September 20, 2018

Elegant Souls of Light

Photo from miriadna.com

As my 9-year-old son recently prepared to return to school, we knew there would be a couple of boys in his fourth-grade class whom he didn’t get along with. We could have tried to switch him to another class, but one thing I’ve learned about boys is that taking the easy route doesn’t help guide them toward maturity. 

“You’re just going to have to learn to rise above, to not engage,” I told him.

Such interactions are a struggle for him, as for many boys. And they have only gotten harder as he learns to handle bigger moral issues: whether to step in to stop a fight, even though it’s against school rules; how to deal with a teacher who can’t hide her disdain for boys.

I think of his challenges as carving out a path to dignity that many of us adults still struggle with: when to speak out; when to rise above. 

Our culture in recent years has so muddied the waters of ethical behavior that it’s often hard to distinguish the petty from the depraved. Social media, in many ways, have created an underlying insecurity that has made these distinctions even murkier. 

Ironically, in the most “connected” society in history, we no longer feel all that connected to our families, friends, schools, synagogues, churches and political parties. Our lack of institutional trust has become so profound that we have lost the ability to rise above. We’ve built a golden calf of hate.

Ultimately, many of us have come to feel very much alone. But as sad as this current state is, we can move forward. Dignity — civility — begins in the soul.

The good news is that Judaism offers us endless refresher courses on soul management. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it: “Judaism is the satellite navigation system of the soul.” He says, “Judaism is designed to ensure that we live for the things that matter, that bring meaning and value and joy.”

Rabbi Sacks offers a great list of “life-changing principles” for the holidays. Here are a few of his quotes, to which I’ve added my own thoughts.

Give your children values, not presents. “Give them ideals, teach them to love, respect, admire, train them to take responsibility and to give to others.”

Which is easier — doing the seemingly endless work of turning our children into little mensches or outfitting them with metaphorical bike helmets that train them to fear everything, trust no one and attack everyone?

Forgive. “Emotional energy is too precious to waste on negative emotions. Those who forgive travel more lightly through life, freed of the burden of feelings that do no one any good.”

Forgiveness, of course, does not mean one must continue to suffer abuse. One can forgive and keep a healthy distance.

Don’t engage in lashon harah or “evil speech,” which the talmudic sages defined as saying negative things about people, even if true. “They were harsh about it, regarding it as one of the worst interpersonal sins. See the good in people — and if you see the bad, be silent.” 

And yet we do need to bravely state what needs to be said about public figures. Rabbi Sacks himself recently spoke out, when he labeled British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn an “anti-Semite.”

Creating light can be as simple as bringing a smile to someone’s face or as complex as creating an exquisite work of beauty.

Create moments of joy. “There is a place in Judaism for osher/ashrei, ‘happiness,’ but the key positive emotion in the Torah and the Book of Psalms is simcha, ‘joy.’ Happiness often depends on external circumstances. But you can experience joy even in tough times. Joy liberates the spirit and breaks the hold of sadness.”

Create light. With news and information bombarding us every half-second, the world often feels full of darkness and despair. How do we stay hopeful? How do we stay sane?

As Jews, we are commanded to be a light unto nations. But what I didn’t understand until recently is that creating light can be as simple as bringing a smile to someone’s face or as complex as creating an exquisite work of beauty. 

The light of God makes us whole. It gives us the strength to rise above the petty and to bravely take on the depraved. It fuels our ability to forgive, to appreciate joy, to get through the toughest of times. God’s light enables us to become our best selves — elegant souls of light.


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York.