RSS icon Email icon Home icon
  • 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.

  • Prayer for Difficult People

    Posted on October 3rd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 4 comments


    The holidays are the highest stress period for those of us working as professionals in the Jewish world. Some of the most difficult people in our communities only show up once a year, but then they come en masse.  The people who are normally difficult show up more frequently. And throughout, the increase pressure and time commitments can deplete our patience. As the High Holidays of 5771, fade into the regular rythms, Rabbi Mark Sameth (HUC-JIR ’98) shares his thoughts on dealing with difficult people. Mark is a congregational rabbi in Pleasantville, New York, and tweets on Jewish Meditation from Fourbreaths.

    Rabbi Mark Sameth

    The rabbis taught – as if it might have escaped our attention – that everyone has a yetzer ha ra, and everyone a yetzer tov; everyone has an inclination toward the bad, and everyone an inclination toward good. It may sound defeatist, but the rabbis were optimists. The fact that the definite article ha appears in the term yetzer ha ra and is absent in the term yetzer tov was understood as meaning that, although we may incline toward the bad situationally, or predictably in certain specific interactions, the issue is not characterological; our general inclination is toward the good.

    Still, every once in a while we do meet someone who could be described as a toxic personality. It can be very damaging to be with such people. There are strategies and resources to deal with such destructive personalities. For readers of this blog – rabbis, cantors, and educators – one such very good resource is Never Call Them Jerks: Healthy Responses to Difficult Behavior (Alban Institute).

    Difficult people should not be ignored, cannot be ignored. But focusing too much energy on them comes at a cost. The unspoken needs of less obstreperous people who might actually benefit from our help can be overlooked. And focusing too much energy on difficult people comes at another cost as well, a very personal cost, which we would do well to be mindful of especially at this season. We can spend so much time and energy focused on a few difficult people and the teshuva they need to make, that we overlook our own need for cheshbon nefesh, overlook our need to make our own teshuva. Difficult people can keep us very busy – and the yetzer has no greater tool than busyness.

    Our tradition understands the yetzer as wily in the extreme. We need therefore to be even more artful in our own choice of responses. Sometimes the yetzer needs to be called out, confronted. Sometimes it can be reasoned with. Sometimes it responds only to threats. Sometimes it is susceptible to diversion. Sometimes it can be sweet-talked. Sometimes it will quiet down if we throw it a bone, or let it ride in the back seat. And sometimes it can be thrown off its stride if we can get it to laugh.

    In that spirit I offer the following prayer. Seriously. And may the coming year be a little less difficult for all of us, and for all of them.

    A Prayer for Difficult People

    O God, Creator of difficult people, bless me with the strength, fortitude, wisdom and equanimity of spirit to deal with the difficult people You have placed in my life. Grant me the ability to see the next disaster well enough in advance to dodge, divert, or otherwise disable it before it happens, or at least to minimize its ill effects. May my buttons be hidden from view so that Your difficult people may not so easily press them next time as they have done so very well of late. May You grant sufficient insight to Your difficult people in order that they may come to understand – speedily and in our day – how truly difficult they are, knowing they would surely turn from their difficult ways were they possessed of even the slightest bit of self-awareness. Open the hearts of these Your difficult people to feel compassion for the pain and stress which, sometimes by their actions and oftentimes by their mere demeanor, they have caused in my life, are causing in my life now, and without Your divine intervention seem inevitably ready to cause again. Open their eyes, O God, so that they may see the truth of the situation as You and I, O God, see it: that I am not fundamentally an unhappy person, and that my unhappiness therefore rests with them and with their oh so difficult ways.

    O God, Creator of difficult people, it has no doubt come to Your attention (through the prayers of others) in spite of all You know about my good heart, my good intentions, my good work, and my just overall basic goodness that I am myself at the moment considered a difficult person in the life of another one of Your creatures (maybe more; I didn’t get the whole story). Putting aside for the moment the irony of that one, causing pain and suffering is, of course as You know, the last thing I would ever want to do. Help me therefore, O God, to no longer be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Whether through my need to express myself, or my difficulty expressing myself; whether because of my tendency to criticize, or my need to say that everything is OK when it’s not; whether because I am perceived as expecting too much, or expecting too little; whether through my tendency toward compulsiveness, or toward inattentiveness; due to the way I express my anger, or to the way I express my love;  whether because I never seem to be there, or because I always seem to be there; whether because of my need for orderliness, or my need for spontaneity; because I feel the need to be alone more these days, or because I feel a greater need to be with people; because I always want to talk, or because I never want to talk; because of the way I express my fear, or because of the way I express my desire. O God, Creator of difficult people, help me – knowing so very well how it feels – help me to not be the difficult person in someone else’s life. Rabbi Mark Sameth

  • Saying Sorry: What Does Forgiveness Mean?

    Posted on June 29th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    This week we have the second in our occasional summer series on Saying Sorry. This week Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD. the editor of this blog shares some of her reflections of the shape of forgiveness.

    Person one: Ani Mevakesh S’licha U’michila

    Person two: Ani Noten S’licha U’michila

    I ask for forgiveness and absolution

    I grant forgiveness and absolution

    A few years ago, just before Rosh Hashana, I sat with a friend and reviewed the past year. It was clear that there was tension in our friendship. As we discussed what had happened, I apologized for the hurt that I had caused. She accepted my apology. In the next breath she explained that despite this, she no longer wanted to maintain a connection.

    Our tradition tells us a great deal about righting a wrong that we commit. Doing teshuvah means following up on apologies with changes in behavior. As Maimonides teaches, we are obligated to forgive.[1] But while we can measure changes in bad behavior, can we measure forgiveness? In other words what does forgiveness look like?

    Recently another friend was confronted with this question. A woman who had hurt her badly in the past moved into her community. At the time of the betrayal, which had involved a sexual impropriety, forgiveness has been sought and my friend had been unwilling and unable to grant it. Five years later, the woman had written my friend a letter of apology, which my friend judged as sincere, but still my friend was unable to forgive. She had thought the man involved would one day be her husband and the woman her maid of honor. A few months ago, when a mutual friend re-introduced them at Temple, the old friend acknowledged their past by saying that she they had known each other when the old friend was “younger and very, very foolish.” As my friend reported, forgiveness had been actively sought three times.

    In many ways my friend had moved on from the old place of hurt and anger. In the intervening decades, my friend married a wonderful man with whom she has built a family. She is happy with her life and freely admits that had she married her then boyfriend it would not have been nearly as happy. Until this woman moved into her community she had not thought of her in years.

    My friend has assumed that the distance from the events and the lessening of feelings constituted a form of forgiveness. But when the old friend reappeared, my friend was not so sure. With another newcomer to the community, my friend would have opened the doors to her home for Shabbat, offered advice on schools and camps but in this case she did not.

    When repentance is sincere we obliged to forgive, but how do we know when that obligation is fulfilled?

    In counseling my friend, I pointed out that in many ways she was acting on her forgiveness. She had not brought up the sins of the past. She was not shunning this woman or besmirching her name in the community. For all intents and purposes, she was allowing this woman to live the teshuvah that she claimed to seek. As Solomon Schimmel has explained in his book Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness there are levels of forgiveness. IWe do not have an obligation to re-embrace an individual with no memory of their transgression or the hurt it caused but we are obligated to allow them to act the fullness of their teshuvah. We do not have an obligation to return to a world that existed before the rupture occurred.

    This concept is echoed in our tradition which distinguishes between mechilah –the letting go of a grudge- and slicha –the letting go that happens deep in the heart – and kapparah – the complete wiping clean of the slate.

    When we ask for and are granted forgiveness it does not lead to earthly kapparah. We have to realize that in transgressing, we can never go back to the way the world was before we acted. Our actions have consequences and while we may be able to do a full teshuvah we cannot expect that the forgiveness will mean a full embrace by those we have wronged in the past. When we agree to grant mechilah we take the first step in a process with the hope that we will arrive at some day at a state of full slicha. But the final forgiveness, the full letting go is not ours to give, that level of forgiveness belongs only to God.

    [1] רמב”ם הלכות חובל ומזיק פרק ה הלכה י

    ואסור לנחבל להיות אכזרי ולא ימחול לו ואין זו דרך זרע ישראל אלא כיון שבקש ממנו החובל ונתחנן לו פעם ראשונה ושניה וידע שהוא שב מחטאו וניחם על רעתו ימחול לו, וכל הממהר למחול הרי הוא משובח ג ורוח חכמים נוחה הימנו.

  • Saying Sorry: What Does it Really Mean?

    Posted on June 22nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    This week we begin a occasional summer series on the topic of saying sorry. As we prepare our hearts and actions for the work of Elul, we hope that the words of the HUC-JIR faculty and staff will help deepen our own understandings and insights. This week, Dr. Richard Sarason, Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought on the Cincinnati campus brings ancient wisdom to bear on some of our contemporary culture of apologizing.

    Dr. Richard Sarason

    “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

    Readers of a certain age will recall this ad-line for the 1970 film version of Erich Segal’s short novel Love Story, which was all the rage in pop and campus culture at the time.  I remember thinking—even then—how fatuous (and sentimental) that statement is.  For Jews, love means precisely having to say you’re sorry, but not just saying.

    As I am writing this piece, two prominent apologies have just been noted in the press.  First, Tony Hayward, the CEO of British Petroleum, began his testimony before the U.S. Congress with an apology to the American people for the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which he acknowledged should never have happened.  To many, this must have felt like cold comfort and empty words after the fact, particularly when BP’s safety record has been so problematic for years.  The establishment of a $20 billion dollar fund to compensate those whose livelihoods have been ruined by the spill (after some arm-twisting from President Obama) is at least an attempt to make good on the apology. Words must be followed by actions if they are to be given any credence, because deeds have consequences.

    Two days earlier, British Prime Minister David Cameron had issued an official apology to the people of Northern Ireland for the 1972 “Bloody Sunday” killings by British troops of 14 unarmed demonstrators in Londonderry—and he, too, used words similar to those of Tony Hayward: “What happened should never, ever have happened.”  But of course it did, and there’s the rub.  Only deeds can atone for deeds—but words can have profound symbolic significance as an outward expression of an inward change.  As John F. Burns noted in The New York Times Week in Review on June 20, “Seen from the historical viewpoint, this was an act of reconciliation to be listed alongside . . .[those of] other penitents throughout the ages.”

    Which brings us full circle back to a religious perspective and to our own Jewish tradition as we prepare once again for the High Holy Days. (One of our sons as a child used to refer, not incorrectly, to Yom Kippur as “I’m Sorry Day”).

    I always carry around in my head a little verse that I memorized as a first-grader in religious school, from Dorothy Kripke’s children’s book, Let’s Talk About God:

    God and friends and parents

    Forgive wrong things we do

    If we can say, “I’m sorry,”

    And really mean it, too.

    Herein is both the problem and, perhaps, a way toward a solution.  Talk is cheap.  Words do not, cannot, undo deeds.  But words can at least begin the process of restitution and reconciliation as an outward expression of an inward change, as an acknowledgement of  responsibility for one’s actions, as a way of reaching out to the other.

    Maimonides’ definition of teshuvah (Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada’, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1:1) notes that the process of teshuvah must begin with a verbal confession (vidui)—in words, out loud—so that one’s inward resolution is given outward, public expression. (And if this verbal confession is hypocritical, the person is like one who immerses in a mikveh still holding onto a dead creeping thing, a primary source of impurity; Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:3—what a powerfully concrete analogy!).  Expanding upon M. Yoma 8:9, Maimonides continues, “Transgressions against one’s fellow, as for instance, if one wounds, curses or robs one’s neighbor or commits similar wrongs, are never pardoned until the injured party has received due compensation and has also been appeased.  Even though he has made compensation, the wrongdoer must also appease the one he has injured and ask his forgiveness.  Even if a person only annoyed another in words, he has to pacify the latter and entreat him until he has obtained his forgiveness” (Hilkhot Teshuvah 2:9-10).

    So, while words alone do not suffice for full repentance (they must be accompanied by compensation and a change in behavior), they are a necessary part of the process: words are our first line of social communication as adults.  (We socialize our children by saying: “Use your words.”)  But our words must truly express who we are and what we mean when we wish to make amends and to change relationships.  And then we must stand by our words with deeds—“and really mean it, too.”