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What Does the Universe Need Me to Do?


By Ellen Rank

Last Thursday, leaders of 60 congregations from the NYC area gathered for The Coalition of Innovating Congregations Yachdav, our annual end-of-year day of learning and celebration.  We were privileged to learn with Rabbi Shai Held, a brilliant speaker, and Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. We delved into deep text study with Rabbi Shai Held, looking into “Flipping Self-Worth on its Head: A Jewish Theology of Human Dignity and Self-Worth.” As Rabbi Held reminded us, we each experience the world through our own lens, in a unique way. So, too, I imagine that everyone left the text study thinking about ideas to which they connected personally as well as a new understanding of the Jewish value: Self-Worth.

I was fascinated listening to Rabbi Held speak of how we are each required to step up and fulfill our obligations – to do what the universe needs us to do. And, that, even if we have avoided fulfilling our obligations, we can change our ways, and step up and do what is needed by the universe.  I loved when Rabbi Held reflected (in the name of Rav Kook) that Yom Kippur is a time for asking forgiveness for not stepping up, for not doing the obligations that the universe needs you to do. He explained that the late afternoon reading on Yom Kippur of the Book of Jonah, in which Jonah–after great hesitation–finally steps up to his obligation, highlights that we, too, – even at a late hour – can change and live up to our value.

After studying with Rabbi Held, I have a greater appreciation for this Jewish value of Self-Worth, and I wonder: How do we help our learners to value themselves, to see themselves as being important in the universe, and having responsibilities to the universe? How do we guide learners to appreciate that each person is valuable? These are essential questions. It is our responsibility as educators to design powerful learning experiences that will deepen our learners understanding of Self-Worth and responsibility. Let’s take advantage of our terrific network of Innovating Congregations and share our ideas on how to build Self-Worth.


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