Days can teach you how to do tshuvah, to truly make repentance. First you must admit that you have done something wrong — and not in general, but in detail; you must recognize your wrongdoing, without downplaying it or making excuses for yourself. You may want to hide from your mistakes sometimes, but owning up to them is the only way you will change. If you hurt another person, you need to apologize. Not a generic blanket apology on Facebook, not a text, not an insincere “sorry, not sorry” but a genuine apology where you acknowledge your part in causing hurt. Yes, this might be an awkward conversation, but it is a necessary part of the process. In the words of Dan Nichols, “embrace the awkward,” and your relationships will be stronger. If you can learn to take responsibility and apologize for the small hurts you cause, you will have the tools to do the same for the harder ones. And then, forgive yourself. It is OK to make mistakes; you don’t have to be perfect. Don’t beat yourself up over your missteps — learn from them, so you can do better in the future.

The Talmud teaches “Either friendship or death,” and it is more than just a folk saying. Friendship can save your life. The friendship between the young King David and Jonathan led Jonathan to protect David and save his life. But there’s more than just anecdotal or metaphorical evidence — new research shows that friendships are literally life-saving for everyone. A BYU study of hundreds of thousands of people found that the biggest predictor of how long you will live is your relationships. It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier; they're also physically healthier, and they live longer than people with fewer friends. Dr. Robert Waldinger, Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, has discovered that loneliness is toxic. “People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that…their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”

So Mira, I hope you will nurture your friendships. It takes time to build trust with someone, to have the kind of friendships where you can share not just your joys but your disappointments and the things that embarrass you. You need people you can trust not to judge you and who will always tell you the truth. Practicing tshuvah, apologizing and making amends when necessary, will help you maintain those relationships over many years.

There will be times in your life when you are lonely. The Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a collection of teachings from about 1500 years ago, teaches us how to acquire a friend: by eating and drinking together, by studying Torah and debating with them, by spending time together, and by sharing private thoughts. I admit that I have not always been the best example of this, neglecting my own friendships at times. Don’t let other things get in the way; there will always be other things — classes or work or just the busyness of life — but you have to make time to nurture your friendships. Your life depends on it.

Mira, even when it seems like everyone in the world is a jerk, I hope that you will still be kind. Rabbi Mattia ben Cherish taught that you should be the first to greet every person — this is more than just good advice; it is good for you. The same study from BYU also found that the second biggest predictor of how long you will live is how much you interact with other people throughout your day. Rabbi Shammai taught that you should greet every person with a pleasant countenance; 500 years before the invention of cell phones Rabbi Obadiah ben Avraham of Bertenura understood this to mean not to offer things to your guests when your face is buried in the ground, because if you are not looking at them, it is as if you have given them nothing. If you are not paying attention to the person in front of you, if you are not present, it does not count. Treating everyone you come into contact with as if they matter sounds so simple, but acting on it can be very difficult. Remember that the rude waiter may be having a bad day and needs to be treated with kindness. Talk to the people you come into contact with; the cashier, other people in line, the girl who makes your coffee remember that they are people and that everyone has a story.

Stand up for what you believe in. If your relationship with Israel was a Facebook status, you would label it as “complicated.” For years you have been hearing about the dangers of anti-Zionism on campus. Make no mistake: anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. BDS, the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, is anti-Semitic — but they are attracting Jews, especially Reform Jews, by pretending to be a social justice movement. You have learned here at TAS how important it is to stand up to oppressors, to fight for rights and to make sure that all people are treated equally. BDS preys on that by telling you that if you really, truly care about social justice you will recognize Jews as oppressors and will stand against Israel. There are people who will tell you that unless you denounce Israel you can not have a voice in any other issues.

This summer Jewish groups were asked not to participate in the Chicago Dyke March because a rainbow flag with a Jewish star on it was considered threatening and against the values of the marchers. Similar things were said by the organizers of that city’s Slut Walk. There are people who will try to tell you that you can not be a feminist if you are a Zionist. They are wrong. This is anti-Semitism. Calling it anti-Zionism does not change the fact that it is anti-Semitism. Zionism is the belief that Jews are entitled to a nation in our ancestral homeland, Israel, and modern Zionism encompasses our values of democracy, pluralism, and equality. A love of Israel demands honesty and a commitment to the continuation of building a morally exceptional society — to be a light to the nations.

The good news is that your relationship with Israel should be complicated. Israel is not perfect. The Israeli government is not perfect. Just as we can love America without loving everything our government or leadership does, you can love Israel without loving everything its government does. The treatment of Bedouins and discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews are just two of the serious issues that are deeply problematic. Loving Israel does not mean you agree with everything; it does not mean that you will not have reasons to legitimately criticize — there are legitimate problems and you should criticize when it is called for.

To be an ohav Yisrael, a lover of Israel, you need to stay informed, pay attention to what is going on in Israel, read the news, learn the nuances of the complex issue of creating peace and establishing borders with our neighbors, when you criticize, do it from a place of love, and stand tall as a proud Jew and Zionist.

Mira, there is so much in this world that can break your heart, and you will get your heart broken. And I wish I could protect you from it, but that is not the way our world works. We often try to deny this truth, but on these Days of Awe, we call it out. We name it when we pray Unatana Tokef, conceding that terrible things will happen in life, things we cannot avoid. You will be hurt, you will experience loss, you will be disappointed. Life will not be fair; don’t expect it to be.

The message of this prayer is not that repentance, prayer and charity will keep you safe; it is that those things help make sure that the things that break your heart, don’t leave you broken. It is not that tragedy has a reason or higher purpose. I don’t believe that everything has a reason; it is that you can choose to find meaning in the things that would otherwise break you. Learning, reflecting and connecting with others is how you will heal. 

And yet, don’t let fear of failure or hurt stop you from reaching out to others and trying new things. Don’t let fear stop you from enjoying life to the fullest. Yes, there will be heartbreak and disappointment and sadness,  at times, but, there will also be love and friendship and awe and gratitude.

The Talmud teaches that every human being will have to give an account for all that they saw that was permitted to them, but that they did not enjoy. There will be much to enjoy in this new year, many new adventures, new friends, new experiences — you should take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy them. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. ...To be spiritual is to be amazed.” As you begin this new chapter in your life, allow yourself to be amazed. Don’t be too cool for wonder and awe; geek out over the stuff you love, even if nobody else gets it; and let yourself appreciate all the wonderful things that are happening in your life. Embrace all the blessings coming your way; you deserve them.

May this New Year bring you blessing.
May the wisdom of our tradition guide you on life’s path.
When life is challenging, may you find comfort and strength.
May you always be an ohav yisrael, a lover of Israel.
May you always look for blessings and when you find them, share them with others.
May you have strong friendships that will sustain you.
May you experience all the joy that life has to offer,
in this New Year and in all of your years.

Shanah Tovah.

citations available upon request

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Praying with Knives in Wonder Valley

[This post was co-written with my husband, Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik, and is also posted on his blog, which can be found at Photos are courtesy Rabbi Rick Winer and Bill Leifer.]

It is always a privilege and pleasure to worship and create in a new community — making new friends, gaining new insights, and bringing new works of art into being. This past weekend was such an experience, when we joined Temple Beth Israel of Fresno as the scholar and artist in residence for their 2017 Shabbaton retreat (in Wonder Valley, California).

The heart of the weekend was “praying with knives” — meditating on the Saturday morning prayers and then using knife and paper to explore their meanings.

Providing encouragement and guidance

In our Shabbat morning worship Rabbi Shawna encouraged worshippers to choose a prayer that intrigued them, reflected a personal experience, or spoke to how they were feeling right then, and to focus on it during personal silent prayer: to read it more than once, to connect with the language, to read it slowly to pull out meaning, to imagine what words they would use if they were writing the prayer, to see what images came to mind when reciting the prayer, to meditate on the feelings that it invoked. And when our service finished, we began to pray with knives.

Isaac gives some drawing and cutting tips

After a bit of guidance from Isaac on approach and technique, and a little experimenting with their knives, the worshippers began to wrestle with their prayers — first sketching out some basic ideas, and than translating that idea to a papercut design.

Mark and Cindy, hard at work!

No two creations were the same, even when people chose the same prayer. Several people used rays of light in some fashion, but each time it was a part of a different prayer. A few people asked us to figure out which prayer they were working on based on the images they were trying to convey in their sketch, in a pictionary-meets-prayer sort of moment.

The prayer book was explored in its entirety — worshippers weren’t limited to the standard prayers that compose a service, but also explored psalms, readings, quotes and songs in the artwork. The lines that we often skip over because they are placeholders were sometimes the inspiration that reached out and grabbed someone.

Rabbi Laura Winer shares her papercut prayer.

At the end of the Shabbaton on Sunday everyone had a chance to share their artwork. Prayer by its nature is personal, and it can be a vulnerable moment to share a piece of artwork based on prayer, even among friends — but so many people wanted to stand up and share what they had created. The art and stories took prayer to a new level; for some they had a favorite prayer that they were excited to represent, for others something just caught their eye.

Side-by-side with the prayer that inspired it.

We so often think of prayer as written, as the recitation of words written on a page. But all written prayer started out as someone’s inner thoughts — as a spontaneous moment of prayer — and over the years became a part of our standard worship service. In Hebrew school we often begin by teaching prayers; mastering them in Hebrew is often a requirement for bar or bat mitzvah. But beyond familiarity with the words of others, prayer is our attempt to express our deep yearning or to articulate our gratitude or to help us shift our own perspective, and we are able to do those things through art. In their creations participants expressed gratitude, their dedication to helping others, their appreciation for the people in their lives, looking inward, creation.

The retreat coincided with the Torah portion Vayekiel, in which we learn that God assigned Bezalel to create the mobile tabernacle — the mishkan — and the objects that go with it. Bezalel is a craftsman skilled in many art forms, but we learn that each of the Israelites has something to contribute to the creation of the mishkan. God is the ultimate Creator — the Torah begins with divine creation, culminating in the creation of human beings in God’s image — but we have the ability to create as well, and when we do we are connecting with the Divine within ourselves.

[For more information on how you can bring "the dynamic duo" to your community, please contact Isaac via email:]