Sunday, September 21, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 27- Gratitude

by Judith Felsen

My King, where do I quest for comfort and consolation
in times of weariness and aching of my soul?
Where do I seek wisdom when the burden of errors
regrets and sadness accompany my hours?
Where do I cherish and find refuge and sanctity
when I am transparent and exposed to myself?
My Lord, Your streams wash over aching,
Your mountains call to look up to You,
Your grasses and undergrowth cushion the heel and every step,
Your flowers bring joyful response to all inquiry,
Your trees are time worn standing presence ,
all are Your reminders and the presence of Your will.
Your sparks in nature both embedded and revealed
remain always as a reminder of Your presence here,
of our connection, oneness and our journey home.
Elohim, Your earth, all nature is both dwelling place
and shared identity as all that is here speaks of You.
My seeking is ever satisfied as You and I are here,
in creation, naturally, forever one.
Copyright 2014 Judith E. Felsen, Ph.D.

Judith Felsen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, certificates in hypnotherapy, NLP, Eriksonian Hypnosis, and Sacred Plant Medicine. She is a dancer of sacred circle dance, an AMC kitchen crew , taril information volunteer, trail adopter, and daily student of Torah and Judaism. She is enrolled in Rabbinical Seminary International. She has studied Buddhism, A Course in Miracles, and other mystical traditions. She is a hiker, walker, runner, and lives in the White Mountains with her husband and two large dogs. Her life centers around her Jewish studies and daily application.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 26- We Will be the Change We Want to See

We will be the change we want to see

I am squatting
I am wringing laundry with my hands
I am picking chunks of dirt from the soles of my feet

I am learning to smell the open sewer when I breathe in and out

I am walking
I am jostling in a vikram, in a small car that must have the air conditioning switched to off in order to make it up the Himalayan Mountain where love calls

I am exhausted
I am exhilarated
I am joyful

I am fretting as we weave ourselves up the steep slope and you can see where the cars have already fallen off the cliff

I am terrified when I come upon a mighty pack of horses thrown into the road that barely fits one car—
Let alone the screaming families that want to test their fate on these trails that have seen no rain yet— not me

I am sore
I am flexible
I am sleepless and full of thoughts; I need a vacation from my mind

This landscape that changes when I turn the corner now, the next moment and the moment after that, this landscape is heavy and full and I feel that way—
Pregnant, ready to give birth

To ideas and poems and thoughts and love for those that come to share the same dust and dirt—
For a day, a week or months at a time—
One man who will live like a baba

I have found the nomadic family from which I once sprung
We walked and walked looking for a place to set camp

We the family
The agents of change

Aged and ageless are we
Tireless and tired

Policy makers, activists, farmers, and worker bees
We will be the change we want to see

Andrea Cadwell MA, MSc is a consultant for non- profits and NGO's worldwide. She focuses on sustainable economic development and resiliency in addition to policy development and implementation.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 24 - Elul Love and Joy

by Maggid David Arfa

I’d like to speak about Joy.  I know that Elul is upon us; a time for relentless self-reflection, spurred on by the blasts of shofar.  And yet, the rabbis in their complexity have added another dimension to Elul, Love. Remember the acronym for Elul?  It’s from the Song of Songs, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li - I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  Reciprocal love is spiraling back and forth right here in Elul along with our lists of how we missed the mark.  Isn’t this worthy of attention?  What might it mean?

I’m not sure, but it’s certainly not insignificant.  Rabbi Akiva said that if all of Tanach (the five books plus all the prophets plus all the writings) is the Holy Temple, then the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies!  The Song of Songs is sensuous and loving, filled with sexual desire and yearning; lovers are seeking fulfillment on every page.  We all know that steamy passion can easily burn and destroy, and yet, Rabbi Akiva holds this up as the archetypal place of holiness.  Blessed Be.

This is why I’m turning to joy this Elul.  The Song of Songs is reminding us that loving and desirous energy defines our relationship with the world, with the Source of Life.  Far from being unrequited, it is given back fully.  And then, when I receive the love I’m desiring, I feel fully me, fully seen, feeling even fuller than me!  I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  This face of loving joy is also a face of Teshuvah. 

I heard that the great psychoanalyst Milton Ericson tells a story of a mean nasty man who never smiled.  He became thunderstruck and lovesick with the new school teacher in town.  He asked to see her formally, and she said, only if you clean up your ways and try to smile once in awhile.  The goofiest grin came over his face, kindness filled his heart and he never looked back.  They lived happily ever after, smiling and holding hands like young fools until the end of their days.  Who says love is not powerful!

But wait, if Rabbi Akiva is saying that this great love is our birthright, then it also means there is nothing to earn.  I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  Our very natural relationship with the world itself is to love and be loved in return merely because we are alive!  Why is it so hard to imagine and carry this intense level of joyful loving?

Teshuvah can help me learn the ways that I actively block this joyous knowing; the many ways that I pickle myself in worry and bewitch myself in fear.  The ways we are unaware that our lifted hand blocks the sun and yet we can only whine and wonder why the light is so dim.

The social scientist Brene Brown adds another facet.  She asked why is it so hard to maintain our joy?  Her research discovered our fear of the vulnerability that leads to grief.  She noticed a widespread and uncanny ability to use fantasies of disaster to try and inoculate ourselves.  You know, the way we can look at something beautiful and say, ‘uh-oh, what’s coming’.  The sad truth is that these fantasies do not protect us at all, they just rob us of our joy. 

Amazingly, her remedy, her tikkun is gratitude.  Practices of gratitude in the moment; utterances of thankfulness for what is here right now, irregardless of what may happen in the future.  Hmmmh, the rabbis teach that 100 blessings a day keeps the Dr. away (or something like that-smiles). A good practice for Elul, eh?  With blessings of gratitude, I can remember the utter uniqueness that is life; the perpetual joyous singing that is the symphony of the natural world.  Fortified with joy, I can face the stark truth about the many ways that I and my community inflict personal and planetary harm.  Like Milton Ericson’s mean man, If I’m bathed in love who knows what I will be capable of!

Let the Joy deeds of gratitude be fruitful and multiply! As Rumi said, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”  In the name of Joy, let’s bless all that we hold precious… the Rabbi’s blessings, yes, and even more!  A child’s song, a friends laughter, cooking (and eating) a special meal for/with loved ones, silent welcoming of dawn and dusk, calling good morning to the birds, saying Shehechianu when the Junco’s come in the fall and the constellation Orion appears overhead, when the chicory blooms in July and the tomatoes ripen in August are all for me special joyful moments worthy of honoring with a blessing of gratitude.  What other myriads of blessings would you like to add? 

May your Elul be meaningful and filled with the joy that only love can bring.  Here’s a joyous love poem adapted from psalm 150. 

Jump, Sing Out,
Raise Joy, right here in your chair.
Celebrate life's source
in your home, in green fields,
at rivers edge, from high ledges.
Remember how we are supported,
as lilies in open water.
Blast your car horn,
turn up the radio,
sing loud with the windows rolled down.
Whisper love at night. Remember Nothing,
than moan with delight,
whistle with puckered lips,
click your tongue.
Tap one, no, stomp
both your feet;
pop fingers, clap hands, slap knees,
hoot, howl, bang your chest,
clash and rattle your tin pots.
Raise joy high with this holy commotion.
With every single breath. Hallelujah.  --
Adapted from psalm 150 by Maggid David Arfa

Maggid David Arfa (Mah-geed; storyteller) is dedicated to celebrating Judaism’s storytelling heritage and renewing Judaism’s ancient environmental wisdom. He has over 20 years experience teaching, performing stories and leading workshops. David's programs share the contemporary relevance of Jewish mythology and mysticism with the goals of enriching our spiritual imagination, connecting with the land, and most importantly, finding our own paths within Judaism’s vast and wondrous landscape. To find out more about his two storytelling CD's, The Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe, and The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Who Ever Lived, his award winning, full length story performance The Jar of Tears, about the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, his storytelling leadership project and other programs, please visit:

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 23- Teshuva and Beauty

by Lois Rosenthal

The weekly Haftorah readings follow the story of the Israelites after they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land.  The writing styles vary greatly, from poetry to historical prose.

Of particular note are writings from the time of the divided kingdom. Conquests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were seen by the prophets as divine punishment for failure to follow the Torah.  The writings from this time are full of harsh rebukes and biting metaphors. This is the type of reading found in the weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av.

Once Tisha B’Av is over and the High Holidays are approaching,  the tone changes. Both Torah and Haftorah readings become infused with literary beauty – the lyrical prose of Deuteronomy accompanied by the lovely poetry of the late Isaiah, filled with images of nature’s grandeur as a reflection of the divine, beckoning us to look around at the world and the heavens and there find G-d.

This turning away from harshness towards hope and tenderness reflects the history of the period.  Seventy years after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and exile in Babylonia, the ascendancy of Persia brought a king who allowed the Jews to return to their homeland.  Isaiah’s writings from that time offer consolation and hope for a future of life back in the homeland.

Thus Teshuvah – a return from exile to home, from harshness to spiritual comfort, and, for us, a turning from the concerns of ordinary life to a remembering of the divine – is undertaken in a milieu of beauty which awakens the soul to the process of positive change.

We know that the perception of beauty affects us deeply.  We crave beauty, we seek it out, we spend our precious moments dwelling on that which offers it.  So, for example, the harmonies of violin music are so arresting as to bring tears to our eyes.  A Dutch still life entices us with its intricacies and balance; time stops while we gaze at it. Intense patterns on flowers are gorgeous beyond human imagination. Birds’ plumage dazzles us with striking elaborations.  The music of  synagogue prayers draws us in; we sing and the notes hum inside us. We gaze at colors of a sunset sky; we rush outside to see a rainbow.

We perceive beauty and drink spiritual nectar – tasty, nourishing, filling.  Every single human being is endowed with this faculty, through whatever sense functions within them.

On the physical level, there seems to be no biological utility to this capacity we have for deep appreciation of certain “results” of our five senses. Call it a gift from G-d, a blessing.  
But still, nothing in biology is maintained unless it endows the species with something positive to strengthen and perpetuate itself.  The biologic utility of the pleasures of food, sex, etc seems obvious. But what about the pleasures of seeing or hearing beauty in nature or in the artistic creations of humankind?

This pleasure feels like an instinctual form of love, an immediate response on a tiny scale.  Suppose you come across a wild iris in the woods.  The iris is existing happily in its own environment; it doesn't need you for food or water. You find it beautiful, it pleases you.  You have experienced a quantum of love for this little iris. Now you care about it. A connection has been made.

A piece of music stirs us – how beautiful! It was composed by a human being, played by other human beings. We don’t know them; they may look nothing like us. And yet, some of that sense of beauty, that love we felt for the music spills out onto the humans who created it.  A connection has been made.

Look out over a swath of treetops. The pattern of greens and rounded shapes is so pleasing.  We can’t help but love the trees, plus the whole web of nature that sustains them and relies on them.  A connection has been made.

Our ability to take pleasure from the natural world and from artistic creations of humankind creates threads of connections  between each of us and the myriad elements of nature.

Beauty does have biological utility. It is the antidote to narcissism and loneliness.  It connects us to the web of existence in the world, causes us to care about it, love it, and of course, do everything we can to preserve it.

Genesis was right.  We are stewards of the world.  We are the only species that can preserve it or cause large scale destruction of it.  Look for beauty in the world and there you will find the passion to preserve it.

Lois Rosenthal is a member of Temple Tifereth Israel Winthrop where she teaches Hebrew School, does Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutoring, and participates in Shabbat services.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 22 - "Yeah, I Think We Should Kill Them All"

By Alexander Volfson
I wasn't sure visiting Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial, would leave an impression on me; after all, I had heard it all before. Not only that I had absorbed the notion that all of humanity's reckless violent ways were behind us. Genocide, alas, is so common that it has its own major in college, which, unfortunately, does not fall under archaeology. Remarkably, this practice continues to this day.

The typical story arc of the Holocaust goes like this: those awful Germans wanted to murder all the Jews and almost got away with it. That's why it's so important that Israel be the Jewish homeland. Truth is, that's not how it happened. Our Yad Vashem tour guide emphasized two central principles that shaped post-Great-War Germany. The first was "it was a process." From ideas to curfews to ghettos and pogroms to work camps to death camps, these activities started small but gradually intensified. The second was "groupthink" or peer-pressure, as I like to call it. This also intensified over time where, at first, one might simply be given a funny look for non-conformity; quickly, the consequence was being sent to the same work camps as the other "undesirables."

What struck me was that both of these principles are surprisingly universal. Society's norms tend to have inertia and thus, it takes time for them to change (i.e. it's a process). Similarly, conformity (the result of peer-pressure) is a feature, sometimes more prevalent than others, but one which nonetheless appears consistently across societies throughout time. In light of this, the images around me began to take on a different meaning. Where once the people behind the barbed wire were innocent and those in front of it evil it became clear that the Germans were not born to be cruel just as much as the Jews, Gypsies and handicap were not born to be victims. Contrary to Nazi doctrine it was not genetics that determined the outcome but circumstance and societal forces that steered the paths of oppressed and oppressor. Where innocent Germans once stood, in hindsight they look pretty guilty. Not all of them, and certainly not equally, but the responsibility lies across societal echelons. Atrocities do not commit themselves.

Where the Holocaust is used to justify a Jewish state where Jews can be safe, the lesson I got was that what Jews (and frankly all ethnicities) need is a country where simply every ethnicity is safe. If we, today, can see the pure humanity of the people that stood in the Warshaw ghetto and ask ourselves, "Why didn't they just let them live like everyone else?" then we must ask the same question of today’s ghettos. We may have no relationship to them, and yet, the way to treat them is clear: just the same as all other humans.

The quote that titles this essay does not refer to murdering Jews and comes from neither a 1939 German nor a 1945 German. It comes from my relative and was made, with a shrug, in reference to the inhabitants of Gaza. Euphemistically known as "mowing the lawn", let's just call it what it is: genocide. This teshuva, let us take a good look in the mirror. How are we supporting genocide? More importantly, how will we stop it?

Can an honest resident of the USA look in the mirror and not find genocide? Not find ecocide? Not find harm to future generations by how we treat each other and the Earth that nourishes us all?

I think it's worth reflecting on.

 Alexander Volfson, a humanist and Earth-ist, loves finding ways to bring folks together to work toward sustainable lifestyles. Alexander is a co-founder of  Transition Framingham. When he's not fixing things (from appliances to bicycles to computers) or planting them (for a permaculture designed garden), he's biking somewhere or learning something new.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 21- What Does Atoning and Returning to God Mean?

by Rabbi Judy Weiss

Ps. 27:1 "The Lord is my light and my rescue. Whom should I fear?"
For an entire month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus on atoning and returning to God. But what exactly, in real life terms, does atoning and returning to God mean? We plan our path to return by adding Psalm 27 to our daily prayers. This psalm repeatedly affirms hope in God. It ends with:
Ps 27:14 "Let your heart be firm and bold, and hope for the Lord."
As Robert Alter comments, the Psalm opens and closes with the same sentiment "It begins by affirming trust in God and reiterates that hopeful confidence, but the trust has to be asserted against the terrors of being overwhelmed by implacable enemies.”

The psalm focuses on hope, but what does hope have to do with High Holiday atonement? We all have some circumstance that destabilizes us, quashes our hope, fosters procrastination, apathy, or alienation. As you think about your issue, consider the possibility that one type of sin is succombing to despair, and for this sin, returning to God is pushing despair away and holding on firmly to hope.

My issue is climate change activism. I’m regularly filled with despair that my children and grandchildren won’t be safe, and that it is already too late to help them. Greenland's ice sheet is melting faster than predicted. So is the West Antarctic icesheet.

I steer clear of this, my worst fear, I turn towards hope that humanity will eliminate carbon emissions and will stabilize the climate relying on the fact that 8 of the 10 largest world economies are already charging for fossil fuel emissions. China has six operating regional cap and trade initiatives, plans to start a national system for pricing emissions soon, and will prohibit coal powered electricity generation in Beijing by 2020.

Yet, very often I veer again into despair. The Beijing coal plants will be converted to natural gas which is no better for climate change than coal Missouri has 21 functioning coal plants, Kansas just issued permits for a new coal plant, and Florida's Governor and Junior Senator deny anthropogenic climate change is happening. Seas are rising rapidly in the area. Some Miami streets flood with sea water and sewage during high tides. Residents will experience trouble flushing toilets as water level rises. Ludicrously, Miami construction continues as if it is a gigantic Ponzi scheme to maintain real estate prices. Climate change denial also props up real estate values in coastal North Carolina.

Religiously, I redirect myself towards hope. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) routed an extremist primary opponent. Alexander's victory is a hopeful sign because, during the campaign season, he toured a solar factory, acknowledging anthropogenic climate change, acknowledging the need for emissions-free energy (solar, nuclear, bio), and acknowledging the need to eliminate fossil fuel companies special tax breaks (above and beyond the breaks that all other corporations receive).

I commonly do penance for despair by reading a few more articles, writing several more letters to the editor. Did you know that Senate candidate Gary Peters (D-MI) is running on climate change? Peters pressed his opponent (Terry Lynn Land) to affirm climate change is caused by humans and requires action. He trailed by 3 points six months ago, but is now up by 7. His campaign emphasizes Land receives campaign funding from Koch industries, the same Koch industries that stores piles of petroleum coke near residential Detroit neighborhoods. Voters seem to be responding to the health risks from exposure to petroleum coke dust, and to Peters' calls for climate action. When the Koch brothers are a liability to the Republican party, strong Republican leadership will be able to reassert traditional Republican environmental values. I see hope here, opportunities for people to learn and connect, improve their situation and steward the world.

Despair furtively makes me forget hope. Climate change deniers caused Congress to waste decades. In 1988 Dr. James Hansen testified before Congress about climate change. Since then, climate change progressed faster than scientists had warned based on almost every measure. Deniers persistently bombard the public with propaganda, destroying resolve, undermining hope.

Ps 27:3 says “Though a camp is marshaled against me, my heart shall not fear."
What is this military camp? Although the psalm means external enemies, rabbinic commentators suggest the enemy camp could be internal, our internal evil inclination. As some shun murder, adultery and swearing, I cold-shoulder despair. I reposition towards hope with the knowledge that Dr. Hansen left NASA to advocate full time for climate action. Despair, a weapon of the evil inclination, can be rebuffed.

To this climate change activist, atoning and returning mean defending against despair. Surrendering to the idea that it’s too late for climate action, cannot lead to a good outcome. Devoting oneself to hope that there is still time allows advocacy and anger, curbs apathy, prevents hatred towards deniers, and ends alienation from people and nations who are in worse straits than we are.

Whatever your source of despair, whenever your heart shrinks from bold, firm action, remember atonement and returning to God means affirming hope. Remember the old joke about the man on the roof during rising floodwaters? Drown fear, squelch everything you know, grab the helicopter ladder, and be rescued.

Rabbi Judy Weiss lives in Brookline, MA with her husband Alan. She teaches Tanakh and volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 19- Soul Accounting in the Year of Release

by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips 

Ecology and economy, spirituality and social justice are directly connected in our Jewish values of heshbon (accountability).  Every time we open our wallets or check our bank balances, we face issues of heshbon — no less than when we search our souls (heshbon hanefesh) during this Season of Turning. 

How are we “spending” each day of our lives? The ancient sage Ben Zoma (Mishnah Avot 4:1) taught that the wise are those who learn from every person; the brave are those who control (literally, “occupy”) their own impulses; the rich are those who rejoice in their own portions; and the honorable are those who honor creation and its creatures.

This integrated four-fold teaching offers a blueprint for sustainability in the coming year of sh’mitah / release.  Each of us can learn how to appreciate our abundance, to moderate our consumption, to discern which of our expenditures truly honor creation and its creatures — and to control our impulses regarding those purchases that do not.

Agricultural rhythms of tithing through the sabbatical cycle have given us the financial ethics of wealth redistribution on a proportional basis.  In order to share our wealth proportionately today, we need clarity about our actual discretionary spending and our place in the world economy.  Membership in the global “one percent” is a surprisingly low bar for affluent Americans — and experience has shown that peer support is needed to bring this spiritual, financial and environmental heshbon to the next level.

Welcome to Nedivut Tzedek / Generous Justice, an intergenerational network of Jewish learning circles for just giving.  Our circles renew the Jewish values and practices of heshbon through study, storytelling, supportive action / reflection, and cultural development.   Participants learn how we vote with our daily money choices for the state of our world, and how to mobilize the power of those choices for social change as well as for greater personal fulfillment.

Generous Justice circles are taking root within local communities through a series of local outreach programs, building momentum toward a retreat-based leadership training in August 2015.  A resource manual will be available beyond the 2015 training to extend the reach of Generous Justice to additional communities of concern.

When our personal tzedakah meets the ethical metric of proportional giving, we discover how much we can really afford to contribute toward the causes most important to us.  After that, setting distribution priorities becomes a process of ongoing action / reflection in the service of change.  We put our money where our mouths, hearts and minds are, making thoughtful course adjustments as appropriate — and we let the earth rest from our relentless consumption.

Throughout the coming sabbatical year, Generous Justice will bring together Jews across generations, income levels, personal temperaments, spiritual orientations and political ideologies to support each other in realizing our full giving potentials.  Like our ancestors, we will start from wherever we are, with whatever we have — and keep the issues in proportion.

© 2014 by Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips

Rabbi Regina Sandler-Phillips is the project director of Nedivut Tzedek / Generous Justice, and the executive director of WAYS OF PEACE Community Resources in Brooklyn, New York.