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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

Expanding our Imagination in Tammuz

By Rabbi David Jaffe

In the early 1900s in the Ukrainian town of Uman, a group of Breslov Chassidim were known for their intense spiritual devotions, like cracking a hole in the ice to ritually immerse even though the water was freezing. This group was known as the Ovdim, a name that shares a Hebrew root with the word avodah - spiritual service. The Ovdim made spiritual service the center of their lives. Two weeks ago Kirva launched its third Ovdim cohort for senior social justice leaders, named after this group. This cohort group of thoughtful, powerful leaders will be together for eighteen months, meeting weekly to support each other in practice. I couldn’t be more delighted to lean into Mussar and Chassidic wisdom and practices over the long term with this group. We call this program Ovdim, not because we immerse in icy rivers, but because it is modeled in on the way the original Ovdim encouraged and held eachother in deep practice through the inevitable ups and downs of life. Jewish spirituality has never been a solo practice. We need each other. Community is essential to Jewish spiritual practice. 

Eleven people sit in chairs in a circle inside a room with large windows and a large rug at the center of the circle. Walls of bookshelves are in the background. Rabbi David is shown facing away from the camera and talking to the group.
Kirva's third Ovdim Cohort kicks off with a multi-day retreat at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center.

Avodah—regular, disciplined spiritual practice—is core to Kirva. Whether in a Dismantling Racism from the Inside Out va’ad (study group), a climate leader's va’ad, a Disability Wisdom As Soul Care va’ad, Ovdim, or any of our other programs, you likely know what it feels like to apply Jewish spiritual wisdom to your inner life with your chavruta and in a group context to live more aligned with your soul. 

Avodah is an intentional spiritual action, available to everyone ready to commit time and energy to their spiritual lives. If you are in a Kirva va’ad, avodah is organized around a Middah/soul trait and an area of social change. But avodah can also be organized around things like the Jewish calendar. Each month has its own avodah and for Tammuz, that avodah, according to the mystical tradition, has to do with how we see/recognize things. This idea is based on the Biblical story of the spies (Bemidbar/Numbers 13-14) that Moses sent to see what they could see on a 40-day tour of the Land of Israel. Last Monday night, I heard historian and author Yuval Harari give a stunning speech at a peace rally in Tel Aviv that offered a powerful and timely avodah for this month.

To paraphrase, Hariri said that the world is very complex. How are we humans, with relatively small minds, able to absorb that complexity? Well, we don’t. What most people do is take in part of reality and block out the rest. This means most people live with a recognition of only part of the truth. Harari’s context was Israel and Palestine. He described how this choice to only hold part of the truth reinforces attempts by Israelis and Palestinians to try to eliminate the other through war and other means. He said that war is a choice. We can choose to expand our imaginations and recognize the bigger truth that Jews and Palestinians both have legitimacy on the land. We can choose to imagine all the different ways Jews and Palestinians can live together on the land.

I understand Harari as offering us a Tammuz challenge. Can we metaphorically see and recognize realities and truths that, until now, we have consciously or subconsciously kept out of our minds? Can we choose to recognize and not erase these truths? 

I believe that expanding our imaginations to see and recognize more truths is an essential process for creating conditions for building the world as it could be, whether in the U.S., in Israel and Palestine, or anywhere. Let’s use this Tammuz avodah to expand our minds and imagination.

Chodesh Tov,



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