In Deuteronomy (Devarim / 6:5) we are told “And love HaShem, your God, with all your heart, and with your entire being and with all your resources”* which is known by so many of us as the third line of the Shema.
The “And love” part might, at first, seem like a command. And (see below) that’s how most translations make it appear.
But if that’s so, how can we make sense out of being commanded to love?
I am not sure how, if I didn’t have a spiritual practice, I would get through the day after a dose of daily news. Even though I severely limit my time listening and reading to about an hour a day, it is sometimes enough to crush the spirit….Read more here
The passage of time has been nothing short of startling for me. During the midst of the pandemic, and even now as things are ‘easing up’, I ride the wave of time, from one activity to another, from one holiday to another…not really feeling that I’ve actually experienced it. I can’t explain it beyond that. It is a bizarre feeling….to be at once present and yet not.
Passover was a dream, a fleeting sense of a holiday. I know that most can’t wait for it to end, but for me, I feel that it disappeared. Eight days, gone in a whisper of time.
And now, how can I truly feel that I am in the Omer period, when I’m still wondering where Passover went? Read the rest here…..
Responsibility, Achrayut / אחריות is one of the character traits that a person focuses on while practicing Mussar and engaging in character and spiritual development. To appreciate its nuances, we can go right to the Hebrew for clarification of what is involved in this trait.
Let’s first look at the core letters of the word, which in Hebrew, is called the root, the shoresh. By examining the word’s core meaning, we avail ourselves of the rich meaning that goes beyond a dictionary definition. The three-letter root word consists of Aleph-Chet-Resh [A-CH-R] which can mean either Achar (After) or Acher (Other). Big deal you say? Well, yes, because embedded in the very words for Responsibility are clues to help us understand the Jewish foundation for this trait / middah.
So, let’s parse this out a bit, taking each meaning separately. Let’s interpret this concept of responsibility through the lens of Achar (After). We can be responsible to others after we take care of ourselves (think oxygen mask on an airplane). A well-known phrase from Leviticus / Vayikra (19:18) tells us to וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ / V’ahavta L’rayecha Kamocha
“And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” which can be interpreted in several ways, one if which is that by loving and respecting yourself first, you will in fact be better able to care for someone else. In other words, you’ve worked on yourself enough, so you are able to love fully and therefore will be bringing (less) emotional baggage into the relationship. You are able to give fully, and love that person as a creation of God, when you, yourself, value yourself as being created in the Image of God.
Another interpretation of Achar (After) as part of responsibility is that we are entrusted with creating a better world for those who come after us. We are required to not just think of using up resources but working on replenishing them. Our task goes beyond ourselves to generations in the future.
What happens when we focus on the three-letter root word that can spell Acher (Other)? The meaning of this tells us that we need to be concerned about ‘the other’ in society. Those who are marginalized, the ones who are easily forgotten, those who are out of our daily sight yet need us to pay attention.
These are our challenges when we think of our responsibility. Do we prioritize our own needs first, as in Acharei / אחרי (After me —-which ironically is also part of the word אחריות ? Or do we concern ourselves with being activists, working on behalf of those who come Achar (After)? Do we focus on the immediate needs of the “other”, those who are mostly forgotten, as in “Acher” (The Other)? How do we juggle our responsibilities to ourselves and to others?
You already know, there is not one answer for all situations, for all times. What we’re being asked to do is bring this knowledge of responsibility, with all of its meaning to our effort to be more responsible. To be more fully human.
The sage Hillel, said it best in the most poetic way:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And when I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?
(Foundational Ethics / Pirkei Avot 1:14
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If not now, when?Hillel, Foundational Ethics, 1:14
One should set aside a definitive time of the day and a specific amount of time for this assessment [of your ways] so that it is not a fortuitous matter, but one that is conducted with the greatest regularity; for it yields great returns. [Mesilat Yesharim, Path of the Just, ch. 3]
~ Rabbi Chaim Luzzatto, known as the RaMChaL [1707 – 1746], author of Mesilat Yesharim, a foundational Mussar text.
In the Introduction to Rabbi Luzzatto’s seminal work, he says that he is not going to tell you anything that you don’t know already. Imagine. The author of one of the most famous Mussar texts of all time saying that basically, there’s nothing new that I’m going to tell you.
He doesn’t insult us with what we know in our insides already. What gets in the way of a deeper ‘knowing’ is our intellectual ego. We get in the way of ourselves. Sometimes, we know there is a lack in our lives, but we avoid doing anything about it. Science calls it inertia. We can call it many things: scrolling, watching, shopping…..anything that we do mindlessly that takes us away from what might really change things us for us.
Peeling away those layers that have obscured our inner purity and desire for connection with the greater Whole takes work. And sometimes, I get it, we’re just not up for it.
But now is the time, as Hillel said. “If not now, when?” Although for us, the secular New Year doesn’t even play a close second to the work we’re asked to do in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, while everyone else is busy making resolutions, you might just decide that now is the time to engage in Jewish study, the type that will elevate you just a little bit, and get you closer to peeling away another layer.
I have been lazy a bit myself, not developing the courses I’d like to because it is frankly, a lot of work. But I will push myself in the New Year, and I hope you will push yourselves towards your goals as well. Now is the time. Happy New Year!
This post was originally published in Inner Focus, a spiritual newsletter of Inner Judaism. If you want to sign up, click here.
The title of Dara Horn’s new book People Love Dead Jewsactually repulsed me, so I dismissed it as a book I that I probably wouldn’t read.
You see, I grew up with dead Jews. My parents, born in Poland, came to this country leaving behind remnants of what could have been robust family trees. My profound sense of loss at having no grandparents hit me at a young age and among those missing from my life were aunts, uncles, and many cousins who could have enriched my life greatly. Through the years, I resisted focusing on the loss — on so many who were not a part of my life. Doing that would have put me in such a dark place that I don’t think I could have escaped from easily.
So, I didn’t feel like immersing myself in that world, in reliving my losses. This book seemed to be a sardonic take on the death of tragic victims. Besides, we are not dead. People tried to kill us, over and over again. After all, it’s even a joke, ever since the comedian Alan King said: “a summary of every Jewish holiday is – they tried to kill us, we won—let’s eat”. But the inescapable fact is that we’re still here, and that is incredibly miraculous. We’re an ancient people who constantly resurrect themselves from the dead.
Still, as a Jewish educator, immersed in all things Jewish, I felt this gnawing obligation to search the book out. At least it would be for the purpose of learning what another writer besides Bari Weiss, had to say about antisemitism, in this post-Pittsburgh-Tree of Life-massacre era.
Searching for the book on Amazon, even the algorithm’s bot questioned my choice of words: “Did you mean people live dead Jews?” . After the book popped up and accepting the invitation to “look inside”, I was riveted after reading the first essay. It’s difficult to formally review this book because it entails navigating through potential spoilers and tiptoeing through stories of the familiar (e.g., Anne Frank, Ellis Island, Shakespeare) that will absolutely widen your eyes. You will also read stories that were intentionally buried under mounds of willful deception. Often, it will be painful to continue.
So many times, the emotions of disgust, helplessness, anger, and hopelessness took over, forcing me to put the book down, and it was often hard to pick up the book again. But due to my own stubbornness and an allegiance to peoplehood, I felt I owed it to yes, my dead ancestors, to read about how Jews, in so many different situations through the ages were robbed materially, physically, and spiritually, of living a normal and decent life.
Dara Horn is a painstaking researcher who removes any doubt you might have about the veracity of her stories. Her descriptions are so factually detailed, there leaves no room for any doubt about her accounts, which actually makes things harder to take. Whatever we thought before about the outrageous antisemitic acts that are part of our collective history….it’s actually worse than that.
Missing from Horn’s book are prescriptions for how to counter the whirlwind of hate detailed in essays like Dead Jews of the Desert and Blockbuster Dead Jews. For that, I would recommend grabbing a copy of Weiss’ book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”. The book that Dara Horn wrote is forpeeling away the blanketing layer of comfort we’ve been living under.
Now you are forewarned, but please, you must read this book. Some essays will turn your stomach, some might set you on a course of activism (I hope so). But you have to gain the knowledge that Horn is providing you. You probably won’t find these stories anywhere else, and you owe it to yourself and yes, your dead ancestors, to be informed.
Through the ages, we’ve been ‘going along to get along’, rowing merrily, thinking that by blending in, and even losing a sense of ourselves in the process, we’ll be armored from hate.
Both history and Dara Horn show us that it will not work and never has.
The rhythm of the Jewish calendar allows us to sense a deeper level of experience beyond the seasons. Soon we will be leaving the month of Av, which required us to face our national tragedies and mourn for what we lost. Entering Elul, we turn a period of the Jewish people mourning as a nation into a personal accounting for change. We are given the tools to remake ourselves.
Elul is a time expressly for soulful thinking about our true selves and who we want to be. Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. After the void of despair from the prior month and wondering where God was in all of our horrible losses, we find that we are in a different space entirely. God is with us, and we are hopeful. We can be renewed…. Read more about the secrets embedded in the Jewish calendarhere….
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Journeying the Omer distance, from Passover to Shavuot, allowed us to experience our ancient roots as part of Am Yisrael / The Nation of Israel, as we rejoice in the everlasting gift of Torah.
In the upcoming weeks, we will be in the book of Torah called BaMidbar / The Wilderness. The Torah was given in the wilderness, a place of no distractions, of expansiveness and silence, evoking a sense of awe for the Divine —the way it feels when you look at the rolling ocean or gaze way up at canyon walls; nature that is untouched and pure. In those moments, we become very small and lose a sense of our physical selves. It is then that we are able to reach inward, connecting to our pure spiritual souls. Losing the sense of our own importance enables us to be open to receive. It’s a great lesson for life. More on this can be found on my post “Being in the Wilderness” and on my sourcesheet on Sefaria.org.
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Have you tried journaling as a regular practice? Different from a diary…it is an incredibly powerful tool for self-discovery. If you haven’t established this spiritual practice yet, and want to experience how to jump-start your process, please join me! Info here
The Mussar Path
This successful mini-course begins this week! If you are not familiar with Mussar, this will offer you a healthy introduction. Read more here
Our days are rather filled “up” with day-to-day undertakings, and sometimes we barely get in all the activities we schedule in.
So where and how do we make room for study?
How can we be different today if we haven’t focused on what that even means?
After all, even one of the highest compliments one can pay to a Torah scholar is to call that person a “Talmid Chacham”…literally a student of wisdom. So, even at the highest level of scholarship, one is still a student.
This year, I am involving myself more personally and seriously than ever before in the counting of the Omer, the period of time between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks).
The counting of 49 Days (beginning on the second night of Passover) is like a metaphoric step ladder. We ascend the ladder in daily steps, in order to experience a spiritual transformation and to have a proper mindset before we ‘re-enact’ the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot.
In the past, I was pretty sloppy about this practice; sometimes remembering, most often forgetting, to count the passing of days. Read more here…. [and subscribe to Inner Judaism to be notified of new posts!].
How does Judaism define Happiness? How do we differentiate between a feeling that is fleeting, and one that truly lingers and impacts our lives? Read more here, and subscribe on Inner Judaism to receive updates in your inbox.