What Our World Needs Now:
Making Deep Connections, Doing Our Part
Erev Rosh Hashanah • Rosh Hashanah Eve
September 9, 2018 • 1 Tishrei 5779
Rabbi Bridget Wynne
The year 5779 arrives in a cloud of fear and uncertainty. Each of us responds in our own way, but we all feel it hanging over us.
My friend Dave has been riveted to the news. He follows every development, every one of the many alerts on his phone. Sometimes he’s upset and angry, other times frightened, even despairing, yet other times cynical, making jokes he can barely laugh at.
Dave is a responsible person, who wants to know what is happening in our country and beyond, as upsetting as it often is. You may know someone like Dave. You may be like Dave.
My friend Tami finds the constant stream of news too toxic to live with, so she shuts it out. “Thinking about the crazy, tragic mess we’re in would make it hard for me to get up in the morning,” she says. “There is so much that needs fixing.” You may know someone like Tami. You may be like Tami.
Each of us falls somewhere different on the Dave and Tami scale, and it may change from day to day. But something I have heard from so many of you is that you are worn down by the constant sense of crisis, that you often feel helpless in the face of so much hatred and uncertainty.
This reality invades all corners of our lives and our beings. What options do we have as caring, responsible people? What wisdom can we draw on in this environment of stress and cruelty?
Let’s start by acknowledging that, as much as we are living in a political crisis, we are also experiencing a crisis of the spirit. Seeing so much callousness, we may shut down and pull away from others. This is dangerous, for us and the world. And it builds on itself. The more despair we feel about fellow human beings, the less we seek out meaningful connections, the more despair we feel ... creating a downward spiral.
Let’s turn to the wisdom of Martin Buber, a 20th-century Jewish philosopher and activist. He focused on the importance of deep intimacy, and declared that, “All real living is meeting.” Buber taught about what he called I-It and I-Thou relationships, and the distinction between them.
I-It relationships are utilitarian. We’re exchanging information, getting things done. There’s nothing wrong with I-It relationships. We need them. But there is something wrong when they take up more and more space in our lives.
I-Thou relationships are personal and direct. We bring our whole selves to an encounter and experience the other as the full and unique person they are.
The more we seek opportunities for I-Thou connections, the more goodness and humanity we may discover in other people, and the more understanding and compassion we can offer.
Recently I suggested to a group I lead that they try acting with loving kindness in ways they usually would not. I tried it too, with store clerks, with people in the annoyingly slow line at the Albany post office, with the woman jockeying with me for a parking space, even the family member whose political views can make me so angry. I was amazed to discover that the world around me literally seemed brighter and more alive.
Trying to experience others as whole people may seem insignificant, even naïve, but it can counter despair, help us know that we can have an impact, help others feel seen and cared about. This upward spiral can encourage us to take more direct action.
Let’s turn now to Jewish wisdom about taking action.
Rabbi Tarfon is one of my favorites among the early rabbis from about 2,000 years ago. He lived in Jerusalem at a time of upheaval and violence. The Romans besieged the city and destroyed the Jewish Temple there, killing hundreds of people and leaving the Jews without leadership. New Jewish leaders called on their people to fight a guerilla war against the Romans, but the Jews were defeated again and again. It seemed the options were to fight and lose, or give up and submit to oppression.
In this time of fear and turmoil, Rabbi Tarfon shared his wisdom: “You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.” (Pirkei Avot/Teachings of the Ancestors 2:21)
Many of you have spoken about how helpless you feel. How can you make a difference, in our time of fear and turmoil?
Laurie, a Jewish Gateways participant who gave me permission to share her story, talked about how she had been going around in circles in her mind for months. “I should make phone calls, I should canvass door-to- door.” But she is terrible at trying to convince people of things, so she didn’t make calls, she didn’t canvass.
Laurie is in a Jewish Gateways group focused on a tradition called Mussar. It is a practice that helps us explore character traits, like compassion, patience, anger, and more, and refine them for our own growth and for the improvement of our world.
Laurie drew on teachings and discussions from the Mussar group to try to get out of the trap she was in. Here is what she told us.
I decided to stop worrying about taking the most strategic action. Instead, I tried saying “yes” to the possibilities that come up, that hadn't seemed significant enough. I thought about what I’m good at, what comes naturally to me. And I started seeing myself as part of a team. Rather than doing something big enough, I need to do my part.
As Rabbi Tarfon said, “You are not expected to complete the work.” In fact, as Laurie pointed out, to think that we could is grandiosity.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of detained immigrants were about to be transferred out of Contra Costa County, far from their families and their lawyers. Laurie is a good baker, so she made brownies and helped with a community bake sale to raise money for bail for these immigrants. Amazingly, due to many people’s efforts, the bake sale raised over $10,000. Laurie told our group:
It was a joyful experience. So many people were happy to see us. They wanted an opportunity to do something. They stopped to buy baked goods or just to make a donation.
Two kids, about 5 and 7 years old, came by with their father. He just had a dollar left after buying groceries. He was going to buy a cookie for them to share, and, being 5 and 7, they argued over which kind, so we decided to just give them two. A couple hours later the boys came riding back on their scooters with their dad. They had gone home and taken the money out of their piggybanks, and were bringing it back to donate.
Laurie concluded, “It is a relief to start doing things, to stop worrying about it being perfect. This isn’t just an insight. I can actually feel the change in my body, and it makes me want to do more.”
Before I conclude, I invite you to draw on your memory and your imagination.
Martin Buber taught about the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships. See if you can call to mind, right now, a moment when someone responded to you as the whole person you are, when they opened themselves to truly connect with you. It could be someone you know well or someone you’d never met before. It could be a long time ago or recently. Take in how good it is to be a Thou rather than an It. Imagine offering that sense of deep caring to another person who might happen to need it at just that moment.
Rabbi Tarfon taught, “You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.” For those of us who are avoiding it, it is probably not because we don’t care. Perhaps we feel helpless, hopeless, or overwhelmed. See if you can imagine, right now, moving beyond your fears and objections, and, like Laurie, taking a leap of action. What could you say “yes” to? What skill or gift could you draw on?
Finally, take a look around. Each person here has come for their own reasons, but my guess is that each one of us cares, each one of us wants to make the world a better place. So you are not alone.
The fear and the uncertainty are real. Yet we can draw on the wisdom of our tradition, and wisdom from all the other places we find it. We can draw on our memories, our imaginations, and each other. We can stretch, and we can take risks. That's what this season is for. I urge you to take those risks -- to connect deeply with others, to do your part in making things better. Our world really, really needs us -- now.