Turning Toward, Not Back or Away

We can change the world if we just start listening to one another again.

–Margaret Wheatley, in Turning to One Another

Over a week ago there was a shooting at an LGBT center in Tel Aviv; a 17 year old kid and a 26 year old youth counselor were murdered; several more were injured, and the murderer is still at large. We spent the last week at Jewish Mosaic responding to emails, organizing a vigil, crafting emails and statements of compassion and justice. The tasks before us were necessary and helped to both corral and repress any emotional response to the atrocity.

On Friday afternoon, one of my colleagues called me and said he realized he (and we) had been so busy with the above tachlis (practical nuts and bolts) tasks that we as a staff had not taken the time to talk about the emotional impact of the crime. I agreed, grateful to him for pointing this out and suggesting that we do so. I offered to facilitate a circle for the three of us who are local Mosaic staff, so we can sit together, set aside the tasks in order to attend to our emotions together.


The work of social justice can be exacting, passionate, and focused, and it can become a well-worn habit to set aside one’s feelings in order to do what needs to be done. However, unexpressed emotions are weighty, but when we do finally speak them aloud in some way, there is an unburdening, a sense of restoration and renewed energy. This is what Courage work is about; creating a circle of trust (even a circle of two) in which the truth is spoken and witnessed.

I woke up early this morning, thinking about how Courage work has been affecting me in almost every area of my life. Recalling my early twenties, a time of dawning political awareness and activism, I remember vividly experiencing a sense of knowing that I would never be able to revert back to my old way of encountering the world. My new understanding and consciousness about power and oppression could not be reversed because I had been fundamentally changed at a spiritual level (even though I wouldn’t have described it as such back then).

I don’t have to (and truthfully am unable to) separate my political, psychological and spiritual beliefs from one another. I experience them as not only interconnected, but also part of a singular multifaceted whole.

These days I think about my ministry, my rabbinate, my vocation. I use those words deliberately because of the discomfort I feel with them; another word that makes me uncomfortable in a similar way is servant. (Ditto for steward, shepherd, and pilgrim).  Rather than back away from what is unsettling, my discomfort is an invitation to drop down deeper inside myself, as well as to loosen the grip of ego. 

Those words are hard for me because of who is authorized to use them and by whom that authority is granted. I don’t like these words because I hear them in the context of how power and control are exerted and enforced in our society. Because of the shameful history of slavery in its many iterations. Because those who serve are often miserably devalued, humiliated and misunderstood. These political facts are actually in stark contrast with many exquisite teachings and insights from faith traditions, including my own.

Many Jewish teachings about tikkun olam (the healing and repair of the world), about avodah (which means both work and worship), and other ethics and values, emphasize the partnership we have with the Divine in the service of social justice. Jews don’t have a separate concept of ministry because our commitment to service and to tzedek (justice) is seen as an essential quality of being alive. I think this is also why I have long been enamored of other liberation theologies as well.

My spiritual director has shared with me many times the Buddhist teaching of “this too is I,” of the ways we are all humbly connected to one another, and that it is the cultivation of compassion that calls us to act in the service of social justice. No doubt this is also why I became a social worker, a profession with roots in many faith traditions, a profession of noble ethics and values, of which I feel immensely proud. A liberation theology of its own, one that emphasizes the self-determination of those in need, and a relationship of mutual respect. My obligation as a social worker is to meet each client wherever they are in their own life journey, to be with them at that juncture and to support them toward a restored sense of dignity and wholeness.

Wholeness. I keep coming back to that over and over.  As a social worker I am listening for the “hidden wholeness” in the other, and in order to really do so, I have to listen for it in myself too. I can’t do that alone. I have to be willing to have my own truth heard as well.

Women, indigenous people, and other marginalized folks have sat together in sacred circles for generations, whether in consciousness raising groups, sweat lodges or speakouts. Speaking the essential truth of one’s life, particularly those elements we are most afraid to say out loud, is not a relinquishing of power but rather a reclaiming of power. The power is not only in speech; it is in the listening. In hearing one’s own voice speak bravely, but also in the experience of being heard by another. 


someone deeply listens to you
it is like
holding out a dented cup you have had since childhood

and watching it
fill up with cold fresh water.

When it balances
on the top of the rim


When it
overflows and touches your skin

you are loved.

When someone deeply listens to you

The room where you stay starts a new life

And the place where you wrote your first poem
Begins to blow in your mind’s eye.
It’s as if gold has been discovered.

When someone
deeply listens to you

your bare feet
are on the earth

and the beloved
land that seemed distant

is now at home
within you.