Principles to Live By New Year 2020

Today is the 8th day of Chanukah, and December 30th, 2019 – is an excellent time to take stock of the last year and think about the one to come.

For me, this has been a very fruitful year. In June 2019, I visited Warsaw, Krakow, Tokay, Kereztur, Niregyhaza, Munkacs, and Uzhorod/Ungvar (Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine) – part of my research for my current film project regarding Chazzan Moshe Kraus and the experience of Hungarian Jews over the last century. My next stop was Jerusalem, Israel. And I spent several months learning with Yehudis Golsheveky and others at Shiviti, Yeshiva, for women. It has greatly enriched my life and appreciation of Jewish history and thought.

I was now in Montreal on January 9th, 2020. So many unfortunate events mark this holiday period. Antisemitic attacks on Jews in New York and New Jersey and the rocket attack on and death of Quasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds force. Uncontrolled fires in South Wales, Australia, and flooding in Israel. And some positive events as well: Celebrating Chanukah for one, and thousands all over the world got together to celebrate their completing seven years of Talmud study – one page per day over seven years. In Israel, there was even a celebration of thousands of women who had done so. Talmud study previously had been relegated to the realm of predominantly men in Jewish society.

Since it has been mostly cold and grey in Montreal, I have been surfing the internet, listening to the CBC and other media, and mulling over what to make of all these competing situations.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks has a video addressed to the current divisions among Jews called Seven Principles for Maintaining Jewish Peoplehood. If applied to the world, these principles would have the potential for “bringing the messiah,” which in Jewish thought refers to the condition of peace among all peoples – a time when the “lion will lie down with the lamb” Isaiah 11:6.

The first principle that Rabbi Sacks enumerates in his video, and which I think is the most important one in the face of all these events: “Keep Talking – Those who keep talking will eventually make peace, And he notes, “Jews are ferocious arguers, and that’s part of our strength… but it was the inability to keep talking with each other that caused the three exiles of the Jewish people.”

And here are the other six principles which he suggests to guide our conversations:

Principal #2: Listen, Israel – “Listen to one another, hear what your opponent is saying. We are great arguers but poor listeners. Listening by itself is profoundly therapeutic.”

Principal #3: Work to understand your opponent’s point of view. “Try to understand the people with whom you disagree. The Talmud always goes according to Hillel’s opinion because Hillel always presented and studied Shammai’s, his opponent’s argument before his own. ”

Principal #4: (This is my favourite) Never seek victory. “Never seek to inflict defeat on your opponents. If you seek to inflict defeat on your opponents, your opponent must, by human psychology, seek to retaliate – to inflict defeat on you. the result is you win today, you lose tomorrow, and in the end, everyone loses.”

Principal #5: If you seek respect, give respect – He quotes from the Book of Proverbs: “As water reflects face to face, so does the heart of man” – as you behave to others, so they will behave to you. If you show contempt for other Jews, they will show contempt for you.

Principal #6: It’s not about the agreement but caring – “The ultimate rule of Jewish people-hood: when one Jew is injured, we all feel the pain. We are a family – if you disagree with a friend today, tomorrow they may not be your friend, but if you disagree with your family today, tomorrow they will still be your family. All Jews are responsible for one another.” (another principle of the Torah).

Principal #7: Remember that G-d Chose Us as a People – “God chose us not as individuals but as a people. He didn’t choose only the righteous or only the saints or only the very holy people – he chose all of us. It is as a people that we stand before G-d, and it is as a people that we stand before the world. The world doesn’t make distinctions. Anti-semites don’t make distinctions. We are united by a covenant of shared memory, of shared identity and of a shared fate even if we don’t share a faith.

Therefore next time you want to walk away from some group of Jews you think have offended you, make that effort, that gesture, to stay together, to forgive, to listen, to try and unite, because if G-d loves each of us, can we try, and do anything less.”

Now that you have reviewed these principles, I think you will agree that if the world were to take notice of these principles, we could achieve peace for all humankind. Moreover, we could quickly solve all the challenges facing us – poverty, racism, climate change, and anything else that might come up.

And this is my prayer for the coming decade – that we learn to keep talking to each other, to keep listening, even through the most painful events, and to keep trying to understand the other, and to care for the other, and thereby create the one united world that G-d wants us to make.

Happy Chanukah and Happy New Year!


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