These and Those

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

From fire to peace. Reflections on Tisha B’Av

Posted on July 22, 2018 by Mira Niculescu

Today, Tisha B’ Av, we commemorate the destruction and mourn the burning of the temple. As I open Facebook mechanically, trying to forget the hunger of a fast day, here I see it: a video shared, showing southern Israeli fields burning. Acres and acres of fields and forests and trees burning from fire kites sent from the Gaza strip.

So here I am, mourning, because the house is still burning.

And please don’t get me wrong. I’m not going here for the “they’re so mean” thing. That’s too easy. Waaaay too easy.

What I see here is simply the oldest human tragedy playing itself, again and again and again:

People, continuously hurting each other, out of sheer suffering and ignorance.

Because even if it would make my life much easier to think in “good-and-bad” terms (and guess on which side I would be), here is the thing: Nobody is born hating. Nobody is born evil.
It’s all conditioning, education, and despair, that lead people to do inhuman actions onto themselves and others- and onto fields.

But let’s take a closer look at the burning fields pattern:

“They” want “us” to burn away because they feel invaded by us, and disrespected by us, in what they consider their home. And “we” feel rejected and attacked from the very beginning, and disrespected in our very right to come back to what we also consider our home.

This is conflict right there: everybody feeling abused and disrespected. Every side identifying as the victim.

And here is the root of the conflict right there: when nobody takes responsibility for their feelings and actions.

Where can we go from there?

If we wait for “the other” to make the first step, we can always wait- can’t we?

Here is an invitation:

How about being positively proactive?

How about taking charge of our well-being? (Cuz that’s what it’s about: we are responsible for our own peace making. Not because we’re Jesus or something. But because, irrespective of what the other does, or doesn’t do, it is UP TO US to leave the seat of the victim (and believe me, I used to have my name on it), and to re-empower ourselves by placing ourselves somewhere else in the chessboard of life.

Eva Mozes Kor, and Dr. Edith Eger, two of my personal heroes, two holocaust survivors who set themselves free after being freed from camps (the very definition of resilience), did so simply by deciding to forgive and to not see themselves as victim. Again, not because they’re Jesus or Hare Krishna, or masochists (although let’s admit it, that can feel reeaal good (see Jaques Lacan and the “slave envy”).

But precisely because they saw that anger and resentment are NOT empowering. These feelings are precisely what keeps us in the seat of the victim, and a victim can’t be happy.
As another of my personal heroes, Nelson Mandela, used to say, being free is not about being physically out of (any type of) prison. It’s an inner state of mind.

Many of us are not free. We keep being prisoners of our past hurts, and we keep trying to ask others to bear the responsibility of it, through whatever patterns of conflicts we repeat. And we sincerely keep thinking that anger and resentments are ways to protect ourselves. Now let me ask you honestly, from your own experience: has it ever worked?

And I’m not talking about big time international conflicts here. I’m talking interpersonal relations: my last fight with my friend, my last conflict with my boyfriend-partner-spouse, child, parent, student…

All I can tell you, is that from my own experience: nope. It doesn’t work.

And believe me, I used to be an expert. I was well trained by my old daddy, may he rest in peace, who was born in 21 in an old-world Romania I will never know, a brilliant tortured man, god knows what he saw and experienced in his own childhood about human mental suffering (his dad was also brillant and self-tortured and violent man and he died in an institution). So that my daddy became a specialist in resentment-anger-accusation-being a victim while aggressing others and such, and he was really efficient in conditioning me to live in the victim-perpetrator type of human relationship.  So I got one of the best training in conflict cultivation possible. And I am perhaps only beginning to work my way out of this very enticing but not so gratifying way of life.

And I can tell you, it’s not easy.

It’s not for not’ing that we talk about “sinat’hinam“, gratuitous hatred, or “lashon ha’ra“, slander, as among our worst sins: this is because they are among our strongest temptations. They are such an intimate ( although often unseen and unanalysed) part of our daily experience.

So yes, sadly, peacemaking starts with renouncing a lot of cool things, like self-pitying, and unilateral accusations of the other.

These are so enticing because they are natural impulses. And these are addictive. They are like Nutella: even it’s really bad for you and you know it, you still just wanna dive into it and swim into the pot and forget about the whole world during these few minutes of consumption; until you wake up the next morning and feel your body (change Nutella for beer, hash, tobacco, vodka, crack, you name it).

And here is why spirituality is called “work”: because it’s a real work out of the whole being, to pull ourselves out of the indulgence of hateful states, and to look at things with : distance, equanimity, clarity, compassion.

We all probably know this famous Pirke Avot (2.5) saying: “don’t judge your fellow until you’ve reached their place,”

But have we ACTUALLY practiced it, when we felt hurt by someone else (be it our colleague or an anonymous gazaoui)?

I can tell you honestly for myself: in the past, most of the time, I have not.

I was just a hundred percent “in my place”; on my side; thinking I was right; and the other better join me, or go to hell. And guess what? That didn’t work so well.

I remember years ago, my dear friend Akiva used to say “do you wanna be right, or do you wanna be happy?” Cuz yes, most of the time, we have to choose. I think, for a long time, I preferred being right.

I’ve been slowly getting ready over the past few years- months, to choose the other option. And this is what I would like to share with you today, on this day of Tisha B’ Av, whether you are Jewish, Muslim, any other Religion, Buddha, Jesus, atheist, or a cucumber.

If, like me, you’d rather feel at peace inside and be at peace with people, than feeling consumed with self-righteous anger, here is my invitation.

It starts with a few questions. They are super easy theoretically, and duper hard to put into practice:

Can we own up for our own feelings?

Can we look at our own responsibility in our conflicts?

Can we try to resist negativity; hatred; resentment?

That’s the line we try walk, in #Judaism which is my path, as in most #spiritualpaths I know: being kind to ourselves, being kind to the other.

Being compassionate to all, but not to the expense of anyone -including myself.

And as we’ve just passed the middle of this day of tisha b’Av, and as we’re getting ready to transitioning from crushing pain to hope, I wanna look at, and thank, all the wonderful people in the past and in the present, in the Jewish world and in the world at large, all the wonderful teachers and influencers, who are working at teaching us the way to peace.

Starting with these simple but powerful sayings from the Jewish tradition:”love your fellow as yourself” (Devarim-Leviticus 19.18) and “judge every man favorably” (Pirke Avot 1.6).

And I’m grateful for this powerful teaching by Siddharta Gautama aka “the Buddha”, who said: when hurt, “don’t shoot the second arrow”. Not because of morality (again, we’re not Jesus (sorry, Jesus); but out of pure pragmatism. Because after a while, both are left bleeding on the ground.

I’m grateful for this beautiful poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, “Call me by my true names’ (, who reminds us that “victim” and “perpetrator”, we all have a little bit of all inside of us.

I’m grateful for the work of people like Marshall Rosenberg, who founded the training of “Non violent communication” (; Jon Kabat-Zinn, who helped secular people learn the first stage of this work: being mindful.

I am grateful to the Aish Kodesh, the Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, for teaching us to observe our minds, so we could become more aware, therefore more connected to life. I am grateful to teachers such as Rav James Jacobson-Maisels from Or HaLev – Center for Jewish Spirituality & Meditation for introducing me and so many people to these teachings.

I am grateful to the Institute for Jewish Spirituality for working so beautifully at ‘cultivating mindful Jewish leaders”, which is exactly what we need.

I am grateful to people who behind the scenes, who but just by dancing, singing, praying, listening, counseling, offering therapy or social work, or simply by being themselves, working on themselves, sincerely, relentlessly, by taking care of their own wounds honestly and patiently before minding other people’s business, are making the world better, one person at a time.

In Israel, I’m so grateful for initiatives such as the Elijah Interfaith institute, Praying Together in JerusalemShorashim, the Shalom Hartman Institute – מכון שלום הרטמן “I engage” seminar, Encounter, and the excellent Daniel Roth’s The 9Adar Project – Jewish Week of Constructive Conflict at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies , some of these projects I had the merit to be part of last year in Jerusalem.

These and many other organizations and people, which the international press doesn’t talk about enough, when talking about Israel, are the ones who can make a positive difference. Because they bring together people who sincerely want to live in Israel, together, in peace. Again, “not because they are (…)”, but simply, pragmatically, because we don’t have a choice! And we want to live! In peace, nu!

Choice is all ours.

Mira Neshama Niculescu