Gratitude & practice

From Nigel Savage

Dear All,

It’s a hundred years since 1917. Technological change was accelerating. The promise of human-powered flight had turned into bombs raining down on the miserable soldiers in the trenches of the First World War. (One of them was my Zaydie, who took a bullet through his finger. It probably, in retrospect, saved his life.) The world was uncertain and scary.

One of the books people were reading, a hundred years ago, was Walter Lippmann’s Drift and Mastery. Here’s a taste of it:

“We are unsettled to the very roots of our being… We have changed our environment more quickly than we know how to change ourselves… We live in great cities without knowing our neighbors, the loyalties of place have broken down… We have to prepare children to face the unexpected, for their problems will not be the same as their fathers’ [sic]…”

There is much in this vein, many pages of it, and of course I share it now because his observations, true then, have never in human history been more true than today.

Over the holidays I read Andy Stern’s Raising The Floor. Andy joined the SEIU in 1977, and led it from 1995 to 2010. His book is a fascinating and sobering read, not least because his description (that technological change will affect the world of work in the next two decades even more radically than we might already imagine) is somewhat more persuasive than his prescription (to bring in a Universal Basic Income – which I broadly agree with, but doubt in practice in this country that it could be introduced on a meaningful scale; though, NB, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.)

Lippmann a century ago and Stern today are looking at the world – and extrapolating – and they’re trying to grapple with technological and social change that had and has and will have profound social and human consequences.

The question of what we do about all this is the key question of our time.

In next week’s email we want to turn outwards and make some suggestions for education, action, and advocacy across the Jewish community, in response to this changing world in which we find ourselves. But this week I want to reflect on the inward piece – the question not of how we effect change out there but, as it were, in here.

As we all know, this is the hardest change that there is. We are astonishingly wedded to our habits and patterns, for good or ill. Two generations of psychotropic drugs, three generations of therapy and analysis, and thirty or more centuries of religion haven’t altered the basic challenges of the self-management of human behavior.

How do I control myself just a little better? How do I marshal for good my energy, my lust, my desire, my passion? What is the proper balance between selfishness and altruism; between the needs of my family, my community, and the strangers who live amongst us? When the world changes in alarming ways, how do I maintain balance?

And, if these seem a little abstract: how do I save money? Go to the gym? Quit smoking? Stop interrupting people? Be more positive? Learn more regularly? Get my homework done? Meditate every day? Cut out sugar? Etc. etc.

The older I get the more compassion I try to have for others and for myself. These things are not easy – to put it mildly.

But I also have greater and greater respect for Jewish tradition, which is so intricately put together, so humane and so fundamentally wise.

Against this backdrop Januaries in general, and this January in particular, are a good time to re-appreciate the tradition. Here are just four elements for us all to think about:

Sh’ma yisrael; the value of listening. Listening to one’s spouse or kids or parents. Listening to co-workers. Listening to people we disagree with. I’m not nearly where I would like to be, but in the now sixteen years that I’ve been running Hazon I think I have steadily become a better listener, not least because I started to understand that it was a discipline and a choice, and both morally and practically useful. The tradition’s daily injunction that we listen is worth remembering and trying to observe.

Morning practice. When you sign up to do Adamah, our three-month farming-and-leadership program, one of its elements is shacharit, the dawn prayers. They’re at 6am, Monday to Friday, for an hour, and – a tad shocking to some of our entering 20-somethings – they’re compulsory and not optional. The way that we do shacharit – which we call avodat halev, “the service of the heart” – maintains the architecture of the traditional shacharit but adapts it to try to make it accessible and meaningful for entering Adamahniks of a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs. Last August – after, of course, my own lifetime of evolving Jewish practice, but having never stuck with something every morning – I started my own morning practice, inspired by my friend Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie.

Gratitude. From Heschel we have this phrase, “radical amazement.” In any siddur, the opening words are “modeh ani…” – the lines we traditionally wake up with, offering gratitude for simply being alive. Part of my morning practice has been journaling about gratitude each day. The choice to notice and to embrace gratitude impacts us in subtle and important ways. I am grateful, right now, for things I’ve taken for granted all my life, but insufficiently appreciated until recently – not least that I live in peace and don’t go hungry. In Manchester, as a kid, those things were so obvious as to be unnoticed and unappreciated. Today I feel differently.

Ol malchut shamayim. The American secular religion espouses “the pursuit of happiness.” It is becoming clearer than ever before that, unchecked, this is simply a recipe for selfishness – especially if I pursue my happiness at the expense of those around me. Jewish tradition has no analogue for this idea; what it has is its very opposite, the notion of ol malchut shamayim. One might translate that phrase as something like “bearing the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” I know – that sounds a tad heavy. But the Jewish insight, which I am certain is true, and which I think has been borne out in recent years by the research of a wide range of social scientists, is that happiness is not something you pursue; it is, rather, a byproduct of a life well-lived. Happy is how I feel if I’m part of a team and we’re doing good. Happy is when I’m helping two young friends figure out how to get married. Happy is when I listen to someone who has cancer and help her in certain ways. Happy (in a way) is how I feel when I drive back from a shiva and feel that, despite going out on a cold and rainy night, I helped show love and support for someone suffering a loss. Happy is how I felt when Liz and I gave $360 to someone I knew so that he could in turn give it to a Syrian refugee family that he was helping. Happy was how I felt when Liz and I gave $180 to some of the Adamahniks who went out to Standing Rock.

And maybe “happy” isn’t always quite the right word. I wasn’t “happy” when I emailed a bunch of friends in Jerusalem, earlier this week, who lived really near the Tayelet, where four young Israeli soldiers were brutally murdered on Sunday. But I was certainly doing something that I believed to be right – reaching out simply to say, I care, I’m thinking about you, I can’t imagine how scary this must be for your kids…

That’s what ol malchut shamayim is – it’s doing things like these, and a hundred others, not simply because we want to or feel like it but because, critically, we absolutely believe that the tradition requires it of us; that we cannot consider ourselves “Jewish,” in good conscience if we do not do these things.

I’m not a rabbi. I have no authority to tell anyone what to do or not do. I write simply because we want Hazon to be a force for good, in the Jewish community and in the world.

And before or as well as pointing outwards, we – all of us, each in our own way – have to strive to be better people. Jewish tradition is right there in front of us. It is so familiar to us, but also placed in such small boxes, that we overlook it, forget it or falsely categorize it. I think it’s our loss if we do so. It is beautiful and wise and rich and battle-tested across people’s lives for twenty centuries.

So: Go to shul. Go to the one you joined but never go to. Go to a new shul. Go to a class. Read a book. Get up a bit earlier and daven or journal or meditate or work out – or some unique combination of some or all. Find a rabbi or teacher and ask them to help you. Don’t worry about what you don’t know. Don’t worry about what you don’t believe. Don’t worry about the Hebrew you do or don’t understand. If you’re halachic or orthodox, live on the wild side and check out a non-orthodox shul or teacher. If you’re from many generations of secular or reform Jews – go check out a traditional shul. It’s okay. No harm will come to you.

And – by the way – don’t be afraid of the haredi (ultra-orthodox) world. Yes, there are scandals about the behavior of some ultra-orthodox Jews – as there are about Democrats, and Republicans, and white people and black people and everyone else. I don’t reify the haredi world – I don’t see it as the model of “Judaism” which I don’t personally believe but which I secretly think is the true way of expressing Jewishness. I don’t think that at all. But I strive also not to share the anti-haredi sentiments which I find are too commonly held in parts of the non-haredi world.

Hazon is an imperfect vehicle, but a through-line from our first day until now is a desire to respect Jewish tradition, to be open to it, to strive to listen, to strive to learn, and to do so across as wide a range as we possibly can. And to help Jewish tradition help each of us be better people.

So – b’hatzlacha (good luck).

And keep an eye out for our email next Tuesday, which follows this week’s inwardness with some parallel thoughts about turning outwards.

Shabbat shalom,