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Elul

Elul 5783

Elul Day 1

           Tonight begins Rosh Chodesh Elul, the 12TH and final month in the Jewish calendar.  The month of Elul leads up to Rosh HaShanah, the beginning of the new year, so Elul both chronologically and spiritually connects the past with the future. 

           This unique period of time gives us the opportunity to enter the High Holydays with a “running start” as we begin the process of dedicating ourselves to the process of cheshbon hanefesh (“soul accounting” or “soul searching”), taking stock of the ways in which we have lived our lives during the past year, and creatively considering the ways in which we can draw closer to ourselves, to each other, to our planet, and to God in the coming year.

           Those of us who have been to symphony halls to watch piano concertos performed are used to seeing the soloist dramatically take the stage, bow to applause, and then immediately commence playing the featured selection with the orchestra. 

But up until the mid-20th century, there was a very different “choreography” prior to the performance.  Most pianists would enter and spend some time doing scales and playing warm-up pieces in front of the audience before readying themselves for their collaboration with the orchestra. 

           Similarly, many of us are used to simply “taking the stage” on Rosh Hashanah and beginning the 10 Days of Repentance in shul at that moment.  The spiritual practice of daily prayer, reflection, and meditation through the month of Elul, however, provides us with a gentler, more patient and thoughtful passage-way into the Yamim Noraim, raising the likelihood that our journey into and through the Holy Days is rich with illumination, inspiration and a sense of purpose. 

           It is akin to making sure that you stretch before exercising, raising the odds that you will derive more benefit from your efforts and prevent injury.

           I am looking forward to helping to facilitate our journey during this growth-promoting time, and to witnessing our collective capacity to grow and evolve as we travel though this important preparatory month together.

Elul Day 2

                   In any case, Yesher koach to Super-Mensch Art Solomon, who tirelessly battled the cyber-obstacles with me yesterday and was instrumental in setting this new mailing mechanism into motion.

          And now…onward…

          For this year’s Elul journey, we are going to spend some time investigating and interrogating what sometimes appears to be one of our most forbidden pleasures—chesed, usually translated as kindness.

          I do not deploy the phrase “forbidden pleasure” casually.  There is no greater pleasure than being kind, yet our culture in many ways seems to suggest that kindness is quite low on the list of what is pleasurable.  Which takes us to the “forbidden” part of the phrase—what is it about being kind that confuses us, that frightens us, that terrorizes us? 

          One set of answers to that question might be found in our tendency to sentimentalize kindness, to suggest that it needs to be morally and spiritually pure, that it not be striated with other complicated, and complicating, feelings like anger, hatred, and disgust.

          Another set of answers to that question might be found in the reality that kindness is, by definition, dangerous for us to experience because it implies, and depends upon, a susceptibility and permeability to others, a willing capacity to feel, and identify with, their sufferings

          Yet our lives depend on kindness—without it, we simply would not exist.   So what do we make of kindness—and how do we make ourselves more willing to be kind?

          Hopefully, our ongoing conversation over the course of Elul 5783 will help us to live with and learn from the troubling uncertainties associated with kindness—and, in the process, maybe become a little kinder.

          Here is an initial guiding question for us to consider as we “stretch out” and prepare to move forward:  “Being that we all intuitively understand the value of being kind, what is it about us that leads us at times to quell or resist our kindness, and/or the kindness of others?”

Elul Day 3

There is a touching scene in Anne Tyler’s novel, “French Braid” that has stayed with me:

          “This is what families do for each other—hide a few uncomfortable truths, allow a few self-deceptions.  Little kindnesses,” David’s wife reminds him.

          “And little cruelties,” David adds.

          The membrane between what is kind and what is cruel can at times be gossamer-thin.  The tension between the two reminds me of Nick Lowe’s song, “Cruel to be Kind”.  Here is the first verse and chorus, you will get the idea of the rest of the lyrics:

Oh I can’t take another heartache
Though you say you’re my friend, I’m at my wit’s end
You say your love is bonafide, but that don’t coincide
With the things that you do
And when I ask you to be nice, you say

You’ve gotta be cruel to be kind, in the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you, baby
(You’ve gotta be cruel)
You gotta be cruel to be kind

                   Human beings are notoriously ambivalent creatures.  While we clearly have the capacity to be attentive, loving and tender, we also have the equally powerful capacity to be mean, hateful and cruel. 

When someone we care about is struggling, this may conjure our most compassionate tendencies, or it might suddenly summon schadenfreude, our perverse delight in their pain.  On the flip side, when someone we care about is happy and thriving, this may lead us to experience deep, vicarious pleasure or to be suffused with dark, demonic envy.  All of these tendencies exist within us, and none of them constitute the whole story of human relatedness.

So with our inescapable hypocrisies in mind, here is a question worth considering:  “Are you able to be kind to yourself even when you are finding it difficult to be kind to others?”

Elul Day 4

The Roman philosopher Seneca famously wrote:  “Live for others if you want to live for yourself.”

          Yet what does “living for others” mean, exactly?  Our tradition suggests that living for others most reliably entails chesed—acts of lovingkindness.

          Most of us want to be kind—much, if not all, of the time.  The reason for this is that kindness glazes our interactions and our surroundings with a new and compelling shimmer, making our lives more radiant, more beautiful.  Kindness both seeds and feeds our soul. 

          In the words of Anne Frank:  “Give of yourself…you can always give something, even if it is only kindness…no one has ever become poor from giving.”

We all know this, we all understand this, and we all experience this, yet most of us also find ourselves wishing that we could be kinder than we actually are.  And at the same time nothing can anger or frustrate us more than being treated unkindly by others—or by ourselves.  So what makes the dispensation of kindness so difficult?

          Much of the challenge may inhere in the fact that being kind requires us to be in touch with other people’s vulnerability.  Which of course means being in touch with our own vulnerability.

          Vulnerability (like mortality) is one of the inescapable aspects of the human condition, one that we all have in common.  None of us are immune to the vicissitudes that are inflicted upon us without our consent, without our having been consulted—loss, illness, trauma, accidents, personal tragedies, political and economic devastations. 

          Being kind to others requires us to acknowledge their vulnerability, but through so doing, we are forced to acknowledge our own vulnerability (unless, of course, we retreat into the appealing delusion that somehow we are above vulnerability, that we remain magically singled out as invulnerable—both invincible and immortal).

          Acknowledging our shared vulnerability is difficult, yet it is necessary because that is fundamentally how we recognize each other—it is the surest form of contact between us and our fellow humans, the best way, in Seneca’s words, to live for others as well as for ourselves.

          So here is a question for today:  “When you struggle to be more kind to someone, how much of that struggle is rooted in a recognition of that individual’s vulnerability, and in what ways does their vulnerability illuminate your vulnerability?”

          Hoping that you enjoyed a restful and restorative Shabbat…

Elul Day 5

The etymological root of kindness derives from “kin”—family, sameness.

We associate kindness with many other virtues, such as sympathy, generosity, altruism, humanity, benevolence, compassion, pity, and empathy.  All of these qualities have something to do with the mingling of our needs, interests, and desires with the needs, interests, and desires of others—even those who are not kin, who are not family, who are not familiar to us.

          In this sense, we might think about kindness as a way of knowing, a way of tending to, and a way of caring for others that exists in a realm beyond our capacity to understand them—in other words engaging with others without necessarily being related to them, genetically or otherwise.

          My brothers and I fittingly grew up in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love”.  But as we know, the concept of Brotherly Love is often limited to our brethren alone (however we define our “brethren”) and not to be extended beyond this threshold.  (It might be good-naturedly noted here that sports fans from The City of Brotherly Love are awfully quick to boo their own hometown “brethren” athletes with great hostility when game-time expectations are not being met).

          Let’s also remember that The Book of Genesis—from Cain and Abel, to Isaac and Ishmael, to Jacob and Esau, to Joseph and his brothers—appears to be obsessed with brotherly enmity, not with brotherly love.  So we read over and over again in our foundational text about the ways in which a close connection with “kin” doesn’t automatically translate into being “kind”—and sometimes results in behavior that is kindness’s vicious opposite.

Complicating matters further, many of our leaders, both historically and currently—encourage us to put our traditional loyalties—to family, to class, to country, to religion—ahead of our loyalty to the human race in general.

          In fact, we are often taught that caring and feeling too much for too many others is a sign of weakness and goes against (what we may/should fear is) our fundamentally competitive, triumphalist nature.

          The (usually) derogatory term “bleeding heart” comes to mind here, even though the origin of this term has to do with Christ’s sacrificial blood, which represents the salvation of humanity and the spirit that nourishes the faithful—not such a bad thing, and directly emerging from the religious tradition that is often revered by those who are quick to criticize “bleeding heat” liberalism.

          The reality is that we live with billion fellow humans on a tiny planet.  Perhaps being restricted by group-based tactics that derive from our prehistoric past may not be the best strategy for our planetary survival.

          So here is a question for today:  “How different, and how much easier or harder, does it feel to be kind to someone with whom you are intimately acquainted as opposed to being kind to someone whom you do not know very well?”

Elul Day 6

Kindness, as we are beginning to see, is not a simple matter of being selfless—our selves are necessarily involved when we are being kind, as well as when we experience the undoing of kindness.

          To understand how complex the enterprise of kindness is, let’s take a look at when it is most imperiled.  Relational jealousy—whether it is in the familial, the romantic, or the sexual province—might be the clearest example of this.  When we are haunted by the possibility that someone whom we love might, or actually did, leave us behind to love and to be loved by someone else, we usually are at our most murderous and our most merciless—towards others, and also to ourselves.

          The psychological threat embedded in the loss of love is the fundamental threat that we all live with.  It begins, of course, in childhood.  Infants and toddlers are guided by the twin belief that they control their parents—the people whom they depend upon the most—and that their parents have no interests or desires that exclude them.

          As they grow, they begin to realize that this is not the case at all, and the dawning awareness that they are not omnipotent, nor the center of their parents’ universe, engenders rage.  Here we can see one of the first and most elemental   instances of how love and hate become entangled—“I love my mother/father and need them desperately, but I hate them for not being able to be controlled, for not preferring me exclusively, for not perpetually satisfying me.”

          This reminds me of the lyrics to a song by The Four Tops—“Baby, I need your loving, got to have all your loving.”  It’s not enough for us to get some loving, we want to be the singular and exclusive recipients of love.

          How is it that we can love an individual so intently and yet feel such hatred when our beloved does not provide what we want, when they don’t submit to our desires?  One answer to this question—counterintuitive as it may sound—is that hate can only exist when love is somehow involved.

          In this regard, we might see hatred not as the enemy or opposite of kindness but as some kind of crucial, symbiotic counterpart to kindness.  The love that draws people together generates rivalries and antagonisms of which love itself becomes the casualty—but nevertheless, love is the origin of those rivalries and antagonisms and, both because and in spite of this, it may somehow endure.

          So here is a question for today:  “When you feel most hateful, where do you think your love may be hiding?”

Elul Day 7

  Most of us would agree that being kind generally makes us feel better, but nevertheless we don’t act this way as often as we might like.

With this in mind, there is the popular edict about “practicing random acts of kindness”, the concept of offering kindness to someone without there having to be a particular reason or motivation for doing so. 

          One theory as to why random acts of kindness indeed occur so randomly is because we tend to underestimate how much the recipient will appreciate them—our “negativity bias” encourages us to doubt that the positive impact of our behavior is as positive as it actually is.

          But another way to understand this might be the opposite—we are aware of how much impact our kindness will have, but we are not always certain that we want to exert that kind of impact because of the social connections that might ensue, connections that we are ambivalent about initiating and sustaining.  And we may also worry that being kind will lead to our being taken advantage of—we will be seen as an easy mark and become prone to be exploited.

          A third hypothesis is that being directed to be kind may actually make us less likely to be kind. Framing kindness as a moral obligation, something that is a duty, something that we are supposed to do and need to be coerced to do, rather than as a source of pleasure, becomes an act of unkindness and backfires.  (Of relevance here is novelist Jane Smiley’s sardonic comment on the current book-banning movement that has recently re-gained momentum:  “If you want children to read books, ban them.  If you don’t want children to read books, put them on a required reading list.”)

          In any case, it is helpful to remember that, strange as it may seem, we are inhibited when it comes to being kind.  Kindness sounds perfectly good in theory, but we are all aware at some level of the risks that kindness entails.

          In that sense, perhaps the most powerful “random act of kindness” would be for us to remind ourselves that kindness, like any other human virtue, has its dangers, and we ignore them at our—and others’—peril.

          So here’s a question for today:  “In what ways have you experienced being kind, or receiving kindness, as hazardous, either to yourself or to others?”

Elul Day 8

While we are discussing the conflicts that lie between our perpetually competing human desires, it would be worth exploring the complicated relationship between kindness and sex.

Here is a place to start:  Is the kindness that we demonstrate towards those to whom we are sexually drawn just a façade, a subtle version of foreplay?  Are we kind to others because we value them or because we may want them to be magnetized by us and attached to us? 

          If we stick with the belief that human beings are basically self-centered, exploitative and rapacious creatures, we could easily surmise that kindness is  nothing more than a sweet, polite, and clever seduction—“If I am appealingly kind enough, I will be able to attract a sexual partner.”

          On the other hand, not every individual is drawn to kindness—some, more than others, appear for whatever reasons to be drawn to cruelty, to find themselves seeking to be mistreated rather than well-treated.

          Complicating all of this is that satisfying sexual interactions require some kind of precarious balance between sensitivity and aggression.  If our lover is too “kind”—kind in the (very narrowly-defined) sense of being too considerate, too careful, too cautious, too prudent—sex, over time, can become boring.  But if our lover is sadistic or overly aggressive, sex can become too painful or frightening to enjoy. For most of us, a fulfilling and enduring erotic connection requires some degree of creative tension between safety and excitement. 

          So here are two questions for today:  Is kindness compatible with and/or in conflict with sexual desire?  And what do our sexual drives and desires tell us about the kaleidoscopic complexity of kindness? 

Elul Day 9

           Following up on our discussion of the relationship between kindness and sexuality from yesterday (Elul Day 8), I found myself thinking about a recent conversation with a young adult patient of mine.

          He had started dating a woman and they were having their first sexual encounter.  At one point, as part of their lovemaking, she asked him to hit her.  This surprised and confused him but he went ahead with a light tap on her shoulder.  She insisted that he hit her harder, though, so he slapped her on the shoulder with a little more force.

          At that point, she raised her voice and asked him to hit her harder still.  He panicked and pulled away from her.  This upset her and she told him how hurt she was that he wasn’t willing to satisfy her. 

Their ensuing argument, as he recalled it (and as I recall him recalling it), went something like this: 

“I like to be hit, it arouses me, why are you holding back?”

          “Because I don’t want to hurt you!”

          “But you wouldn’t be hurting me! You’re actually hurting me by pulling away!”

          “But I can’t bring myself to hit you like that!”

          “So turning me on is not important to you?!?”

          “It is, but not in that way.  I just can’t do it.”

          “So it’s all about you, huh?”

          “It’s not all about me, it’s about me not wanting to hurt you.”

          “Even if I’m asking you to?  Even if hurting me excites me?”

          “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

          “Being sorry has nothing to do with it…”

          I of course did not have the opportunity to hear his partner’s perspective, but, by itself, my patient’s version of their painful verbal (and physical) battle captures some of what we were beginning to explore yesterday, the uneasy relationship between kindness and sexuality.

I see and hear many other examples of this, of course.  One woman complained to me that whenever she was friendly with a man whom she had met, professionally or socially, he often wound up asking her for her number:  “Why can’t I be nice without it being misinterpreted all the time,” she complained to me.  “Does kindness always have to seem like I’m flirting, like a come-on?”

          These conundrums are certainly not uncommon, but they deserve our attention, even though they can make us terribly uncomfortable to think about.  By offering us further information about the competing and rival claims that lie within us they remind us that there is rarely an interior consensus when it comes to defining—and engaging in—acts of kindness.

          So here are some questions for today:  “Will we inevitably find ourselves treating a beloved badly at some point?  Is it possible to never treat a beloved badly?  And if it’s not possible, why is that?  Does that make us sick, or abnormal, or perverted, in some way?  Or just simply—and more complexly—human?”

Elul Day 10

I have worked as a family psychologist for four decades now, and one of the many parenting patterns that does not seem to have changed since I’ve been in practice is the pressure that parents experience to be perpetually patient with and attentive to their children.

          If we teach mothers and fathers to believe that effective parenting depends on preventing their child from experiencing any frustration, disappointment, disillusionment or sorrow, then both generations have no choice but to fail.  And yet that seems to be the yardstick that contemporary families measure themselves by.

          I have continued to struggle to understand how this situation came about, but it seems relevant to explore as we journey across the complicated topography of kindness. 

          One possibility might be rooted in our ambivalence about kindness.  Because, as we have been discussing, there is a modern suspiciousness when it comes to kindness, a belief that it is essentially either a disguised form of enlightened self-interest or an indication of weakness, the virtue of losers.  Kindness is often valued, but just as often ignored, sentimentalized or even pathologized (“What’s wrong with her that she is so nice? She must be up to no good.” )

          So in this context, it may be that we have “ghetto-ized” kindness, collectively deciding that the only environment within which it is entitled to germinate and blossom is within the hothouse of the family.  It may not be acceptable to be kind to each other outside of the home, but inside the home we can be—and because that may be the only place to be kind, we then must be.

          Of course, there is tremendous unkindness that becomes entangled with constantly trying to be kind, especially when it comes to childrearing.  It hobbles both generations, making it difficult for us to collaborate on the ordinary but necessary business of separation and differentiation—in other words, becoming the entrepreneur of our own development.

          With this in mind, if we weren’t so frightened of kindness in the overall sense, perhaps contemporary family life would feel a little less fraught and a little more natural and emotionally spontaneous—or, in other words, a little kinder.

          So here’s a question for today:  “What were the first lessons in human kindness that you learned growing up in your family?”

Elul Day 11

          Following up on yesterday’s Reflection that focused on kindness in the family, it is worth re-visiting our Reflection from Day 6, when I was discussing the hatred that children experience when they realize that their parents cannot be counted on to nurture them with boundless and perpetual ubiquity. 

          Relevant here is not only that, despite their love for their parents, children have to learn to hate their parents, and to tolerate hating their parents, but that parents have to do the same thing with their children.          

          Mothers and fathers who cannot acknowledge how much, at times, they hate their children are often the most dangerous parents, indeed.  Children create such extraordinary problems and challenges that it is impossible for parents to not hate them for the ways in which it may feel like their offspring parasitically consume them.

          The key to healthy development, of course, is to find a way to survive and live through this inescapable reciprocal hatred, and to allow the aquifers of love to continue to flow (or perhaps overflow) in the presence of hate, to keep love and hate in conversation with each other.  It is when love and hate begin operating in parallel, detached from each other rather than intermingling with each other, that cruelty begins to root and germinate. 

          There is a house in our neighborhood with a sign in the front yard that announces, “Hate has no home here,” and we all can understand the just and compassionate sentiment behind that statement.  But the reality is that hate has a home everywhere, and our job is not to eradicate it, but to find some kind of uneasy place for it such that it doesn’t destroy our home—our family home, our neighborhood home, our national home, our planetary home.

          Those who insist that they can love without also being capable of hate, or that they can be kind without having the potential to be cruel, cannot be easily believed or trusted.  The kindest act of all—and perhaps the best way to allow love to dominate hate rather than the other way around—is to kindly see ourselves and others for who we are, rather than for whom we would like them, or us, to be.

          So here’s a question for today:  “Can kindness be made possible through and from the experience of hatred, or must kindness exist solely to vanquish hatred?

Elul Day 12

           One of my favorite (and most bewildering) poets is John Ashbery, who once wrote, “The worse your art is, the easier it is to talk about.”

          There are limits to the ways in which his observation relates to kindness—I am not convinced that there are better and worse forms of kindness—but sometimes the ease with which we (try to) talk about human kindness indicates that we are missing something important about how difficult it is to be kind, and prevents us from overcoming that difficulty.

          Some might suggest, for example, that kindness depends on being able to understand another person’s pain or hurt.  But while we all want to be understanding, it is a challenge to understand what “understanding” means.  We  want to “get” someone, and we want someone to be able to “get” us, but there are limits to how much we can be “gotten”.

          Complete like-mindedness is a fantasy (although at times an appealing one).  Presuming that our mind is very much like someone else’s mind, or everyone else’s mind, can lead us in some very unlikeable directions. 

Tyranny, for instance, can be seen as like-mindedness taken to a horrific extreme. Tyrants believe that they carry with them a perfect understanding of the needs of others.  In fact, they might be so self-involved that they believe that providing what they need is the best way for meeting everyone else’s needs—which is rarely the case.  In this context, we might contrast Tyranny with Democracy, as a healthy democracy depends upon a recognition of and respect for un-likemindedness (uncomfortable as that may be).

The motivation to understand others, and to be understood by them, certainly may be at the root of kindness but if that motivation becomes too extreme and too intransigent, it may also be at the root of our most unkind demands.

          So here’s a question for today:  “If you don’t focus exclusively on understanding others, in what ways is it still possible to be kind to them, and would that kindness take on a different character?

Elul Day 13

Chesed is generally considered to be one of the most significant mitzvot—we are commanded to offer it towards all of humanity, as well as towards animals and our planet. 

Two of the most widely-quoted teachings for children and adults alike are rooted in the primacy of kindness:

“He has told you what is good, and what the Lord requires of you:  Only to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk modestly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

“…the world stands upon three things:  the Torah, the Temple service, and the practice of acts of kindness” (Pirkei Avot 1:2)

           But it would be safe to assume that one of the main reasons these two teachings are so widely quoted is because they are clear examples of traveling through “easier said than done” territory.

           Rabbi Arthur Green, a scholar of Jewish mysticism, wrote, “Our fears create defenses and defenses turn into kelipot, ‘shells’ around our hearts that make our natural chesed inaccessible to us.”

           Some of our fears are easy to see, particularly when it comes being fearful of something that is relatively tangible—for example, fear of snakes, fear of heights, fear of poverty, fear of injury.  But observing other, subtler fears is often akin to observing the unobservable—we may be slow to apprehend what we are fearful of because our fears point to what originally happened to us that created that fear.

           As Rabbi Green notes, fear can hold our hearts hostage, and make our innate tendencies towards kindness difficult to locate. 

           For example, two fundamental fears that all human beings face in their relational life are the fear of abandonment and the fear of being trapped. We may deal with the former by becoming overly needy or controlling with a partner as a way of preventing abandonment from taking place.  We may deal with the latter by becoming excessively rebellious with or detached from a partner as a way of dissolving and demolishing the bonds (or bondage) that keep us restricted.

Each of these strategies are understandable coping mechanisms, but neither of them tend to robustly result in gemilut chasidim, acts of kindness.

           As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a prominent 20th century Latvian Rabbi, puts it:  “But there are frightened and agitated people whom because of their fear, the Heavens are not on their mind.  This sentiment degrades within them the gentle and good feelings and transforms the individuals to sad and cruel selves who hate each other and hate God in the recess of their hearts, despite their constant talk of love and honor…”

           The battleships known as “Dreadnoughts” (literally “fear not”) became predominant in early 20th century warfare.  But although we are often embattled, we are humans, not “dreadnoughts”—continuously vulnerable to fear and its influence. That is not a bad thing or a good thing, just a “thing”.  Our fears are there to tell us about ourselves, to tell us what happened to us, and to tell us what we are and are not capable of. So perhaps we need not always be so fearful of them.

           So here is a question for today:  “In what ways has fear inhibited your capacity to be kind?”

Elul Day 14

Biologist Richard Dawkins, author of “The Selfish Gene”, wrote that, “Human society based simply on the gene’s law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live.  But unfortunately, however much we deplore something, this does not stop it being true…”

           However, on a more optimistic note he added, “If you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism because we are born selfish…Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.”

           Those of us who are familiar with Dawkins’s work are aware that he was notoriously and unremittingly “anti-religious”.  Here are a couple of other quotes of his:

           “To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns.  Do not be surprised if they are used.”

           “Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakable truth through the power of institutions…”

Yet in some ways his hope that we can “upset the designs” of our genes might be seen as most fertilely rooted in the soil of our religion.  The teachings of Micah and Pirkei Avot that were cited in yesterday’s (Day 13) Reflection, for example, could certainly be seen as examples of Dawkins’s recommendation that we “teach generosity and altruism.”

In thinking about Dawkins, I also find myself considering the comments of a geneticist colleague of mine, who dreamily (and only half-humorously) wondered, “Perhaps one day we’ll find the gene that convinces us that all of human behavior is determined by our genes.”

Are we naturally selfish or naturally altruistic?  Your answer to that question might depend on which social media post you most recently came across, which newspaper or magazine article you most recently read, or which podcast you most recently listened to.

As we have learned, our tradition emphasizes that we are equally capable of loving and hating, of kindness and cruelty.  It also suggests, though, that which one of these capacities wins out may rest more within our minds, our hearts and our souls than it does within our chromosomes.

Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa once wrote, “I bear the wounds of all the battles I avoided,” prompting today’s question:  “Are you willing to honor and fight the battle between kindness and cruelty rather than excuse yourself and avoid that battle—and at what cost?”

Elul Day 15

            Back on Day 5, we were noting that the etymological root of kindness derives from “kin”—family, sameness.

           This has had me thinking that one of the challenges to being kind is that we have a tendency to exaggerate our differences with others and our similarities with our own “kind”.  With this in mind, we might hypothesize that Democracy, both in our country and in Israel, is imperiled because of grave misunderstandings regarding what draws us together and what keeps us apart. 

We all have our personal identities and they are important to us, but much of what is dangerous about identities, and what can jeopardize the enterprise of kindness, is the way in which we allow, or choose to allow, our identities—be they rooted in religion, community, nation, race, class or culture—to divide us rather than unite us.  We need our identities, but an exclusive focus on our identities can quickly become the enemy of human and planetary solidarity, and at its worst, develop into the source of catastrophes that we are all too familiar with, such as apartheid and genocide. 

This is a complicated matter to contend with, partially because of how we are built as human beings.  Developmental psychologists, for instance, have long noted that nobody has to instruct children to group people into categories, they appear to be “programmed” to do it on their own.  An example of this is that by age 2, most children not only distinguish between males and females but expect them to behave differently from each other. 

This tendency of ours has a function, of course.  One of our most basic strategies for making sense of the world is to form generalizations that help us to simplify matters so that they we don’t get overwhelmed.  Going back to gender, for a moment, we know that stereotypical beliefs such as “Men are assertive” and “Women are gentle” obviously don’t mean that all men are assertive or that all women are gentle—but the classification process provides us with a shortcut, misguided as it may be, when it comes to quickly assessing and preparing for the individuals whom we come in contact with.

With this most basic of cognitive habits in mind, it’s not difficult to conceive of and then depend upon the generalizations that polarize us.  Most of us know, for example, that mosquitoes, for example, do carry the West Nile virus—but the reality is that 99% of them don’t carry it.  Extrapolating to humanity, some Muslims are, indeed, terrorists—but we are certain that the vast majority are not

We are clannish creatures—we belong to humankind, but also prefer our own kind and can be easily persuaded to go into battle against those whom we perceive as not our kind. Which helps us to understand why being kind is not a simple matter.

So here’s a question for today:  “In what ways do your various identities influence your capacity to be kind towards individuals who don’t share your identities?”

Elul Day 16

Thinking more about the relationship between kindness and identity, which we began to explore yesterday, here is the poem “Walls”, by the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy:

Without reflection, without mercy, without shame,
they built strong walls and high, and compassed me about.

And here I sit now and consider and despair.

It wears away my heart and brain, this evil fate:
I had outside so many things to terminate.

Oh! why when they were building could I not beware!

But never a sound of building, never an echo came.
Insensibly they drew the world and shut me out. 

Identities can certainly provide pathways towards liberation and freedom—we see this all the time in the global struggle against oppression and inequality, which can take the form of Feminism, of the #MeToo movement, of the LGTBQ movement, of workers’-rights movements, along with countless other efforts. 

But Cavafy’s poem addresses not so much the promise associated with identity, but its perils, the ways in which it can “wall” us off—from ourselves and from others.

Whether those walls are built around us by others, or whether we are complicit in their having been built, these walls obstruct our connections with others, and shrink our horizons such that we focus only on the communities that we inhabit, rather than the larger world. 

The African/Roman playwright, Publius Terentius Afer, known more commonly as “Terence”, wrote the following more than two thousand years ago:

I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.

Perhaps if we could transcend the limitations of our identities, without abandoning them altogether, and identify with Terene’s worldly sentiment, our kindness impulses wouldn’t feel so thwarted.

So here’s a question to think about:  “In what ways does your identity—rooted in religion, neighborhood, interest-group, nationality, ethnicity, class, etc.—make you a more expansively kind person, and in what ways does it inhibit that kindness?”

Elul Day 21

Parents frequently consult with me because of an intractable problem one or more of their children have been displaying.  I generally start by reminding them that children are natural problem-solvers, and that what we, as adults (parents, teachers, coaches, etc.), might define as a “problem” is generally the child’s “solution” to a problem.

          Once that shift in thinking is engineered, everyone is on the same side of the fence and it becomes much easier to get unstuck and find better, and less problematic, ways of solving the problem that the child is struggling with.  So when I listen to “problem children”, I am first trying to understand what problem they are trying to solve, maladaptive as their solution may be.   

          Here are some examples:

  • It’s important for me to act helpless, so not too much is expected of me

 

  • I’m still too angry at my parents to make them proud of me and give them a chance to brag, so I will consistently underachieve

 

  • If I make a change for the better, I’ll have to beat myself up for not having made that change sooner than I did

 

  • I’ll feel humiliated if I decide to change and all of the adults think that I’ve finally come around and say, “I told you so.”

 

  • I cannot do exactly what is being asked of me because I won’t feel like I’m my own person

 

  • If I start to “work to the best of my ability” I’ll always have to “work to the best of my ability”

          Children almost never express themselves this explicitly in my conversations with them—it’s my job to “read between the lines” and decode their dilemma.  But I could fill page after page with examples such as these, because every child is struggling to solve their problems—consciously or unconsciously—in whatever way they can. 

In that regard, when problems occur, it is not, from my perspective, a failure of the child, or of the parents, or of the school or anyone else, but a failure of the collective imagination—no one has yet been able to imagine or conceive of the problem that the problematic behavior is (usually ineffectively) being designed to address.

          This paradigm obviously has connections with our capacity for kindness—or our lack thereof.  Because kindness fundamentally depends on imagination, as well—we need to imagine our way into the emotional life of others, and allow them to imagine their way into ours, for kindness to emerge.  Only when we creatively cultivate our empathic imagination do we put ourselves in the position of being able to make a beneficial difference in the lives of others, particularly those who are suffering.

          Along these lines, it is interesting to note that the word “imagine” derives from the Latin word “imago”, which means “likeness”—and this takes us back to the etymology of the word “kind”, which, we learned in Day 5, comes from “kin” or “sameness”.

          So in this sense, just as “misbehavior” on the part of children is not a failure on anyone’s part, “unkindness” is not a failure on anyone’s part, either, but a failure on the part of our reciprocal imagination.  Without a fully operative imaginative apparatus, our interest in others (and in ourselves) becomes radically impoverished, and we are no longer fully human—or close to divine.

          So here’s a question for today: “What are the risks and benefits of allowing yourself to imagine your way into the experience of another person, particularly one who is struggling or suffering?”

Elul Day 22

As I approach the beginning of my eighth decade of living, my communal and self-identity remain in exploratory mode. I offer two perspectives worthy of consideration as we journey through the days of Elul towards the new Jewish year of 5784. 

We are asked the wrong identity question as we pass through our years from early childhood. How often are we asked “What” do you want to be when you grow up?  This question assumes the values of our society that we live to work, not work to live.  The question trains or brainwashes our minds to define our existence and being in a functional role that serves our society first, rather than help define who we are.  The better question to ask is “Who” do you want to be when you grow up”? 

Try to define your identity changing the “what” to the “who” as you review your own past and present transitions through your life span from birth to this present day.  I agree with Brad’s view to be aware of the possible consequences when we try to define our identities primarily “in religion, community, nation, race, class or culture”. This reexamination of self and communal identity is hard work based on our unique experiences and collective responses to historical narratives and present realities.

The other consideration is in response to Mary Meyerson’s excellent analogy that helps children and youth learn from other people’s experiences.  “One of the best lessons (we) could teach them (about survival and identity is): 

  • a) no one is successful at everything; 
  • b) that’s okay (to struggle and make mistakes), and 
  • c) there’s nothing wrong about admitting things didn’t turn out the way you hoped.  

          What comes to mind is an important concept of what helps shape identity formation.  One of “The Butterfly Effect” analogies relates to transition times for children and youth that will have implications for their entire lives.  If we don’t let children and youth first struggle on their own with the challenges of emerging from their cocoons of self-development, we prevent a healthy and safer later adult experience. 

The caterpillar in the pupa part of its development transforms itself through the process of metamorphosis into the butterfly. If we, out of concern and benevolence, intervene during the metamorphosis state, the butterfly will come out without the strength learned through its struggle or without the ability to fly, which is essential to its survival and evolutionary purpose to propagate its species. 

I feel we have done ourselves and Jewish community a disservice.  We don’t use our minds to full advantage and our best intentions to shape and understand the “who” rather than the “what” in us that will better guarantee our own and communal Jewish survival.  Elul and High Holidays provide an opportunity to step back and reexamine the priorities of our lives.  This allows us to better clarify the elements of our identities and better understand “who” we are. 

Elul Day 23

           The root word Sh-M-A occurs 92 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone, most enduringly in our foundational prayer, “Shema Yisrael…” 

           Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, has noted that the opening phrase of Parashat Ekev (Deut. 7:12), which includes one of these Sh-M-A-based verbs, “Tish-me’un”, has been translated in numerous ways, including some of the following:

If only you would listen to these laws…

If you hearken to these precepts…

If you pay attention to these laws…

If you heed these ordinances…

Because you hear these judgments…

 

           He adds that Sh-M-A can also be used to connote “to understand”, such as in the story of the Tower of Babel, when God says, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand (yishme’u) each other (Gen. 11:7).

           And while the Hebrew Bible contains 613 commandments, he notes that  there is no single word that literally means “to obey”.  The verb used by the Torah in place of “to obey” is—you guessed it—Sh-M-A. 

All of this suggests that the most frequent translation of the Sh-M-A root into English—to listen—is unavoidably restricted, capturing only one facet of the experience of “listening”. 

           Rabbi Sacks’s gloss on this is that “blind obedience is not a virtue in Judaism…God wants us to understand the laws…he wants us to reflect…to internalize, and to respond.  He wants us to become a listening people.”  In Judaism, he goes on, “We do not see God; we hear God.”

           It would be impossible to over-estimate the importance of listening in Judaism—and in life, itself.  Isn’t that what all of us really want, at our deepest level—to be fully, attentively listened to, to be understood?

           Yet, as we know, our frantic contemporary existence is built solidly, and seemingly intractably, upon the foundation of talking, not listening.  I certainly do not have to go into any detail when it comes to the ways in which our culture emphasizes noise over quiet, making it frightfully difficult to hear the “still, small voices” that can only resonate in the sacred chamber created by interior and exterior silence.

           Nevertheless, the Jewish tradition privileges hearing over all of the other senses.  One midrash avers, “There are 248 major body parts, but it’s through the ear that they all live…as it says, “listen and you will be alive.”  And the most famous Jewish imperative of all, of course, is not “Israel, look!” but “Israel, listen!”

           When God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given, Solomon replied, lev shome’a, the “listening heart” that he knew would be required to judge with wisdom, discernment and compassion.

           Returning to Rabbi Sacks for a moment, when he was asked why God would summon Moses, a man who literally did not speak well—“I am slow of speech and tongue” (Ex. 4:10)—to lead the Jewish People, he replied, “Perhaps because one who cannot speak learns how to listen.”

           Using the month of Elul to begin softening the inner babble and the outer blare intimates the quiet grace that is the soil within which the deepest form of listening can take root. 

           In the words of the opening line from Paul Celan’s poem, “Untitled”:  “You lie amidst a great listening.”  When it comes to “great listening”, however, it is not only what we listen to—it is also what we listen for.

           So as we continue to think about kindness this month, we might think about praying, like Solomon did, for a “listening heart”, the essential nutrient that is required for the seeds of kindness to be brought to fruition. 

           With this in mind, here are two questions for today:

When have you encountered an individual with a “listening heart” and how has it felt to be truly listened to?

What are the “noises” in your life that would you need to mute or soften in order to listen better, and with more kindness? 

Elul Day 24

          Today we are again honored by a guest contributor, Bill Frelick,

who is the Refugee and Migrant Rights Director for Human Rights Watch.  The

inspirational tale that he has agreed to share with us captures the astonishing

way in which even trauma, at times, can somehow still liberate the irrepressible

expression of kindness.

“In Grant’s tent at City Point, Lincoln noticed three kittens, “little wanderers” who had lost their mother. Moved by their “mewing,” he picked them up to comfort them. “Poor little creatures, don’t cry; you’ll be taken good care of,” Lincoln said. To an officer, the president added, “Colonel, I hope you will see that these poor little motherless waifs are given plenty of milk and treated kindly.” …

It was not only curious—it was revealing. In the midst of carnage, fresh from battlefields strewn with the corpses of those he had ordered into battle, Lincoln was seeking some kind of affirmation of life, some evidence of innocence, some sense of kindliness amid cruelty. The orphaned kittens were a small thing, but they were there, and his focus on their welfare was a passing human moment in a vast drama. He could not control much. But he could control this.”

And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle, by Jon Meacham, pp. 521-522

Small acts of kindness in the overwhelming face of uncontrollable violence and disaster are an essential reaffirmation of humanity when it feels most eclipsed by cruelty and hatred. Those of us who have worked, served, or lived amidst or in close proximity to war and persecution, often find remarkable and unexpected expressions of kindness, beauty amidst ugliness, glimmers of hope in situations of despair. When I visit with refugees, oftentimes still traumatized by recent losses and in conditions of need, I am struck by the number of times they have shown me, a stranger in their midst, simple acts of kindness: in places where everyone sits on earthen floors, rummaging for something approximating a chair for the old man interviewing them to sit on, guiding me to a safer place, or sharing their food, when they are surviving on rations.

Last year, I found a rudimentary “tea shop,” a rickety table and plastic stools, in an alley of a slum of Istanbul, where I was interviewing undocumented young men from Afghanistan. I was asking about their journeys, especially about recent, brutal pushbacks from Turkey to Iran, and from Greece to Turkey.  I remember one young man, a member of the persecuted Hazara minority of Afghanistan, who had been in constant danger and hardship after fleeing his country four months previously. He waited to the side much of the day as I conducted long interviews with others, and then came to tell me his story. He had been interrogated by an ISIS-affiliated militia when he crossed from Iran to Pakistan, a group targeting Hazaras for attack. Iranian police shot at his group as they crossed the mountainous border from Pakistan. “We ate grass, we were so hungry, crossing the mountains on foot.”

After he crossed the barbed wire fences and trenches on the border separating Iran and Turkey, Turkish border police caught him and about 50 people he was traveling with and took them to a base about five minutes from the border fence:

At the base they stripped us of our clothes and our belongings, set them on fire, and beat and kicked us. They used police batons and wooden sticks to beat us, about 2 inches in diameter. They also whipped us with their belts. They hit me on my arms and knees with a wooden stick. I tried to protect my head with my hands, which is why my arms got beaten… Some people were taken away and I never saw them again.

Only a couple nights before talking to me, he tried going to Greece, “but the police caught me, stripped me and sent me back.” This young man, brutalized and literally stripped multiple times, had nothing but the clothes he could scrounge to cover his nakedness. The last thing he said was: “Tomorrow, I will try to cross into Greece again. The whole journey has been really hard. I have only survived by my parents’ prayers.” The young Hazara man disappeared in the shadows. I went on to the last interview of the day. I never saw or heard from him again.

At the end of the day after my last interview, I gathered my things and went to the shopkeeper to settle the bill for the tea the refugees and I had been drinking for most of the day. He waved his hands, shook his head, and said no need. The young Hazara man had paid for the tea.  

Elul Day 25

          When asked what unites the ethics of the world’s religions, Biblical scholar Karen Armstrong responded with the simplest of answers:  “Compassion”.  If faced with their own version of the question—What is the central moral adaptation produced in the evolution of human sociality?—evolutionists were most likely converge on a similar answer:  “Compassion”.

          So on this axis, both the religiously and the scientifically inclined are actually aligned with each other, which, as we know, is not always the case : )

          We can see the shadow side of this emphasis on compassion (or, to use our Elul-theme, kindness/chesed) when we read the words of highly sophisticated despots and dictators, who intuitively understand the “danger” of compassion and how it can derail their master plans.

          Hitler, for example, wrote “What is weak must be hammered away.  In my fortresses of the Teutonic Order…I want the young to be violent, domineering, undismayed, cruel.  They must be able to bear pain.  There must be nothing weak or gentle about them.”

          In Ayn Rand’s words, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.”

          It is interesting to note that the word Karen Armstrong, and others, have used—“compassion”—comes from the Latin “to suffer with”  (“com” means “with”, and “pati” means “suffering”).

          This explains why chesed/compassion is often so hard to come by, but also why it is so tremendously powerful.  The concept of adding to our suffering by connecting with, or sharing the suffering of, someone else feels intuitively unappealing and illogical, yet, paradoxically, it vastly enriches our life, and the lives of others.

          Our potential as human beings is measureless.  What holds us back from crafting and shaping our lives in the way that we ideally would like to is our limited idea of what is possible. 

But once we realize that it is possible, through acts of kindness, to melt away the barriers that exist the different parts of ourselves, and between ourselves and others—to truly “suffer with others”—we awaken to a new and more compassionate way of living.

Elul Day 26

           The word Elul, in Aramaic, means to “scout” or to “search”.  As we have been discussing, taking on cheshbon hanefesh—a “scouting out” or a “searching into” our heart, mind and soul—is one of our primary responsibilities during the month of Elul.

           This etymology brings to mind the Biblical story of the Sin of the Spies, in which Moses sends 12 emissaries on a mission to “scout out” Canaan.  10 of the 12 spies become victims of a plague and die in the wilderness. 

The transgression for which they are punished is defined not as being rooted in the results of their surveillance, but as being rooted in the decisively pessimistic conclusion that the spies arrived at as a result of their surveillance:  “We cannot conquer this land, it is too powerful for us,” was the fear-based judgment that all but Joshua and Caleb returned to Moses with.  These two stalwarts displayed faith in God and in the possibility that they would eventually take up residence in The Promised Land

           As Rabbi Simon Jacobson explains, “…they and we have no right to question whether the mission can be accomplished; our job is to figure how to do it, not whether we can or not.”

           During Elul, we, too, are sent on a scouting mission, but with the goal of investigating our private, interior land.  A piercing examination of this province—the bewildering and complicated matrix of (sometimes monstrous) urges, ambitions, desires and impulses that account for the choices we make—is a daunting endeavor, one that most of us eagerly find ways to avoid. 

We intuitively understand that looking carefully at ourselves will mean seeing some things we may not want to see, that frighten us, similarly to when the spies fretfully reported back to Moses that they had seen the giant “descendants of Anak”, who made them look and feel like “grasshoppers” in comparison. 

It is of course natural to feel faint-hearted when it comes to considering the possibility, or perhaps even the need, to change what needs to be changed—humiliation and defeat may seem inevitable.  How many of us have avoided consultations with various professionals (medical, dental, psychological, financial) because we were afraid of what we might learn, what worrisome condition we might be in, what difficult decisions might confront us?

           But one way to make this initiative a little less fearsome and intimidating is conceptualizing the cheshbon hanefesh process not as a harsh scrutiny or hostile assessment of who we are, but as a form of personal Teshuvah—a return to who we are, accompanied by the vision of whom we might become.

           Perhaps with this in mind, there is a custom in some shuls to announce, on each day of Elul, Shuvu Bonim Shovivim—”Return, my children, return.” 

           Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that, “All great literature is of two stories—a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”  From my perspective, however, we might add a third archetypal story, the story of the individual who returns home, ultimately to him/herself.  And in some ways that story is a combination of Tolstoy’s two stories—we go on a journey, but as part of that journey we have to encounter and shake hands with the stranger who came to our personal, psychological town.

When we liberate ourselves from the illusion of who we think we are, and faithfully and realistically examine our lives with clarity and without (much) denial, we arrive at the gates of our personal Promised Land and return home to our authentic, essential selves, to the place where we were made, and to the place where we can be made anew.

Elul Day 27

          Back in 7th grade, I was the piano accompanist for our school’s production of “Annie Get Your Gun”.  I vividly remember playing the song “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” countless times during our rehearsals.

          Here’s one of its many stanzas:

My uncle out in Texas
Can’t even write his name
He signs his checks with X’s
But they cash ’em just the same

If you saw my pa and ma
You’d know they had no learnin’
Still they raised a family
Doin’ what comes naturally

          The song came to mind because while we would love to be able to rely on this iconic sentiment, “doin’ what comes naturally” doesn’t always lead to good, or humane, outcomes.  In fact, as we have been discussing, it is sometimes our “natural” tendencies that yield our most abhorrent behaviors.

          The historian Martin Gilbert tells of a Polish peasant woman, during the Second World War who happened to hear a group of villagers propose throwing a little Jewish girl into a well.  The woman said, “She’s not a dog after all,” and the girl’s life was saved.

          We don’t know any details about that woman’s personal history, education, religion, or moral compass.  But we do know that she “naturally” understood that life—even the life of a Jew—was sacred.

          We also don’t know any details about the villagers’ personal histories, education, or religion, or moral compass.  But we do know that they “naturally’ seemed to understand that life is not at all sacred—especially if you are a Jew.

          How did the peasant’s simple commentary about the category of the prospective victim—“She’s not a dog after all”—penetrate the villagers’ consciousness and lead them to question and then abandon their plan?  We don’t know this either.  But we do know that successfully triggering an ethical reconsideration of this magnitude is painfully rare.

          It is said that Nature taught our ancestors to walk, but we can teach ourselves to dance (in my case, that may be questionable, but let’s go with this thought for now).

          Likewise, we might say that Nature shaped our evolutionary and cultural past and taught us to collaborate better than any other species in the service of our survival, but that we also can teach ourselves to be kind, which could be seen as a step beyond pure “survival” and a recognition of our shared humanity.

          Aristotle wrote about “natural slavery”, the concept that some people are slaves by nature while others are slaves solely by law or convention.

          Yet an icon devised by a Quaker abolition society in the 18th century depicted a shackled slave, kneeling and with hands raised in supplication, with the legend, “Am I not a man and a brother?” 

          Which is more “natural”—the Aristotelean belief that some people are slaves “by nature” or the Quaker belief that it is natural for us to see others as ourselves?

          What the month of Elul offers us is the opportunity to consider the fact that “human nature” may be nothing more than a looking glass, that there is nothing to prevent us from deciding that it is in our nature to transcend our nature, to reweave it into a more textured, expansive, and comforting fabric.

Elul Day 28

I recently saw a man at the beach wearing a t-shirt that said, “What If The Hokey-Pokey Is What It’s All About?”

          Believe it or not, this silk-screened boardwalk gem brought to mind our ongoing Elul exegesis of chesed, and here’s why…

Most of us are constantly struggling with The Meaning of Life, wondering what our purpose is.  The question, “What is the meaning of life?” reminds me of the legendarily obtuse Oxford examination question, which is supposed to have read simply, “Is this a good question?”

In other words, not all questions have answers, and “What is the meaning of life” is obviously one of those queries that will remain eternally unanswered.  In fact, why should we imagine that just because we pose a question, there must be an answer?

Yet we humans distinguish ourselves from other species by putting our existence into question (most likely because we are aware that our existence is finite and we live in the shadow of death), so we continue to struggle with this question.  And I suppose that one possible answer to the question is—chesed. 

Our tradition is, in many ways, very clear about this:

The beginning and the end of Torah is the performance of lovingkindness (Talmud Sotah, 14a)

          So we might say that the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” can be found when we choose to live in a certain way.  And when that way is is a virtuous way, when we challenge ourselves to follow the serpentine and, at times, bewildering, footpaths of kindness, we become virtuosi of life, automatically illuminating it with meaning, steadily providing our existence with depth, abundance and intensity.

          William Blake wrote about seeing Eternity “in a grain of sand”, which is a lovely thought, but we might also consider the fact that we see Eternity in a glass of water that we hand to someone who is thirsty, in a loaf of bread that we offer to someone who is hungry, in the decision to quiet ourselves and supply a simple, listening ear to those who are in pain and desperately need to talk about their suffering.

          Pleasure is ephemeral, happiness is temporary, contentment is transient, but acts of kindness truly give our lives meaning and, in that regard, live forever, especially because they tend to foster other kind acts in response, which sets a virtuous—rather than a vicious—cycle into motion.

          Chesed—kindness—is, as our tradition understands it, a practice, a way of life, not just a state of mind.  And the more we practice, the better we get.  We are always encouraged to “live the questions” but in this case, maybe “living the answer”—answering the unanswerable with lovingkindness—is really the best way to live, and the best we can do.

Elul Day 29—Mailbag Edition

Now that we are close to completing the month of Elul and are preparing to enter the Yamim Noraim, I will use today’s penultimate Reflection to share with all of you some additional perspectives and commentaries that have been shared with me over the course of this month.  

As I noted in the last Mailbag Edition, I believe that I have received a good deal more Reflection-related correspondence this year than in previous years, which perhaps illuminates the ways in which chesed is like the Torah, itself. 

As Ben Bag wrote in Pirke Avot, “Turn the Torah over and over again, for everything is in it. Look into it, grow old and worn over it, and never move away from it, for you will find no better portion than it.” 

So here are some of the “turns” that have emerged:

Why did you pose the question as you did, rather than asking if we can still be kind to others when we find it hard to be kind to ourselves? Exploring that paradox – that we can be kind to others while being cruel to ourselves – is a much more interesting question. People find it harder to be kind to themselves.

John Riehl (in response to the question posed in Day 3, “Are you able to be kind to yourself when you are finding it hard to be kind to others?”)

While teaching, I often found a tension between my desire to be kind and my desire to set boundaries for my students.  Earlier in my career, I leaned more toward setting boundaries (not being the kind of teacher who would fall for any old excuse as to why homework was late, a test missed, etc).  I have to admit that in the years leading up to my retirement, I started to lean more towards kindness.  I became more and more aware of what students had to deal with and that there were obstacles I probably didn’t know anything about (although I tried to find out, without prying too much). 

Emily Blank

I find being kind difficult sometimes because the more you are kind to someone, the more they come to expect that you should always be that way. So, in a way, it’s not the other person’s vulnerability I am concerned with, but my own…there is a vulnerability in being taken advantage of because you are kind. 

Nikki Lincoln (in response to Day 4)

My coming into Judaism was because I listened once very intensely and made some great sense of my relationship to the Divine.  And in that intense listening, I knew that the teachings I had learned from my birth, would no longer work for me.  The Oneness of G-d was made very clear to me and I heard with all my heart the unity of creation. Over the years, my intensity has lessened and the clarity I had has somewhat blurred. But your reflection has brought back a moment of that clarity I had some 50+ years ago. 

Name withheld (in response to Day 23)

I grew up hearing “  “God gave us two ears and only one mouth, so we can listen twice as much as we speak”, which I was told was from the Talmud. But, Google says it is  “ attributed to Epictetus, a Greek philosopher who spent his youth as a slave in Rome before gaining freedom after the death of Nero, under whom he served until around 60 AD.

Name Withheld (in response to Day 23)

I think to spread chesed, you need to start by being kind to yourself, by accepting who you are, wrinkles, bumps and faults.  Not an easy goal some days.

Melody Magnus

Melody also recommended the song “The Greatest Love of All” by the inimitable Whitney Houston.  Here is the YouTube link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYzlVDlE72w

Elul Concluding Reflection

In his song “The E Street Shuffle”, Bruce Springsteen sings:  “…as those sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams…”

          I have always loved the fact that the Jewish New Year begins in the fall because of the sense of possibility that the season confers, its inexorable movement from heat and humidity towards the autumnal harvest, towards conservation, and towards rest.  At this juncture, our world begins its slow, steady turn in the direction of its long winter sleep, with summer not entirely behind us, but slowly, relentlessly disappearing out of view.

          As I sit outside composing this final piece, a light breeze is rustling the first yellowing leaves as the boughs slowly darken and the sun begins its slightly earlier descent below the beckoning horizon.

At this time of year, endings become beginnings and beginnings become endings as we look forward to new ways to live and new ways to relate—to ourselves, to each other, to our planet.

          My goal in writing, as always, has been to start a conversation, not to end one.  With this in mind, I hope that these Elul Reflections have helped to carry you from 5783 into 5784, closing some doors while opening others.

As many of you know, I am a psychologist, but the more that I explore our tradition, the more I realize how psychologically astute our rabbis and teachers, and our texts and liturgy, have always been.  As many have said, the field of psychology has a short past, but a very long history.

With this in mind, I often reflect upon the words of Reb Nachman, who many years ago observed:  “You are wherever your thoughts are.  Make sure your thoughts are where you want to be.” 

If Reb Nachman were still around, he might suggest that if we do not want to be enslaved by our thoughts, if we would prefer to guide our thoughts rather than be limited by them, we can choose to transform our minds. 

          But he might also add that for that transformation to flourish and sustain itself, it has to be rooted in self-love.  Generosity that is rooted in self-hatred can become bitter, condescending martyrdom.  Morality that is rooted in self-hatred can become despotic oppression.  Efforts to love others that are not grounded in self-love can lead to an inability to maintain a balance between separateness and togetherness, or a lonely, fruitless, desperate search for an intimacy that will never emerge.

          Abraham Heschel commented, “When I was young, I admired clever people.  Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

          Perhaps we needn’t wait until we are old to admire kindness—including kindness that is directed towards ourselves.  Because when we are kind to ourselves, we don’t have to make ourselves kind towards others, we naturally, organically allow ourselves to be kind to others.

          May the New Year signal a deeper, richer reckoning with kindness, heralded by an acceptance of the kind of people we are, but a continued pursuit of the kind of people we hope, and deserve, to be.

Shanah tovah u’metukah,

Brad