Rachel Bernstein
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Talking for the sake of heaven

I can’t sit give you a bullet list of the perfect peace plan, but by talking things through, you learn, debate, connect, and maybe succeed one day
A mural by artist Hillel Smith at American Jewish University's campus // Courtesy of Rachel Bernstein
A mural by artist Hillel Smith at American Jewish University's campus // Courtesy of Rachel Bernstein

In my years since leaving Jewish day school after middle school graduation, there are a couple of things that have stuck with me. 

I can suss out the symbolism and narrative in any given story because of studying parshah. I fully believe I’m at the “boss level” of Jewish geography in Los Angeles. I say basheret instead of soulmate. I know multiple tunes to any given prayer in the Sim Shalom and Lev Shalem siddurim

But, I think that none of them have left quite the impression on me as much as talking. In my teeny-tiny class of 32 kids, voices were constantly overlapping, exchanging everything from the very frivolous points of life to the very serious as middle schoolers are wont to do. It was an extreme sport as we would never fall to a hush though every single iteration of “Sheket bevakasha – hey!” was tried (and failed). 

This idea of constant talking and constant moving stuck with me as my secular high school classes were more or less silent and I once again became immersed in constant chatting as a good portion of my college classes used some version of a Socratic seminar. It left me believing once again in the beauty of speech and how wonderful it is to hear people’s opinions and grievances and joys and lowlights and highlights. The roses and thorns, if you will, for any week.

I think I learned about this concept in seventh or eighth grade in Pirkei Avot (or Ethics of the Fathers) that “a debate for the sake of heaven will endure; but a debate not for the sake of heaven will not endure.” 

It was something fascinating, something that a Tankah – or Torah – teacher would love to pull out and say: “Look! There is so much to pull from this one tiny line.” The sort of line that could fill up an entire hour-and-a-half class. 

The generally agreed-upon definition (or at least that of former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, the late Jonathan Sacks who gave his book the name of “Arguments for the Sake of Heaven”) is that it means that the debate comes from an honest desire to learn instead of a desire to instigate a damaging argument  or wanting to be “right.”

That line from Pirkei Avot takes me back to those small classrooms when kids trying to find “x” in math class believed that we could debate with the houses of Hillel and Shammai, but it also takes me here – to the present. 

The world feels like a mess right now. Really, truly I don’t think I’ve ever seen my community gripped with so much fear for the future. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many tears. I’ve never felt such a simultaneous pull to be a loud Jew and also quite fearful about what those consequences could be. Instagram stories have suddenly become a stage for beliefs and for some, they’re walking on a tightrope trying to figure out how to best get across their beliefs. The Israel-Hamas war has gripped the world and there’s a spotlight on the region as well as those in the Diaspora — much like a microscope.

For me, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what it means to debate for the “sake of heaven.” What does it mean when you don’t want to debate? What does it mean if you don’t genuinely believe that you could argue for the “sake of heaven” – you just want to be right instead? I simply don’t have the energy in me to argue. I – and so many others in my community and beyond – are exhausted emotionally by the images and audio and generations of memories that we never experienced first-hand crashing down around us. 

So, instead, what does it mean to talk for the “sake of heaven” – at least according to my very not-rabbinic understanding? To talk and learn more about those around us. Not out of a desire to change someone else’s opinion, to be right, or to bring up something traumatic in the hope of hitting an emotional nerve. But, instead, just out of a desire to sit with someone and learn. Learn about how they are coping with the daily news, learn how you can help, and learn to see if their coping mechanisms might be something worthwhile to do.

 I think that’s what we did in my middle school classroom – talk for the sake of heaven. Certainly, it wasn’t always productive or intelligent or even worthwhile, but it was a way to pass the time. It was learning – though maybe not the way our teachers wanted. But, we learned about one another. The constant exchange of voices was evidence of life in the best way possible. Our opinions, our beliefs, and the things that we hold deep inside are humanity at its most alive. It is so very much for the sake of heaven. 

I can’t sit here and give a bullet-point list of exactly how to solve the conflict and put together a perfect peace plan to solve however many years of trauma. I cannot give an opinion on what is happening right now that will not earn me criticism from so many different sources all over the globe. Instead, all I can offer is the beauty of talking. Talking to people in your community to see how they are handling things. Talking to see what you can learn. How can you support them?  I can promise you that you will learn something new – making it, of course, for the “sake of heaven.”

About the Author
Rachel Bernstein is a writer and a graduate of the University of Southern California residing in Los Angeles.
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