Friday, November 14, 2014

Parshat Chayyei Sarah: The Answering of Our Prayers Before We Speak them—Especially Outdoors

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Connections. Everything is about connections. Connections across space. Connections across time. Connections in thought and spirit. Connections between. Connections among. Just connections, nothing else. That's what prayer is about. That is what faith is about. That is what life is about.

In this week’s parashah, Chayyei Sarah, “Isaac went forth to [lasuach] in the field toward evening.” (Gen 24:63) The rabbis teach us that lasuach has the meaning, “to pray,” and they provide a connection to Psalm 102:1, which begins, “A prayer for a poor man when he enwraps himself [lishpoch sicho] to pour out his heart before the One.” Isaac was pouring out his heart, pouring out his words, his conversation (sicho) to G!d.; he was praying.

As Isaac prayed a deep heart-felt prayer, the medieval commentator, Sforno, says that “he turned away from the public path so as not to be interrupted by wayfarers, and went into the field to pray, even though he had already prayed in Be'er lachai-ro'i. But before he prayed he was answered.”

What!? Yes, Sforno is saying that Isaac's prayer was answered even before he spoke it. Wow! What is the basis for this ancient teaching? What does this mean? Could our prayers also be answered before we speak them? 

The answers begin with a connection to the previous verse, “Isaac was on his way, coming from Be'er lachai-ro'i” (Gen. 24:62). Just prior to his wandering in the field, Isaac had been in a place whose name, according to another medieval commentator, Rashi, (Gen. 16:14), means, “a well upon which a living angel appeared.” The name by which Hagar calls G!d in the previous verse, Gen. 11:13, is El Ro’i, “the G!d of seeing,” connecting thus the name of the well also to the Divine Presence. This place through which Isaac passed is the same place where Hagar’s prayers were answered, where she experienced G!d seeing what was happening to him, and where G!d told her that she would conceive and give birth to a son, Ishmael. (Gen. 16:11) 

Is there something special—magical almost—about this well? Is Be'er lachai-ro'i a place to go to when we want our prayers answered? Maybe. After all, since prayers were answered for Hagar, the rabbis reasoned that therefore prayers could be answered in the same place for Isaac, too.  And maybe for others as well?

The sages cite other evidence that Isaac's prayer could already have been answered—evidence from other people for whom this happened. They remember the prophet Daniel, who reported on his vision: “And he said to me "Fear not, Daniel, for since the first day that you set your heart to contemplate and to fast before your God, your words were heard;” (Daniel 10:12) They cite Isaiah, “Thus G!d said to Isaiah that it will one day come to be:  ‘And it shall be, when they have not yet called, that I will respond; when they are still speaking, that I will hearken.’” (Is. 65:24) If prayers could be answered before they were spoken for Daniel and Isaiah, why not for the patriarch Isaac?

But perhaps the answer is deeper. The verses about Hagar’s prayers, Genesis 16:11-14, give us connections to Ishmael as well as to Hagar, for this is the place where the reality of his conception entered Hagar’s consciousness. In this instance, the connection to Hagar and Ishmael is through the place, Be'er lachai-ro'i. But the sages make another connection between Isaac’s prayer and Hagar and Ishmael with Gen. 21:15, when Hagar and Ishmael have been sent away by Abraham at Sarah’s behest, and in Hagar’s despair she “cast the child [Ishmael] under one of the bushes [hasichim].” The two words lasuach and sichim, have the same three-letter root. They have different etymologies, and different meanings, but because of the similarities, the rabbis find meaning, as they often did, by noting and strengthening the connection, in this case connections within the family.

Isaac's meditation in the field has a connection to his father, too. From the Talmud (Berachot 6b), we learn that Abraham instituted the morning prayers, Shacharit, Isaac the afternoon prayers, Mincha, and Jacob the evening prayers, Ma’ariv. But the Biblical commentators (e.g. Rach, Gen. 24:63) don’t credit Isaac alone for bringing the Mincha prayer service into being; they tell us that the Mincha prayer originated with Abraham, but was brought to fruition and named through Isaac. The innovation of the afternoon prayer had to be passed from one generation to the next in order to secure for the tradition a place into the future. Connections to past generations.

Connections to the past don’t end with Hagar and Abraham. They go all the way back to Creation. Rashbam, in his commentary on "Isaac went forth to pray in the field [lasuach basadeh] toward evening” focuses on the words lasuach basadeh, and he refers us to Genesis 2:5 and the creation of every “bush/herb of the field (siach hasadeh),” for which he provides the association, “to plant trees and to see the fruits of his efforts.” The fruits of the planter’s efforts, the answers to the pray-er’s prayers—the connection to Creation offers additional evidence that our prayers, our pouring out of our hearts in time of need, are answered.

The verse Rashbam comments on comes from the second creation story and in its entirety it reads, “Now no tree of the field was yet on the earth, neither did any herb/bush of the field yet grow, because the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen 2:5) It is followed by, "A mist ascended from the earth and watered the entire surface of the ground.” (Gen 2:6) Two verses later, G!d “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8). Although we understand from the ancient rabbis that there is no “before” and “after” in the Torah, nevertheless, here in this narrative we find that even before rain began falling, there was mist rising to water the plants!

How often do we understand the rising mist as the answer to our prayer for falling rain? When rain has not yet been created, we must expand our minds and our hearts to be able to see that the rising mist may indeed be how our prayer is answered. A mist that rises from the ground may be the precursor to the rain that falls from the sky, or it may even have the same function.

So can our prayers be answered before we speak them? What would it mean if they were? The answer I believe,  is ultimately about allowing connections. Isaac was physically alone in that field, but in his heart and mind he was connected across time and space to Hagar, Ishmael, a special well, G!d, Earth, and Creation. And, perhaps most importantly, his heart was open to receive a message, the message that G!d was ready to send him.

When we open our hearts and allow ourselves to be connected to those in our lives—living and dead, near at hand and far away—to G!d, to the Earth, to the past, to all of this and more—then our prayers are answered. We may not always see and recognize our answers as easily as Isaac did—he lifted up his eyes and there was Rebecca coming toward him, his new love, his wife to be. But if we listen closely to our hearts and souls, if we keep them open, despite whatever obstacles get thrown our way, if we stand beside a well with a seeing or seeable angel upon it, then, we, too, can feel or see or hear an answer coming to us, too.

Many prayers of petition are built into our tradition, such as the blessings of the weekday Amidah (Shmoneh Esreh) and the prayer for healing recited during the Torah service. Many of the petitionary blessings end with a chatimah, a closing signature, sort of a summary of what the blessing is about.  However, if we look closely at these, we see that they are, in essence, statements of what G!d does. For example, the morning blessing for the body ends with “Blessed are You, Adonai, healer of all flesh and worker of miracles.” This is a statement of who and what G!d is and does, as much as, or more than, it is a request for what we hope will be.

Hope, what does this word really mean? defines the verb “to hope” as “to look forward to with desire and reasonable confidence,” but also as, “to believe, desire, or trust.” If we take all those closing signatures of blessings as statements of reality, they can give us faith, faith without an indirect object. Not faith IN something or someone, just faith—the sense, the knowledge, the understanding, the trust, that whatever happens, there will still be meaning, we will still be able to find meaning and well being and self-integrity. We will, on some very basic and fundamental level, be OK.

This, I believe, is what it means to have our prayers answered before we pray. Our prayers are not a request for something to happen, but a statement of our faith, and therefore they are answered even before we say them, for if not, we wouldn't even say them. 

What makes it possible for us to have this kind of faith? Lawrence Hoffman in his book The Art of Public Prayer, discusses patterns. The anthropologist Gregory Bateson spoke of “the pattern which connects” and described the patterns upon patterns that are present in the living world, their increasing complexity, and how they all connect. Lawrence Hoffman refers to Bateson’s description of the levels of patterns  He asks us to think of connections between patterns in the universe and, as we compare more and more sets of patterns, how quickly they become so complex that they are beyond the capacity of the human mind to fathom. He suggests that these infinite levels of patterns are not only evidence of order in the universe, but are also a way of seeing a Divine Presence in the universe.    

Faith is about connecting all the patterns, and trusting that those we cannot understand really exist. It is about certainty and knowing, combined with humility, something we feel in the pit of our stomach. It is about knowing our smallness in the vast sweeps of space and time that constitute the Universe—and beyond. It is about knowing our importance and the difference we can make in this world when we say YES to the still small voice we hear within us. Faith is about feeling the rightness of that choice in the deepest recesses of our soul. 

Faith is about knowing—through the myriad connections between us and all that surrounds and encompasses us—that we are part of, not separate from, all of Creation, the natural world that surrounds us.

Patti Ann Rogers, in her poem “The Family Is All There Is,” begins: “Think of those old, enduring connections found in all flesh--the channeling wires and threads, vacuoles, granules, plasma and pods, purple veins, ascending boles and coral sapwood (sugar- and light-filled), those common ligaments, filaments, fibers and  canals.” She goes on to lyrically express all kinds of connections with the world around us that wouldn't have come readily to my mind, reminding us that we are very much a part of all that is, and not separate. Faith is about opening our hearts to all these unseen connections and trusting that they—and others exist.

Faith is about embracing the Butterfly Effect, the concept in chaos theory that a small change at one place in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere. It is about believing that there is meaning in our lives and in our existence, and that we have a meaningful impact.

Faith is about the “Supposition” Pattiann Rogers writes about: “Suppose the molecular changes taking place in the mind during the act of praise resulted in an emanation rising into space....Suppose benevolent praise, coming into being by our will, had a separate existence, its purple or azure light gathering in the upper reaches, affecting the aura of morning haze over autumn fields, or causing a perturbation in the mode of an asteroid. What if praise and its emanations were catalysts to the harmonious expansion of the void? Suppose, for the prosperous welfare of the universe, there were an element of need involved.” Faith is about knowing that our own faith has a positive impact on the Universe.

We need to pray, not so that we will get what we pray for, but in order to understand that the answers—the connections—are already present, which is why the answering of our prayers is in the praying. The answers are in the connections, and they are always available for us to see, understand, and accept into our hearts and souls. All we need to do is open our eyes, as Hagar did, our hearts, as the poor man in the Psalm did, and our bodies and minds, and as Isaac did when he walked out into the field, under the open sky, surrounded by G!d's creatures, where the connections could flow without impediment. For, as Pattiann Rogers tells us: “I’m sure there’s a god in favor of drums.... [and] the heart must be the most pervasive drum of all. Imagine hearing all together every tinny snare of every heartbeat in every jumping mouse and harvest mouse, sagebrush vole and least shrew living across the prairie; and add to that cacophony the individual staccato ticking’s inside all gnatcatchers, kingbirds, kestrels, rock doves, pine warblers crossing, criss-crossing each other in the sky, the sound of their beatings overlapping with the singular hammerings of the hearts of cougar, coyote, weasel, badger, pronghorn, the ponderous bass of the black bear; and on deserts, too, all the knackings, the flutterings inside wart snakes, whiptails, racers and sidewinders, earless lizards, cactus owls; plus the clamors undersea, slow booming in the breasts of beluga and bowhead, uniform rappings in a passing school of cod or bib, the thidderings of bat rays and needlefish.” Faith is in connecting to all these heartbeats, our own, and countless others across space and time.

Faith is knowing that our prayers are answered. Before we speak the words.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope inWayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network, a member of the editorial board, a board member of Shomrei Bereishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza Conflict.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Making our Confession Real: Tools for On-going Teshuvah - Part 1

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Just before Yom Kippur, I posted Al Chet - Confessional for the Earth So many are the deeds, misdeeds, and non-deeds in relation to the Earth for which we must confess, and then, hopefully, do teshuvah. With this post I begin a series of suggestions for how to implement changes that can help to make our confessional meaningful beyond its words, into actions.

I begin with a response to this phrase:
For the sin we have committed against You by believing we are doing enough,
Do you believe you are doing enough? I think many of us feel we are not. Maybe we even have in our heads ideas of what we should be doing, but we have a hard time getting motivated. Maybe we are scared, or just stuck, or overwhelmed by the many options running through our heads or coming at us in email blasts and other social media. 

How do we find our own path? For it is our own path we must follow - the on-going process teshuvah is a very individual one, and that is what we are talking about - re-turning to G!d in a way that really alters our actions.

So I offer for you a meditation to help you solidify your understanding of your way forward to a more complete relationship with the Holy One of Blessing and the Earth.

Meditation for a Stronger and More Active Earth Connection

  • Step outside. 
  • Make yourself comfortable in a comfortable place. Give yourself a few minutes to settle in.
  • Relax your breathing. Breathe in deeply. Breath out, slowly exhaling. Repeat, using the breathy word Yah - G!d - the Breath of Life.
  • Now feel the Earth beneath your feet. Focus on the connection between your feet and the ground beneath. Feel your connection to Earth flowing up from below. Then feel the Earth's connection to you flowing downward from yourself.
  • Return to a few breaths of Yah.
  • Look upward at the sky. Feel your connection to the heavens - the Sun, the stars, the Moon. Focus on that connection. Allow the energy of your connection to the heavens to flow down from above. Then feel the sky's connection to you flowing upward from yourself.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Close your eyes. Visualize your connection to beloved places, to important people in your life, to other living things. Allow their connection to you to flow inward to your heart. Allow your connection to them to flow outward in return.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • Use your own language and images. Feel a sense of gratitude. Ask G!d for strength and direction.
  • Hold the silence. Hold the stillness. Hold the strength. Let the answers come.
  • Breathe deeply.
  • When you are ready, open your eyes.
  • Feel yourself blessed and energized.
  • When you are ready, move onward to what is next.

You may wish to repeat this, to modify and make it your own. Perhaps you want to add words - or a word - of prayer. Play with it until you feel a new sense of resolve and strength and courage to move forward.

Remember that the Confession for the Earth ends with these words:"we are the ones we have been waiting for."

You can do it. I can do it. Together, we can do it. 

And we will. 

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network, a member of the editorial board, a board member of Shomrei Bereishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza Conflict.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On the Way to Gamawakoosh

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Rabbi Salanter teaches that most people repent during the Selichot week preceding Rosh HaShanah and the more pious during the month of Elul preceding Rosh HaShanah, but he says that one should begin to repent immediately after Yom Kippur.

Maimonides (Rambam) teaches that we know we have achieved true teshuvah, repentance, when we find ourselves once again in the same situation we didn't handle well in the past, but this time we refrain from doing what we did before, and instead we do the right thing.

It is a year-round process to learn new behaviors. And sometimes that process is punctuated with individual moments when we feel an inner shift taking place. That can happen in synagogue on Yom Kippur, but it can also happen at other moments throughout the year. I share with you one of my moments of knowing that change was taking place in my heart and my soul, and I wish you well on your journey through this new year of 5775 - may you find your heart shifting closer to the Holy One of Blessing at many different moments and in many different situations.

On the Way to Gamawakoosh

With my brothers
I sit upon one of a series of wide, flat boulders.
Over these granite rocks,
water tumbles -- a mountain brook.
This stream originates in a small lake
hidden on the side of the mountain
higher up,
beside which a tiny log cabin 
once stood.
Here, these boulders form the stream bed;
the waters tumble ever downward
hurrying to a slower-moving river,
and with time,
one day,
to the ocean.

My mother,
some 90 years ago,
sat here, too.
I can see her in my mind’s eye,
a young girl,
sitting in this spot;
my mother,
who several years ago was gathered to her ancestors;
my mother,
who was a woman of amazing depth and breadth;
my mother,
on whose memoire I have been working for close to two years --
a memoire she worked on for the entire last third of her long life,
driven to write,
never able to experience the satisfaction
of completion.

I work both to organize the myriad versions of her manuscript
and to decide
which of the hundreds of her photographs,
from her childhood
and her life as an artist,
to include in her book,
in order to preserve the core, 
the essence,
the beauty,
of who she was,
the part of her I wish to embrace
and to hold
and to own,
as my inheritance.

We sit, my brothers and I
but we are not alone.
also on this expanse of rock,
among the mountains of the Adirondack wilderness,
sit another brother and sister --
the children of a man who also walked here in his youth,
with our family - our mother and uncle and grandparents,
helped them build a tiny cabin,
nestled in the woods 
beside the lake,
shared with them that magical time and place,
so many years ago.
Our warm-hearted and intrepid leader
sits upon a boulder as well --
a man who knows these mountains well,
who brought our two families together
after so many years,
a man who -- 
after deciding to search out this place, 
this reservoir of family history and meaning --
I located with less difficulty than I had anticipated.
He knew well the father of our companions,
with his gentle and open spirit,
he is eager to be part of our journey
and to help bring it to fruition;
His presence in my life
has helped to awaken the changes 
happening in my heart.

my brothers and I,
sit here, where our mother once sat;
we speak about her book,
about the roadblock currently thwarting my progress,
the problem for which I can see no solution.
Here, in this sacred spot
with the sounds of the tumbling waters in our ears,
the sunlight filtering between the trees,
the breeze blowing gently --
on this warm summer afternoon,
I explain my conundrum,
and with this conversation,
with this prayer--
this outcry from the depths of my heart brought forth into words--
my anxious heart calms,
grows quiet,
becomes still,
and I know, I understand,
I trust,
that I will find a way forward,
with my mother’s book,
and with my life.

עם אחיי 
אני יושבת על אחד מהסדרה הארוכה של סלעים רחבים ושטוחים.
על-פני סלעי הגרניט האלה
מתגלגלים מיים -- נחל הררי.
הנחל יוצא מאגם קטן
מוסתר בצד ההר 
יותר למעלה,
שעל-ידו צריף עץ קטנטן 
פעם עמד
כאן, הסלעים האלה מהווים את בסיס הנחל;
תמיד מתגלגלים המיים למטה,
ממהרים לנהר יותר איטי,
ועם זמן, 
יום אחד,

לפני כ-90 שנה,
ישבה כאן גם כן.
אני יכולה לראות אותה בדימיוני,
ילדה צעירה,
יושבת במקום הזה;
שלפני כמה שנים נאספה לאבותיה,
שהיתה אישה עם עומק ואופק מופלאים,
שעל ספר זכרונותיה אני עובדת כמעט שנתיים--
ספר זכרונות שהיא עבדה עליו כל השליש האחרון של חייה הארוכים,
מרגישה מחויבת לכתוב,
אף פעם לא לדעת שביעות רצון 
של שלמות.

אני עובדת גם
לסדר את הגרסאות המרובות של הטקסט שלה
וגם להחליט
אלו ממאות תצלומיה,
ומחייה האומנותיים, 
להכיל בספרה,
כדי לשמור על העיקר,
של מי שהיא היתה,
החלק שאני רוצה לחבק,

יושבים, שני אחיי ואני,
אבל אנחנו לא לבד.
גם על הסלע הרחב הזה,
בין ההרים במעשה הבראשית של האדירונדקס,
יושבים עוד אח ואחות --
ילדים של איש שהלך כאן גם כן בילדותו,
עם משפחתנו -- אימנו, דודנו, סבנו, וסבתנו,
עזר להם לבנות את הצריף הקטנטן,
החבוי ביער
על-יד האגם,
חָלַק איתם את הזמן והמקום הקסומי ם ההם,
לפני כל כך הרבה שנים.
המדריך שלנו, בעל לב חם ומתמיד,
יושב על סלע גם כן --
אדם שמכיר את ההרים האלה היטב,
שהביא את שתי משפחותינו ביחד
אחרי כל כך הרבה שנים,
אדם אשר --
אחרי החלטתי לחפש את המקום הזה,
את המאגר המשפחתי ההיסטורי והמשמעותי --
מצאתי, עם פחות קושי ממה שציפיתי.
הוא הכיר היטב את האב של המתלוים אלינו,
עם רוחו העדין והפתוח,
הוא משתוקק להיות חלק מטיולנו
ולעזור להגשים אותו.
נוכחותו בחיי
עזרה לעורר את השינוים
שקורים בלבי.

אחיי ואני,
יושבים כאן, איפה שאימנו פעם ישבה;
אנחנו מדברים על ספרה,
על המחסום שכרגע מתסכל את התקדמותי,
הבעיה שבשבילה אני לא רואה פתרון.
כאן, במקום הקדוש הזה,
עם צליל המיים המתגלגלים באזנינו,
אור השמש מסתנן בין העצים,
הרוח נושבת בעדינות--
אחרי הצהריים הקייצי והחם הזה,
אני מסבירה את תעלומתי,
ועם השיחה הזאת,
עם התפילה הזאת--
הצעקה מעומק לבי הופכת למילים--
לבי החושש נרגע, 
ואני יודעת, אני מבינה
אני מאמינה, 
שאמצא דרך קדימה,
עם ספרה של אימי,
ועם חיי.
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network, a member of the editorial board, a board member of Shomrei Bereishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza Conflict.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rosh HaShanah 1st Day D'var Torah

by Lisa Kempler

Shana Tova, everyone.

This year has been one of intensity on many fronts: for us as Americans, as Jews, and as citizens of the world. The minyan, too, has seen lots of changes with multiple people moving away, sick parents, babies born, and children growing up in many ways. Of course, there’s always lots going on in the world news front, but the events this year felt closer to home. The top 10 goings (with a nod to David Letterman) were:

Number 10: The increased focused on anti-terrorism, including the recent anti-ISIS scale up

9: Conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, and Egypt

8: Putin and the Ukraine

7: Planes going down

6: Police brutality (such as Ferguson)

5: Immigration

4: Health Care reform and the web site design and infrastructure nightmare from hell

3: The Israel/Gaza conflict and the accompanying upset and events around the resurgence of anti-Semitism, questioning of Israel’s right to exist, and discussions of what Zionism means and how can/should we continue to support Israel

Number 2:  Climate change as a growing focus for the US and the world

Here’s a quote from a  “Jewish Daily Forward” article echoing that same sentiment:

“Yes, it was a rough summer, what with racial tension in Missouri and an army of Spanish-speaking children invading our southern border, plus threats of a new world war in Ukraine and barbaric jihadis marching across Iraq, decapitating journalists and massacring religious minorities. Not to mention the deadly, dispiriting 50-day war between Israel and Hamas. And don’t even talk to me about Ebola.”

Oh, right, for about 5 minutes I had forgotten about, the short-term scariest but, nonetheless, still sensationalized by the media every day: # 1 – the Ebola virus.

It’s not just how much is going on globally, but that there seems to be an expectation that we’ll be intellectually on top of all of it.  In multiple ways, we’re encouraged to pay increasingly more attention to the detail, to the nuance.  The Forward’s sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek tone is in response to this. The news reports seem to want to share the blow-by-blow on every issue constantly. It used to be that you’d mostly just hear what the head of states had to say and then reports about what happened – a speech, an article on the front page of a paper, etc. But now they go a lot deeper. I feel like I’m there, or like they want me to be.

This reminds me of the High Holidays Ashamnu from the Vidui.

-          Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, debarnu dofee

I’ve always taken the attitude that if I’m going to make statements that I have committed this long list of transgressions, I ought to try to figure out if they’re true, to remember the events that happened during the year so that I can be genuine in my confessions. Yes, I know that much of the liturgy from RH is stated in the first person plural – “nu” – anachnu -- we. Often it is explained that we as a community did these things or that we’re taking responsibility for these things collectively. That gets me off the hook, both in terms of being responsible for nailing down the past and having to feel personally responsible for having done all these bad things on my own. Still, I like to reconstruct my year. 

You know how when you want to remember something, you sometimes tie a string around your finger? Well, the image I get in my mind of the Vidui is one of my whole body tied up in little strings, one for each thing I need to remember I’ve done wrong. I suppose I could view at as a symbolic gesture, or a generic catchall for all of my missteps. It would be easier to just say – like we do to each other, “Whatever I did, sorry!” But then I’m not really mentally participating.

Going back to the deluge of information – from subscribing in email, from friending and liking on Facebook, and from Youtubing and otherwise absorbing the media: It feels like everyone wants us to know everything. What’s implied is that there is an ideal of being 100% up-to-date and “omniscient” – all knowing, like God. Or really smart, like an encyclopedia, like Wikipedia. Then you could win at Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit or Apples to Apples or finish the NYTimes crossword puzzle.  This alongside an embedded cultural belief – both eastern and western - that extensive learning will raise you up, help you achieve Nirvana, or at least bring you a sense of completion or wholeness.

So what’s the problem with information?

In the movie “Bee Season”, a Jewish preteen who is great at spelling is encouraged by her sad, overachieving father, played by Richard Gere, to learn Kabbalah. As you may know, there’s a kind of rule in Judaism that you can’t learn Kabbalah until you’re 40 because you might not be mature enough to handle it.

At one point in the movie, she is so overwhelmed by the deep mysticism embedded in the Hebrew words, the associated images, including the Hebrew letters and the meaning behind them. that she has a fainting fit, a kind of ecstatic seizure. Note the underlying premise: She is perfect at spelling. She literally knows all the words.

The directors leave you with the sense that it was both revelational AND too much simultaneously for her. The problem occurs when she tries to process everything she knows.

For most of us, all this information intake does not generally bring ecstasy. If you’re like me, we’re often operating in a zone of one step away from information PTSD.  The acronym TMI takes on a whole new meaning.

So what’s wrong with knowing stuff?

Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, in the Guide to the Perplexed states that: There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom, or chokhmah, Rambam says, is:
       1) Knowledge of truths that lead to knowledge of god
       2) Knowledge of workmanship (making things, craftsmanship)
       3) Acquisition of moral principles
       4) Cunning and subtlety

He also says that “Highest form of perfection is moral perfection” and that mishpat, or judgment, denotes the act of deciding upon action in accordance with justice.

In other words, if you understand things at a moral level, you can use your judgment and act wisely.

This tells me that you can act based on wisdom, but not solely based on knowledge.

According to Mishlai, Proverbs,
Wisdom cries aloud in the streets,
Raises her voice in the squares
At the head of the busy streets she calls,
           At the entrance of the gates, in the city, she speaks out:
           How long will you simple ones love simplicity?

One interpretation of this is that merely taking in information is simple, easy. It doesn’t require taking a lot of responsibility. And you can’t possibly process or act on ALL of it. In fact, it’s simpler not to, whether you delete most of it, or archive it, or save it for next week when you’ll have more time. The reason wisdom is crying in the streets is because knowledge acquisition is the default easy-out.

All of this knowledge is only useful if you can figure out what to do with it.

So a goal, then, is to figure out which information, knowledge, is worthy of choosing, which of the many messages and postings and goings-on are the ones that you will really be wise about, will act on, will take a moral stance on.

Did you catch that last part from Rambam:  “to act by deciding on action in accordance with justice”.

Acting justly.

You knew this was coming: This past Sunday, just 3 days ago, 400,000 people, including at least 4 of us from the minyan (raise your hands – you know who you are), descended on NYC for the PCM - the People’s Climate  March – to show we care a lot about something about which we feel we have a deep understanding. So we took action together, in an attempt to get other people – the UN, Obama, the world – to also understand. And to act. On their wisdom.

Being there, it wasn’t just the number of people that was noticeable. It wasn’t just the time it took 400,000 people to stream down Central Park West and then 58th St. and then Avenue of the Americas and 42nd street and 11th Avenue. Oddly, when the march hit its final destination, it seemed to just keep going down 11th.

That was cool, but what really struck me was how so many different causes were subsumed under the heading of “Climate”. For a moment, I thought maybe it was being co-opted opportunistically. There were signs and groups dedicated to veganism and vegetarianism. There was CodePink, a women’s organization that says that war isn’t green or romantic. OXFAM was there saying “get ready for the biggest food fight ever”, and there were lots of signs that stated that while the 1% can pay their way out of climate change, the 99% will be left to deal with the fallout. Well, I’m not so sure that’s how it feels when fires destroy your house in California or your family cottage is washed away on the Cape or on Long Island. But, yes, it stands to reason, that the more disenfranchised and resource-less you are, the harder it will be to cope or even survive. 

These potentially seemingly diverse causes fit beautifully and neatly under the umbrella of “Climate Justice”.  The message of the march was: 97% of scientists agree:  “Tsedek, Tsedek tirdof”. Chase, walk, run, march for justice – Do the right thing, the just thing.

OK, so there was one cause that was over the top for me:

I was wearing my TFCE shirt – the Flattest Century in the East shirt from a bike ride a did 3 weeks ago. You can see it on Facebook. I approached a gentleman wearing a shirt that said “Bicycling is not a crime”. Intrigued, I approached him to see what that meant. I heard him explaining to one of the people in my climate action group that he couldn’t believe how police were giving out tickets to bicyclists who violated traffic laws. I know too many people who have had run-ins with bikes this year, including some in the minyan, to sympathize with his quest for biker anarchy.  That is not justice. That’s a death wish. His issue is not under my climate justice umbrella; it’s off my climate justice island.

Enough ranting about crazy drivers: If acting wisely means doing what is just, taking care of the physical planet and its people would be a wise action. We don’t need lots more information.

She is a tree of life to those who grasp her.
And whoever holds on to her is happy.

That line: Etz chayim hi lamachazikim bah – that we sing when we put away the Torah. It’s also from Proverbs. I always assumed that was a direct reference to Torah. It’s not, at least not explicitly, at least not the p’shat. It’s talking about wisdom, and, by coincidence, trees. Hmm. Holding onto trees makes you happy. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase tree hugger.

In summary, then:
  •        You can accidentally become so absorbed with information intake that it becomes a proxy for thinking and acting.
  •         If you’re to be wise, you have to participate.

My question to you is, what are you going to
  •        participate in
  •        this year
  •        that would make the world more just? 

Shana tova

Lisa Kempler lives in Brookline with her family and works in the high-tech software industry. In 2011, she joined Citizen's Climate Lobby, becoming the first member of the Boston chapter. Citizen's Climate Lobby is a volunteer-run organization with chapters throughout the U.S., Canada and recently other countries. CCL is dedicated to creating the political will for a sustainable world via a federal revenue-neutral carbon tax, legislating that the proceeds collected from carbon production are returned to households to support their transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Lisa regularly writes and speaks about climate change and solutions to it. Visit for more information and to find a local chapter.

Lisa delivered this d'var on the first day of Rosh Hashanah at the Boston-area, lay-led, egalitarian minyan that she belongs to.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Al Chet - Confession for the Earth

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
Adapted from the traditional Jewish High Holiday liturgy and works by Rabbi Lawrence Troster, Rabbi Daniel Nevins (which I found at, and, at the suggestion of Rabbi Judy Weiss, material from the Jewish Climate Action Network of Boston created with the help of Gary Rucinski.

Note: Hyperlinks below are to organizations that work to help the environment in ways that bear some relationship to the selected text. This is a work in progress, and I hope to add more links. If you have suggestions, please email them to 

Al Chet - Confession for the Earth

Eternal God, You created earth and heavens with mercy, and blew the breath of life into animals and humans. We were created amidst a world of wholeness, a world called "very good," pure and beautiful, but now your many works are being erased by us from the book of life.

Not by our righteousness do we plead our prayers before You, Holy One of All, for we have sinned, we have despoiled, we have destroyed.

And so we confess together our collective sins, and ask for forgiveness:
For the sin which we have committed before You intentionally or unintentionally;
And for the sin which we have committed before You inadvertently;
For the sin which we have committed before You openly or secretly,
And for the sin which we have committed before You knowingly or unknowingly;
For the sin which we have committed before You, and before our children and grandchildren, by desecrating the sacred Earth,
And for the sin which we have committed before You of going beyond being fruitful and multiplying to overfilling the planet;
For the sin which we have committed before You by putting comfort above conscience,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by putting convenience above compassion;
For the sin we have committed against You by believing we are doing enough,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by reaping the dividends of unsustainability;
For the sin which we have committed before You through fear of speaking out,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by eating and drinking without concern for Earth and its hungry and thirsty;
For the sin which we have committed before You by saying we don’t have time,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by staying alive beyond the boundaries of our allotted life span:

For all of these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. 

For the sin which we have committed before You by not pressuring our elected officials,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by gaining wealth through fossil fuels;
For the sin which we have committed before You by denying the impact of our white privilege,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by closing our hearts and eyes to injustice;
For the sin which we have committed before You by filling land and ocean with filth, toxins and garbage,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by extinguishing forever species which You saved from the waters of the flood;
For the sin which we have committed before You by razing forests and trees, rivers and mountains,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by turning the atmosphere into a chastening rod;
For the sin which we have committed before You by making desolate habitats that give life to every living soul,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by a confused heart;
For all of these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.

For the sin which we have committed before You by thinking separately of US and THEM,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by using more than our share of Earth’s resources;
For the sin which we have committed before You by considering human life more important than other forms of life,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by being deceived by those with power;
For the sin which we have committed before You by not finding the courage to overcome the reality of the lobbies,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by wanting to act only in ways that will serve us economically;
For the sin which we have committed before You by failing to create sufficient local, green jobs,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by trying to convince people rather than drawing them in;
For the sin which we have committed before You by not thinking into the future when we act,
And for the sin which we have committed before You by living in relative safety and not being caring of others;
For all of these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.  

And yet, we know that we can only achieve forgiveness from You, O G!d of All That Is after we have sought forgiveness from our fellow living beings, and so, in order to achieve atonement, forgiveness, and pardon,

Help us, Holy One, to enter into loving respectful conversation,
Help us to create deep conversations,
And help us to listen to people.
Help us, Merciful One, to become empowered to talk and to connect,
Help us to be creative in how we start the conversation,
And help us to use our sacred texts as a foundation for our conversations.
Help us, Compassionate One, to start where people are and transition to climate change,
Help us to use humor as a vehicle of engaging people,
Help us to start with experience of nature and end with responsibility of saving world. 
In order to achieve atonement, forgiveness, and pardon, 
Help us, Holy One, to acknowledge that we are all in this together,
Help us to celebrate the positives happening in the world.
Help us, Source of All, to build coalitions,
Help us to create partnerships where we see other people's needs.
Help us, Eternal One, to organize local solutions,
And help us to recognize that ownership and collective action are important.

Open our eyes to see the majesty of Your creation! Then we will praise you as it is written: "How manifold are Your works, Holy One! You made them all with wisdom; the earth is filled with what you hold."

Please, Source of All, protect all living beings, in the shade of your wings give us refuge. Renew the face of the earth, save the weave and fullness of life. Please, Mysterious One, remove the heart of stone from our flesh, and set within us a heart of flesh, that we may behold the Godly therein. Grant us wisdom and courage to heal and to watch over this garden of life, to make it thrive under the heavens.

Help us to realize that we are the ones we've been waiting for.
Help us to realize that we are the ones we've been waiting for.

Note: This is a work in progress, and I am working to add hyperlinks to sites that suggest what we can do. If you have suggestions, please email them to rabbikza@

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope in Wayland, MA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network, a member of the editorial board, a board member of Shomrei Bereishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth, and the co-creator of Gathering in Grief: The Israel / Gaza Conflict.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 29 - Shana Tovah

photos by Gabi Mezger
text by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

May you find yourself in the new year constantly in motion...

surrounded by love like a seal in water...

reflecting light visible even in the light of those around you...

moving slowly when necessary, yet always steadily...

raging ferociously against the ills and injustices of the world...

with unending energy, unceasing in your efforts like the constantly moving waves...

zeroing in on what is most beautiful and most nourishing...

spreading your wings as wide as possible...

leaping as high as the highest waves...

picking yourself up after the inevitable falls...

soaring with grace and beauty...

at times alone, but always in the direction that is right for you...

traveling often in the company of others...

treading gently when you must...

and always remembering who and what you are.

Wishing you shana tova - a good year - from the bottom of our hearts.
Rabbi Katy and Gabi