Author Archives: David Markus

David Markus

About David Markus

Rabbi David Evan Markus is co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the umbrella organization for the Jewish Renewal movement, and co-rabbi of Temple Beth-El of City Island (New York City, New York). An alum of Rabbis Without Borders, David received dual ordination as rabbi and mashpia ruchani (spiritual director) from ALEPH, and serves as faculty in spiritual direction and rabbinics in the ALEPH Ordination Programs. David’s commentaries on Jewish life appear in Sh'ma Magazine, Moment, Jerusalem Report and Velveteen Rabbi; his academic research focuses on Jewish liturgy, spiritual direction and clergy spiritual formation.  In secular life, David presides as judicial referee in New York Supreme Court, 9th Judicial District, and thus is among the few U.S. pulpit rabbis also to hold public office. His previous public service posts include senior counsel to the New York State Senate, special counsel to the Chief Judge of New York, and senior law clerk to the New York Court of Appeals. He also served as faculty in graduate public administration at Pace University and political science faculty at Fordham University. David earned his Juris Doctor magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, his Masters in Public Policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and his Bachelor of Arts summa cum laude from Williams College.

A Seder for Israel?

You’ve heard of a Passover Seder and maybe a Tu B’shevat Seder. How about an “Israel Seder“?

The idea of a seder (“order”), using a haggadah (a “make-telling” text) to tell a spiritual story, is wired into Jewish life. Jews call ourselves a “People of the Book,” but first we’re a “People of the Story.” For countless generations, Jews self-defined partly by a universally human Master Story – creation, bondage, liberation, revelation, journey, redemption, continuity, change – told through the particular lens of Jewish physical and spiritual history. We do so because re-telling our Master Story keeps re-creating meaning, identity, connectivity and purpose.

That’s why we re-live “our” liberation from Egyptian bondage, even though “we” moderns live long after any ancient slave-mongering pharaoh. As Torah puts it (Exodus 13:8), “On that day” – which also is this day – “tell your [child], ‘I do this because of what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt.'”

A seder raises the sensory stakes of telling our Master Story. All of our senses engage as we gather with others around a table, using words and song (sight and hearing), enjoying symbolic food and drink (sight, smell, taste and touch), asking questions and making it personal, for “us” now and not only “them” then.

Functional MRIs confirm that the more we engage our senses, the more we engage. A seder helps us do that. We don’t just tell our Master Story: symbolically we live it, fully engaged, all our senses, all in. Put another way, according to liturgist Rabbi Sami Barth, “it is through rituals and ‘religious’ ceremonies [like a seder] that we move beyond intellectual and political debate, and engage the heart and soul as partners with the mind and intellect.”

Israel asks this same quality of engagement, hence an Israel Seder. Every Jew traces spiritual lineage and a Master Story to the People of Israel who are the Children of Israel. The modern State of Israel is the most recent chapter of this ongoing Master Story – part fulfillment, part miraculous triumph, part ongoing hope (literally “Hatikvah”), part profound and wrenching struggle. Historically speaking, this chapter is extraordinary not only because Israel exists, but because Jewish life now unfolds as a both/and – both in Israel (in its complexity) and outside Israel (also in complexity).

This chapter of the Master Story is unfolding in ways that transcend and include all politics, whatever one’s sense of the matzav (current Mideast “situation”), whatever might be one’s relationship or lack of relationship with Israel – both as she is now, and as one might wish her to become.

Whatever our politics, in these ways the State of Israel is a geopolitical reflection of profound Jewish spiritual truth: spirituality isn’t just for easy stuff. True spirituality asks us not to fragment or flee from what’s hard: wherever we go, there we are. Our spirituality, our religion and our Master Story must be(come) resilient and robust enough to include it all – and thus to grow, and stretch, and struggle to get there from here. That’s exactly why we hold a seder: to engage and grow and wrestle with our Master Story, and to deepen that Master Story deeper within heart and soul – harder spots to reach that the naturally disputatious mind.

If this seder idea sounds far fetched, consider that we already do much the same for Passover and Tu B’shevat. The Master Story of Passover is hardly pristine: it recounts that God established power and authority at others’ expense. It finds newly freed slaves looting their neighbors. It finds fleeing Israelites celebrating the drowning death of Pharaoh’s army (to Talmud, also “God’s children”), then turning on their liberator and putting others in chains. Many say that today we and countless others worldwide are shackled to all kinds of bondage and servitude that crush the spirit: the Passover liberation is not complete. And does Tu B’shevat’s Master Story of tending the planet sound much better these days?

seder wrestles, tells, re-tells, stretches and hopefully helps us fulfill the uncompleted Master Story precisely where it doesn’t yet seem to fit. We can do the same with Israel – coming together across even great gulfs of politics to engage all our senses, all our hopes, learning, yearning and wrestling – in service of this ongoing Master Story of becoming ever more whole in service of spirit.

As we focus anew on our Master Story and the upcoming Passover season of renewal, we look also to the following month’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Israel’s 69th birthday. Find on the Israel Seder website a “how to” guide, a multimedia library of songs, historical videos and more to bring this part of our Master Story to life. Let this be the year we try an Israel Seder, to continue perfecting our ever-evolving Master Story in heart and soul – and then in the world.

Dedicated to R. Sami Barth and the Israel Seder Project.

Who is Worthy to Lead: The Torah of Modern Politics

This week’s Torah portion (Yitro) offers a key lesson for today’s politics. It comes just before the fateful Ten Commandments scene at Sinai. Moses father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro), teaches his son-in-law how to delegate power and – even more importantly – who is worthy to lead.

I first experienced this teaching, without fully realizing it, while a student at Harvard Law School. Often I walked by Austin Hall, a Romanesque academic building, whose roofline was engraved with Yitro’s fateful words to Moses in stilted Old English translation:

“And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt show them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do” (Exodus 18:20).

Looking up at that building, I wondered, “Who’s they?” Did “they” mean all hatchling legal eaglets, a next generation of lawyers and other so-called societal elites groomed to take their places among the powerful?

To Yitro, however, “they” were not a class of person but qualities of character and conduct that potentially everyone can achieve. It was these qualities that Yitro told Moses to seek and entrust with power.

Yitro saw Moses as a rookie prophet, overwhelmed deciding every dispute, so he told Moses to delegate lest he burn out. Yitro then made clear his qualifications for leadership: “they” were people whose spirituality honors authority beyond themselves, who are independent and trustworthy, and who spur ill-gotten gain (Exodus 18:21).

Torah would go further, making clear that a secular leader (then “king”) must not be too impassioned so as to lead hearts astray. A leader mustn’t amass “wealth to excess” (Deuteronomy 17:17). A leader mustn’t act “haughtily,” or be inclined in character or circumstance to arrogance (Deuteronomy 17:20).

Here’s where the rubber of spirituality meets the road of politics.

Needful realities and realpolitik of governing a complex democracy don’t pretend away the self-interest of those who hold power. Wise governing systems and their framers – including drafters of the U.S. Constitution – were pragmatists who understood the humanity of those who hold and seek power. They knew that power often attracts people having internal need to lead. Power can lull leaders into falsely believing that they serve inherently rather than as short-term stewards. Fearing loss of power, leaders tend to seek rather than share authority. That’s why leaders might seek in others loyalty and obedience over excellence and independence.

While we always should hope that leaders will rise to the better angels of their nature and dazzle a cynical public with profiles in courage, political structures don’t assume leadership heroics. Rather, as James Madison’s Federalist 51 put it, healthy democratic structures harness self-interest to balance powers and interests against each other, thus providing external brakes on excess.

It’s when the system seems to break down that moral authority becomes especially important. That’s when Yitro’s words, translated into modern terms, offer their most persuasive power to get attention and inspire accountability and change.

Whatever our spirituality or faith, whatever our religious tradition, we can call publicly for leaders to act as Yitro said – with independence and trust, with humility to honor others, and without corrupting excess. We can call out leaders who defy these bedrock principles that are inscribed on buildings and emblazoned in our Constitution (both the spiritual one and secular one). We must keep calling it out, with a moral authority so potent that, in Thomas Jefferson’s words, ultimately it will command assent.

When we do this, when we drive politics toward morality, we fulfill the promise of democracy and the highest calling of spiritual leadership. In short, we ourselves become worthy to lead.

How to Be a “Player” in Jewish Life

What does it take to be a “player” in Jewish life? No, not that kind of “player.” I mean, what does it take to be a responsible and influential participant in the Jewish communal life you want? It’s a provocative question – and it’s supposed to be. The answer puts you (yes, you) – not just rabbis and other spiritual leaders – in the power seat of what the Jewish future will be.

Some believe that only rabbis (or just the most mainstream rabbis) should decide what Jews should do, be and become. The problem with this view is that, for many, it’s not working. For all the knowledge and wisdom that rabbis are imagined to have (and many do), odds are that if you’re reading this article, you don’t depend on your rabbi in quite that way. And you’re in good company: today a majority of U.S. Jews are disaffiliated and/or unobservant from the perspective of those very same rabbis. Something’s not working.

Two years after my own rabbinic ordination, I still have five aspirations for the rabbinate. Rabbis are important for Jewish spiritual life, and for watering the roots of a living tradition both millennia old and vitally alive today. And, for those same reasons, I believe that everyone – regardless of role or title – is empowered to become a “player” in this cause. I also believe that this cause is hard-wired into the Jewish soul – and into the rabbinic enterprise that is Jewish law.

I learned this from Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, the teacher of my teachers and zeide (grandfather) of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, which I’m blessed to serve. Visioning an ever spiritually-renewing Judaism, Reb Zalman wrote that the call to transform and re-energize Jewish spiritual life isn’t for the few but ultimately for all who form a “consensus of the committed.” For Reb Zalman, being a “player” starts with being “committed” – caring deeply enough and learn enough to know deeply and wisely, then work with others to bring the future into being.

Then I learned much the same idea from Rabbi Benay Lappe. Lappe’s “traditionally radical” learning community Svara, which won a 2016 Covenant Award, is predicated on the ancient idea that Jewish authority comes not from title but rather from being both gavirna (learned and expert) and savirna (possessed of wisdom and sound judgment) (B.T. Sanhedrin 5a). Critically, anyone can be gavirna and savirna: put Benay’s way, anyone can become a “player.” What’s more, svara (wisdom and sound judgment) is rabbinically equivalent to Torah itself, having the same power and legitimacy as the divine Voice speaking in us today.

Yes, you read that right. You are the living conduit for the spiritual. The divine Voice speaks in you today, with power and validity equal to every text and source of authority ever imagined. And the less mainstream you are, the more important your voice is, because you represent another voice inherently valid and valuable. What could be more radical and empowering than that?

Some traditional friends may ask, “Isn’t this approach too democratic? Isn’t it dangerous to invite public influence potentially fraught with misunderstanding, disinformation or worse?”

Maybe, but Rabbi Ethan Tucker, chair of Jewish Law at Mechon Hadar, still agrees that this power reside in the people together – whatever the concerns might be. Even in ancient days, rabbinic decision often was based on what people actually did in the marketplace (i.e. in actual life), not what rabbis might have them do (B.T. Eruvin 14b). Tucker also teaches, citing the ancient sage Reish Lakish, that the people are as full of mitzvot (tradition-fulfilling good deeds) as a pomegranate is full of seeds – even if some rabbis may think them unknowing or unobservant.

Spiritual power and merit reside with the people, not the few having title or professing role. The rabbinic role is to spiritualize where people are, not to pretend them different. Such is the spiritual and political foundation of Jewish life on which all else rests.

It means that you can be a “player.” It means that you are a conduit for the continuing flow of holiness in the world. It means that on you rests the tremendous power of possibility, and a duty to use this power wisely in the circles in which you live, work, play and pray.

And if you happen to hold a spiritual role by any name – and especially if you’re called “rabbi” – your job is to help everyone become a “player” in just that way.

Dedicated to Rabbi Benay Lappe, keynote speaker at the 2017 OHALAH Conference of Clergy for Jewish Renewal.

Saying No to Silencing: The Jewish Duty to Speak Out

Spirituality is biography. Jewish spirituality and Jewish biography both demand a duty to speak out, reject silencing, and stand up against any power that would silence another. Such is the call of Hanukkah and this moment of meaning for Jewish life.

I come with skin in the game. As a judicial officer, my state’s judicial ethics code bans me from making most public statements about partisan politics. In these weeks after the 2016 election, congregants in my rabbinic capacity (and lawyers and litigants in my judicial capacity) feel and say much about the election outcome – but ethically I can’t directly engage. That’s how it should be: Judicially it’s vital that all feel like they get a fair shake, and rabbinically it’s vital that all feel welcome, regardless of partisan politics. The effect is to silence me.

I reflected on my silencing, feeling stifled by role ethics. And that’s when it hit me. What could I possibly know about what it really means to be silenced? I’m an able-bodied male facing no prejudice of a visible minority. I live in safe suburbia, reaping the privilege of a top-notch education. I’m a judicial officer, pulpit rabbi and Jewish movement leader: disempowerment isn’t my problem. So if I feel “silenced,” then how might real silencing feel to a domestic violence victim unsafe at home? An African American? A Muslim American? An undocumented immigrant in modern America? Vast swaths of America that felt or feel politically unseen and unheard?

Silencing is a crisis of spirit, and I don’t know the half of it – but my Jewish ancestors did. Some were murdered in the Holocaust, silenced to death. Others were born female at a time, not too long ago, when some men imagined that women didn’t “need” a Jewish education and couldn’t become Jewish teachers and leaders. Centuries of Jews faced official silencing, bans, civic disqualification, exile and more.

It’s no wonder that Judaism’s core trope of liberation theology is the biography-becomes-spirituality journey from silencing to speech – from slavery to freedom (Passover), concealment to revelation (Purim), discrimination to empowerment (Hanukkah). As Hanukkah’s populist story recounts, Jews have known the darkness of being silenced into submission. It’s a core Jewish calling, and a core human calling, to bring that kind of darkness into light.

As Jews have known silencing, we have a special duty to speak out and stand up. It’s one of many reasons I believe that Jews must stand up against any registration of Muslims in America, against anything and anyone that would silence others into submission. If everyone is b’tzelem Elohim, crafted equally in the image of divinity (Genesis 1:27), then everyone has a divine right – even a divine duty – to speak and stand up. Thus, political speech is as much a spiritual act as a political one. It’s why Elie Wiesel’s 1986 speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize put it this way:

I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

This Hanukkah, light the candles – but don’t stop there. Speak out. Find a cause and stand up. Let nobody be silenced into submission. Let nobody be silenced into being less than the holy spark that lights every human soul. Let that ethic be the center of our universe – and the ballast of our Jewish lives.

(Thanks)giving — A Thanksgiving for the Rest of the Year

Happy Thanksgiving! For many, Thanksgiving gathers us with family and friends, inviting us to reflect gratefully on our blessings. For others, Thanksgiving can be a day of quiet despair and even shame for those who don’t feel grateful and festive.

Like all holidays, Thanksgiving espouses values that resonate during the rest of the year. Its deeper meaning, and the spiritual invitation of this secular day, is to rouse us to lives of blessing long after our gatherings and festive meals.

Yes, Thanksgiving can do just that. Let’s call it not Thanksgiving but (Thanks)givingIf Thanksgiving calls us into gratitude for our blessings, (Thanks)giving invites us to consider whether and how much others receive blessings by the ways we walk in the world.

We ask this (Thanks)giving question, however, not to elicit thanks but precisely for an opposite reason. As Maimonides taught in his “Ladder of Charity,” higher forms of tzedakah (charity, generosity, public service) don’t seek thanks. Instead, to serve a higher purpose, we give and live in ways that may conceal our generosity. Jewish spiritual wisdom calls us to live in ways that give and bless others sometimes anonymously — in monetary charity, volunteerism and other acts of kindness and compassion. With anonymous giving, recipients don’t know their benefactors and feel beholden, and givers give without accolades or social power for feeling owed a favor. We best give and serve in altruism — because it’s right, because we honor the mitzvah to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), and because in a healthy society we all take care of each other (Talmud, Shevuot 39a).

What’s more, scientists confirm the adage that giving is its own reward. Behavioral psychologists find that in cultures around the world, generous people are happier. Even government neuroscientists show that altruism improves physical and emotional health.

(Thanks)giving asks us how well we live in altruism’s ways. How much thanks might we merit (but not actually seek) if others could thank us? Do we give mainly in public so others can thank us, or do we do random acts of kindness with quiet altruism? If today we don’t like our answers, then Thanksgiving is a day for us to reboot our commitment to live, give and love with altruism — open to receiving with grace whatever thanks may come, but in the spiritual light that giving is its own reward. That’s a (Thanks)giving worth living the whole year long.

For all our blessings, may Thanksgiving gather us in gratitude for our blessings. Now let’s live in ways that truly give blessings – worthy of that spirit all year long. Happy (Thanks)giving.

Spiritual Hangover: Coming Down From the Mountain

Here’s a one-question pop quiz, and everyone gets an “A.” Now that this year’s Jewish High Holy Days are done, which of the following four statements most accurately describes how you feel?

   a. Huh? What’d I miss?
   b. Thank goodness! I’m so done.
   c. Wow! I feel refreshed and renewed.
   d. What a letdown! Now what?

Whichever your answer – or even if you prefer all of the above – you’re right, and Jewish spiritual wisdom is on your side.

Jewish mystics call it ratzo va-shov (Ezekiel 1:14) – literally “running and returning” or, in modern vernacular, “to and fro” or “ebb and flow.” By its nature, spiritual life (really, all life) has peak experiences and then flatter terrain – times of exertion and times of relative ease, times we call holidays and times that seem more routine.

This “to and fro” (or “ebb and flow”) is baked into human life and Jewish life. If every moment metaphorically were atop Sinai’s heights, there’d be no regular life to live — no chances to make meaning of the seemingly routine, no capacity to find and refine our own power and creativity. Perhaps ironically, special would become routine and we might bore of it.

On the other hand, if every moment were flat without elevated times and experiences, there’d be no breaking the monotony, no infusion of inspiration, no heightened awareness to attract and refine our focus.

Too much and we risk burning out; too little and we risk fizzling out. Just as tides wash in and out, so does spiritual intensity. That’s why we need mountain tops and gently rolling plains, peak experiences and routine, moments that stand out and later places and spaces that reflect awareness back to those peak moments from exactly where we are.

That’s the Jewish spiritual calendar’s middle path, the Goldilocks spiritual sweet spot – the “to and fro,” the “ebb and flow.” In just that way, we must return after the peak experience of the High Holy Days. We must feel some sense of spiritual hangover, burnout or letdown. This is the very downdraft that propels us into the rest of our year, and prompts us to seek meaning and holiness in our daily lives – not just on the proverbial mountain of our holidays and synagogues.

This return from the High Holy Day heights isn’t un-spiritual: it’s just different spiritual. We downshift from the peak of the Jewish High Holy Days to the rolling plains of the year ahead, where most of us make most of our lives most of the time. This moment of transition is vital to integrate and recalibrate — to live in “real world” ways that ever better reflect our highest values (certain that we won’t always succeed, and we’ll return to the proverbial mountain next year to reboot). This gentle return to “real world” routine is a key spiritual goal in itself, much like a refractory period for a muscle to recover after exertion: we need it to be healthy and strong.

So if the end of the Jewish High Holy Days leaves you feeling spiritual burnout, or letdown, or exhilarated, or all the above, know that you’re in good company. We’ve come down from the mountains, and now the rolling plains of the year ahead await us. Let’s go.

Just Do It: A High Holy Day Call to Action

As High Holy Day tides approach and soon over-wash with their poignant waters of joy, awe, solemnity and introspection, it’s tempting to imagine that this season is only for emotional and spiritual internals.

This season of teshuvah (returning, repairing, forgiving) is for thinking and feeling teshuvah – but mainly as springboards for action.

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It’s good to think teshuvah in our minds and feel teshuvah in our hearts. It’s healthy to commit to change behaviors that don’t serve us, others or the world. It’s right to arouse intention to seek and give forgiveness. Good, healthy and right as our inner turns can be, they aren’t fully teshuvah until they spur action where action is possible.

Jews are called to action. Our spiritual ancestors answered Sinai’s call by responding na’aseh v’nishma: “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 19:8) – doing is paramount. Shabbat doesn’t just happen magically: “The Children of Israel will … do Shabbat for all their generations as an eternal covenant” (Exodus 31:16) – doing makes Shabbat. Doing is our covenant.

Doing is the goal of the inner return and repair we call teshuvah. The riveting High Holy Day Avinu Malkeinu liturgy pleads to God: Aseh imanu tzedakah va’chesed – “do with us justice and lovingkindness.” On Yom Kippur, we hear anew the call to emulate God – “Be holy, for I [the Holy One] am holy” (Leviticus 15:2) – so this season calls us to do likewise. We are to do the same justice and lovingkindness that we crave for ourselves.

What is a teshuvah of doing? It depends on context, but usually includes action knowable to others. It can mean actually speaking apology to people we wronged (not just thinking or feeling it). It can mean correcting a rumor we spread (even if we can’t undo all of a rumor’s harm). It can mean sending an email to begin repairing a relationship. It can mean communicating forgiveness long restrained by grudge. It can mean returning an item that belongs to another.

In all of these cases, teshuvah means doing: thinking and feeling are the fertile soil of teshuvah, but action is the harvest –the purpose and fulfillment.

Often teshuvah is risky: action risks rejection and failure. But in most cases, that’s exactly the point. Except in abusive or dangerous contexts in which repair isn’t safely feasible by action in this world, risk is part of what we must do to heed the call of teshuvah. A true teshuvah of action asks courage to risk our hearts in service of doing true repair and healing. Our hearts and souls – and others’ hearts and souls – are worth it.

That’s the call of this season – a teshuvah of action that’s riskier – and far more healing and liberating – than thinking or feeling alone.

Justice and lovingkindness, community and spirituality, compassion and mercy, forgiveness and repair, Shabbat and Jewish life – all of these call us to do. So, in this season of teshuvah, what are you waiting for? Make that call. Send that email. Just do it.

“If!”– Walking Backwards into Elul

Today is September 1, and this weekend begins the Jewish month of Elul, doorway to the High Holy Days of awe, meaning, introspection and transformation.

Yes, it’s that time. Tradition adds to daily liturgy Psalm 27 to focus us – body, heart, mind and soul – on our spiritual journey anew. And hidden in Psalm 27 is a word with tremendous power to focus us on so much that this time is about.

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That powerful word is “if” – if only, if only we had, if only we hadn’t.

Elul is when we look deeply and longingly at the ifs of our lives. If only we were more loving, more patient, more hopeful. If only we forgave rather than clutch our hurt or righteous indignation. If only we reached out and reached in. If only we had seen our own complicity. If only we didn’t look away from another in need. If only we hadn’t begrudged. If only we hadn’t lied. If only.

Psalm 27 evokes all that and more. Psalm 27 also holds out hope that the ifs in us and all around us contain dormant seeds of holiness waiting for us to tend them. Seen that way, in potential even our ifs can be almost too good to be believed. As Psalm 27:13 puts it,

“… If I hadn’t believed to look on the goodness of God in the land of the living!”

This “If I hadn’t” – if I myself hadn’t seen its goodness, I wouldn’t believe it! – in Hebrew is Lule (לוּלֵא), or literally Elul (אֵלוּל) backwards. This is big: Psalm 27 asks us to enter Elul walking backwards through the ifs – the longing and missed marks – of our messy lives. Psalm 27 asks us to see our ifs not as irretrievably missed opportunities of the past but precisely the opposite, as new possibilities for the future. Psalm 27 calls us to see those possibilities as so potentially good that, if we ourselves hadn’t seen them, they’d seem almost too good to be believed.

The painful ifs that most grab us now are our spiritual curriculum for the weeks ahead. We need to feel our ifs deeply – if only we had! if only we hadn’t! – so that we can galvanize and harness their power for change. But in Elul’s wisdom, we make this turn with a particular purpose: to convert those seeming negatives into potential positives so good that, if we ourselves didn’t glimpse them, they’d seem almost too good to be believed.

Let that be the goodness we call God in the land of the living. Let that be our backwards journey through Elul, from all our hurtful ifs into a life renewed for true goodness in the year ahead.

Nowhere to Run (And a Good Thing, Too)

Three friends are having a hard time. One laments being lonely unpartnered. Another tends a spouse with a tough prognosis. A third faces an unjust assault to a career.

Oy, such downers for the hazy, lazy days of mid-summer!

Of course, the comforting idea that certain times are “supposed” to be happy isn’t always the world’s way. Real life rarely follows our schedules. When life feels cold and hard when we expect it to be warm and soft, we’re prone to feel doubly hurt – once by actual events, and again by how distant those events feel from what we expect. Expectations can end up hurting more than they help.

So too with personas we want (or feel we’re “supposed”) to have. My three friends in tough times all remarked that among their hurts is that hardship cost them their public face and sense of self. The lonely one mourns a happy identity now feeble or fake. The one tending an ill spouse pre-mourns death (“anticipatory grief” is exactly that). The victim of injustice laments the crumbling of identity based on career achievement.

When bad things happen to good people, ultimately there’s no running away – no effective claim that now’s not the right time, no self-defense behind persona’s shield. There’s nowhere to run from oneself.

All true – and this seemingly dark truth also can be a portal to a renewed inner life.

On the Jewish calendar, mid-summer leads through Tisha b’Av, which this year falls August 13-14. Historically the day recalls the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and Israelites’ exile from their ancestral homeland in the year 70 C.E. The day also recalls history’s countless other Jewish tragedies. From none of them was there anywhere to run: the Jewish people had to face them and, somehow, survive and become more resilient.

Survival and resilience come not by gritting teeth and steeling against change, but by allowing healthy change and letting go of what inhibits change. Often what must change are our expectations, personas, even theologies. Things ancient Jews held most dear – Temple, homeland, ways of being – had to shift on their foundations. Jews survived and thrived not because Jews stayed the same, but precisely because Jews changed.

It was precisely because there was nowhere to run from change that our ancestors could find renewed strength, resilience and creative adaptation. Today we don’t celebrate tragedy and loss – of course not! – but we can learn to seek in them the letting-go and becoming-anew that are secret wellsprings of our individual and collective futures.

This Jewish survival secret is a core spiritual lesson of Tisha b’Av, coming exactly seven weeks before Rosh Hashanah. This time invites us to confront confounded expectations and brittle personas for what they are, and seek in their release new strength, resilience and creative adaptation. The lonely friend stops pretending a happy persona. The friend with a sick spouse acknowledges fear of loss. The friend facing a career challenge begins to ask who he is without the façade of externally validating career success. Dropping the fear of releasing expectation and pretense, we start finding renewal.

In 2008, J.K. Rowling, author of the famed “Harry Potter” series, addressed Harvard’s commencement exercises. Her speech was about the failures of her life that inspired her to begin anew, but her words might well have been a Tisha b’Av liturgy. She said:

[F]ailure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was. [Failure set me] free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive…. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.

For everyone in hard times, feel them for all they are. Let them cull every expectation, façade and sense of self whose time has come to soften and shed. Let them fall. And as rock bottom comes, let it be a solid foundation for rebuilding with renewed strength, resilience and creativity.

How to Fall on Your Face: The Spiritual Art of Leadership

This post is for you if you ever felt small after receiving critique or challenge, or that a leadership burden is too heavy, or that no good deed goes unpunished. (Essentially, this post is for everyone.) And of course, this post is for me and my own roles in government, congregational life and a national nonprofit organization. If we teach what we most need to learn, then this post is especially for me.

What we need to learn, and re-learn, is how to fall on our faces.

This week’s Torah portion (Korach) presents Torah’s sharpest internal challenge. After Moses led the people from bondage, through desert drought and famine, the priest Korach and 250 “leaders of repute” challenged Moses’ leadership. They said, “The whole community is holy – all of them – and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves” above them in leadership? (Numbers 16:3).

How must Moses have felt receiving this withering criticism? Moses never wanted his role: he was summoned against his will (Exodus 4:13). His people complained bitterly, lacking gratitude just after miraculous liberation (Exodus 16:3). They disobeyed just after Sinai (Exodus 32:11). They were too afraid to follow Moses into the Land of Promise (Numbers 14:1-4). Moses’ job was thankless and impossible – and still he pressed on as the world’s humblest person (Numbers 12:3). Even so, Korach challenged Moses.

Moses might have felt fed up or worse, so what Moses did in response – and why he did it – offers profound lessons in leadership and spirituality. Rather than lash out, Moses “listened and fell on his face” (Numbers 16:4).

Our ancestors debated why Moses fell on his face. Rashi imagined that Moses fell on his face desperately seeking divine forgiveness for a perpetually rebellious people (Rashi Num. 16:4). The Saadia Gaon (882-942) imagined that Moses fell on his face to receive a divine vision of what to do next. My favorite explanation is from Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893): Moses fell on his face in prayer, and to remind others of when they themselves had fallen on their faces amidst an experience of profound awe (Ha’amek Davar Num. 16:4). Falling on his face, leading by example, was Moses’ way to remind others to do the same.

We can’t know for sure why Moses fell on his face, but his example offers us some lessons. One is that Moses listened to the rebels: whatever his own personal reaction, still he listened before he acted.

Next, Moses took a physical posture of submission and humility amidst rebellion and rejection against all he stood for. How many of us can muster such depth of presence amidst a core challenge to all we understand ourselves to be and all we stand for in the world?

Lastly, Moses took seriously his calling to lead by example, to remind others to find awe and humility within themselves by first displaying it himself. Precisely when his premise of leadership was most challenged, Moses rose to the occasion by going all the way down in a posture of humble submission.

* * *

All of us are leaders. Whatever our roles or titles, we all influence others: that’s the very definition of leadership. And as leaders, we’re all responsible for examples we set, messages we send, how well we listen, how we react (even and especially when others push our buttons), and how we gently remind people of deep truths within them. In Moses’ case, the higher the challenge, the lower Moses went to the ground to do just that.

Find your inner Moses. Don’t be afraid to fall on your face.

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