Love Sustains: How My Everyday Practices Make My Everyday Activism Possible

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February 13, 2015

“We do this because the world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning.” —Sandra Cisneros

We do this — the work of tikkun olam

Because the world we live in is a house on fire: Racism. Hunger. Economic Justice. Climate. Education. Domestic Violence. Poverty. More.

And the people we love are: Oppressed. Attacked. Desperately poor. Sick. Afraid. Hungry. Vulnerable. Suffering.

Burning. The people we love and the world we live in are burning.

Morguefile photos.

Sometimes, this is how it feels — like the world is on fire — and in the face of systemic racism, climate change, or the widening gap between rich and poor, it’s difficult to see what difference my individual actions could possibly make. I pour my heart into work for a better world, often with no tangible immediate results.

I suppose I could just watch TV and drink beer. Or maybe go shopping, like all the advertisements tell me I should. (Yes! What would make me really happy is a diamond bracelet!)

That’s not real, though. Escapism and consumerism don’t solve anything — least of all, the questions or yearning of my heart.

In the face of so many huge and interlocking challenges, another option is to give up and succumb to grief, sorrow, and despair. Become one of those people who carry around a dark cynicism and this too-often heard story, “Once upon a time, I cared and tried to make a difference — and then I figured out the hard way that none of it really matters, so now I don’t even try anymore.”

I’ve met a few of these people. Without some kind of deep wellspring, the struggle of facing the world’s troubles is too frequently, too much.

Or I could keep trying, fueled by anger at so much injustice. To paraphrase Dylan Thomas, Rage, rage against the dying of the planet. There’s plenty to be angry about, for sure — but I’ve met a few of these activists, too, and I don’t want to live that way.

The world does not need more anger or despair.

The world needs awake, alive, engaged people whose work to mend the world is grounded in and inspired by love. The world needs people who somehow keep their hearts open and pliable while they look unflinchingly at our broken systems and work to change them.

Sounds nice, I know. Actually doing it for any length of time, though, is damn hard.

At some point I realized I couldn’t do it on my own. I realized that in order to stay engaged, I needed help. I needed community, practice, structure, and God. I know — there are plenty who will say that intelligent progressives aren’t supposed to “need God,” or some of the other “trappings” of religion.

But let’s not get lost down that rabbit hole today. But let’s do talk about structure, and community, and practice. Rooting myself in Jewish tradition and practice was the best thing I ever did for my activist self, and I think it holds the keys to my being able to sustain justice work for the proverbial long haul. Below, a few things that help me keep at it.


First, let’s get this straight: we work for six days. Working is good. But on Shabbat, we stop — and this is the hard part for activists; I know so many who work all the time. “There’s so much to do!” they say. And they’re right. There is a tremendous amount of work to do.

“Is it possible for a human being to do all his work in six days?” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian, activist, and author of The Sabbath questions.

He answers with another question: “Does not our work always remain incomplete?”

When I first began to study Judaism, I was already immersed in climate work. I’d come to understand that our environmental problems were manifestations of deeper spiritual problems; that we humans are disconnected from the natural world (or “creation”), from one another, and from God — and no amount of legislative advocacy will achieve good climate policy without there being a concurrent change of human hearts.

And so it is that I fell in love with Shabbat.

In our place and time, the practice of Shabbat is counter-cultural. It goes against the grain of individualism and consumerism, two of the most powerful forces hurtling us toward planetary crisis.

On the Sabbath day, we don’t mess with the world. We don’t work, we don’t write or draw or build or create; we don’t spend money (how liberating! #noconsumerism). Does this sound stifling? Certainly, it is limiting — but maybe we humans should live within some kind of limits. Our disregard for limits has contributed to our climate problem, for sure.

While work is prohibited, the Sabbath is not a do-nothing day. Encouraged are actions that bring us into closer connection to our families and friends, to community, to God, and to creation. We celebrate a festive Friday evening Shabbat meal with friends and family, we drink wine, we join in community to worship and to connect with God, and we appreciate the simple gifts of creation — of food, our bodies, and holy time bounded by two sunsets.

For climate and other justice activists, a lived, intentional Shabbat practice can be a powerful tool for reorienting us toward a way of being that is centered on connection, balance, and wholeness, or shalom. Shabbat practice teaches limits. Shabbat practice teaches non-attachment. Shabbat practice teaches enoughness. Shabbat practice teaches gratitude. We need all of those qualities in abundance to help sustain our pursuit of justice.

The Task at Hand.

When most people think about religion and the practice of being aware of the present moment — not stuck in the past, not thinking about the future, but just being here now and now and now — they think about Buddhism. It’s true; Buddhism is big on being in the present moment. But so is Judaism, just in a different way.

Jewish tradition teaches that we should say 100 blessings every day. The basic idea is that for most of our regular, daily actions — including eating, drinking, and going to the bathroom — and also, seeing a rainbow, smelling fragrant spices, or studying Torah — we should give thanks to God.

These prayers and blessings are a frequent acknowledgement and reminder that life is a gift for which we are grateful. They are also tools for bringing us into awareness of the present moment. Indeed, they bring us beyond awareness — the act of saying a blessing brings us into interaction with the present moment, connecting our aware present moment with God and with gratitude.

I’ve done the math. In order to actually say 100 blessings each day, you’d have to say one on average every 10 minutes. This tells me that I need to step it up; I’m not even close! I wonder how adding to my blessing/gratitude practice would affect me as I move through each day.

Part of the challenge of working on complex, systemic issues is that they loom so large. Poverty and racism and exploitative labor practices were here long before I was born; I imagine they’ll be here long after I’m gone.

Climate change? Well, that one’s pretty new, but the science tells us it’s not going anywhere, either. We’re standing at the crossroads of climate futures right now, choosing between awful and downright terrifying. So far, we’re not choosing well.

On any of these big issues, though, it’s clear that I, Yaira Robinson, will not “fix” or “solve” anything. At this point, it would be easy to ask: “So why even bother to try?”

Judaism is strong on this question, probably because for millennia the Jewish people have struggled to pursue lives of joy and hope and meaning within what was too often a bleak, persecuted context.

So our tradition offers gems like this oft-quoted teaching from Rabbi Tarfon:

It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:16).

If I can keep my focus on doing the things that I can do — that it is my privilege to be able to do (#gratitude) — rather than on hoped-for outcomes, then I am able to do one thing, and then another, and then another.

I cannot fix everything that needs fixing. But I can do some. Indeed, Jewish tradition teaches me that I am obligated to do what I can. Somehow, that helps me, too. If I’m in the business of tikkun olam just because I want to be, then not only is it optional, but it’s also a little bit all-about-me.

But if I’m in the business of tikkun olam because that’s what I’m supposed to do with this gift of a life on earth — if, in fact, that’s what we’re all supposed to be doing — then that’s just what we do, every day, in whatever ways we can. I find that obligation freeing.


Most activists know the importance of having a community of like-minded, activist friends. These days, my Interfaith Power & Light colleagues from other states are a significant part of my activist community, even though we’re flung far and wide. These are the people who help me feel not crazy most of the time.

Social media is reshaping the activist landscape in powerful, promising ways. But it’s important to have real relationships with other people, too. People we can see on a regular basis. People who might not be either like-minded or activists.

It is no small thing that Jewish prayer requires the presence of 10 people. Individual prayer can be meaningful, but we aren’t meant to live fragmented, solitary lives. In its wisdom, Judaism recognizes that we need other people. In fact, it requires it.

I attend Saturday morning Shabbat services at my congregation on a regular basis. There’s a bunch of people there that I don’t know, but they help me understand my place in things. Sometimes I show up on Saturday mornings feeling exhausted. Maybe I’m stretched thin by work-related travel or deadlines, or I’m carrying the weight of personal stresses. I’m human, like anybody else.

Sometimes I can get so caught up in my own self that that’s all I can see. I’m focused completely inward, the center of my own universe. Really this isn’t a healthy or balanced way to be in the world.

On Saturday mornings at synagogue, the community at large celebrates people’s birthdays, anniversaries, and baby namings. One person introduces his relatives who are visiting from out of town. It’s a young woman’s bat mitzvah. A group of people are honored with an aliyah in recognition of their work to coordinate a musical benefit. One family stands during Kaddish, newly in mourning for a loved one.

This community, old and young, is sharing all the joys and heartbreaks of life from birth through death. This community pulls me out of myself, and into a larger, shared human life. They don’t know how much they give me, just by showing up. I do know how much I give myself, though, just by showing up.

“We do this because the world we live in is a house on fire and the people we love are burning.” —Sandra Cisneros

The world is a mess, y’all. There’s a ton of work to do. Here, I’ve shared some of the ways that Jewish practice and community help keep me grounded, focused, and balanced as I dedicate time and energy to mending the world even just a little bit — without burning out, running on anger, or sinking into despair.

Tell me: what sustains you?

Editor’s note: *This article originally ran on December 16, 2014.*

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