Mali Brofsky

Strong back, soft heart: Yom Kippur 5784

No matter how you feel, disrupting prayer services is not OK, nor is attacking property or antagonizing people to tears
(courtesy, screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
(courtesy, screenshot, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Collectively, it feels like the whole country is reeling from the events of Yom Kippur. And personally, I know for myself that I have been trying to process the experience since the minute it exploded into my consciousness. I find myself asking how will we protect the bonds of our fragile ecosystem of Israeli society after all that has transpired.

In Rising Strong, social worker and researcher Brene Brown talks about setting healthy boundaries. Among other things, she helps us define boundaries by encouraging us to clarify for ourselves what is okay and what is not okay for us as individuals. For example, in my home, it is okay to take another family member’s laundry off the drying rack if you need the space as long as you fold it neatly; it is not okay to dump the dry clothing off the rack in a crumpled mess. Another household might handle this issue differently, of course, but my policy is important me.

With regard to the events of Yom Kippur, I believe it is important to be clear about what is okay and what is not okay – individually and collectively. Certainly, all emotions are valid and important – we need our feelings so that we can use them to understand our values and what drives us — and so we can take appropriate action. That action must be considered and chosen judiciously, for while all emotions are legitimate, moving through us like weather patterns, not all actions are acceptable. As Victor Frankl is alleged to have said: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

It is okay (even commendable) to have strong feelings and opinions about social and political issues of vital importance to our society and future. It is okay to take action to make your feelings known. It is acceptable and reasonable to protest illegal activity — in the case of Dizengoff Square, barriers between men and woman at a public service. It is not okay, however, to disrupt prayer services that are proceeding, and with a legal permit, no less. It is patently not okay to intimidate people, attack property, and engage in hostile, mob-like behavior that leaves people shocked, in tears, and forces them to disband their annual community prayer service. (I should note also that comparable disruptions occurred at other locations as well.) I’m encouraged to see that as the metaphorical smoke clears, more and more public leaders are making this point, such as Chili Tropper and Matan Kahana, both members of the Blue-and-White political party, currently in the opposition.  

That said, we must reckon with the story behind the story, with the strong emotional charge lying at the heart of the experience and within us all: the background opinions, emotions, and perspectives.

I believe this story struck me so deeply because I was moved by a photograph I saw soon after Yom Kippur, a picture of pain: a young boy crying in his father’s arms. I was reminded that pain is our gateway to connection to each other. When we identify the pain in others, we feel empathy for them, which connects us to them, and we can then be moved to try to help alleviate that pain.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the need for conversation, about talking and listening. I agree that we do need to listen to each other, but we need to listen with our hearts and our whole selves. To open our hearts and really hear each other’s pain, fear, and outrage. Not only will that foster connection and understanding, but it will also help us understand each other’s choices, behaviors, perspectives, and why we feel so strongly about them. Only once we open our hearts to each other will we be able to understand those who feel so passionately entrenched in their own perspectives. If we can navigate those conversations with kindness and empathy, leaning into each other’s pain, we will find the means of connection with each other, and hopefully, a way forward.

Another phrase I like to quote from Brene Brown is “strong back, soft front.” By “strong back,” she means: hold your boundaries and your principles. Be clear on what is okay for you and what is not. And then, have a “soft front”: have an open heart that can be touched, moved, stirred, impacted, and affected by the pain of others.

We have just experienced Yom Kippur, in which we strike our chests in prayer, attempting to soften and open our hearts. May that process have helped us all create the softness and the cracks that will let the light in from each other. May we face each other with open hearts, listening, and feeling each other’s pain. And may we collectively begin to heal.

With thanks and deepest respect to Dasee Berkowitz for reaching out over what divides us; our conversation clarified and helped me deepen my understanding.

About the Author
Mali Brofsky is a senior faculty member and director of the Shana Bet program at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim (MMY). In addition, she holds a Masters in Social Work, and runs a clinical practice in Gush Etzion. She has published and lectured extensively on Jewish thought and education, on issues of emotional health, and on the interaction between the two fields.
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