Tending the Well

By Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman

At every program at Orot, I communicate one of the core values of our work: the belief that each person has a unique share in Torah and that Orot exists to help each individual find a Torah that is responsive to his or her own life, own struggles, own pains and joys. Torah, writ large, must – and can – speak directly to our lived experiences. Our challenges on a particular day. The pain that we carry in this moment. The breath we are struggling to find in the right now.

The other day, after an Orot yoga workshop, a woman approached me and said: “So, this is what I am struggling with right now. This is what I am needing. Can you help?”

She told me of being a social worker in a school district with many undocumented and immigrant students. About the increased anxiety among the children. About the uptick in fights in the hallways. About the pervasive sense of dread that greets her at work each day, in the classrooms. And about the personal anxieties she harbors as an individual citizen, at home, each morning and evening. She spoke about the dueling impulses – the need to stay informed and engaged as a concerned citizen, and the need to care for herself and not allow these fears to overwhelm her, to exhaust her, to deplete her capacity to care for herself and others.

Does Judaism have something to offer me? she asked.

And she is not alone. I have heard many personal stories and pleas in the past few months, individuals looking to see what Jewish wisdom and tradition may have to offer us in moments of crisis such as this one we seem to face, on a national scale, each day we open a newspaper, look at facebook, or scan the headlines. Jewish values seem to point us squarely in the direction of our responsibilities – as Jews, as human beings, as citizens – to stand up and speak up against injustice. To be voices of truth to power. To be agents of change on behalf of the oppressed and persecuted. Yes and yes.

The work required of us is enormous and ceaseless, and it is easy to feel subsumed by dread, exhaustion, anxiety, fear. While those emotions can be powerful catalysts for action, they can also eat away at our inner capacity to stay healthy, resilient, and strong, for ourselves and for others in our lives – children, partners, co-workers, clients, friends.

So what to do?

Deuteronomy 4:15 tells us “Ve’nishmartem meod le’nafshoteichem” – “Protect well your souls”

Caring for our inner lives, our internal health, is not a luxury. The external pieces of our lives – our capacity to parent our children, to be present with our spouse, to handle differences with a colleague, to navigate a challenging interaction with a friend – are direct outgrowths of our inner lives. Of the state of our hearts and souls. When we take time to look inside and nourish our souls, that nourishment blooms into every aspect of our lives.

Activism is vital. Participating and engaging and taking a stand in public ways are often demanded of us. But we must not forget to retreat every now and then, to turn inward, to be the caretaker of our inner places of light and love.

The Sefat Emet, the great Hasidic master, explored the vitality of inner refuge and rest in his teaching from 1872 on the story of Noah when he said:

“And the holy Sabbath is like Noah’s ark, because during the week each person is burdened with worldly business. But on the holy Sabbath, there is spaciousness for the Jewish people to retreat and let go of all of that in order to take refuge under the shade of the wings of the Shekhinah (divine Presence). And this is [the meaning of] spreading a sukkat shalom (shelter of peace), just as Noah was hidden away in the ark, which represents surrendering into the root of our vital life force (chayut). For the whole world was being destroyed, and needed to receive new vital life force from the Source of life.”

Although the Sefat Emet here writes about Shabbat as that weekly place of refuge and rest, we can – and must – work to cultivate opportunities for refuge in our daily lives, especially during times such as these.

How to do that?

  • Find concrete moments each day to tune it all out. Turn it off.
  • Find concrete moments to tune in to your inner well of refuge, your breath.
  • Find concrete moments to name the joys and the beauties of your daily life.
  • Find and connect with friends who open you up to laughter and joy.
  • Develop a daily morning ritual that is something other than checking your news feed. Maybe it’s a tefillah (a prayer), stating a kavannah (a daily intention), or maybe it is sitting in meditation.
  • Name your sources of gratitude each day.

Ve’nishmartem meod le’nafshoteichem. Protect well your souls. They are the seat of everything we bring into the world: our voices, our empathy, our attunement, our love.

Rebecca Minkus-Lieberman is the co-founder and executive director of Orot: Center for New Jewish Learning, a pluralistic and multidisciplinary center for learning and engagement. She is building a new paradigm for impactful and transformative Jewish learning and helping people see how Jewish wisdom can speak to one’s head, heart, body, and spirit.