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JCF Blog

The Battle Between Our Ears

Posted by: Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford on 9/20/2017

"Let the refining and improving of your own life keep you so busy that you have little time to criticize others."  Unknown

As the High Holidays approach, I am drawn again into self reflection. To look honestly and deeply at who you were in the prior year is terribly daunting. This year my personal self reflection has been grounded in the study of Pirke Avot – a classic text on Jewish ethical values sometimes translated as “The Ethics of the Sages” because of its subject matter. 

Among the remarkable pearls of wisdom in Pirke Avot, one cryptic and haunting avowal from Rabbi Tarfon particularly resonates with me as I prepare for the Days of Awe: “It is not up to you to finish the work, yet neither are you free to abandon it.”

The text doesn’t explain “the work” in any detail. So what does he mean exactly? As with all Jewish text study, there are multiple interpretations. Perhaps the most common is that it refers to the Jewish people’s responsibility to pursue tikkun olam – the repair of the world. This interpretation is a call to action for all of us, but one that is particularly meaningful to all of us who care about or work in the social sector. 

It is comforting to know that I do not carry the burden of repairing the world alone, but it is also clear that I have an important personal responsibility in this work. Have I done enough? Will I fall short in the eyes of G-d?  The mere thought is disconcerting. I can only hope that it is the pursuit, not the attainment that matters because there are so many things on which I have fallen short. 

But what if, in this hour of self reflection and repentance,“the work” referenced by Rabbi Tarfon is more personal? What if it is about repairing ourselves? Certainly none of us can ever achieve perfection, but is Rabbi Tarfon telling us that we will have failed if we have not sought to make of ourselves better, more caring, more forgiving people? Now I’m really concerned.As long as the work is something bigger than me I can evade personal responsibility. If I am the work, there can be no escaping responsibility. 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggested exactly this interpretation in a recent article about the High Holidays for the Wall Street Journal. The great difference between monotheism and paganism, he asserts, is where accountability lies. Paganism is based on the belief that people are pitted against great and powerful forces outside of their control. Monotheism, on the other hand, posits that the real battle is between our ears – between the good and bad in our own human nature.

This places the burden of responsibility directly on each of us individually. It is not for us to be perfect, but we are held accountable for our efforts. “You may have been a success,” Rabbi Sacks says, “but have you also been a blessing?” 

At this time of year, we are all forced to confront the possibility that we could have done more; could have been better. It is one of the most powerful aspects of this holiday that we are faced with, the reality that we can all be better.

I spend much of my time at the Foundation working to improve the community; working to make the Greater Hartford Jewish community, stronger,more vibrant, and more sustainable. During these Days of Awe, I am tasked with the more frightening prospect of working on myself. I cannot hide from, or escape accountability for, my own actions and I am haunted by how much better I could have been. 

Yet one of the great gifts of our faith is that it is never too late. Never too late to make ourselves better; never too late to return.  The idea of Teshuva – returning to our better selves – is integral to the High Holidays. It is frightening to confront our own shortcomings, but returning to our better selves is like a trip home. We are always welcome despite our flaws and failures – we must only seek to find our way there. 

As we enter into this season of introspection and personal growth, may each of us find our way home.

May all that I have offended intentionally and unintentionally forgive me. May those I work with and work for, forgive me for my shortcomings. 

L’Shana Tovah – may it be a year of blessing and life. 


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Jan Winkler
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I have no discussion with myself concerning my personal human or humane self improvement. I never ask "Can I be or do better?" I believe not in God but in my responsibility as a resident of the world. I know that to make this place better than I found it is my responsibility, and I know that I can do little about Afghanistan, or or other painful places in the world.

What I can do is to help individuals achieve their potential, whether they are scientists, kindergartners, elderly folks, or those who can be helped to overcome social and economic prejudices. My wife and I use our time, our intelligence, our hearts and our money to pursue tikkun olam.
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