By Rabbi David Jaffe
Human beings, as made in the Divine Image, are built to care and have the capacity to care for all other humans. At the same time, we also have the capacity to contract our range of caring, particularly when feeling under threat, be it physical or moral/emotional/spiritual. The war in Israel and Gaza, and the way responses are playing out around the world, are stimulating a contraction of care.
The war, now in its third month, in addition to its implications in Israel, Gaza, and globally, is stimulating fear in people across the U.S. This very real fear, fueled even more by rising antisemitism, islamophobia, and racism, is showing up as a constriction of caring for people outside of one’s immediate zone of concern, such as caring for only people within your community, or only caring for people that share your political ideology. In the context of the war, this can look like only caring for Israelis, or for others, only caring for Palestinians. Keeping a limited zone of care and concern has devastating impacts.
Right now, we’re seeing concerns about antisemitism, among other things, cause a backlash among some in our Jewish community, to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) efforts. This backlash is simulating a contraction of care, potentially making our organizations and communal spaces less welcoming and nurturing for people traditionally marginalized. Coming off the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I’m struck by how this issue of care was so central to the civil rights movement. The movement can be viewed as an effort to expand who was cared for by society, growing who has access to the conditions needed for a dignified life. The work of the civil rights movement is far from over, and I am concerned that the current constriction of caring due to the war will add to divisions among those working for justice and liberation for all.
As people committed to the thriving not only of the Jewish people, but of all humans and the planet, we must challenge this impulse toward contraction and expand our caring, specifically in this moment, even when it’s uncomfortable. This looks like caring for oneself and for people traditionally marginalized in whatever your context, and caring for all Jews no matter their political orientation. It is possible to be virulently opposed to Israel’s actions in this war and care deeply for Israelis. It is possible to be horrified by Hamas’ actions on October 7th, and care deeply for Palestinians. It is possible to have this expansive care for people with positions different from you regarding how this war should end. It is not just possible but necessary. The core images of the month of Shvat provide spiritual resources for this crucial task.
The astronomical sign for Shvat is the Dipper, a vessel that draws water from a larger body of water like a well or lake. In the Rabbinic tradition, the prophet Isaiah compares water to Torah when he says (Isaiah 55:1), “Let all who are thirsty come to water.” Water and Torah are both sources of nourishment, one physical and the other spiritual. The dipper is a metaphor for how we can access sources of nourishment that give us the emotional and spiritual strength needed to keep our hearts open with caring beyond where it is immediately comfortable. The dipper is a small vessel, symbolic of the small but regular servings of physical and spiritual nourishment that are especially important at times of heightened fear and violence. May we access these sources of nourishment regularly this month, whatever they may be for you.
The natural phenomena of this month are also useful for stretching our ability to care. Shvat is the month when the sap begins to rise in the trees in the Land of Israel. In the Northern Hemisphere, the days are getting longer and the nights shorter. The increased sweetness and light of this time are also resources we can draw on to expand our caring.
It is a Mussar principle that actions impact the heart. This is why, at Kirva, caring action, and not just contemplation, is such a key part of the spiritual process. The Balance of Care framework, which is central to our Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out (DRIO) project can help us stretch our caring in this time of contraction. I invite you to join one of the upcoming programs to work out your caring muscle in ways that are needed by all of us to meet this moment.