Spirituality, Self-Care, and the Fight for Justice
In my dining room is a Gad Almaliah print of Rabbi Tarfon, a sage from the beginning of the common era, and a quote attributed to him in Pirkei Avot, “You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
When I was a child, my dad explained this quote to me with a hypothetical story. A person is asked to pick up each grain of sand from a beach and move it somewhere else. This is, of course, impossible, but even knowing that the person must try.
As a child, I thought this was ridiculous.
My problem with this story, which my dad now admits is not a great analogy, was not the impossibility of the person’s task but the pointlessness. I thought, and still think, that it’s okay to leave a task incomplete when it no longer has a purpose. But this quote isn’t referring to mindless tasks, it's referring to tikkun olam, to the issues of politics and social justice that cannot be abandoned.
Now, as a teen, I have conversations with my dad where he expresses his frustration with the world. So many people work every day to try and make things better and still there is so much hatred, discrimination, and poverty.
I plan on pursuing a career in high school education and while I am excited for this role, I am already bracing myself for what I have been told I will feel: inevitable frustration. Even if I can be exactly the teacher I want to be in a supportive and supported school community, there will still be things I can’t accomplish.
I know that these feelings must be magnified greatly for those whose lives are already centered around this type of work. Growing research suggests that social justice and human rights activists are particularly susceptible to vocational burnout. Almost everyone will face some type of burnout in their life, but those who are motivated to do their work by justice often face the added pressure of feeling that their work isn’t just a job, but a moral obligation.
No single person is expected to complete the work of healing the world, or even of healing one small part of it. If I expect that I or any other person can do that I will not only be disappointed, I will lose motivation. Activists and educators must prioritize healthy and sustainable personal expectations and mindsets because, in the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Both self-care and social justice for me are rooted in spirituality. Specifically, in what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls “radical amazement.” In God in Search of Man, he wrote, “Our goal should be to...get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” This amazement is at the center of my spirituality. I find God and I find peace when I look at the things around me, both natural and human-created, with wonder.
Alongside this concept of radical amazement is the concept of the sanctification of time, seeing each moment as sacred and uniquely special. This is clearly a value at the center of the Jewish religion. Our holidays, most notably the weekly holiday of Shabbat, is defined by sanctification: clear separation from any other day. I don’t sanctify time in a traditionally religious way. Currently, I often do little or nothing to recognize the passage of Shabbat. But I try to sanctify time constantly, whether that’s time with my family or a moment staring out my window at the trees. Even in moments that are not perfect, when it is tempting to look at my phone or let my mind wander, I try to remind myself to sanctify that time.
To see everything and all time as holy, to be amazed by the simple, beautiful things in the world, not only brings me happiness; it also inspires me to fight for justice. When I see the world as an incredible creation, I want nothing more than to help improve it. This positive inspiration is essential in the face of burnout and constant negative reinforcement. My Judaism is essential to my social justice not just because it tells me to keep fighting, but because it shows me how.
These quotes also serve as self-care because they boil down my beliefs into a phrase that I can remember even when I am overwhelmed. My brain moves very fast, often too fast for my own good. Having phrases I can latch onto lets me stop myself from overthinking.
My conception of the connections between social justice and spirituality and Judaism is my own. It wasn’t forced on me and it will not resonate for everyone. Alongside my own philosophies, I work to make room for those whose mindsets and experiences are different from mine, often radically so. I believe that every person must lean into whatever they find grounding. The world is vast and so are its problems. We must take care of ourselves so that we can find our way forward.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Lerner, Ellanora. "Spirituality, Self-Care, and the Fight for Justice." 12 August 2020. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 22, 2021) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/spirituality-self-care-and-fight-justice>.