Introduction by Sarra Alpert, Director, Avodah Institute for Social Change, Elul 5783 (August 2023)
At Avodah, we believe that a commitment to justice is essential to Jewish life, with our justice values being integral to our individual and communal self-reflection.
How are we doing at building a world grounded in equity, accountability and lovingkindness? Where are we falling short? What issues are we turning away from? What needs to change? How can we do better?
Since the High Holidays provide a time to ask exactly those questions, we created this resource to help with that.
Some of these resources speak to particular elements of these past several years: escalated attacks on trans rights, regressive restrictions on reproductive rights, the Covid-19 pandemic, increased attention to racial justice uprisings, the practice of the shmita year. But all of the resources here (even those more specific ones) emerge from core values of Jewish life and practice: our responsibility to care for each other, our commitment to resisting injustice, our faith in our ongoing work of building a better world.
The topics addressed in these various resources are all deeply connected, from how they emerge to how we can do better. We continue to see how urgently all of these interrelated injustices and violences require our attention. We know that these issues deserve a spotlight in the High Holidays’ yearly recommitment to ourselves and our values.
Our tradition provides an ideal opportunity each year for exactly this kind of personal and communal work on our accountability and growth, and this resource is offered as a way to take advantage of this period of extended reflection. You might decide to engage with one piece of learning each day in the weeks leading up to and through the High Holiday period or delve deeply into a few of these learnings over the holidays themselves. For those of you who are educators, we hope you’ll incorporate these resources into your teaching opportunities over this High Holiday season.
However you explore this, we hope it will offer a pathway for deep introspection, additional learning, and ways to orient ourselves towards sustained and effective engagement in work for justice.
At the Rosh Hashanah shofar service, we call out “Hayom Harat Olam” — today the world is conceived. We begin each Jewish year returning to this moment of pre-creation, of possibility.
Upheavals, as painful as they are, allow us a window into different ways of being. For example, just in the past several years we’ve had the chance to ask: what does our world look like with an expanded social safety net, eviction moratoriums, mutual aid, more widespread movements of racial justice solidarity, advances in accessibility, and more honesty about our emotional, spiritual and physical needs?
And yet, we have also seen in even starker relief the ways in which our current systems fail so many of us again and again, how we resist the possibility of these more expansive ways of being. Hayom harat olam asks us: can we conceive of and enact better, more just, more compassionate expectations? Can we listen to the visionaries who are continually and radically reimagining public space, community safety, housing and health care as human rights, and so much more? And can we take on the deeply personal and essential work of imagining our own capacity to live differently?
What do you envision? What do you want to build?
The shofar is blown every day of the month of Elul, and then dozens of times over the course of the High Holidays, as an auditory imperative to stop and listen. There are always voices trying to get our attention — part of living justly is choosing to take care with which ones we’re listening to. The most powerful voices will always reach us. But what about the voices of those who have been actively silenced and are fighting to reach through to us? The perspectives that other voices are trying to drown out, deeming as unworthy of being heard? What stories do we turn away from because they feel too hard to listen to? What beauty and power are we missing out on when we do? And how can we center those perspectives, listen to their visions for change, and follow where their voices lead us?
A central element of the High Holiday liturgy is the vidui, the prayers of admittance. We recite these prayers in a collective voice: we have stolen, we have betrayed, we have mocked, we have turned away. But even in this shared litany we are pushed to claim our individual culpability, tapping our fists against our chests with each recitation. It is deeply uncomfortable to stand within true accountability, to resist the urge to deny our involvement. When we have that first reaction of “But I didn’t…”, can we pause to genuinely interrogate ourselves? Whether we each have personally stolen or have benefitted from systems built from past theft, we can only start to work towards change once we’ve taken responsibility for the harm done both actively and passively. How can we stand in the essential discomfort of culpability and do the work to move through to the freedom and healing of taking responsibility?
On four of the holidays on the Jewish calendar (including two of the holidays in this fall cycle), we recite the yizkor prayers, taking time to honor our lost loved ones and community members. We participate in both a personal and communal mourning. Yizkor comes from the Hebrew root zachor, remember. What do we need to honor and remember about our individual and collective losses? Whose stories do we want to hold close? What space do we need to grieve those losses that hover more abstractly and might be harder to name? Leading up to a new year, how can we carve out space to face that grief, to honor it, to find both the comfort and the inspiration that we need?
There is a tradition to build the first piece of your sukkah right after Yom Kippur ends, moving straight from one mitzvah to the next. We take the energy of the catharsis of seeking atonement and we start to create. But we create something inherently fragile, impermanent by design. There is beauty to the ritual of building this intentionally flimsy structure, secure enough to last us through the holiday but ultimately evanescent, required to be dismantled after those eight days. Creating without attachment, embracing the connection between the structure and the earth as we construct the roof from natural materials and leave it open enough to see the stars. But we also know that this is echoed in the everyday, non-ritual lived experience of so many: that even in a society with enormous wealth, there are many without safe housing. And we also know that the increasing fragility of our environment is not a beautiful metaphor but a crisis. How can the spirit of Sukkot help us connect more deeply to both the work of housing justice and environmental justice? How can it propel us to work harder both for individual access to housing and also for the protection of our collective home?
Each year, the High Holiday season comes to a close by grounding ourselves in our shared text — at Simchat Torah, we finish the cycle of Torah reading and we begin it again. The text remains the same but we do not – we renew our relationship to it, go back to it with the experiences of another year behind us, find new perspectives and interpretations. We can take this inspiration to continually revisit our broader communal narratives. We can reevaluate which stories and perspectives we’ve held as central, look closer both at what we’ve taken for granted and must be willing to see differently and also at what voices have been missing entirely. Can we challenge and reject the texts that no longer serve our understanding of justice? Can we each seek out more and different stories than we’ve read before, let our core text expand and take on new textures, new meanings? Can we hold those as holy, as Torah?
The year when we first assembled a version of this guide, 5782, was a shmita year. Shmita literally means release and is often translated as sabbatical, referring to the final year of a seven-year cycle when after six years of active planting and farming, we leave the land fallow, allow it to rest. The release of shmita also refers to some debts, requiring that they be forgiven.
Even though we are no longer in a shmita year, the concepts of rest and release do not become less essential. What lessons can we draw from the shmita year into our ongoing lives and systems? How can we learn from the Nap Ministry, founded by Tricia Hersey and grounded in the theology of Black liberation, to articulate the premise of “rest as resistance”? How can we continually reach for a more comprehensive understanding of community care and healing justice? How can we see ourselves as responsible for creating more rest for more people, building systems that do not depend unsustainably on the constant labor of some more than others? I hope the shmita cycle can continue to inspire us to hold rest as sacred, to consider what we can put down and how we can hold each other with greater care and mutual support.
In the second year of this guide, we looked at the resources we’d assembled and saw a particular gap on issues of bodily autonomy. Our communities had experienced increased attacks on trans rights, reproductive justice, abortion access, and disability rights, and it felt especially important to make sure that we were offering resources that could bring those experiences into the sacred space of the High Holidays. This section of our guide is a gathering of sources we want to highlight from various Jewish teachers, scholars and activists addressing these topics from a Jewish lens. We hope they add deeper meaning and action to your High Holiday reflections and year round contemplation, and enrich your experience of the Transformative Teshuvah guide.
Jewtina y Co.
Special thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein for co-editing