This speech was originally given at the Spring Keynote event for the Chrysalis Institute (now The Innerwork Center) on May 2, 2019.
Within a six week span in late 2016, two things happened that changed my life:
The first was the November presidential election. Pursuing justice and repairing the world had always been central to my faith, but since becoming a rabbi I had usually steered clear of partisan politics. However, by the spring of 2016, the moral danger of a Trump presidency had become clear to me, and I decided I could no longer stand idly by. So I stepped right into the political fray, speaking out directly against Trump and campaigning unabashedly for Democrats.
My newfound activism was personally costly and professionally risky. Since I couldn’t neglect my congregational duties to engage in political action, I became less present for my wife and children, and I jettisoned self-care. And it was inevitable that my politics would alienate some of my congregants, potentially threatening both my job and my career.
When Trump won, I felt like my world was shattered; that all the sacrifices I made, and all the risks I took on had been in vain. Even worse, it felt like my failure had put lives in peril.
So, after a few days mired in shock and grief, I redoubled my efforts. I began organizing with like-minded friends to build a local resistance movement. I donated to organizations on the front-lines of the opposition. I signed every petition, and attended every protest. The great medieval Jewish sage, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, taught that every deed, no matter how large or small, has the potential to tip the world’s scales. I came to believe that if this was so, then it was my responsibility to keep the world from plunging into darkness.
About a month later, I was driving home from visiting an elderly congregant at Beth Sholom Home. At the intersection of John Rolfe Parkway and Gayton Road, another car ran a red light and T-boned me at full speed. My car was thrown through the intersection and flipped over entirely. I don’t remember much: the horrible sound of crunching metal and crashing glass; and the disorienting feeling of being upside down. I remember trying to open the door, gingerly unbuckling my seatbelt, bracing myself, and sliding out as carefully as I could. I looked myself over. I could walk and talk and see and hear fine. A Good Samaritan even marveled at how my hair somehow seemed to still be perfectly in place. I had cut my hand on some broken glass, and I accidentally kicked my sunglasses down a nearby sewer. But I was otherwise unscathed. I was lucky to be alive, much less in one piece.
In the days that followed, Mary Oliver’s beautiful and haunting poem, “When Death Comes” echoed in my mind:
“When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
If I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
Or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”
As 2016 faded into 2017, I resolved to live in the spirit of Oliver’s words — to spend every available moment making of my life something significant. I promised myself that I would live in such a way that, if death were to come for me unexpectedly, I would be ready for it; that I would not put off until tomorrow what could be done today. For after all, who knew what tomorrow may bring?
So I threw myself even more forcefully into organizing, donating, campaigning, petitioning, writing, speaking out, and marching for justice. I became a fixture at local rallies and interfaith actions. I traveled to DC, Philadelphia, and New York for protests. I helped pave the path for the statewide “blue wave” of 2017. I became the Chrysalis Institute’s landlord.
I did all this in addition to my already heavy load of congregational and family responsibilities. But the world seemed to be on fire, and I felt obligated to extinguish the blaze.
Within a few months, I was exhausted and burnt out. I felt harried and scattered. I was constantly stressed, anxious, and reactive: easily agitated, perennially overwhelmed, and perpetually disappointed. I carried the stress everywhere in my body. You could see it on my face. And I found myself regularly losing my temper, which disproportionately impacted those closest to me.
During the summer months, Jewish congregations read from the biblical book of Numbers. And that summer, Numbers chapter 20 hit me especially hard.
The story goes like this: the Children of Israel, led by a prophet named Moses, escape from slavery in Egypt. They travel through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. But the journey is much longer and harder than they anticipated. The terrain is rugged, resources are scarce, enemies threaten, and patience wears thin. The people kvetch constantly. Moses has very little help carrying the burdens of leadership, and bears the brunt of the Israelites’ scorn. His emotional reserves are further depleted when, in a short span of time, his cousins mount a rebellion and his only sister suddenly dies.
Against this backdrop, the people complain to Moses about a lack of water. Moses appeals to God, and God tells Moses to speak to a nearby rock and command it to bring forth water. Instead of following God’s (admittedly strange) command, Moses excoriates the people for complaining and then angrily smashes the rock with his staff. Water erupts from the cracked stone, but God is furious. Moses is banned from entering the Promised Land.
That summer, I totally got Moses. He was so overwhelmed by his outer work — governing, teaching, preaching, leading, working tirelessly to turn this group of freed slaves into an exemplary society — that he had no space for compassion or empathy; he had no bandwidth to feel, check, and process his grief, fear, and rage. It was inevitable that he would explode in anger at the people closest to him.
And, perhaps paradoxically, I also understood God’s reaction: How could Moses do the outer work — judging disputes fairly, governing wisely, teaching his charges how to build an equitable and compassionate community — if he harbored resentment and was blind to his own callousness? How could God expect the Children of Israel to build a society in the Promised Land founded on the principle of loving your neighbor — and even the stranger — if their leader treated people with spite and cruelty?
That summer, I realized: the story of Moses and the rock was a cautionary tale for the activist, the advocate, the public servant, and, indeed, the spiritual leader.
Many of us are tempted to give all of ourselves to the outer work. The day, after all, is short, and the task is great. But unless we are mindful of our inner work — the condition of our hearts, the state of our souls — in time, we will render ourselves unfit to serve. Only when we nourish our inner selves can we give the best of ourselves to others, building the world we long to see without becoming hypocrites or pariahs in the process.
And just as it is true that the outer work is urgent, we are similarly on borrowed time with respect to our inner work. Caring for ourselves, like caring for others and the world, cannot wait. We cannot tend to ourselves merely when we have time, when we finally wrangle a day off or use our vacation days.
So how do we do both? How do we simultaneously prioritize self-care and care for others?
The first lesson is to remember our imperfections and limitations, to manage our expectations. The first century sage Rabbi Tarfon taught, “The work is not yours to finish. But neither are you free to desist from it.”
No matter how passionate we are, no matter how hard we work, no matter how devoted we are to the cause, no matter how talented or effective we are, it is extremely unlikely that any of us, whether individually or collectively, will complete the work — whether building a just, compassionate, and peaceful world, or enlightenment or spiritual perfection.
That doesn’t exonerate us from our obligations to refine ourselves and repair the world, but it does liberate us to pace ourselves and stop before reaching the point of exasperation or exhaustion. It allows us to be more forgiving of and compassionate toward ourselves when we fall short. It permits us to attain more balance.
Which brings me to the second lesson: getting the balance right. Here the Jewish tradition also has some powerful wisdom:
Every year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, observant Jews wear white robes called kittels, garments which resemble burial shrouds, and refrain from eating, drinking, bathing, and intimacy. In other words, on Yom Kippur, we rehearse for death. We remind ourselves that we are destined for the grave. We even recite a prayer called “U’netaneh Tokef,” in which we acknowledge our uncertainty about whether we will live or die in the coming year. We affirm not only that we are mortal, but also that each day might be our last.
But the prayer ends with an amazing line: “u’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’ah ha-gezeirah / repentance, prayer, and righteous action overturn the harshness of our fate.” Put differently, the way to make the most of whatever time we have, is to spend it doing three things: repenting, praying, and pursuing justice.
Note the ratio here. Only one of the actions prescribed is outwardly-focused. Two represent inner work. This hymn instructs us to dedicate ourselves to righteous action in the world. But more than that, twice as much in fact, we are to do the inner work embodied by prayer and repentance: Purifying and softening our hearts. Deepening our capacity for love, and expanding our spheres of compassion. Engaging in honest introspection and self improvement. Cultivating our faith and seeking out wisdom. Nourishing our spiritual strength and our moral courage.
And the prayer further instructs us not to wait: Don’t wait for the right time. Don’t wait until your external battles are won. Don’t wait until your worlds are conquered. Do it now. Make time, twice as much time, for your inner work. Because no one else will give it to you. And you can’t give to others unless you have enough for you.
We live in times that call for our passionate engagement. Our world is on fire, the need is urgent, and our time is limited. We are called upon to do our part to repair the world, seeing every day as potentially our last opportunity. But remember: only if we are fair and compassionate to ourselves will we reach the Promised Land of a loving, just, and peaceful world.