Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
Growing up is hard; life is full of tough times, big transitions, hurdles and high points. In these moments, we experience change. I’m feeling it these days — trying to solidify my desires and ambitions for this part of my life, only to have them shift as time progresses. It’s difficult to have firm footing in the middle of an earthquake. But even in the midst of change and growth, in the midst of a whirlwind of shifts, a strong sense of self will always be my compass to follow.
I found Rabbi Israel Salanter during my ongoing quest to strengthen my own identity. He began the Musar movement, focused on the ethics and spirituality of Torah. Rabbi Salanter wanted to bring introspection not only to Jewish scholars, but also to academics, businessmen, everyone. He believed that Talmudic academia had to be paired with an emotional understanding. He stressed the importance of inter-personal laws of the Torah, on understanding and developing a relationship with oneself before expanding outward.
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.
Rabbi Salanter understood the importance of having a strong sense of self. And because of him, we have an entire movement that reaches beyond the academia of Torah and into the emotional effects and importance of studying.
I find Salanter’s application of the introspective to the intellectual really helpful, especially in this moment — when I’m feeling personally disoriented, and with the High Holidays just around the river bend. It’s definitely the time to reflect, clean, be better than the year prior.
It’s challenging, but my awareness is growing; I noticed something interesting as I did a lot of deep breathing, trying to follow Rabbi Salanter’s lead for my own personal growth. I remembered one of my favorite prayers during Yom Kippur, Ashamnu.
Normally, when I’m in services sitting between my parents, I don’t bring much awareness to my prayers, I have to admit. But when it’s time for Ashamnu, I’m called to attention as the entire congregation stands together, singing, fists pounding chests in total confession. Each word is sung with such chutzpah — hit, hit, hit. It’s a moment of absolute unity.
Last year, as I tried to delve into my own self-discovery, I gained new clarity about what’s going on during that prayer.
I always thought that the High Holy Days were about the ‘one,’ not the ‘many’. I thought that it all had to do with improving YOURSELF as an individual, without much focus on the community. Even the whole apologizing thing didn’t strike me as something having to do with anything more than ridding yourself of bad juju. Everything was about getting your name written in The Book of Life.
I thought it was all self-focused, but the answer was right there in my favorite Yom Kippur prayer I’d been saying year after year.
The Ashamnu has all nun-vav letters at the end of each word. (Nun and vav are Hebrew letters, together pronounced “nu” and are often the conjugation for past-tense, first-person plural verbs.) The indicator in Hebrew that it is a communal act, ‘we’. And after each ‘we’-word, we hit our chests with our fists signaling to ourselves and to G-d that we have behaved unacceptably. It’s the classic slap-on-the-wrist, but instead of a slap it’s a bang, and instead of our wrists, it’s our hearts.
The prayer reads, ‘We have done wrong,’ ‘We have done violence,’ ‘We have oppressed,’ ‘We have acted wickedly,’ ‘We have gone astray,’ ‘We have lead others astray.’
There is a long list of ‘We have…(insert wicked act)’, many of which I personally haven’t done, and no one I know has done. I don’t know anyone who has ‘revolted’ or ‘robbed,’ but I am part of a community claiming responsibility.
In Judaism, we share responsibility just as we share joy, and just as we share everything. In Deuteronomy 29:14 as the Jews are finally, after all of the years in the desert, entering into the Holy Land, the Torah states that our covenant is made “with those who are standing here this day before our God, and with those who are not with us here this day.” The Torah describes this moment to the entire people of Israel, those that were standing there receiving the Torah, those that came before, and the endless generations afterward – extending all the way to us today, and beyond.
As a young Southern Jewish woman living in Jackson, Mississippi, in 2017, I still received the Torah just as my ancestors did at the beginning of it all. The words, “those who are not with us today,” are describing me, and you, and your children – it’s l’dor va dor, generation to generation.
L’dor va dor is everywhere in Judaism, and it’s here again in the Ashamnu. The ‘we’ in this prayer is referring to is the entire Jewish people, who has ever lived and who will ever live. The nun-vav’s are nodding to the Jewish people who were wandering in the desert, as well as looking ahead to those of us who have yet to be born. From the orthodox neighborhoods in New York, to the underserved Jewish community in a small rural town.
This prayer is a reminder that we are all in this together. As a people.
In truth, this is the time to lean on each other. Apologizing, acknowledging wrong-doings, is not normally easy. It’s a tender matter that induces a sense of exposure and sensitivity. But with each hit of our fists, we are being vulnerable TOGETHER. It’s an intimate moment with God and we share it as a people.
So this Yom Kippur, in my quest for self-discovery, I will keep that in mind as I pound my chest. I’ve learned that my search for a stronger sense of self isn’t necessarily individual work. As Rabbi Salanter and the Musar movement have taught, introspection makes all the difference. I will take these teachings with me as I delve into the deepest corners of my soul.
But as I develop a deeper relationship with myself, I also understand that my identity lies with my people. I recognize that part of my inward-work must be outward, being a part of something greater than just myself. With every thump on my chest this Yom Kippur, I’ll indulge in my outward-self-discovery. I encourage you to do the same.
Pronounced: KHOOTZ-pah, Origin: Yiddish, nerve, brazenness, presumption, extreme confidence.