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Rosh Hashanah 5779: Who is Strong?

The late Senator John McCain had strong opinions about how he wanted to be remembered. In addition to meticulously planning the details and speakers at his memorial and funeral services, McCain wrote a farewell letter that was shared widely last month. He said,

We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.

We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.

What does it mean to be weak? And what does McCain mean by strong? Our central text for these High Holy Days, Pirke Avot Chapter 4, also asks this question.

Who is strong?
Pirke Avot replies: 
One who subdues ones passions.
One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
One whose temper is controlled than one who captures a city” (Proverbs 16:32)

Subdued passions, slow to anger, controlled temper. When you imagine a strong person - what do you think of? A weightlifter? A body builder? Someone with physical strength? 

Maybe there’s someone in your life who is emotionally strong, who is tough in the face of adversity. Maybe it’s you.

Maybe strong means tough. Maybe strong means opinionated, headstrong, or even heartless. Is strong the opposite of weak?    

Where do these understandings and associations with the character trait of strong come from?  As actor Justin Baldoni recently explained, much of this depends on the way that boys and girls are raised to be men and women. He shares,

…for as long as I can remember, I've been told [what] kind of man that I should grow up to be. As a boy, all I wanted was to be accepted and liked by the other boys, but that acceptance meant I had to acquire this almost disgusted view of the feminine, and since we were told that feminine is the opposite of masculine, I either had to reject embodying any of these qualities or face rejection myself. This is the script that we've been given…Girls are weak, and boys are strong. This is what's being subconsciously communicated to hundreds of millions of young boys and girls all over the world, just like it was with me.

Girls are weak, and boys are strong. A central script ingrained in our society. As the parents of Lior, a one and a half year old boy, my husband Neil and I constantly think about this script, and the kind of person we are raising our son to be. A recent opinion piece, “How to Raise a Feminist Son,” has become a real touch point for us. The author, Claire Cain Miller, explains:

We’re now more likely to tell our daughters they can be anything they want to be — an astronaut and a mother, a tomboy and a girlie girl. But we don’t do the same for our sons.

Even as we’ve given girls more choices for the roles they play, boys’ worlds are still confined. They’re discouraged from having interests that are considered feminine. They’re told to be tough [and strong] at all costs…

In the language of our Torah and our liturgy, women are taught to be compassionate, embodying chesed, lovingkindess, and men are taught to be tough and strict on justice, embodying the quality of din. According to this script, strong is not vulnerable, loving, open, or in touch with feelings. When we close our hearts to those suffering before us, when we elevate din - strict justice - at the expensive of chesed - the love and compassion to see people as real people with real, life threatening challenges before them - when we dehumanize and degrade those who do not share our beliefs - we are not strong. We are merely cruel. We are the worst versions of ourselves. 

In contrast, our Pirke Avot text argues that one who is strong is slow to anger - erech apayim. This is a quality often associated with God that we seek to emulate ourselves. In the liturgy of our Torah service, we emphasize this quality when we recite the 13 attributes of God - Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet…. God, God, you are a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, full of lovingkindness and truth.

It’s no accident that we recite these words on the High Holy Days, a time when we seek forgiveness from God, from others, and from ourselves for our actions of the past year. We seek, like God, to be slow to anger, erech apayim, and to show love and mercy, chesed, rather than acting only out of strict justice, din. Our entire High Holy Day experience parallels a court room scene, in which we hope that God’s verdict this year shows favor and mercy upon us, rather than judging us strictly and harshly. Even if this imagery does not resonate with our understanding of God’s role in our lives, we can use this sentiment to hold up a mirror to ourselves. Are there times when we could have acted more compassionately this year? Times when we hid behind the label of strong, and in fact, acted with dispassion or even cruelty? 

This is the beauty of Pirke Avot’s definition of strength. It flips our conventional understanding of strong as heartless and cold on its head. One who is strong is slow to anger, loving, merciful, and compassionate. As with all middot, or character traits, we seek to find a balance - embodying both lovingkindness and justice. A midrash, a parable, makes this point:

There was a leader who had a collection of delicate glass cups. She said to herself, “If I pour hot water into them, they will expand and burst; if I pour cold water into them, they will contract and shatter.” So what did she do? She mixed hot water with cold water, and poured it into them, and they did not break. So it was with God. When it came time to create the world, God reflected, “If I create the world with the attribute of chesed, lovingkindness, alone, there will be an overflow of wrongful acts—no one will be afraid of punishment. But if I create the world with din alone, how could the world endure? It would shatter from the harsh measure of justice. So I will create it with both justice and compassion, and it will endure.” (Genesis. Rabbah 12:15, adapted)

In women and in men, we can cultivate this spirit of balance and embodiment of both these qualities. Gloria Steinem urges, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons; it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

As we practice heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, during these High Holy Days, we can use this paradigm as our guide. How can we embody strength by acting with compassion? How can we seek justice by seeing the humanity in others? How can we transcend the qualities stereotypically associated with our gender and seek to live and to raise our children not as good men or good women, but as good humans?

In her poem, Merger, Judy Chicago offers a vision of such a future:

And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind

And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another’s will…

May we use these High Holy Days to look within ourselves and look to create a world full of strength, compassion, and justice

Fri, September 20 2019 20 Elul 5779