The only way to describe how I felt at the moment I heard about the horrific news emerging from Israel was chalishut hada’at, loosely translated as a weakened spirit. I wanted to get on the plane and make it all better. With more than 50 percent of our team in Israel being called up to the front lines, couldn’t I be more helpful on the ground in our home state? “I just want to be useful,” I wrote to a colleague. “You are being useful!” he replied, decrying me for not appreciating the role I can play where I am. At the same time, several WhatsApp chats sent me the following unattributed message:
While many people have been drafted to the army to defend Eretz Yisrael, in truth, we have all been called up. We just have to figure out which division we belong to. Are we among those driving tanks at the border of Gaza to protect our people, or are we in the Prayer Division, focusing on the koach of tefillah? There are so many divisions, including the Ahavat Yisrael Division, the Tzedakah Division and the Torah Learning Division, to name a few. I encourage each of us to identify the division in which we can be most useful during this difficult time.
The combination of a good chaver shaking me by the lapels, together with these WhatsApped words of chizuk, helped to refocus me on my role, on finding my army division, my specific responsibility at this time.
Ken Robinson, in his seminal work The Element, reminds us that we all have certain talents and passions, and when we understand where they meet, i.e., our particular element, we can lead our most meaningful lives. The Japanese have a word for this: ikigai; and the French: raison d’etre. Famed football coach Bill Belichick would remind his players to “do your job.” And we have a word for it as well: tafkid.
So what exactly was my tafkid at this time? To facilitate the decision-making needed to best guide our community at the OU to be of utmost strategic help.
We have all been called up. We have shown up for battle in our own way, doing what we can from wherever we are, with our specific talents and passions . . .
Chazal refer to Sefer Bereishit as Sefer HaYashar, the Book of the Upright. Why specifically this term? In Avodah Zarah 25a, Rabbi Yochanan explains that it refers to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, based on Bilam’s wish to die as they did, “mot yesharim,” “death of the upright” (Bamidbar 23:10). But in his introduction to Bereishit, the Netziv suggests that the singular “yashar” may actually derive from the shirah in Parashat Ha’azinu (Devarim 32:4), which states: “Tzaddik v’yashar Hu,” “Just and upright is He,” referring to Hashem Himself, specifically as a means to justifying Divine judgment. Hashem is yashar: His ways are yashar—aligned with His mission even when we are struck by tragedy, by war, by crisis. Our role then, even at times such as these, is to allow for reaction and pivot while remaining steadfast and strategic, aligned with mission.
My first step was actually . . . to stop. To pause. And to hit refresh.
There is a famous advertisement from, literally, a hundred years ago (1923), for Coke when it first started to become popular. It urged people to take a break with a Coca-Cola because it was the “pause that refreshes.”
Echoing the same concept, and in an attempt to take a bit of a deeper breath, we gathered a small team to discuss a vision for our path forward at the OU. In preparation, I put together a memo and encouraged all of us to sit and think through how to move forward amidst all the noise, conversations and suggestions. I suggested we do our research, compose a few different lists and then regroup to make some decisions.
With a bit more structure and organization, we were able to come up with strategic areas to focus on; align and concentrate our fundraising efforts; establish a running list of ideas we are constantly receiving from across the organization; and even begin planning for “the day after.” Our desire was to mobilize at this time of acute challenge, while also thinking long term (such as writing a piece in October that comes out in December!).
How do we make decisions in that environment? By outlining our goals, establishing core strategies, staying in touch with the boots on the ground, empowering action, and standing up for what we believe in, for what we do as an organization. Some of our quick reactions led to our recognition of the importance of grassroots efforts from various corners: entrepreneurial board members, active students on our various JLIC Israel campuses and their motivating directors (see the article on page 61 for an overview), OU Israel staff with family members—or themselves—being called up, and on and on. We endeavored to capture the energy, without quashing it, and channel it in the most helpful directions.
Next we focused our attention on our core populations, such as the 6,000 teens in our youth programs, Makom Balev and Orayta; and the Anglo communities engaged through our Israel Center, JLIC, NCSY and Yachad. And of course, our own staff in Israel to whom we provided counseling support as well as vouchers for those who needed to be evacuated.
We also endeavored to provide inspiration for those in Israel and America via chizuk calls, NCSY’s Adopt a Soldier program, and the Women’s Initiative’s Tehillim program. We continued our advocacy with government leadership, especially for the security of our institutions—shuls, schools and campuses. Finally, we started to plan for what we hoped would come soon: the day after.
As this article goes to print, we don’t know what the outcome will be nor whether these directions will develop, evolve or stop. But we daven for the situation to improve, and with our approach we stand ready to help in any way we can. We have all been called up. We have shown up for battle in our own way, doing what we can from wherever we are, with our specific talents and passions, working through our element to drive toward the zeman haGeulah, sheyavo.
Rabbi Dr. Josh Joseph is executive vice president/chief operating officer of the OU.