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JCF Blog

Two Pieces of Paper

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 9/27/2016

In the seeming blink of an eye, the High Holidays are upon us again. Each year in preparation for this season of self reflection, I seek out the wisdom of great Jewish texts. Not any text will do, of course.  It is a moment of intense personal soul searching; a moment for us to commit ourselves to reconciliation with G-d, our fellow human beings and ourselves.  It is a most awesome and powerful moment.

This year, however, my search for just the right reading material didnt go far. I only had to reach into my pocket.

A great Chasidic master once suggested that every person carry in their pockets two pieces of paper. On one should be written For my sake was the world created (from Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5); on the other I am but ashes and dust (Genesis 18:27).

The concept is that, in times of despair we should be reminded that we are unique creations of G-d and that for my sake was the world created. And yet, in those moments of absolute certainty or self-absorption it is also helpful, for us to be reminded that we are "ashes and dust" in a universe far greater and more profound than we can even imagine.

Ive heard it said that the challenge of being Jewish is that we must live with this complex paradox every day. 

I find great power and comfort in these simple words. I carry these two pieces of paper in my pocket every day. I am reminded of them each morning when I put them in my pocket and each evening when I take them out. I am also reminded of the inevitable passage of time (and my own mortality) as I watch the papers become aged and frayed only to be revitalized when they are replaced by new crisp pieces of paper. 

It can be a difficult and terrifying task to look deep into your soul and come to terms with your own faults and failings as is called for in these Days of Awe. For me, these simple words are a way of accepting my place in this world and finding balance between the voices of doubt and certainty. 

There is something else for us to consider here, however. What is true of individuals in a community must also be true of the community. As a community, we have moments of self doubt as well as moments of certitude - certainty that our cause or organization is the best or that the wisdom of our own thinking is unassailable. At moments like this, our institutions and the broader Jewish community also need these two pieces of paper. 

There are great and remarkable things going on in this community and in Jewish communities around the country. Creative and thoughtful people are developing new ideas and methods for helping those in need. New Jewish facilities are being built and programs designed to reach portions of our community that we have not yet found a way to engage. In fact, some of the most creative innovations in Jewish philanthropy have occurred within just the last decade. These are all achievements to celebrate and we have reason to be proud. But let us remember why we are pursuing new ideas and let us embrace humility in our successes - because we are "but ashes and dust". Success is a powerful drug but success which does not help repair our world seems hollow.

Conversely, there can be great anxiety when the changing needs of the community challenge existing institutions to adapt and evolve. We may find ourselves worrying about the future of the Jewish community, focused solely on our most negative fears. In these moments it is important to remind ourselves that as a people we were all created in G-ds image, that for our sakes was the world created and that despite far greater existential challenges, we are still here. 

This year, when you feel anxiety, either personal or about the future of the Jewish people, take out the two pieces of paper and be reminded of both our uniqueness and continuity but our insignificance in the awesomeness of the universe. Be reminded too, that change is inevitable and - if it helps us build a bridge to a more successful future - ultimately beneficial.

As I grapple with my own failings this year, I ask forgiveness of all those I have offended either intentionally or unintentionally. 

May each of you have a happy, healthy and sweet New Year.  Shanah Tovah. 

   Michael Johnston is the President and CEO of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford.

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