My sister, Chanie, and my new brother-in-law, Joel, got married this month. I’m very fortunate to have incredible co-workers who are happy to see pictures of the very special occasion and hear all about the event itself—and of course, I’m also happy to share one of the beautiful pictures here, because that’s what proud sisters do!
But I also want to share with you a thought I had before the wedding—a thought that extended from marriage to the larger community, and also seemed particularly appropriate at this time on the Jewish calendar.
I had the honor of sharing a reading under the chuppah. As I looked at books of readings for weddings, poems, websites with readings and other sources, I came across this reading. I didn’t end up reading it to the happy couple under the chuppah, but it spoke to me.
“Until we can receive with an open heart, we’re never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”—Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
This line is meant to describe the giving and receiving that takes place between partners. In many ways, however, it articulates my feelings about service. There is so much judgment associated with receiving help. Too often, even well -intentioned givers, engaged in the generous act of offering help, make judgments about the people receiving our assistance.
We may find ourselves judging others for “allowing” themselves to get into this situation. We might feel saddened by their vulnerability, their need—or willingness—to rely on others. We may even use those in need to make us feel better about ourselves: hey, at least we are not in their position.
Judgments of these kinds really impede on our ability to give lovingly and completely. Giving with judgment is still giving, and it is better than not giving at all. When someone is hungry, food is essential. Food without judgment is like getting icing on the cake.
But that is not the type of giving and receiving that a couple strives for in a marriage. Nor should it be the giving we strive for as we serve our communities. Rather, community offers us a lot sometimes, without us asking for it. And by receiving the joy given to us by our communities, we can truly give to people who rely on the greater community for things like food, shelter, and so on, without judging them or their situation.
While I have given thought to the relationship between those who conduct and those who receive the benefits of service (a problematic construct), thinking about it in the context of a marriage—particularly the marriage of two people who truly give to each other and the world with all their hearts—gives me a unique appreciation for the special bond that unites us as people who are constantly giving and receiving.
During this time in the Jewish calendar when Jews ask for a lot—forgiveness, health, a sweet new year–let us also ask for the ability to gracefully receive all we are given this year as well as the ability to give gracefully, without negative judgment of those who receive our help.
At this year’s ISJL Education Conference, I helped lead a session about “Conflict Transformation.” The term is used to describe a response to conflict whereby our goal isn’t to view conflict as something negative that has to be quashed, but as a positive opportunity to transform ourselves and our relationships.
With that in mind, I was delighted to see “The Questions We Share,” an article in last week’s New York Times highlighting the work of Hillel’s Ask Big Questions, an initiative that aims to foster constructive conversations among students. The goal is to make room for everyone’s knowledge, beliefs and opinions while ensuring that people are genuinely listening to each other. At the core of this initiative distinguishes between hard and big questions.
In the article, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, co-founder of Ask Big Questions, clarifies the difference between hard and big questions: “A hard question…requires special knowledge to answer. A ‘big question,’ by contrast, is one that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big questions have the potential to tap people’s sense of curiosity and to draw out wisdom from the heart.”
He demonstrates his point by using the following example: If one were to start a discussion about the Middle East that attempts to uncover how we can bring peace to the Middle East, it is very likely that the conversation will be limited to the people who have the most knowledge and passion regarding the issue. Rather than fostering a dialogue, it is likely to turn into a debate and create a rather hostile environment. Instead, the Ask Big Questions model focuses on building empathy around shared issues by asking questions that establish trust and invite everyone’s input. A potential question could be “How do you feel when you are a part of a conversation that turns to the Middle East?”
In the South, Jewish individuals are often seen as representing “the Jewish view,” though of course no individual Jew can speak for all Jews. When asked hard questions, it can be helpful to re-frame the question, so that you are able to talk about personal experiences rather than responding for all Jews. In this way, and in many others, big questions can generate informative and authentic discussions.
Hillel put together this conversation guide for facilitators who are leading a discussion centered on “Big Questions”. The guide is based on teachings from the Center for Civic Reflection. I encourage you to download it—and use it!
What are some hard questions your community has grappled with? Can you think of a big question that would encourage people to share related feelings and experiences?
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As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.
At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:
“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”
In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.
So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?
Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.
I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.
“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”
We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.
Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.
Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest. Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.
I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:
Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no pardons,
before the concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.
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