Friday, August 28, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 14 - The Pool is Closed

by Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D.

“The Pool is closed.  Have a good night. God Bless America” the lifeguard announced as I climbed out of the public pool at 5:00 pm on an August evening. I was a bit taken aback by that “God bless America.”  Well, of course. Yes, it's America, we’re in a public pool, why not? I hope God blesses America. We need to work for our own country, of course. Im ayn ani li, mi li – If I am not my own advocate, who will be for me? Said Hillel. But, it seemed to say more: God bless America –rah rah, go home team! Beat those enemies. Fear, pride, and narrow-mindedness seemed to lurk in the shadows of that “God bless America.” Hillel continued: Ve’ im ani rok l’atzmi, ma ani? If I am only for myself, what am I?  “God Bless America, and everyone in the rest of the world as well,” I wish she had said.

Just like a cell is nested in an organ, which is nested in a body, nested in a family, nested in a community – all life is connected in complex interdependent relationships. When we isolate ourselves and operate under the illusion that it’s only me, when we only look at my advantage in the competition with others instead of including our points of cooperation as well, we break the complex pattern that keeps life going.  

When we come this December to climate change negotiations in Paris, if each country only looks to its on narrow interests instead of its connection to the whole, the whole earth will be brought a step closer to climate disaster.

When I go to the food store and only look at the cheapest price I can pay, and I don’t ask myself where that chicken, that fish, came from? How was it raised? What was it fed? I am breaking the connection to the living web that gives me the bounty I enjoy every day. 

When I argue with my family and my friends and don’t consider their point of view, don’t think about what needs they are expressing but only look at my own injured pride, my own comfort and my own ego, I am cutting myself off from the reality that we are all in this together; we are all struggling to do our best, and we all need one another, even when we argue.  

It’s Elul. Hillel concluded: Ve’im lo akhshav, ay’matai? If not now, when?  It is time to return to life, to our sense of connection, to seeing my own county as worthy of blessing, but only as it joins in the blessing of all the world; to seeing myself as important and worth standing up for – but only truly alive and well when I’m connected to my family, friends and all this living, sacred world.  If not now, when?  

Natan Margalit was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001. He has taught at Bard College, the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Natan is Rabbi of The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, in Connecticut and Visiting Rabbi at Congregation Adas Yoshuron in Rockland, Maine. He is Founder and President of Organic Torah Institute, a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society. He lives in Newton, MA with his wife Ilana and their two sons.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 13 - Returning to Memories, Reflecting on Progress

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira-Friedman

When I was a teenager, my grandfather would set aside mailings from the Sierra Club to give to me when I visited. He knew I cared about nature, and that I identified as an environmentalist. (I never quite knew what to do with the mailings. I think I cut out a few photos from a calendar to hang on my wall.)

As I grew older, Pa – a first generation Jewish immigrant, who went from rags to riches in a generation – asked me how I could make a living from environmental work. I remember saying something vague, because I really didn't know the answer.

I went to college and majored in Environmental Studies. On visits to my grandparents, I was able to answer more of Pa's questions. He began to see the potential for me to support myself. And he began to see the consciousness of our country around air, water, conservation, and climate take on new depth. When I told him I wanted to be a rabbi, Pa sat me down and asked me to explain why it was important to me. I don't remember what I said, but I remember what he said. "I understand. You're a humanist with a Jewish spirit."

It's a phrase that has guided me in my rabbinate since that moment, and as I reflect this Elul it is particularly poignant. Pa died in 2010, 33 days before my Nana, and four years before I was ordained. I am now in a fulfilling pulpit position, and I am making a living in a meaningful and joyful job. I am also working as a person, a Jew, and a rabbi to mobilize voices of faith on the climate crisis. They would have loved to see this.

And they would have loved to witness this moment in human history, as finally, finally, the concerns of the environmental movement begin to move into mainstream political and social spheres. We have so far to go, but we have also made great strides.

May we move from strength to strength in our work for a better world, inspired by those who came before and loving those with whom we walk.

Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman is the Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai of Brookline. She was ordained by Hebrew College in Newton, MA, and is a leader in the interfaith climate movement in Boston.

Earth Etude for Elul 12 - Remembering Earth

by Steph Zabel

I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly, arranging her dark skirts, her pockets full of lichens and seeds.

This line from Mary Oliver’s beloved poem, “Sleeping in the Forest,” often runs through my mind. Especially when I leave behind my city environs and return to the embrace of the forest and green, wild places.

Teshuvah, return.

Some of us may be more drawn to the outdoors than others, but I believe that each of us has heard a call to return to nature at some point in our life. A return to nature can simply be a momentary remembrance, a moment of connection and acknowledgment. Even the most citified person, with feet always on concrete, can be stopped in their tracks by the pink glow of a sunset, the tremendous power of a thunderstorm, or the pure beauty of a newly opened flower.

Nature calls to us in many ways, in many languages and colors and scents and whispers. It is simply up to us to be aware of these communications.

For me, I most strongly hear how the earth speaks through the beauty of plants. I see the divinity of all life reflected in the body of plants. The flowers, leaves, seeds, and roots of these beings contain healing for our own bodies and spirits.

I see this in the way a flower blooms and then sets its seeds, in the changing colors of autumn leaves, in the waxing and waning rhythms of the seasons, in the abundance and diversity of life that meets us everywhere. The scent of a flower, the light through trees’ leaves, the feel of the grass underneath my feet and through my fingers, all return me to the Source of everything.

The earth will always remember us, and will endlessly call us back to her. We must simply listen. And then we will remember to the earth. 

Steph Zabel, MSc, is an herbalist and educator based in Somerville, MA. For over a decade she has combined her passions for natural medicine, community outreach, and education. She holds a Master’s degree in ethnobotany, and is a graduate of several herbal apprenticeships including a three-year training in clinical herbalism. Steph worked in the botanical collections of the Harvard University Herbaria and now focuses on teaching practical & inspiring herbal classes and offering dynamic wellness sessions. Steph is the founder of HERBSTALK, Boston’s vibrant community herbal conference, through which she creates accessible educational opportunities for all plant enthusiasts.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 11 - The Freedom of Dance; the Prayer of Protest

by Maggid David Arfa

Shalom Shachna, the son of Holy Angel, the grandson of the Maggid of Mezeritch, learned to dance from the Shpoler Zeide.  For the rest of his life he would share with all who would listen how the Shpoler Zeide was a master of dance and able to achieve Holy Unifications with each step of his foot.  Adapted from Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber.

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer….Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Sometimes, when I can no longer stand my careless abuse of the Earth, I know I have to take a stand- In the streets with my neighbors.  Teshuvah as protest.  The power is in the action.  My legs hold real power to help me remember what’s most important and start fresh. 

Amazingly, it used to be common knowledge that the power contained in our legs affects the cosmos.  An ancient midrash says every commandment has a corresponding place in our body and day of the year. We are not only saying ‘As above, so below’, but also ‘As below, so above’  This teaching was carried forward into Medieval Kabbalah providing a unique form of empowerment.  The Kabbalists actually taught that the cosmos needed our prayers and our actions for its own healing.

The Hasidic creativity of the pre-modern world transformed this teaching applying it specifically to everyday dance ( song and story too!).  Did you know the Shpoler Zeide continued to dance with the lightness of youth well into his old age?  Once, a Jewish life was in danger.  A giant cossack soldier was cruelly treating him like a cat treats a mouse.  The giant declared that if anyone could out-dance him, then he would spare the life of this simple Jew.  However, if not, than both dancer and hostage would die!  Everyone was so scared.  It was the Grandfatherly Shpoler Zeide who stepped forward.  He danced the Bear-Dance with such focused power and vigor that the cossack was unable to keep up.  He fell down laughing saying, ‘You win old man, you win’.  For the Shpoler Zeide, dance was a superpower!  Able to affect Teshuvah with a single bound.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, actually prescribed dance as a remedy for the hopeless despair that prevents joy.  He knew, the act of dance was enough to raise joy high in the saddest of souls.  Dance as medicine.  How’s that for creative health care! 

Now we come to Rabbi Heschel and his creativity.  He’s not just protesting, he’s praying with his legs!  This power still reaches us, like light from a distant star. It is testimony to Rabbi Heschel’s strong cosmic powers.
How many of us are inspired to do more because of Rabbi Heschel?  The power of praying legs in protest.  

This Elul, let’s bring all of the enchantment we can muster to our Teshuvah. Let’s add our modern awareness for the evolutionary miracles that allow legs to stand, ankles to rotate, and 26 humble bones in the foot that allow us to stand steady even on uneven ground.  The spontaneous freedom of dance, the improvisational prayer of protest reminds us that we can choose a new path. We can alter the shape of tomorrow.  As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!”  Rally Ho!

For additional background on the powers of dance see, “The Mystery of Dance According to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav” in The Exegetical Imagination by Michael Fishbane. 

Maggid David Arfa (Mah-geed; Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism’s storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom. He has produced two CD’s, "The Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe", and a light-hearted collection, "The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Ever To Live". His full-length performance, "The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto" won the Charles Hildebrandt Holocaust Studies Award for artistic excellence, depth of vision and technical mastery. David’s workshop ‘Try Stories for a Change’ trains organizations to build volunteers and raise funds through authentic storytelling and listening circles. Other workshops explore the relationships between wonder, grief, hope and activism. David earned his MS in Environmental Education and degrees in Wildlife Ecology and Environmental Policy. He is now studying Clinical Pastoral Education and is the Director of Education for Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams. David lives in Shelburne Falls, MA.  For more information see

Monday, August 24, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 10 - Guatemalen Etudes for the Earth

by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

An etude is a song, a song of praise. This summer I spent time bouncing on a bus as part of American Jewish World Service’s Global Justice Fellowship in Guatemala. Part of a two year program, we studied text together, we lobbied together, we learned organizing skills together and then we experienced Guatemala together.

It is hard to reconcile the beauty of the land together with the brokenness of the country. In 1954 there was a coupe organized in part by the United Fruit Company and the CIA to protect US interests and land ownership. There was a bloody civil war, a genocide really, with a peace accord that was signed in 1996. But these struggles are not yet over. On September 6, 2015, there will be yet another election and land rights and land ownership are some of the hotly contested issues.

For the Mayan people, the indigenous people, the land is very important. We were witnesses to several Mayan blessings to start our meetings. The first was at an NGO Codecut which trains Mayan women to be midwives. Their circle included colorful candles symbolizing sun, rest, water, purity, blood, transparency, air, sky and the green natural world. We told the story of Shifrah and Puah, the two midwives in the book of Exodus whose civil disobedience enabled the Jewish people to survive. I watched as the head of Codecut, Maria Cecelia, beamed as the story was told. Unfamiliar with the story, she understood the connection as her face lit up with joy and appreciation at the parallels. Their song was an etude for the earth.

Later in the week we visited CCDA. By now the candle ritual was expected and understood, but this NGO added a Maize Dance. During this dance we learned the importance of the struggle for the land. It is not unlike the story of Abraham buying a burial plot for Sarah and the struggle that has ensued ever since. This is the very land that grows maize and provides nourishment for the people through the ubiquitous tortillas, also made as part of the dance. Their dance was an etude for the earth.

CCDA is a grassroots organization of small farmers in 11 regions of Guatemala. They advocate successfully for land rights, help local farmers increase their yields and protect land from environmental damage. Those increased yields help members gain access to health care and education. They can track accounts of human rights abuses against the indigenous, mostly Mayan farmers.

Some of this has come with the sale of their organic coffee beans, Café Justica, to global partners. Some of it is even more local. In their Patio Systemes, there was one woman who explained that with just one chicken on her patio, she was able to put her daughter through 6th grade and now she is entering high school. The woman herself does not read or write.  “We’re not just in the business of buying and selling coffee,” said Leocadio Juracán, Coordinator of CCDA. “We are using the resources we have to work for justice in our communities.”

This advocacy comes with risk. There are 84 arrest warrants out for leaders of CCDA. Yet, they are making a difference in protecting their land rights, frequently from large multi-nationals who would like to engage in strip mining or who would like to put in large hydro-electric dams.

When Rosh Hashanah comes, I will be proud to be serving CCDA honey on my table, making it an extra sweet new year. And I will remember the Guatemalan etudes for the earth.

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She recently returned from Guatemala as a Global Justice Fellow with American Jewish World Service. She chairs the 16th Circuit Court Faith Committee on Domestic Violence and works with Community Crisis Center, the U46 School District, and the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi,

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 9 - Weeds and Debris

by Maxine Lyons

I started to think about teshuvah and Rosh Hashana early this summer while cleaning out my flowerbeds of weeds and debris. I noticed the different roots in my garden - fibrous roots spread laterally underground and re-appear in other places, taproots that remain steadfast in one place and grow downward deep into the earth. I was musing about how some people are like taproots- making a bold, firm stance whereas others are like the plants with fibrous roots, appearing and reappearing, showing their influences by reaching out in a variety of places and spaces.

Weeding is an ongoing effort especially those that proliferate in shaded areas with strong and tenacious roots. If you do not remove the whole root bulb, they will grow strong again and threaten to become invasive. So are our bad habits, those nagging and sometimes distracting, often unproductive habits that continue to invade our thoughts and sabotage new behavior if we do not attend to them. The most effective way for me to make changes in my daily life is to “root out” the reason for the continued habit and replace it more consciously with a more life-enriching choice. It is a recurring challenge to change these habits but when I succeed in small ways to trade the old ones with more healthful ones I feel as if I am doing teshuvah.

I resonate fully with Stanley Kunitz in the question he asks in his inspiring book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden—“Why is the act of cultivating so compelling? The garden has been a great teacher in everything I cherish. And it leads to a meditation on the connection between the self and the rest of the natural universe.” I feel that planting and growing plants and vegetables connect me deeply to the earth and its preservation.

This year we are hearing a compelling environmental message stated clearly by the Pope in his encyclical. He clearly emphasizes the relationship between religion and the environment, calling for everyone to take the crisis in climate change seriously through joint actions, to create new paradigms and new solutions to environmental disregard and harm.

Additionally, The Shalom Center’s rallying cry that gained 380 rabbis’ signatures for the Rabbinic Letter On the Climate Crisis recognizes that justice and caring for the earth are interwoven, taught by our ancient texts as well as joining the forces of justice and healing the earth being taught in our experiences today  (calling for a new sense of "eco-social justice –tikkun tevel, “the healing of all the earths’ inhabitants)."

This growing consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life forms compels us to act on behalf of the environment. Every small action we each take has a ripple effect on the whole of life, and we have to choose wisely in what we do that impacts the well being of the earth, and helps sustain us and everything around us. In this season of dedication to reflection and change, as we practice our teshuvah, may we continue to grow within ourselves as we tend our flower and vegetable gardens in the spirit of love and positive actions in the world.

Maxine Lyons is a Newton resident and joyful gardener, interfaith activist/board member with Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries (CMM), and participant in spiritual accompaniment programs.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Earth Etude for Elul 8 - Creativity and Teshuvah

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Creation. Whether you consider it to warrant a capital C or simply a lower case c, the word expresses how the Universe began. The act of creation holds within it creativity. Creativity was present from the start of the Universe.

When we look around, we can see that continually the Universe is created anew, with newness filling every moment of every day: new growth of plants, animals, and other organisms, new stars being born, precipitation falling anew, streams and rivers renewing and changing their course as the water tumbles down mountains and hills, and so much more.

We see creativity in the more-than-human world, but we are more familiar with it in the human world -- new books, new symphonies, new works of art, new gardens, every generation and every human feels a drive to create something new. 

Jewish tradition teaches that we are partners with G!d in the on-going creation of the Universe. Yet, all of the created world constantly exhibits creativity, not only through intentional human thought, but also as the result of the laws of nature.

For us human beings, creativity can be a useful tool in our teshuvah, our return to G!d. If we find ourselves slipping into the blues or even depression, if we find painful thoughts and memories coming to the fore, our creative efforts can transform and heal the places of pain, grief, anxiety, or fear within us. New expressions of our ideas, thoughts, feelings, and memories become a form of teshuvah, of returning to a place of peace and wellness of spirit, of growing ourselves and our relationship with the sacred. 

As we journey through Elul, may our creativity take center stage and bring us, and the world, to a new and better place.

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as a Nature Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion