Joshua Yudkin

A teshuvah inspired by Radical Gratitude

As we approach Yom Kippur and further intensify our practice of reflection, atonement, and personal empowerment, it’s important to remember that, as humans, we have the power to choose how we experience the world. We have the power to support, uplift, and forgive as much as we can judge, slander, and castigate. We choose to smile or choose to frown. The choice to be radically gracious for life and community is a Jewish choice that’s been an inherent part of our identity since times of Abraham.

Some Jews often express gratitude through blessings, while others may express gratitude through activism. Global phenomena such as yoga and positive psychology teach that gratitude can be learned and practiced, transcending our differences. Gratitude is a doorway to a healthier psychological and physiological life. Yet for many Jews, this deeper understanding can be lacking.

Growing up as an American Jewish millennial, Jewish community and identity revolved around a gloomy sense of obligation and duty. The Holocaust and Israel seemed to be the main defining events. Prayers, like the Birkot Hashachar, were taught, but not as supplications of heartfelt gratitude. Mitzvot were performed through a lens of fear and sin, rather than to develop qualities of being a good personholistically. Many peers have shared similar experiences with how Judaism was framed for them – sadness, guilt, and anxiety. The integral role of gratitude was missing.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has upended so much in our lives, demanding we search for meaning, a return to our roots, and a reimagining and reengagement with gratitude. I have been searching for a way of attaining that in the Jewish responses to these troubling times, especially given the economic downturn and increased number of sick in our community.

Some rabbis have encouraged their community to continue in-person gatherings for the High Holidays, and some Jewish communal leaders expressed a need prioritize local over global needs. Other rabbis talked about the importance of utilizing technology like Zoom for prayer and many Jewish communal leaders urged people to socially distance.

But I was searching for a deeper answer, a more intimate and personally Jewish answer than the critically important technical adaptations needed to make to keep our communities going. I was looking for a timeless spiritual Jewish teaching and a response that I could feel in my kishkes, something that would resonate with the work we do during Elul to right the wrongs in our life and society at large.

I found my answer in two vastly different Jewish philosophies.

The first arose from reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen — a story of modernity and tradition and the choices we make to embrace one or the other, or choose both — and found myself contemplating how the early Hasidic movement re-energized their communities with spirituality.

The movement transformed rabbis from legal experts to spiritual masters. Jewish pupils embraced a lifestyle infused with kavannah (intention) and the work of hevrot (volunteer charitable societies). I felt that deeper sense of gratitude when Hasidic leaders wrote that everyone and everything had a divine spark and was inspired by the way community was prioritized over self.

This pandemic reminds us how quickly circumstances can change – I may never see my grandparents again in person – and therefore issues a grave wakeup call to engage with kavannah in all our actions.

At the same time, sitting in a café on Herzl Street in Tel Aviv, I am struck by this relatively new city built on timeless traditions and on a street dedicated to a man and movement that fought to actualize our peoplehood through self-empowerment. The legacy of Herzl and the early Zionist movement reminds us that nothing will ever be handed to us. We will have to actively work on and advocate for things that we want – to will it, so to speak, and then work to have it.

By fusing these schools of Jewish existence — kavannah and collective empowerment– we can and repeatedly make the desert bloom, advancing the human condition and fashioning a future of shared responsibility.

I’ve seen this firsthand in my work this year as the Ralph I. Goldman Fellow with JDC — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee —  the global Jewish humanitarian organization. In the former Soviet Union and Israel, we empowered hevrot of youth volunteers to respond to the needs of tens of thousands of quarantined seniors. In Africa, we listened with kavannah and responded to locally-voiced needs around COVID-19, resulting in the provision of mobile, foot-operated washing stations and medical training to rural medical professionals. I have witnessed the power of and emergent property in community-based work that ensures life-saving assistance and builds resilient communities.

Our Jewish leaders should take the distilled wisdom of our Hasidic and Zionists masters and instill and leverage them for the betterment of our Jewish communities during the pandemic and beyond. Let’s begin to infuse our daily lives – relationships, prayer, and acts of tzedekah, and tikkun olam – and the New Year with new purpose and impact through gratitude and mindfulness.

About the Author
Joshua S. Yudkin is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.
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