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Binnacles and Jewish Lenses: Guiding Forces in the World

By Kathy Pomer

When I was a kid, my dad and I sailed often on the Chesapeake Bay in the Serendipity, our beautiful, beloved boat. When he wasn’t at the wheel and we weren’t busy keeping things shipshape, we’d sit on cushions near the binnacle—a huge, bulky container for the ship’s compass whose polished teak post affixed it to the deck. The globe, its numbers and circles resting in oil, would spin, finally settling on the direction in which we were headed.

He always made it abundantly clear that sailing required intention, presence, and responsibility—especially when at the wheel. I stared straight into those spinning numbers when it was my turn to steer—until he reminded me to look up, keep an eye out for swimmers and other boats, notice the wind, the current, the waves, and the skies, and only then, return to the compass to ensure we still were heading in the right direction.

Sailing was the ultimate in multi-tasking and not for the faint of heart, but was it ever exhilarating! On the water, there was an order to the busyness, and we were completely present, surprised by nothing. When issues arose, we assessed the scenario, rechecked the compass, and made smart decisions that kept us moving forward. Reaching port at day’s end filled us with contentment, knowing we’d harnessed the world’s energies to get us where we intended to be!

Using these seven Jewish lenses as part of my work and everyday life reminds me of sailing with my dad—and that ever-present binnacle! However, it’s not sufficient merely to look at the compass points or the lenses. Just as we must steer the boat in the direction we want it to go using the compass to guide us, so, too, must we look through the lenses if we want them to help us act in ways that reflect our values. Focusing on where we want to be and letting our values guide our actions, as well as holding ourselves and others accountable for our acts are our tools to make informed moral choices as we go forth in the world.

Masa (Journey): Our individual journeys echo, reflect, and illuminate the journeys of our people. Like them, we are motivated by a sacred calling, chance encounters, fear, wonder, oppression, and, most of all, the promise of a better life. Our journeys take us deep into ourselves, and through our forward momentum, we seek t’shuvah (return). Integrity along the way is as critical as reaching our goals. This lens helps us define our path and gauge our next steps.

Tzelem Elohim (Divine Image): The Torah teaches that humanity was created in the image of God (b’tzelem Elohim), making each of us powerful, unique, and sacred beings—and exactly like everyone else. This lens guides our respect for every other human; it is a lens of responsibility, compassion, and self-esteem.

B’rit (Covenant): By definition, covenantal relationships embody a mutual understanding of specific rights and responsibilities; moreover, they possess intrinsic value. We are enriched by the relationships that honor our individuality, consider our needs, respect our opinions, and offer us emotional security. This lens helps us enter and uphold such a covenantal relationship with every person we encounter.

K’dushah (Holiness): Jewish tradition understands k’dushah as separate from the everyday and considers certain moments and places inherently sacred (think Shabbat). When we bring a particular intention or response to a time, place, or community, we can infuse it with holiness. When we treasure times, places, and people, treat them differently, or accord them powerful significance, they, too, become holy. This lens enhances our capacity to recognize and create k’dushah in the world.

Hit’orerut (Awakening): Judaism provides us the tools to prepare for and respond to spiritual awakenings and “awe-full” moments, the potential for which exists every day. To fulfill the potential, we must remove the emotional and material obstacles that blind us to these moments. This lens, as A.J. Heschel rightly noted, prompts us to “take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments.”

D’rash (Interpretation) The art of inquiry and interpretation is a time-honored Jewish tradition—especially around the written Torah. Asking, arguing, interpreting, and transmitting all are essential elements of our growth and maturity as humans. To be both teacher and student embodies the spirit of d’rash and its distinguished place in the life of our people. This lens reminds us to pursue inquiry and interpretation so that we and others—individually and collectively—might learn, discover, and broaden our horizons.

Tikkun Olam (Repair of the World) The Jewish imperative to heal our fractured world is ancient, but only in modern times has it become associated with the phrase “tikkun olam.” Constantly reminded that others must not suffer the fate we did as slaves in Egypt, our role to about bring redemption encompasses all parts of our lives—the environment, interpersonal relations, social action, everyday kindnesses, and more. This lens reminds us that our actions matter—in our own lives today and in those of future generations.

Using these lenses—these values—to guide our actions helps us envision the world as we wish it to be and move forward to help bring that world into being. The lenses give us tools to connect what we believe and what we do. They are the binnacle’s compass points, keeping us on course in the rough waters of our world.

Kathy Pomer is the educational director of the Sheva Center at JCC Association of North America.

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  1. I am a Youth Coordinator at a small Lutheran church in California and this author’s explanations and metaphor enriched my understanding of some basic tenets of Judaism. But her writing also inspired me this morning to deeply pray about the myriad of influences and considerations which are necessarily part of “sailing” in faith. Thank you for writing this dear friend.

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