Succeeding as a “hevruta” – Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader on Yom Kippur, 2018.  We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.

It’s always great when someone you admire agrees what you’ve done.  But what about when they disagree with you, challenge you or tell you something you didn’t want to hear?  How does that feel?

If you have someone in your life who can tell you the truth even when it is difficult than you are blessed.  Judaism values this person, they are called a hevruta – or a study partner.  Hevruta derives the same Hebrew root haver or friend.  This relationship is highly respected and considered to be among the most important in our lives.  The ideal hevruta relationship is not one where the one person agrees with the other all the time.  Instead, each partner challenges the other not only to think deeply but also to push themselves to act morally in word and deed.  The Biblical scholar Rashi described the hevruta relationships as follows: “when two scholars pay heed to each other, teach one another and understand from each other that indicates God’s immanent presence in the world, especially in human relationships.”  A hevruta can be spouse, a friend, a sibling, a parent, a child, relative, co-worker so on.  Our lives are better for having this person in them.

While at in rabbinic school at Hebrew Union College, I spent countless hours with my hervuta partners.  We studied together in class and at home every day.  Through our studies, we became very close and got to know each other very well.  We supported each other unconditionally with our studies and everything else.  We wanted each other to succeed and would help each other to do so.  I remember one time when my flight was delayed returning from my student pulpit in Arizona.  So, when I landed back in LA at very late at night and I still had hours of homework to finish before school the next morning.  At midnight, my hevruta partners came over to help prepare for my presentation in class the next morning.  They stayed up with me until 3:00 in the morning so I would be ready for class.  It is hard to express how I grateful I felt for them and their commitment to our friendship that night and many other times.  Over the years, we have all played this role for each other, helping each other through whatever came our way.   Although we live in different cities now, we are still each other’s closest friends and first calls when we need support.

In the Talmud, we read about a pair of hevruta partners who are often heralded we the ideal pair.  Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish are often cited as the exemplar study partners.  When Reish Lakish was very ill, Rabbi Yohanan said about him: When we would study together, Reish Lakish would ask questions and I would answer those questions.  This process of asking and answering questions would clarify the subject for me.

The clarity Rabbi Yohanan drew from his partner Reish Lakish made his commentary more incisive, critical and worthy of respect.  Beyond the understand of the text, Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan supported and challenged each other.  As ideal hevruta, they both grew as scholars and people because of their relationship with one another.

Let’s apply these lessons about the meaning of having a substantive partner, a hevruta relationship, to the Haftara portion of Yom Kippur afternoon.

As you know the in the story of Jonah, God calls upon him to help the people of Nineveh repent and change their ways.  Jonah is a very reluctant prophet, who runs away from God’s commands.   While Jonah tries to escape from God, he is thrown off a boat and lives inside a whale for three days.  As the narrative continues, Jonah goes to Nineveh, but he is still hesitant to invest in the people there.   He is not hevruta with them nor is he was invested their growth.  He does not help or support their repentance, instead he does the opposite.  He argues with God that the people of Nineveh should be punished even after God is willing to accept their teshuvah.  In the beginning of chapter 4, when Jonah should have been rejoicing because the God decided the people of Nineveh had changed their ways, Jonah says: “For I knew that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil. Now Lord, please take my life, for I would rather die than live.”  And Adonai replies: “Are you that deeply angry?”  Jonah does not answer,  instead he leaves the city.

Jonah fails in this text because he is unable to be the leader, guide or hevruta that the people of Nineveh need.

Jonah fails as a leader, because he was not invested in the growth and development of the people of Nineveh.  Had he listened to God’s call, he might have guided the people to change. Instead Jonah’s actions are the antithesis of good leader or a supportive hevruta partner. There is a theory by professor of psychology Dr. Nevitt Sanford that establishes the connection between support and challenge as drivers for personal and personal growth and development.  Sanford argues that people bring their best when they are continuously supported and challenged.  Sanford explains that great leaders are totally engaged in the development of the people around them.  Not only does this lead to the continuation of learning, but it also fosters innovation and growth.  These theories can apply to students, business, organizations, relationships and communities like ours.  As we strive to go into the New Year, we hope to be in hevruta relationships accepting the challenges of others.

I think one of the messages of Jonah so for us to do better than he did.  We are being challenged to engage as hevruta partners to the people in our lives and to be invested in each other in growth.  We are being asked to learn from the text to be in hevruta so we don’t get off track as the people of Nineveh did. We have the ability to help bring out the best in each other and ourselves.  As we lovingly challenge the people in our lives and also must strive raise to the challenges given to us.  When we do this, we are invested in the well-being of each other and the community as a whole.

Jonah failed as a hevruta, but we can succeed where he did not.

In answering this call, in this New Year, I pray each of us will be blessed with a support hevruta who will lovingly challenge and support us. I pray that we will be hevruta for the people in our lives, lovingly pushing them.

And I pray that we will be able to raise to the challenge that our hevruta partners ask for us.

May we be blessed with these with the growth, love and support of these precious hevruta relationships in the year ahead.