This time of year directs us to turn ourselves inside out, make amends, begin anew – with a fresh gaze and an open heart – all in our life journey to do better and be better. Open-heartedness is the journey of forgiveness. It is spacious and rejuvenating. It enables you to return to your daily battles with renewed vigor, commitment and optimism.
By Lori Weinstein
A dozen years ago I decided to forgo my usual practice of making a list of resolutions I would do differently in the New Year. That list often was often forgotten once the High Holiday season had given way to the tasks that awaited me each day at home and the office. I decided instead that each year I would select one word that would serve to guide my actions for the coming year – one word that would sum up how and who I hoped to be in the world. One word that would be foundational to my hopes for my children and my family, for work, friends and community – and that would also reflect a value deeply embedded in Judaism.
After many years of doing this, I can report that this is simply the best kind of resolution – one word that embraces it all. Settling on a word replete with opportunities to do better, dig deeper and reach higher. I highly recommend it.
The word I keep returning to for 5779 is open-heartedness. It’s an odd word; but what does it really mean? More than a breath that expands through your lungs and enlarges your chest – it engages you physically, psychologically, socially and intellectually. It involves all of your senses – how you feel, how you hear, what you see, even how you taste. It is the way that you experience your life and the life around you in all of its beauty and all of its complexity.
Open-heartedness is the journey that forgiveness takes you to at this time of year. It is spacious and rejuvenating. It enables you to return to your daily battles with renewed vigor, commitment and optimism.
This concept seems so connected to Rosh Hashanah and especially Yom Kippur. A holiday that directs us to turn ourselves inside out, make amends, begin anew – with a fresh gaze and an open heart – all in our life journey to do better and be better.
Openheartedness is not loving-kindness, a central tenet of Judaism. Loving-kindness is about our external behavior. Openheartedness is internal, the place from which our compassionate self emerges, leading to external displays of loving-kindness.
Where do you find your place of open-heartedness? Where do you go to restore yourself when you feel that you are closing down, shutting down, disconnecting? Truly one of the greatest dangers in our lives is the temptation to compartmentalize – to disconnect from the world around us. The problems are too great, our impact too small, our ability to make change too daunting. Gradually we turn away. Every act of compartmentalization closes us down a little bit more.
There is a line in Exodus which describes how Moses, “went out unto his brethren and looked on their burdens” (Exodus 2:11). The great Torah commentator Rashi notes that Moses gave his eyes and his heart in order to be troubled about his people. He did not look away but rather used his eyes to inspire his heart.
Never has the world needed us more – there are never-ending challenges, so we must frequently make time to restore our hearts, breathing deeply, to return to our best selves.
At JWI we work on difficult issues and these are difficult times. The natural forces of life chip away at our open heart. For me, in the work that I do – I have to constantly find opportunities to restore my positivity, my optimism, my belief that you can change the outcome.
I began to work on the issue of violence against women when I was in college and women’s issues, particularly the issue of ending domestic, sexual and relationship violence, have been a constant theme and a driving passion throughout my career. As it says in Pirkei Avot, It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.
Never a truer word was spoken in the case of the work to end gender-based violence. One out of four women will experience abuse and one in three teens will be victims of teen dating violence. I know that I will not end violence and that the work of JWI cannot end violence but we cannot turn our heads away. It is incumbent upon us to do this work.
One small aside: It is interesting that the first time the words tikkun olam surface in rabbinic literature is in relation to how a Jewish divorce is delivered – anything that is humiliating or confusing needs to be avoided – mipnei tikkun ha olam – for the sake of stability and the social order. Far from the grand ideas that have since been appropriated regarding repairing the world, the Talmud saw repair in the everyday acts of kindness, in the simple way in which we treat one another.
What I believe and what I have committed my professional life to is ensuring the full participation of women and girls in the society. I know that the two things that block full gender equality are violence and economics – until women earn dollar for dollar what men earn we will not have true gender parity. Until violence that is gender propagated ends, no woman will be truly safe and no girl will live a life without risk, whether she lives in the U.S. or elsewhere. So how do you make people listen? How do you encourage understanding of a hard issue like this?
Let me give you an example of how open-heartedness can help you change direction by taking an intractable issue and moving it forward. If one road doesn’t work, you must step back, breathe deeply, and try another path. I remember a number of years ago feeling terribly frustrated that we couldn’t make more progress in motivating the organized religious community to take ownership of the issue of domestic abuse. So we stepped back, breathed deeply, and retooled our violence work. Rather than moving headfirst into the devastating circumstances of family violence, we began to address violence through prevention strategies and healthy relationship programming, thus moving a very difficult issue into a positive framework. With our prevention strategy in place, we could then bring the harder issues forward. Once people could agree on the need for substantive prevention work – they could also acknowledge the larger issues of abuse that spanned the faith community.
Today more than 35 national faith organizations – Jews, Christians, Muslims, Pentecostals, Baha'is, Mormons, and others – come together each month. There are many things that we don’t agree on for sure; but one thing we do agree on is the importance of adding our voice to federal policies and legislation designated to end violence against women. This tapestry of united groups is a very important and powerful voice in the work.
Just like my career has been a beautiful circle – so has my journey to Judaism – I stepped away because I could not feel the open place of parity and equality for women and I returned when I was able to experience Judaism as a values-based way of living that wrapped a framework for contemporary faith around my children. I stepped back and opened my heart to a renewed opportunity to examine the role of women, the legacy of the matriarchs, and the beauty of ritual, finding my way back to an open heart.
The Talmud teaches us that fasting, reflecting and atoning are not complete without acts of tzedakah, without demonstrations of loving-kindness and without acts of compassion toward those we know and love, and those who are unknown and strangers to us.
As we embark on this New Year, find a place that ignites your spiritual self. Breathe deeply and recalibrate your own open heart. With an open heart there is so much we can accomplish.
Loribeth Weinstein is the CEO of JWI. Under her leadership of more than 15 years, JWI has created dozens of innovative programs and philanthropic initiatives to end violence, ensure economic security and spotlight leadership and mentoring.