Introduction by Sarra Alpert, Director, Avodah Institute for Social Change, 5782/2021
The previous year-and-a-half included seismic shifts in the ways we see, face, understand and discuss injustice. From the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to racial justice uprisings to threats to democracy to ongoing catastrophes of economic, climate, carceral and housing injustice, we have seen even more deeply how all of those intersect. As we head towards the start of this new year, many of us are trying to find our way back to what feels like normal. But we have to remember, in the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, “Normal never was.” It is essential that we not turn away from all that we’ve seen and learned about the deep inequities that have recently led to even more death and suffering than before. 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.
Transformative Teshuvah from the Avodah Institute for Social Change contains a series of text studies, tools for reflection, artistic interpretations, and activities providing different pathways to explore the question: How do we turn towards change?
Each section includes sources for reflection created by a range of rabbis and Jewish educators. This resource is designed to be used in as many different ways as possible. 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. 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. The upheavals of the past year, as painful as they’ve been, have allowed us a window into different ways of being: 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, more honesty about our emotional, spiritual and physical needs? We have also seen in even starker relief the ways in which our current systems fail so many of us again and again. We can conceive of and enact better, more just, more compassionate expectations. We can listen to the visionaries who are radically reimagining public space, community safety, housing and health care as human rights, and so much more. We can also 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 the enormous losses of this past year and a half? Whose stories do we want to hold close? What space do we need to grieve the pains of this pandemic, including those losses that hover more abstractly, are 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?
This new year, 5782, is 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. For some, this past year was quiet and more spacious in ways we might not have experienced before. How can we draw from that to bring more rest into our lives in an intentional and ongoing way? For others — essential workers, caregivers, health care professionals — this year was utterly exhausting. How can we work towards more visionary systems of communal care? How can we see ourselves as responsible for creating more rest for more people, build systems that do not depend unsustainably on the constant labor of some more than others?
Special thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein for co-editing
Sarra Alpert, Alison Rollman, Amanda Lindner, Davinica Nemtzow & Marissa Smith-Kenny