Leaving Fear behind
Every week we have a Mincha service and a short Torah study, where for the last few months we’ve started learning Mussar (read more about Mussarhere).
This Tuesday, considering the unfolding rioting, attacks and almost war between the Israelis and Palestinians, we tried approaching this situation from a Mussar perspective. This means, trying to understand our reaction to what is happening over in Eretz Israel, each person from within their own neshama / soul. How can we check within our souls and find a point that leads out of suffering and onto a path of healing? That leads us from closing up, to reaching out.
Each person had their own response, and a few people agreed to write a short note sharing their processing and thoughts. The reason I wanted to share these few short notes with you is because we are all in deep uncertainty just now. I know all of us are going through a rough time, dealing with the news from Israel and with our fear for the lives and wellbeing of our family and friends.
The way you process this situation might be different, your feelings might come from a different place, but its important that we share feelings, fears, and spiritual work:
What comes up for me is a lack of anavah (humility) and a fear of stepping back and losing space that both think should be theirs. A misplaced sense of kavod (honor). Unacknowledged pain turning to anger. I kept coming back yesterday to meditating on what it means that we are all b'tzelem Elohim (in the image of God) and trying to connect with the divine in myself, in order to connect with others who I feel disconnected from…I do think mussar is such an important practice because we need to work on the individual level to be able to put out the light that could change the world. I'm reading some essays by Wendell Berry and one part jumped out at me last night. He is talking about how to save the land and people when he says, "There is, even so, a lot that can be done without waiting on the politicians. It seems likely that politics will improve after the people have improved, not before. The 'leaders' will have to be led."
As this now spirals into another cycle of violence and counterviolence, I feel sickened by the renewed suffering and loss, all so unnecessary, so pointless. I was reminded of a story from this year's joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day observance, of an Israeli youth who lost his older brother in an army action. Overcome with desire for vengeance, he started an ultranationalist gang. He would have fit right in with that Kahanist mob, howling for Arab blood. But SOMEHOW, he met and befriended a real-live Palestinian, and then started attending Parents' Circle meetings where he was able to speak of his grief at losing his brother. He heard Palestinians who were carrying similar grief. He changed his whole narrative about Palestinians, and now he is a dedicated peacemaker. How can we make this young man's t'shuvah more common? How can we stop feeding these cycles of violence?
Some years ago, maybe ten years, we read about a protest supporting transfer of Valley Zoo elephant Lucy to an elephant refuge, or it might have been a protest against not allowing transfer of Lucy to a refuge. . Elephants are highly social animals. We believe that a zoo that is unable to support multiple elephants should have none. On the coldest winter day that year Mary Jane and I showed up at the parking lot near the zoo entrance, accepted signs offered to us, and walked around with the signs until the protest came to an end. Lucy is still here and now really might be too old to be transferred.
Regrettably, I am unable to recall any other situation in which I encountered an unethical situation and acted to overcome destructive consequences.
Mussar is a spiritual practice in taking on responsibility for our own behavior, and for our care towards others. All the thoughts above, and illustrated very starkly by Jerry's story, are explorations into the ways in which we could potentially react and leave our comfort zone. These are all moments in which we are called upon to care for and relate to someone who is not I and notice what in our inner conversation enables us to rationalize our inability to act.
As for myself, the last few days have been a practice in feeling bitachon / security. Knowing my family and friends are once again under attack and sleeping in bomb shelters. Hearing from one cousin that her own cousin is in critical condition after barely surviving a lynch, and hearing from a colleague that a family in her congregation just lost their son. I feel the earth-shaking again, and am asking myself, how do I learn the feeling of security?
A Torah which has helped me through this year, and especially these last few days, are the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l:
One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope and active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.
The middah, virtue, I will work on in the coming days is of being actively hopeful. That means knowing I will work towards making things better, but also realizing that a lot is out of my hands, and therefore I must rely on faith. It means letting go of the hubris of thinking I know all and control all, and at the same moment understand I have deep control over my own actions and reactions.
I would like to speak with every one of you who feels personally impacted by the events in Israel. Please email or phone me and I will do my very best to respond as quickly as I can.
For the meanwhile, here is a wonderful rendition of Psalm 23 to open your heart.
Remembering that Hope is an active virtue.
Rabbi Gila Caine.
 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London: Continuum, 2002), 206.