Global Jewish Reflections | Everything and Nothing: This Elul, Learning to Value Oneself and Others
This Elul, the month that precedes the High Holy Days, JDC staff member Izzy Sakhaie reflects on the meaning of introspection, and why helping others also means helping ourselves.
By Izzy Sakhaie - Campaign Specialist, JDC | August 19, 2021
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
The Jewish month of Elul is inextricably tied to the idea of teshuva, often translated as “repentance.” A deeper, more accurate translation is that of “coming back” or “returning to yourself,” by making real changes. To know where to begin, we must first look at an overall picture of ourselves, decide which direction we’d like to go in,, and then see what we must change in order to reach that ultimate destination. In short, this process is not about becoming someone different; it is about rediscovering our truest selves.
To many, this task feels daunting. There is a famous teaching by Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a great 19th-century Polish Hasidic master, that illuminates how we can take this yearly process in meaningful stride.
Rabbi Bunim would say: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each, so that he or she can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged, or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and find the words: Bishvili nivra ha-olam, “The world was created for me.” (BT Sanhedrin 37B) But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: V’anochi afar v’efer “I am but dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27)
Reading this, you might think, “How can I be everything and nothing at the same time?”
You might also ask, as I have: “Isn’t the latter reminder a little harsh? I understand raising myself up. But bringing myself down? Is that necessary?”
I’d argue that Rabbi Bunim’s two statements work in tandem: They both lift us up. How so? I found a powerful reflection on this teaching that says it perfectly. Having these reminders in our back pocket forces us to constantly re-evaluate ourselves and adjust accordingly. By doing this, we reach the most optimal state, one in which we realize our unique potential, when we would otherwise feel small; and one in which we remind ourselves that so many factors outside our control make us who we are.
Judaism teaches us “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh — “All Jews are responsible for each other.” Many find “all Jews” a difficult idea to grasp. but not JDC, an organization that cares for those living in places far from my own life. I’ll never forget the time I learned that JDC helps over 80,000 elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union (FSU), from population centers like Kyiv and Moscow to deep Siberia. I could not grasp the scale and consequence of this lifesaving work — that, for instance, JDC provides life-saving essentials to an elderly lady in rural Belarus, who might live at least 50 miles from the nearest JDC-supported Hesed social welfare center. This was, to me, the clearest possible illustration of “All Jews are responsible for each other.”
By valuing other people’s lives, like JDC does, we learn to value our own.
And this is the other side of Rabbi Bunim’s teaching; by valuing other people’s lives, like JDC does across the world, we learn to value our own.
Our lives are made up of constant encounters with other people. If we believe that the world was created for us, as individuals, then that means that all of these encounters have purpose and meaning. But an encounter has two sides. Working at JDC, this might mean you encounter an elderly person in the FSU; a disabled child in Israel; or a young Jewish community leader in Europe. And for those we serve, these encounters result in food delivered, medicine received, a life saved or changed.
Both sides of these interactions are necessary. Both sides matter. You are as necessary to that person as they are to you.
At a time when we are reflecting on what we want to change, we must hold both sides of Rabbi Bunim’s teaching close to our heart. On the one hand, we must see that if “the world was created for me,” I must give it my all during the introspection and change that Elul requires of us. And on the other hand, if “I am but dust and ashes,” we must take a sigh of relief, use this time to look inwards, and recognize that the weight of the world doesn’t rest on our shoulders alone.
Izzy Sakhaie is a campaign specialist in JDC’s Resource Development department and has worked at JDC for three years. She recently made aliyah and is living in her favorite city, Jerusalem. In her free time, you can find Izzy taking pictures, reading a good book, or learning something new.