Almost every day in 2013, I posted a reflection, a piece of wisdom, a passage from the Jewish tradition, or a devotional on my Facebook page. Here are my 23 favorites. Hope you enjoy, and find some meaning in these humble offerings!
1. Moses, the Torah’s paradigmatic leader, has no ambition for high office. “Please, God,” he implores, “make someone else Your agent.” He is qualified to lead not because he seeks prominence, but because he is one who risks life to stop a taskmaster from beating a slave, one who seeks to do what is right, to halt injustice. He fights to lift up others, not to lift up himself. Moses symbolizes the sentiment of abolitionist leader Thaddeus Stevens, who in 1865 said, “I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden…'” Who do you fight for?
2. At the Red Sea, many Israelites were afraid to step into the water, for it meant braving a moment of being neither slave nor free. So teaches Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. In order to change from what we are into what we hope to become, we must brave the moment when we stop being what we were and yet have not become what we hope to be. For an instant, we will be nothing. It is like the gymnast who lets go of the uneven bar, knowing that there will be a moment of total vulnerability before she grabs the second bar. But have courage; redemption occurs only if we step into that nothingness.
3. Many of us surround ourselves with people who always agree with us. We avoid conflict rather than pursue truth. To this tendency, the Talmud reminds us that the ideal friend is one who helps refine us, one who gives “twenty-four different challenges” to every idea we have. As iron sharpens iron, so ought we seek friends who sharpen us.
4. Wisdom from the Kotzker Rebbe: The first step toward redemption is impatience. A feeling, deep down, that we can no longer bear the evils of the status quo. Until we grow tired of injustice, not only will we be doomed to live with it, we will also remain silent accomplices to it.
5. The other day, we lost an elderly congregant in a car accident. A friend of hers told me a story about her: Years ago, the friend remarked that she had “only one” grandchild. She replied, “one is infinitely more than none.” There is no such thing as “only” one person. According to the Talmud, God first created only one human being to teach us this lesson: that each and every life is a whole world unto itself.
6. The creation of anything new requires two ingredients: vision and courage. Vision, to dream that which cannot yet be seen by others; and courage, to boldly try out the new, even though it cannot be guaranteed to work. Today, dream, and dream fearlessly. Who knows what marvel you might create?
7. A dear friend sent me this quote, from Lorraine Peterson, as a birthday card: “Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice.” Our talents only take us so far; to truly soar, we need discipline to cultivate our skills. Set aside some time today to keep up your practice of awesome.
8. Integrity means being willing to play on your own merits, even in an unfair game. Doing “what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:18) does not come with the caveat, “unless everyone else isn’t, in which case, play by their rules.” If you play right, it is true, in a certain sense, that you may lose. But you will also be a winner every time.
9. In the Jewish mystical tradition, there is a concept of “gathering the Divine sparks,” discovering, purifying, and elevating the pieces of God that are scattered and hidden in the most depraved places of our world. If you want to bring God’s freedom into the world, you have to go to Egypt and talk to Pharaoh. If you want to bring God’s justice into the world, you have to go to Samaria and preach to those who “sell the innocent for silver,” “trample on the heads of the poor,” and “deny justice to the oppressed.” Many of us stand for admirable principles, but we construct our own echo chambers, talking only to those people who share our points of view. We refrain from going to the places where those values are absent and talking to those with whom we disagree. This, to me, is an important legacy of Dr. King for us to recall, a value for us to emulate. From prison he wrote, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.” To bring light to the world, we have to be willing to go to the dark places.
10. According to the midrash, the manna God provided the Israelites in the desert tasted like anything the eater wanted. Why, then, did they complain and ask God for meat? The Kotzker Rebbe teaches that the taste was not sufficient; they wanted the substance. Don’t settle for imparting the taste of high ideals, righteousness, justice, love. Make sure the meat is there, that there is substance, that it will nourish and sustain.
11. The Messiah, we are taught, used to sit outside the gates of Rome, disguised as a leper, among the other leprous outcasts. Though Talmud gives no motive to the Messiah’s actions, here’s one possibility: To teach that any person, no matter how marginal or unassuming, could be God’s anointed; and that we are therefore responsible for treating everyone we encounter, regardless of class or status, with the honor and dignity due to high royalty.
12. Robert Hanlon wrote, “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” Important to check our anger and calm our instincts for revenge. We may be misreading the moment.
13. As I officiated a conversion today, I reflected on the Jewish conversion ritual: immersing in a mikveh (ritual pool). The waters cannot help but converge to greet and envelop the person immersing in them. The symbolism is not for the convert but for all other Jews: we should be more like water, rushing to embrace anyone, even an “outsider” entering our midst.
14. To be a Jew is to be a child of Jerusalem, regardless of where you were physically born. Said the Israeli author Agnon, “I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”
15. The profoundly Jewish message of Superman: you may, on the outside, be a mild-mannered, average person. But your real, inner self is capable of fighting for truth and justice, of repairing a broken world. Your true identity is that of a hero. Become who you were born to be.
16. Unless coupled with virtue, lawfulness itself can lead to injustice, cruelty, and social disintegration. According to Rabbi Hanina, God floods humanity because of the prevalence of technically legal deeds: People realized the justice system couldn’t hold them accountable for stealing very small sums. Through lawful means, they amassed fortunes on the backs of others’ suffering, and society could no longer function. Law and ethics, justice and compassion, must not be separate. The world depends on it.
17. In an age of extremism – the lure of intense and unsustainable dieting, for instance, or the attraction of ideological purity in politics or religion – the Jewish tradition urges compromise, balance, and moderation: Maimonides teaches, “Anyone whose traits are intermediate and equally balanced is called wise.”
18. Anyone who believes power is about size or physical strength, or that it is not deeply relational, has clearly never been called out of bed at 3am by a crying baby.
19. Many of us are driven by a yearning to be heard, seen, known by others. As a result, we serve those who fill that need. The truth: you are perpetually and deeply seen, heard, and known by the Majesty of Space and Time. Why seek and serve the glory of a bigger audience or more fame? Serve the One who never questions your greatness.
20. A dear friend and mentor, motivational speaker Scott Fried, used to avoid small talk, at least in our conversations. His version of “Hey, what’s up?” was “How is your heart?” I have always cherished that question, and the feeling that someone special cared enough to ask. Take a moment today to ask yourself that question. Better yet, ask it of someone, anyone, else. You will do a world of good.
21. I’m all for critical thinking and data analysis. But sometimes the complexity of life’s biggest questions – Should I marry this person? Should I become a parent? Should I pursue other career opportunities? to name a few – defy even the best pro and con lists. For these, the only way forward is to listen to the heart. There, you will find God’s lure beckoning you to your future. And when you discover God’s calling, you have to leap, even if the way forward is uncertain, trusting that God will eventually show you the way. If you don’t, you will find yourself struggling with a power much greater than you.
22. Faith is everything. To have as the threshold for action in our lives complete knowledge and security is to spend them waiting, and not living.
23. It can sometimes feel as though hindsight is the only way to tell if an act is courageous or foolish. In truth, there is a way to know in the moment: purpose. What step will better enable me to do what I was uniquely put on this earth to do?