Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D., HUC-JIR ’79, is Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel and Research Professor in the Music Department at Tufts University. His new book Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism (Oxford University Press) is the first study of the meaning and experience of chanting Torah among Jews in the United States.
Following the 2016 presidential election, Rabbi Summit shared:
In the face of large events, such as the outcome of this presidential election, there is a tendency for the individual to feel small and powerless. What can we do to make a difference? What can we do to alter or impact this history as it unfolds and shapes our lives? I see many people looking to our leaders for solace, direction and guidance. And in fact, it has been inspiring to see President Obama and others epitomizing calm, vision and leadership. But whether your candidate lost or won or wasn’t on the ballot, you now have a role to play. I would like to suggest that while our leaders are important, much of life, as we live and experience it, is really shaped by each one of us, in our daily actions and interactions.
I want to stress the importance of living well within our own dalet amot, the rabbinic phrase for “our personal sphere of influence,” and what a profound difference that can make, both for us and to the people we touch every day. I don’t believe that we, as regular people, are powerless as large events unfold. In a very real way, we each have profound power to shape and influence the quality and experience of life in our world. I am deeply influenced by the Jewish tradition’s emphasis on the centrality of the individual in changing the world. Teshuvah (change, growth), in its essence, is the work of the empowered woman or man, making an individual decision that moves to action. The hard work of personal and societal change and growth is placed squarely in our own hands. One of the essential messages of our tradition is that more than anything, each person’s actions count.
So in actuality, what does it look like for each one of us to live well at a time when we are deeply concerned about the direction of our country? I want to briefly suggest three areas for examination: the first is the importance of being fully present in whatever place we are. Next, I want to speak about embracing hope and finally, I want to talk about why it is so important to assert the rock solid Jewish belief that good eventually triumphs in our world.
My first point is the incredible importance of being actively present in our lives. I think here of the phrase in the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, “God heard the cry of Ishmael “ba’asher hu sham” “In the place where he was” (Gen. 21:17). It is unclear to me why these words strike me with such power. Perhaps it is because we have created technology that has challenged our ability to be fully present in any one place, at any one time. So much vies for our attention. We live in a world where we are both everywhere and no-where.
To live well during a crisis such as this is being able to be fully present with the people around us. Being truly present with another human being is giving that person our full attention. It means looking into their eyes rather than down at your phone. It is being willing to engage in thoughtful conversation over dinner even though you are disheartened or exhausted. Being fully present is being comfortable to sit and be silent with a friend.
Sometimes people are not present because they are uncertain of the words to say, or they fear they won’t have the right answers to give. But being there in a challenging time is not about knowing the right answers or what will happen next. To a large extent, it is about being willing to make direct, focused, compassionate contact with the regular people who are part of our lives; our roommates, siblings, parents, our teachers, the lady behind the cafeteria line, the person next to you in the library. Those are the interactions that shape the way we conceive of our communities, make us feel at ease or on edge and build webs of connection in our daily lives.
Harold Kushner relates a story about a boy who tells his father that he going over to help a friend who just broke his new bicycle. The father asks, “What do you know about fixing bicycles?” The son answers, “I don’t know anything about fixing bicycles: I’m going over to help him cry.” I think of people who have helped me when I have felt depressed and situations seemed dark. In my experience, those people did not flood me with wisdom, they did not magically fix things, they were certainly not perfect: they were willing to spend time, to talk and listen. Sometimes their words even had a comforting cynicism, such as when my teacher Dick Israel would say, “Things are rarely as bad, or as good as they first appear.” Never underestimate how very important is it for you to be present, and hopeful, for those people directly around you.
That leads me to my second point, which is the importance of conveying hope. While I have heard a lot of “God Bless America,” during this election cycle, the song that has been going through my head recently is “Hatikvah,” The Hope. Those words have much to teach us now. Ode lo avdah tikvatenu, Hatikvah bat shanot alpayim. We have not lost our hope, the hope that has persisted for thousands of years. The French poet Edmond Fleg wrote, “I am a Jew because where most people despair, the Jew hopes.” In this era of instant gratification, it can be a profound gift to those around us to convey that it is possible to remain hopeful, even for a long time, before our values are realized in society and our goals are achieved.
I know from my rabbinic work with families in grief, that a key to a family’s recovery after experiencing tragedy is having one person in that family who holds and articulates a vision of hope. Many families will make it through a difficult time if just one person is able to look through to the other side of a crisis and continues to say that things will eventually be all right. Living well through a difficult time is being able to convey to the people around us, even in our fear and uncertainty, that our lives will go on and we will continue to be politically engaged, have an impact, to realize the world we want to see, to laugh, celebrate and experience joy.
Finally, I want to speak about the importance of asserting a truth that we have learned over and over as Jews. That truth is that love eventually inches out hatred in our world. As Jews, we know that we live in an unredeemed world. We know how hard teshuvah is, and yet every year, we insist that change and growth is possible. There will always be those who hate but when we examine our history, we maintain that good will eventually triumph. This is a powerful message and one that is at the core of our tradition. Even though redemption is not yet here, I still fully and completely believe that justice and compassion will take hold and grow in our world, our communities and in our country. Living well in this difficult time is to embrace and convey that truth. As Jews, I do not believe we have another option.
These are demanding times, but we don’t have to be superheroes or great national leaders to have an impact upon our immediate world. If we are able to be present for the people around us, remain hopeful and assert that good will eventually permeate our world, each one of us can make a profound contribution.