These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Charlottesville and Beyond: A Chassidic Response

Posted on September 3, 2017 by Mira Niculescu

Tags: , , ,

Charlottesville was much more than Charlottesville. And what we can get out of it is much more than tears.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw with consternation these men –  these women too, blond and bold, walking martially, torches in hand, closed jaws, empty eyes, shouting the chants that too often in history have preceded massacres.

That night, many among us – not only in the United States. Many among us in Israel, France, England, Argentina, South Africa, Australia, you name it.. didn’t sleep. We lost sleep because we were remembering someone: a grandparent, a parent, a sibling. Someone who once, in Europe, just a few decades ago, after such Marches, either survived – or didn’t.

My friend Steven from New York couldn’t sleep that night. He is a strong American Jew from a German family, now living on his parents’ kibbutz in Israel. And I couldn’t sleep that night because I thought about my ex-husband Akiva, who was born because his grandfather was the only one of his entire family to have the good sense to leave Germany in 1939.

So I witnessed Charlottesville with consternation. But with surprise, no.

It’s not just about Trump. There is nothing new about these events. The neo nazi marchers were just the most recent performers staging the millennia-old language of human hatred.

“What has been, will be. What was done, will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.” (Kohelet 1:9).

Nothing new there.

But it shook us. So there was fear expressed, tears shed, words written in reaction. And now it’s aleardy been two weeks, so long ago … and it’s been replaced by fresher news.

But here is the thing: just as it is not new, remember my friends: it is not over. It is right there, boiling under the surface.

So of course, I wish I could tell them to become Buddhists. To sing songs with Thich Nhat Han. To learn mindfulness with Jon Kabbat Zin. To try to connect with their breath, to look their fears in the eyes, and to accept the unbearable feeling of their own vulnerability on this planet.

But this seems a bit complicated to implement, right now, isnt’ it?

So for the time being -and aside from the concrete actions we can implement to prevent these events, I’m rather interested in what we, what I, can do. Rather than just be hurt in front of a computer screen. Rather than just being a victim.

Because hatred is like love: It’s a dance. We don’t have to say “yes” to that one.

And this is where the Chassidic invitation comes alive again.

Modern Chassidism was born at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, in one of the darkest times in the history of European Jews. A time of misery, pogroms and persecution. So much so that some rabbis, inspired by their Christian neighbors, started advocating for the practice of self-flagellation. The belief behind that was that, if we hit ourselves enough, maybe the others, maybe God, would do it less.

And that’s when Chassidism rose. The Baal Shem Tov, and then his great-grandson Rabbi Nachman, said “no” to self-pity, despair and self-beating.

We won’t be victims, they said. We will rejoice. And we will rejoice right now.

This doesn’t mean not taking action to change that reality. Of course we should. Of course we will.

But paradoxically, the first step is acknowledging reality as it is:  People, at large, don’t change. There will always be Jew haters, Arab haters, Black haters, all kinds of haters.

The Chassidic response is: Let’s not wait till a (messianic) time where all haters would be gone before we can enjoy this precious life.

People don’t change. But we can change ourselves (oh, and by the way, paradoxically, that’s often how people sometimes end up magically changing, and perhaps the world too).

Behind our actions, what matters is the mindset. And that, no external circumstances should take it away from us.

This is the great task of the Chassidic challenge: Mitzva gedolah lihiot be simcha tamid. “It is a great mitzvah, a great commandment to be in joy, always,” Rabbi Nahman used to say.

Joy is not a result, It’s a cause. It’s a state of mind you choose and you cultivate – and this, by the way, is exactly the premise of “positive psychology” today.

Joy is a choice. And it is this choice what frees us.

No angry kid with a torch can take that away from us.

So, to all my friends who feel deep despair since Charlottesville, I just want to whisper in your ear again and again what Rabbi Nachman used to say, over and over: “lo lehityaesh.” To not give up.

Assur lehityaesh. “It is forbidden to give up.”

Israeli Singer Yosef Karduner says: “Im Higiya Zman Kashe, RakLismoach Yesh” – if a difficult time comes, all there is, is to rejoice. Here is the song, listen: it’s powerful:

Chassidut is not butterflies. It’s not just nice words to be sung when holding hands during Havdallah. It’s serious spiritual practice. It’s hard work. And the work is right now.

So, this is my Chassidic response to Charlottesville.

No expectations. Action. And joy.

Just try.