The Season for Looking In and Looking Out for Each Other

A reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher of Federation’s Jewish Education Department

In our over-programed, multi-tasking, competition-driven society, we are often rushing from one appointment to the next. There is hardly a chance to look ahead and change gears so that we are prepared for the next activity or discussion. It is not easy being “in the moment” when our mind is already moving on to the next task. Parents and teachers recognize the issue as “transition time.” But people of all ages could use a way to transition from activities, venues, and even seasons.

In the same way that we ease into Shabbat from the workweek by preparing food and people with whom to share it, slowing down Friday afternoon and setting a special table, and singing the spiritual melodies of Kabbalat (Welcoming the) Shabbat service, our tradition understood how difficult it is to go from summer vacation mode into somber, penitent mode for the Days of Awe. For the month before Rosh Hashanah, we are encouraged to start our introspection, examining our past deeds and looking for areas of improvement. This transition period is helped along through special meditations and a daily blast of the shofar’s wake-up call. As the leaves change color, we are reminded to turn over a new leaf, repair relationships, and strive to be better human beings.

A famous Hassidic story tells us about a newly wealthy young man who went to see a Rabbi in order to ask his advice about what he should do with his life. The Rabbi led him over to the window and asked: “What can you see through the glass?” The young man responded, “I can see men coming and going and a blind man begging for alms in the street.” Then the Rabbi showed him a large mirror and said: ”Look in this mirror and tell me what you see.” The young man replied, “I can see myself.“ The Rabbi smiled, “Aha, but you can’t see the others. Notice that the window and the mirror are both made of the same basic material, glass; but in the mirror, because the glass is coated with a fine layer of silver, all you can see is yourself. You should compare yourself to these two kinds of glass. When humble, you saw other people and felt compassion for them. When you hide behind wealth and denial—covered in silver—you see only yourself. You will only be worth anything when you have the courage to tear away the coating of silver covering your eyes in order to be able to see again and love your fellow human.”

As always, our tradition calls for balance—honest introspection, looking in on our behavior, while also looking out and truly seeing others as images of the divine, worthy of dignity and respect.

Ben Franklin wisely said, “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors and let each New Year find you a better person.”  This season, as we work to overcome our own shortcomings and vices, look outward and see who else is challenged and could use support. So many in our community are afflicted by a variety of issues, including addiction to drugs and alcohol, but also food, porn, and a growing dependence on screens and workaholism.

One local community member, Rabbi Ilan Glazer, has felt the pain of addiction personally and experienced the struggle for recovery. In his new book And God Created Recovery, he shares insights and highlights of his path to recovery, and helps others find strength, hope, faith, and joy for a better life. He wants us to ask “How do we stay calm and centered in today’s fast-paced world? What wisdom can we draw from the wellsprings of Jewish tradition that will nourish our souls and give us hope and strength for the journey of life?”

Rabbi Glazer will be giving a book talk to help those struggling with addictions on Thursday, September 19 at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland. The event is free to attend and is open to individuals who are struggling with addiction, and to friends and family who are supporting those struggling with addiction. Register here

The Jewish Federation is grateful that Beth El clergy rose to the call to support recovery from addiction. After a Federation seminar last year, the rabbis spoke from the pulpit, made it clear that it is imperative to help those facing the challenge of addiction, and are now sponsoring a recovery program for our community.

A popular song by Michael Jackson captures the flow of this season of turning inward and outward and correctly asserts that change starts with one’s self:

I’m gonna make a change
For once in my life
It’s gonna feel real good
Gonna make a difference
Gonna make it right.

And as I, turn up the collar on
My favorite winter coat
This wind is blowing my mind
I see the kids in the streets
With not enough to eat
Who am I to be blind?
Pretending not to see their needs

That’s why I want you to know
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change!”