We live in what feels like a harsh world right now. Our public language has coarsened to a level most of us wouldn’t have let our five year olds use, let alone our teenagers, let alone ourselves. Emanating from the highest offices in the land, we hear petty personal attacks, vicious racism, and lies, daily. Hatred spews in many directions —against people of color, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, us Jews, women. In local communities—right here in Marin County, social media are filled with insults, words meant to hurt, divisiveness.
Norms are shattered almost daily about how we are supposed to behave with each other.
It feels ugly out there. And on our computers and smart phones.
And it seems so easy for us to accept this ugliness, this vitriol, to let it settle in our brains and our hearts and then let it flow out of our own mouths, or our keyboards.
At the same time, our democracy—that is founded and has endured this far on the commitment to the idea that We the People can create a more perfect union, promote the general welfare, and secure the bonds of liberty for all of us, created equal and endowed with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—is under profound attack.
How are we to hold our moral center, our integrity, amid such a daily onslaught?
I find that this is an essential question facing so many of us these days. Some people have sworn off political news, withdrawing from it, except maybe in small doses. Some people have signed off Facebook, sacrificing those photos of their grandchildren or nieces for a semblance of sanity. Some people throw themselves into the resistance, working on voter turnout, to pull some of that large non-voting group of Americans off their couches to a voting booth, or an absentee ballot.
But how do we hold our moral center?
As I asked myself this question over the past month, I kept coming back to the Unetaneh Tokef, that central prayer in our High Holy Day morning liturgy. I used to agonize over this prayer—On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur, it is sealed, Who will live, who will die, who by fire, who by water, who by earthquake, who by plague…I heard it telling us that God made that decision, despite the use of the passive voice—‘It is written, it is sealed.’ If that’s your God, I don’t want it.
The liturgist/poet shares a list of ways our lives might end, or our lives might unfold—who will be calm, who unsettled.
This list seems written for California—fires, earthquakes, plagues, beasts…Although the poem was likely written about 1400 years ago, it still feels relevant and fresh this year.
It tells us events might happen to any of us at any moment, and we won’t be ready, and it will feel like a blow to the solar plexus. How will we move forward?
I know when my husband’s heart rate got up to 130 beats per minute every minute of his day for weeks this summer, we were pretty freaked out, especially when the advice nurse told us to get ourselves to the nearest emergency room. While I don’t know what it feels like when your heart pumps that fast, even while you sleep, I felt the fear.
At the same time, we embraced gratitude to our doctor for taking it so seriously, and for western medicine that currently has a full toolbox, and for skilled physicians and excellent caring nurses. And the home blood pressure cuff that he uses twice a day to tell us the second procedure is still holding.
A few weeks ago, we read in the Torah about the importance of judges in our communal life. In the paragraph that leads up to “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof/Justice, justice shall you pursue,” we are told to appoint fair judges in all our gates. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, the 18thCentury Hasidic master, gave a deep interpretation of this, as told by Rabbi Amy Eilberg.
Each of us, in our lives, is supposed to “establish and determine the divine judgment through our ‘gates,’ the gates that we create and arouse through our actions. Thus we ‘shall judge the people with due justice.’” How we are in the world matters. How we interpret and then act, matters.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak continues to tell us that this metaphor of judges at our gates is about the need for us to have our own internal gates—our mouths and lips, and internal judges. Rabbi Amy defines these as “our thoughtfulness, our common sense, our convictions and our capacity for self-restraint.” Do not confuse these internal judges with our inner critics. Rather than tear us down, they guard us against impulsive judgments, negative comments, unchecked conspiracy theories, that might cause us to inflict unnecessary pain on others, or add to the general ugliness in our world. If we use them wisely, we will have less to account for on these days of awe.
Some people call this putting space between the match and the fuse, others putting space between the stimulus and the response, and others, more practically, think of it as thinking before we speak.
If our internal judge causes us to take a moment to ask ourselves, “Am I sure?” when we are tempted to act out of anger or negative judgments, how much more will our moral center be able to hold?
As I mentioned earlier, our nation was founded on the idea that we are all created equal with the right to seek happiness. The Jewish idea for happiness is not about momentary pleasure or fun. The Hebrew word is osher. The adjective is one that might be familiar—ashrei—as in ashrei yoshvei veitecha—happy are those who dwell in Your house. My teacher, Rabbi Mordecai Finley, recently wrote about the Jewish view on happiness, which he traced back to the idea of spiritual well-being.
According to the psalms, Those who are dwelling God’s house are the ones who walk unblemished, doing justice and speaking truth in their hearts (Ps. 15:2). Happy are those in whose hearts there is no deception (Ps. 32:2). Being ashrei, happy, means living with moral character.
French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, who was once described, based on a study of fMRIs, as the happiest person on earth, defined happiness this way, on Krista Tippett’s radio show On Being:
Think of happiness as a way of being, a way of being that gives you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life, that pervades all the emotional states, including sadness…With altruism, with inner strength, with inner freedom, with sense of direction and meaning in life.
He notes that no one signs up for a weekend retreat to cultivate jealousy—we want to have that spiritual state of consciousness where we are connected to compassion, kindness, empathy and justice. In this definition, we can be happy and sad at the same time. I can be happy while I worry about my uncle lying in his hospital bed.
And this brings us back to the Unetaneh Tokef prayer—which reminds us that as life happens to us, so often, we have no control. The prayer’s key point—On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed, who will face what fate this year—is resolved not by saying if we do x or y, it won’t happen. No, it tells us if we do three specific things, it will soften or mitigate the harshness of what life brings us.
Those three things—teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah—are the three tasks or qualities that help us deal with what happens.
Teshuvah –The transformative inner work of reflecting and improving ourselves. The sense that we can get back to our core selves. Let our inner judge guide us gently back to our moral center. Rabbi Ed Feinstein defines judgment as “Judgment is a search for truth about the self. Judgment is the antidote to the human propensity to hide, to evade, to lie.” Teshuvah is what happens when we finish judging ourselves.
Tefillah –Usually you’ll see this translated as prayer. I don’t think we need to think about only set liturgy, or even speaking only to God. It is also about translating the renewed self gained through teshuva into intentionality, sacred speech, and spiritual relationships.
Tzedakah –Acting consistently upon these commitments for kindness and justice.
It’s all about how well we can accept—and sometimes reframe—the events that happen to us.
A few weeks ago at the hospital, I visited a patient, a woman in her 80s who had had eye surgery, that got infected, and while dealing with the infection, had a stroke—in the hospital. She was really down when I arrived. She told me that her husband had died about a year ago, and then the house they had built together 60 years ago—60 years ago—burned down in the Tubbs Fire last October. She got out with her life, and nothing else. Her nextdoor neighbor wasn’t so lucky.
She moved into a nice retirement community and is enjoying the friends she was making. Her daughter told me that she thought that the fire was a godsend for them, really. She knew Mom needed to not live alone anymore, and there was no way her mother would leave her home. AND she had worried about cleaning out her parents’ home when the time came. She and her mother laughed! I thought—this is accepting the worst… And as they told their story, you could see her mother’s spirits lift.
A week ago, a great Rabbi died, one of my teachers, Rabbi Rachel Cowan. She spoke about the spiritual work to hold our moral center:
“We cannot change ourselves until we clearly see the structures that constrict our spirit and keep us attached to small-minded, self-centered ways of mind and heart. In my case, these may be stories in which I have made myself the victim, the hero, the martyr, the failure. They may be habits such as eating too much, not exercising enough, taking on too much work. Or they may be cravings for material possessions or experiences that in the end will not make me happier.
To do the subtle work of teshuva, we must free ourselves from these structures and instead manifest the attributes of God that we chant over and over in the High Holiday liturgy: compassion, grace, patience, loving-kindness, and truthfulness.”
So Rabbi Rachel would begin her High Holiday practice…in meditation to begin identifying the structures that no longer serve her.
The key thing, that Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Rabbi Finley and Matthieu Ricard all stress, is having a daily practice to cultivate these qualities. You can’t acquire a virtuous and kind internal judge, hold strong gates against saying hurtful words, shine a spotlight on your own stuff, really make teshuva if you spend just the next ten days working on it.
As Rabbi Alan Lew taught, these days—whether it’s just between now and Yom Kippur, or you started working on it during Elul or even earlier,–these days aren’t even enough to give us the spiritual strength to hold our moral centers. No, these days, this spiritual season is about focusing on the work, sort of a boot camp for teshuva, developing the muscles, the habits of daily reflection, so that we can carry it throughout the year.
Another of my teachers, Reb Mel Gottlieb, regularly reminded us that “any way is a way if you make it a way.”
It doesn’t matter if you meditate, or play music that envelops you, or practice yoga or Qi Gong or Mussar (the Jewish psychospiritual practice) or journal, recite a standard phrase or affirmation. Any way. But you have to make it a way—by daily practice.
Mine includes morning prayers of gratitude. I also repeat a phrase from my Mussar practice along with a phrase Rabbi Finley taught us years ago, “Today I will not complain, condemn, criticize or engage in conflict.” I don’t always succeed in this intention, but at the end of the day, I reflect on where I missed and try to plan how to do better the next day.
So as you move forward with these ten days, take a few minutes and think about your own boot camp to spiritual happiness, to maintain your moral center in the world we live in.
Thanks to Rabbis Amy Eilberg and Mordecai Finley for articulating so clearly ideas bouncing around my head for months without the clarity they offer.