In this week’s episode of my podcast Wrestling and Dreaming: Engaging Discussions on Judaism (wrestlinganddreaming.podbean.com), I shared a favorite text which I encountered for the first time a little more than fifteen years ago. As I explained in the podcast, I think the text reflects some of the most basic statements of Jewish thought and the wisdom of our people through the ages.
So, it is ironic is that the text is not from a Jewish source. I discovered the text during our trip to Alaska in 2006. We spent a day in the town of Barrow- now known by the name Utquiavik- the northernmost town in the United States, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. While there, I picked up a pamphlet which included a statement of “The Values of the Inupiat Eskimo People” published by the North Slope Borough School District in Barrow.
This statement of values is truly inspiring and thought provoking and, in so many ways, reflects who we are as Jews. I say this not because I believe that there is any specific connection between the Inupiat Eskimos and Jews but because these are values shared by so many peoples and that inspires me. Hearing these same values said in different ways than we might say them is an opportunity to re-engage with the ideas.
As we enter the month of Elul and the High Holy Day season and we consider more seriously the tradition of teshuvah, repentance and return to the proper path in life, these statements of values encourage us to consider the direction of our lives in accordance with the principles of our traditions.
In the podcast, I simply stated the values of the Inupiat people as expressed in this document and pointed out that I would post some further commentary on this website. So, here are some of those Inupiat values and some thoughts on how we as Jews have expressed some of the same ideas.
“Though the environment is harsh and cold, our ancestors learned to live with warmth, kindness, caring and compassion.”
As Jews we have lived throughout the world and the environment we have experienced has often been harsh and cold in many ways, most notably in the way we were treated by others.
Yet, from the time of the Torah, our tradition has taught us that we must learn from our experience and care for each other and for those who suffer persecution and degradation with caring and compassion. The most frequently taught law in the Torah is the commandment to care for the stranger because we know the soul of the stranger.
Although the surroundings have been harsh, we have been taught to live with warmth and compassion.
“Our Elders model our traditions and ways of being. They are a light of hope to younger generations. May we treat each other as our Elders have taught us.”
In the Torah we read: “Ask your father and he will tell you; your elders and they will tell you. (Deuteronomy 32:7)” The wisdom of our elders must inspire us. We respect and embrace the concept of “dor l’dor”, generation to generation, not only meaning the continuity of tradition but meaning as well continuing the search for wisdom. Our ancestors did not have all the answers but they gave to us the basis for the wisdom that we employ in our lives.
We truly stand on the shoulders of giants and, as Jews, we respect the wisdom of the ages, even as we shape that wisdom to the realities of our world.
“It is amazing how sharing works. Your acts of giving always come back.”
There is a beautiful tradition in Jewish thought: “s’char mitzvah mitzvah”, the reward for the observance of a commandment is another commandment.
There are many ways to understand this statement but one of the ways is to understand that when we perform an act of kindness, we often find that that kindness is returned to us.
Here, I can share a brief story. In 1982, I and my rabbinical school colleague, Rabbi Allan Berkowitz, traveled to the former Soviet Union on a mission of outreach to “refuseniks”, those Jews who had been refused permission to leave the USSR for Israel and had suffered terrible persecution because of their decision to apply for emigration.
We came to the USSR with the intent to teach and to inspire but found ourselves in Kishinev (now Chisinau, Moldova), on erev Pesach, without a place to attend a Seder after having failed to make a connection with any of the families in the city.
We were standing on the doorstep of the last home on our list when suddenly the door opened before we even knocked, and we were brought into the home and down to the basement where the Seder was held away from the prying eyes of the police.
We came as the ones intending to do the good deed. But, instead, the good deed came back to us. And, after keeping in contact with the family and advocating for them continuously, we were able to return the mitzvah by welcoming the family to freedom.
Truly, “acts of giving always come back”.
“With our language we have an identity.”
The native community of Utkiavik takes great effort to teach the native language to its children. Language is so critical for any community.
This is an opportunity for me to stress the importance of Hebrew in our Jewish consciousness. The Hebrew language, our ancient and now renewed language, binds us to our past and to our brothers and sisters throughout the world. I can not urge anyone reading these words strongly enough to learn or improve their familiarity and comfort with the language of our people because it provides us with a key to our identity that is impossible to measure.
“Indeed, laughter is the best medicine.”
I love this statement. As we enter into Elul and think about Teshuvah, we should take a moment to take a deep breath and realize that many times what is most important is to not take ourselves too seriously. A good laugh, a great smile and an embrace of the world can help us get through many situations in life.
Finally, one last statement from the text:
“Our creator gave us the gift of our surroundings. Those before us placed ultimate importance on respecting this magnificent gift for their future generations.”
The idea of all that we have in our world as a gift from our Creator is the basis for all that we are as Jews and as human beings. We must place ultimate importance on respecting and using wisely that which we have been given. This applies to the miracles around us and the miracles of our own lives.
There are other value statements which I quote on the podcast but these are the most important principles and the ones which I feel reflect best the questions and challenges we should consider most deeply as the new year approaches. It is truly a blessing to discover wisdom from another source and realize the commonalities between human beings.