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  • Gilad Shalit vs. Pessimism

    Posted on September 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I find this time of year hard, really hard –as I feel I should. Returning year on year to the same list of sins and faults, taking account of what I have done and more likely not done in the last year, and wondering about my own mortality weighs heavily on my heart. They are powerful and potent, not entered into lightly. Last year I was able to get behind the idea of real change, seeing possibilities and renewal. This year, less so. My communities have been struck by too much cancer, too much financial hardship, too many broken relationships for me to truly believe as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

    This pessimistic view lingered through the rabbi’s sermons –which were both hopeful, and through the family time, and the joyful communal meals into the first days of the New Year. I was not happy with this state of affairs but no amount of meditation, prayer or spiritual conversation was bringing about a change.

    But one never knows from where strength will come.

    Gilad Shalit

    Gilad Shalit

    On Wednesday, I chanced on a tweet by Reuven Werber, recommending Gilad Shalit’s message for the New Year. Like so many who followed Shalit’s ordeal and reveled in his release, I was curious to know what Shalit would share. He describes this past year, one which has been truly one of renewal. He writes about the exceptional moments like being a guest at the NBA and the mundane moments walking the streets and being recognized or even occasionally anonymously. His optimism is profound.


    “During the past year and the previous years in I have learned to look at things from a different perspective. In general, I try to see the glass as half full, and this is also what I wish for the people and the State of Israel. People can suddenly find themselves in extreme situations or unexpected crises. I believe people should prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that such situations may arise. Even if they are not certain what they are preparing for, they should be aware that things can change dramatically at any given moment. This awareness helps people cope with such changes.

    If and when such an extreme situation arises, you must deal with it as calmly as possible and avoid doing things you will regret later. You must overcome.”

    The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this as naïveté, but the reality of Shalit’s survival and his strength suggest something significantly more profound. If the liturgy is remote and abstract Shalit’s words are embodied in the particular and the clearly horrific. The context and experience that frames these words gives them exceptional meaning and power. Shalit’s words resonate with the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s research that suggests that optimism is essential for longevity and the ability to flourish in life. Shalit’s words resonate with the wisdom of Rabbi Nachman.

    But Nachman battled to find the joy and meaning in life, it did not always come readily to him. It is easy to be an optimist when times are good, the economy strong, the sun shining, our bodies healthy, our communities strong. Much harder to achieve is the ability to hope in face of difficulty, to see possibilities even when the world seems closed off.

    But Shalit’s optimism is no blind vision. As he explains, “Faith can help of course, but it must be accompanied by an awareness of reality.”

    As I enter into Yom Kippur I will bring with me Shalit’s words. They are my prayer for myself, for all of us, that we may remain optimistic in face of our realities that may not be changeable in discernable ways, for that is the place from which renewal is possible.

  • The Power of the Breath

    Posted on October 25th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    For Jewish professionals, Cheshvan is both a moment to catch our breath and to catch up. This week, Rabbi Andrea Goldstein of Shaare Emeth in St. Louis captures beautifully the struggle of trying to do both.

    Rabbi Andrea Goldstein

    This moment.  So much gratitude for this quiet, unexpected, peace-filled moment.  Sitting in the rocker with Lila.  Her long limbs – usually in constant motion – curled up softly in my lap, so still.  Her mass of slightly damp red curls nuzzled under my chin.  Inhaaaaale … the inside of my nose is filled with the aroma of “no more tears.”  No tears.  No fighting.  No struggling.  No words.  Just her breath.  And my breath.  And I am present.

    Breathe in.

    And so happy.

    Breathe out.

    I am here.

    Breathe in.

    Just here.

    Breathe out.

    Just don’t forget to return those library books tomorrow.


    And that bulletin article.


    Oy, that article.  What I am going to write about?  Does anyone even read them anyway….

    Lila stirs on my lap.  She is too big to find comfort in the crook of my arm for much more than a moment.  I know that.  And I squandered this time with inconsequential thoughts of tomorrow.  And just like that, my happiness is gone.  Replaced by anger … frustration … disappointment for what’s been lost.

    I need to forgive myself my wanderings.  I need a break from a judging mind.  I need just enough strength and humility to return to my breath, my intent, my present … again … and again … and again … and again … and again.

  • Jewish Meditation

    Posted on November 19th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments


    This week I am glad to share with you the wisdom of Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz whose has been blogging for the last few months as part of project she started to enrich her congregations spiritual life during Elul. Rachel has an extensive background in meditation and hassidut and has created a short series about meditation. I share with you here a post on breathing and encourage you to look at her subsequent posts.

    Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

    Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

    Why do so many meditation practices, found in so many spiritual traditions, begin with the breath?  Something so simple as breathing in and breathing out?  Breathing is something we do every moment of our existence in this world.  So simple, and yet it teaches us so, so much.  In meditation practice we wish to bring our attention to this moment – to sense what it really is to exist in the present.  So simple?  Where else would we be?  Well, try it.  Close your eyes and just gently bring your attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.  Notice how the air comes in and, at a certain point, the air goes out again.  If you notice your mind wander, or you start to think of other things, as soon as you notice that that is what you are doing, gently bring your attention back to noticing your breathing – the air going in and going out.

    Chances are, if you are like most of us, you’ll notice certain things.  One of them might be, as you begin, ‘am I doing this right?’  To that question, I answer with another question – ‘what were you doing the moment before you closed your eyes and brought your attention to your breath?’  I’m guessing that you were probably breathing.  Were you worried then about whether you were doing it right?  So notice how quickly we move to judgment, even on something as basic as breathing.  Being present to this moment means just noticing what is arising right now.  As soon as we make a judgment about it – its nice, ugly, distracting, good, bad… that is something additional, and it removes us from just being fully present to what is. Its completely natural and human, and so don’t get annoyed with yourself when you notice judgment arising – that’s another judgment!  Just notice, and let it pass by.

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