11 January 2013
29 Tevet 5773
Paul Breines on Social Justice, Self-Awareness, and Self-Improvement
Last Wednesday our school community gathered in the Beit Midrash to listen to and learn from the entertaining and inspiring Paul Breines, who shared stories about his participation in the Freedom Rides of 1961. Breines spoke about his life growing up in Scarsdale, NY, his (self-described “secular”) Jewish identity and how it shaped his passion for racial equality and social justice, and his experiences on the Rides, including the time he spent in a Mississippi jail.
One of the most amazing moments for me came toward the end of Breines’s talk when one of our seniors asked a question about self-knowledge and the impact we have on others: “I get that I need to be mindful of the harm I might cause others through my actions; but what I am afraid of are the things I might be doing and the harm I might be causing in ways that I am totally unaware of and, therefore, about which I cannot even make thoughtful choices. What would you advise?” The question showed extraordinary moral and spiritual sensitivity and self-awareness. Breines, almost speechless, responded, “That is exactly the kind of question I thought I might get when I came to Gann Academy!”
Part of the answer to this student’s question is embedded in the question itself. The simple awareness and curiosity about aspects of himself about which he might not be aware are the first step toward becoming more aware of himself, his unrecognized beliefs and assumptions, and the impacts of his actions about which he might not yet be fully cognizant. Ethical action does involve making thoughtful and responsible decisions when faced with what our Jewish Mussar tradition calls “bechira points” – choice points. However, transforming oneself into a more ethically and spiritually aware person requires us to uncover those bechira points in the first place. It is when we pay close enough attention to ourselves, our actions, other people, and the world around us that we are able to see the choices we make, the sides of ourselves, and the consequences of our actions. When we do pay attention, we might not always like what we see or hear; however, as Breines suggested in his answer to this incredible question, it is in these moments when we have the greatest opportunity to expand ourselves, to learn, and to change.
As we continue reading the story of Egypt and the plagues this Shabbat, this stance toward ourselves and the world is precisely the opposite of how the Torah describes Pharaoh’s response to Moshe and the plagues. Pharaoh famously “hardens his heart.” He is not open to seeing the reality unfolding in front of him, the impact of his actions, or the injustices in his society. Ultimately, this closed-heartedness prevents him from changing and brings about his and his people’s downfall.
We can learn from Pharaoh’s negative example and take the student’s question to heart. Let us pay attention to ourselves and our actions, and have the courage to remain open-hearted and non-defensive toward what we uncover, so we can make choices about how we act and who we want to be that will lead to positive change and growth for ourselves and our world.
Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov,
Rabbi Marc Baker