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Community Blog Speaking Torah: What Does Courage Look Like?

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his portion. (Pirke Avot)

In the midst of these profoundly divisive and divided times, I have noticed a troubling trend among people in my own communities, and, if I’m honest, even within myself.

We long to respond with courage to a world that is, in so many ways, ravaged with violence—both the slow violence of poverty and systemic injustice, and the more dramatic and visible manifestations of violence like that which has been so tragically unfolding on the border between Israel and Gaza over the last days and weeks.

But what does courage look like? I’m afraid we have fallen into false and easy formulas, in which courage is measured by the number of Facebook posts we have circulated or the number of petitions we have signed. I am even more concerned that we have convinced ourselves that walking away from relationships with people who disagree with us on important issues of the day is a show of courage, and that staying in relationship—staying in conversation even when our differences are confusing or painful—is a sign of cowardice or moral compromise.

More and more, I am coming to feel that the opposite is true. I want to summon within myself, and I want to elicit from others, the courage to stick it out when we find ourselves deeply challenged by someone else’s perspective. I want to do so precisely because I know—however hard it is for me to hold onto this knowledge—that my own perspective is inherently partial, constrained by the limits of my experience, intellect, and emotion, constrained by the limits of my own life.

This Saturday night, as we stand once again at Sinai—a trembling people before a trembling mountain—we do so both as a community and as individuals. A powerful midrash from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana offers the following image of the revelation at Sinai:

“The Divine Word spoke to each and every person according to his particular capacity. And do not wonder at this. For when manna came down for Israel, each and every person tasted it in keeping with his or her own capacity—infants, young people, old people—and if each and every person was enabled to taste the manna according to his or her particular capacity, how much more and more was each and every person enabled according to his or her particular capacity to hear the Divine Word.”

The midrash invites us to imagine ourselves together and alone in a crowd at the foot of the mountain—all of us part of a covenantal community that is striving to live in relationship to the divine call, each of us hearing it in a way that is as intimate and untranslatable as the taste of manna on the tongue.

It’s an image that is both beautiful and a little heart-breaking. It demands tremendous humility—a true acceptance of my own partialness, of the limits of my own perspective.  And yet, beyond humility, there is also the promise of something else.

Pirke Avot teaches: Eyzeh hu ashir? Ha’sameach b’chelko. “Who is rich? The one who rejoices in his portion.”

The word for portion—in Hebrew and in English—has a dual connotation. Our portion refers to our particular destiny in life, the blessings and burdens that we have received. It is particular to us, and in this sense it is, by definition, partial. We are only part of a much larger picture. But once we embrace this perspective, humility gives birth to the joy of purpose and belonging. It is only when we learn to befriend our own partialness, that we can truly rejoice in being part of a whole that embraces and connects us all.

In the words of Robert Frost: “Men work together, he said from the heart/Whether they work together, or apart.”

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is President-Elect of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA and former Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College.

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