BLESSING THE SEA – ISSUE 13, March 2022 “Vows: Garments for the Soul”

Above: “A Street Scene in Odessa, Ukraine,” a 1931 photo by Branson DeCou, the time when my grandmother was growing up there.

There’s one question that I keep coming back to as the horrific events in Ukraine continue to unfold: What do we do, what do we hold on to in an ever-changing world? In a world that can turn on its axis and throw us back 50 years? In a world without real security?

We practice – mindfully, spiritually. We practice whatever that practice encompasses: helping, praying, volunteering, keeping yourself and your communities together, remembering who you are. And we do this while keeping our hearts open to the people of Urkaine.

If you haven’t yet, make a vow to practice. I wrote about vows, ‘garments for the soul’, as Jewish sages called them, in a recent installation of my blog at Applied Jewish Spirituality.

“If your name is Reuven, imagine what kind of Reuven you will be next year, what your achievements, your service, and your character will be like. . . Is your daily service and acts of self-improvement enough to reach the level of next year’s Reuven?”

In other words, keep an eye on your vow. Even when life throws you left and right, stay present with it. This holds true even in the times of despair. The Piaseczno Rebbe I am quoting above wrote about grappling with faith in the face of suffering while in the Warsaw ghetto, shortly before his final days in a concentration camp.

Back to Ukraine. All of my grandparents were born there. Growing up in the former Soviet Union, I visited Ukraine three times – Kyiv, Odessa, Crimea – places I never expected to top the world news. This is why what’s happening there now rings an eerie echo of my family history, and that of the Jewish community at large that flourished, perished, or left that contested land.

What is Ukraine? How has its identity emerged in contrast to its Russian neighbors? This Encyclopedia Britannica piece I’m using in teaching sociolinguistics explains the history and the growing divergence of the Russian and Ukrainian languages.

“When I lived in Vietnam during the war,” wrote Thich Nhat Hahn, whom we lost recently, in The Art of Transforming Suffering, “it was difficult to see our way through that dark and heavy time. It seemed like the destruction would just go on and on forever. Every day people would ask me if I thought the war would end soon. It was very difficult to answer, because there was no end in sight.”

“But I knew if I said, ‘I don’t know’, that would only water their seeds of despair. So when people asked me that question, I replied, ‘Everything is impermanent, even war. It will end some day’. Knowing that, we could continue to work for peace. And indeed the war ended.”

May it be H-s will that it does!

As this post is going out on Purim, I can’t help including a heartwarming article about a Book of Esther scroll made by a teenage girl in Rome in the late 18th century – a beautifully illustrated manuscript just acquired by the Israel Museum.

It reminds me that even the “dark and heavy times” are always the times of hope and wonder.


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