Monday, December 11, 2017

Lighting Our Way to Greater Sustainability: Meditations for Lighting the Hanukkiah

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

To kindle the Hanukkah lights, we need the shamash, the helper candle, with which we light all the other candles. The role of the shamash is vital, enabling as it does the proliferation of physical and spiritual light we experience on Hanukkah. Through the following kavannot, or meditations, the shamash can also help us make connections to the Earth within the context of Hanukkah and give us the strength we need to take action. Each meditation is connected to both a prayer or text from Jewish tradition and one or more of the Dragons of Inaction, spiritual and psychological barriers that prevent us from taking the actions we must take if we want to help preserve a climate suitable for life.



For Lighting the Shamash Each Night:

As I light this shamash, may the light I behold help me to see more clearly and more deeply into my heart and soul and into the world beyond me. May the light of this candle remind me to connect to the Earth, Jewish tradition, family, and community in ways that give me spiritual, physical, and psychological healing and strength. May the light of the shamash renew my will to learn more about climate change and Judaism, the connections between the two, and potential personal and communal actions.

First Night
May the light of this candle inspire me to reduce the carbon footprint of my energy usage by buying my electricity from renewable resources; putting solar panels on my roof; and installing a heat pump. May I find the strength to overcome the dragon of concern about the financial risk of any investment required. May I hear a voice within me telling me to be “strong and of good courage.” (Deuteronomy 31:7)

Second Night
May the light of these candles motivate me to move closer to a plant-based diet by reducing the amount of meat I eat and cutting down on dairy products. May my journey through diet change not be thwarted by the dragon of my desire to justify my comfortable climate-negative lifestyle. With each bite of food I take, may I understand that “the Earth belongs to the Holy One, and everything in it.” (Psalm 24:1)

Third Night
May the light of these candles bring me the strength to reduce my transportation carbon footprint by walking, bicycling, and carpooling more, taking public transportation more often, getting rid of one or more cars, flying less, and/or buying an electric car. May I not allow the dragon of perceived inequity, my desire not to be taken advantage of, and my belief that others may not reduce their carbon footprint to prevent me from taking these actions. May I remember that my actions have consequences and follow the path of goodness and sacred connection. (Second paragraph of the Shema, Deuteronomy 11:13-21 and other passages)

Fourth Night
May the light of these candles move me to divest all my financial holdings from fossil fuel companies and reinvest them in renewable energy. May the dragon of my lack of knowledge of how and where to reinvest my funds not prevent me from making this shift. May I take to heart the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, and understanding that are continually bestowed upon me every day. (Daily Amidah)

Fifth Night
May the light of these candles prompt me to write, call, and visit my state and local representatives and urge them to support clean energy and carbon pricing bills, not once, but again and again. May I not get bogged down by the dragon of belief that my voice doesn't matter and that nothing will result from my actions. May I understand in my heart that one who can prevent her household, city, or the whole world from committing a sin and doesn't do it is responsible for their sins. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 54b)

Sixth Night
May the light of these candles convince me to care for my property in a way that will produce more food and sequester more carbon. And if I do not own any land, may I search out a place within my community where I can act upon this matter. May the dragons of worrying that everything I do will take too much time and feel meaningless not cause me to hesitate and refrain from acting. May I remember that my human role on this planet is “to till and to tend” or “to serve and protect” the Earth. (Genesis 2:15)

Seventh Night
May the light of these candles propel me to reduce the amount of water I use and the amount of waste I produce by composting, recycling, reusing, buying only what I truly need, installing a rain barrel, and reducing indoor and outdoor water use. May I not stagnate in my climate activism journey due to the dragon of believing that the easiest actions are the only ones I need to take. May I remember that G!d “gives strength to the weary” each and every day. (Morning Blessings)

Eighth Night
May the light of these candles inspire me to regularly support eco-justice efforts by giving tzedakah and advocating in my local and state governments. May I not allow the dragon of concern about the importance of my efforts to prevent me from acting. May I remember that my actions impact the lives of vulnerable populations now and in the future, and that one who saves a single life, it is as though he has saved the entire world. (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a)

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights,
Rabbi Katy



Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spiritand is a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.






Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shanah Tovah - May You Have a Good Year

by Rabbi Katy Allen
photos by Gabi Mezger

As you journey through these the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe, may you find yourself more able to remain present in the moment, may you find meaning in unexpected places, and my your heart open ever wider.

May you search among the needles for the gifts of seeds.



May you find beauty among that which at first glance seems no longer needed, but which in fact is vital.



May your gaze turn upward toward vistas without end.



May you notice gifts that pop up quickly in unexpected places.


May your eyes and your heart be opened to wonder.


May subtlness strike you as sacred. 



May stark contrasts awaken you to unexpected treasures.


 \
May you greet everyone with a smile.




May you emerge in places where nourishment is unexpected.



May you remain calm in the face of stress and pain.


May you have a good year.
May you find ways to connect with, engage with, and appreciate this amazing planet.
May you find ways to protect, preserve, and honor this amazing planet.

May we all rejoice in the blessings of Creation.

Shana tova,
Rabbi Katy and Gabi


Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spiritand is a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 29 - Farmers of Our Souls

by Molly Bajgot

something that the earth knows well
is our attempts to conquer, manipulate, and control her.
in this High Holy season,
in the return to oneself,
we are asked to abstain from the conquering,
manipulating and controlling —
that it may lead to understanding our impulses for doing so: 
to each other, the earth, other beings, and our own soul.

we have a task, this Holy season,
to do teshuvah
to relinquish, however micro or macro we can -
the impulses and ways we farm our subconscious and conscious minds
with seeds that have been handed to us
back in times of vulnerability or fear,
that have since grown thick underfoot,
convincingly planted in the soil of our own hearts,
gone unmarked with sharpie and popsicle stick
to remember them by, as ‘non-native.’ 

As young farmers of our souls,
may we weed out what has been strewn in the rows of our own homes:
the ones that we sowed and so wanted to reap from —
for we heard they would profit.
but those folks were not prophets,
and it turns out our own local weeds are now high on the market.
we can choose to 
reclaim, recultivate, reinvite our main birth crop 
back to our home —choose now to carry it to term,
brilliant and unshaking
and not calling it a weed, but calling it ourselves.

when we give way to this difference —
we’re met with new blooms and potent fragrance 
scents that snap us back to something ancient and unkempt,
so familiar, like our first days of life.

though perhaps now we can perhaps see,
stepping back, taking in our new garden minds, 
how on this planet
we give credence to the monocropped, manufactured seeds
so orderly and pleasant looking
so similar to each other —
so not of our own —

when we look towards ourselves 
this Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,
may we seek to identify
what serves to be uprooted and left to dry in the paths
in the last solar days of summer, this season.
may we seek to identify what of our sister heart
we’ve left untended to in this last year of life.

may we rush to her, bolting to term, to save her seed 
in peak of our fall days —
let her be 
carried by wind to the four corners, no,
seven corners of our soul, 
multiplying further, from the tips of our
eyebrows to the tips of our toes,
always whispering to her, "you deserve to be cherished." 

know, young farmer, that this toil is not unmet with merit:
that years from now, after this weeding and reselecting of the seeds of your soul
you will not need any new seed — for she will become again
your natural cropping
blooming time and time again each season,
already harvested,
already sewn,
in to the sleeve of your soul
coming home
becoming whole.

amen. 

Molly Bajgot is a Jewish signer-songwriter currently living in Western Massachusetts. She is a lover of music, healing arts, and the outdoors. When she gets the chance to do these things together, she feels as home. Being in the garden is a place of mystery and metaphor for her. She loves to craft ritual, and to be in community both as a member and as an organizer. She looks forward to molding all these passions together in to a career throughout her life. 



Monday, September 18, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 28 - Another Blue Day

by Thea Iberall, PhD

I have a picture of my mother Helene with Heidi Klum, the blonde supermodel and TV star. We were in Heidi’s trailer on the Warner Bros lot in Burbank watching her prep for a commercial shoot. Heidi and her makeup entourage gathered around my mother who was wearing her “Kiss Me I’m 100” T-shirt. They wanted to know her secret to aging well. My mom laughed and told Heidi about the gin-soaked raisins she eats every morning to ward off arthritis. Then she talked about the raw apple cider vinegar she takes before every meal to overcome gas. And the walnuts and blueberries and probiotics. The classes and crossword puzzles. How she plays bridge and Scrabble. And how she set a world record in swimming when she turned 90 years old.

My mom has lived a life of service, from the Campfire Girls to the National Council of Jewish Women. She tutored Russian immigrants in English as a second language. In 1974, at great risk to herself, she smuggled letters and money to Russian Refusenik Jews in the Soviet Russia. In the middle of the night, she managed to avoid the KGB and find their homes. She met with the scientist Alexander Lerner and also a young Natan Sharansky before he was imprisoned. At one of the apartments she visited, she was asked if she could speak Yiddish to an elderly Russian woman who had not heard the language in years. My mother agreed and they woke the woman up. She was thrilled as my mother asked her where she was from and why she came to Russia in Yiddish. 



On left, Helene Iberall with Heidi Klum; on right, Helene with Natan Sharansky when they remet in 2013
My mom died at the age of 102 at personal peace, but not at peace because of the world. To her, the only life worth living is one steeped in community and family. "Prejudice is the worst thing in this world," she told me. Her mantra was, "Dwell on human kindness." As an Orthodox Jew, this was what Judaism meant to her. She said it to the young and the old, to everyone she met. She also told them about her secret of aging well: about the gin-soaked raisins, the raw apple cider vinegar. About being with the Earth, not against it. And she lived her teshuvah by asking the same question each day of her life, a question from a Thomas Carlyle poem that she had memorized in the 4th grade: So here hath been dawning another blue day. Think wilt thou let it slip useless away?

Photo by Penni Rubin 

Thea Iberall is on the leadership team of the Jewish Climate Action Network. As head of the JCAN interfaith group, she works with other organizations such as the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Parish UU Church Medfield, Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light, and 350MA.org. Dr. Iberall is the author of The Swallow and the Nightingale. In this visionary fiction novel, she uses today’s world of climate change as a backdrop to help awaken people, reminding us that the visions of Gandhi, religious mysticism, and Native Americans are a more sustainable solution than the patriarchal system under which we live. Learn more at www.theaiberall.com.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 27 - Re-Connecting to the Land

by Rabbi Lawrence Troster

On a recent vacation to my home town of Toronto, as I drove around the countryside and saw the many places I knew so well from my childhood, I reflected again on how the landscape in which I lived affected who I am and how I see the world. I was born in Toronto which is in an area that was covered by glaciers over 10,000 years ago and the land still is shaped by that ancient event: spoon shaped hills called drumlins, ridges called eskers which are the remains of the river beds that flowed from the retreating ice. And lakes: I spent many of my summers at camp in Northern Ontario beyond the glacial till where the major geological feature is the Canadian Shield which has some of the oldest rock in the world: more than 3.96 billion years old and which covers some 5,000,000 square miles of Canada and the U.S. In Ontario, the glaciers carved out more than 250,000 lakes from the Shield and many of my summers were spent in the rock, water and forest of that landscape. In this world, I had some of my deepest and most important spiritual experiences that remain with me still.

When I moved to New Jersey over 20 years ago I became part of a new geological area: the Piedmont province formed of volcanic basalt over 200 million years ago. And now I live in Pennsylvania where I am in a different kind of geological formation: rolling hills and valleys of metamorphic rock formed during the Precambrian period some one billion years ago.

What does all this mean for me? The food that I ate and which formed me, was grown in the glacial soil of Southern Ontario is still, so to speak, bred in my bones. How did this land also affect my mental perspective on the world? I thought of these things as I saw the familiar ridge of the Niagara Escarpment over which the mighty Niagara Falls fell. For the first time in my life I took the boat that brought me close to those falls. I felt the spray and saw the wonder of those thundering waters.

In this month of Elul when we are supposed to take stock (heshbon ha-nefesh) of our lives and actions from the past year, I believe that we should also think about the places where we were formed and where we now live. Forgetting these landscapes is a kind of sin. We must remember the rocks, the soils, the water, the flora and the fauna and what they imparted and continue to impart to our lives in real concrete ways. Each one is different; each one has special qualities that we are mostly not conscious of. So as part of our spiritual accounting we should try to bring these places out of our unconsciousness into our consciousness. Maybe this process will teach us to understand how we are of the earth.
Our tradition often tries to symbolically connect us with the land of Israel which provides a foundation for our identities as Jews. Collectively, it is the land which formed us as a people and where we still live in our collective memory. But each of us also has a place and a foundation from which we came, an actual place where the minerals of the soil, the water we drink and the air we breathe has given shape to our flesh. Let us not forget these places. Let us remember and, ask for forgiveness for the sin of forgetting that place from which we came and to which we will go.

Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, Pennsylvania and is the Rabbi-in-Residence at the Thomas Berry Forum for Ecological Dialogue at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 26 - Three Levels of Holiness

by Rabbi David Seidenberg


In the Torah, three things are called "shabbat shabbaton" – the seventh day, Yom Kippur, and Shmitah (the Sabbatical year).

Agnon, in his book The Days of Awe, shares a teaching form Rabbi Tzvi Hakohen of Rymanov about this. The rabbi was asked, if both Yom Kippur and the Sabbath itself are called "shabbat shabbaton", how is Yom Kippur more special? And he answered, the seventh day is called "shabbat shabbaton l’adonai" – a sabbath of sabbaths for God. Yom Kippur is called "shabbat shabbaton lakhem" – a sabbath of sabbaths for all of you. On Yom Kippur we don't just reach toward the divine realm, we draw it into ourselves.

When Rabbi Michael Bernstein shared this teaching with me, he added: "By that logic, Shmitah, which is called “shabbat shabbaton la'aretz”, a sabbath of sabbaths for the land (Lev 25:4), draws that holiness into the land. In this way, Shmitah is even more akin to Yom Kippur than it is to Shabbat."

There's a midrash that can explain this idea. The essence of the Shekhinah, the divine presence, was originally in the land, in the Earth. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, breaking God's command and sinning against the tree, the Shekhinah fled away from the Earth to the first heaven. With each successive generation, the Shekhinah fled further, until she was seven heavens away from the Earth. Then Abraham and Sarah came and drew her down to the sixth heaven, and Isaac and Rebekah drew her even closer, to the fifth heaven, each successive generation bringing the Shekhinah down, until Moses finally brought her "from above to below". (Genesis Rabbah 19:7)

But Yosef Gikatilla, the 13th century Spanish Kabbalist, explained that this didn’t complete the process: "Moshe our teacher came and all Israel with him and they made the mishkan/Tabernacle and its vessels. And they repaired the ruined channels, and…they drew living water. And they made the Shekhinah return to dwell /l’shakhen among the creatures below, in the tent – but not in the ground /baqarqa, not in the Earth itself, as she was in the beginning of the Creation."


This is what it means when God says to Moses, “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among/within them / v’shakhanti b’tokham” (Ex 25:8): God said that the Shekhinah would “dwell in them”, but not (yet) in the Earth. There was one more step to go.

The Shmitah year, when we are commanded to rest the land and to rest along with the land, when we share food and land not only with the poor and the stranger but also with the wild animals, bridges that last step. Shmitah is a shabbat shabbaton "la'aretz", not just "lakhem".

Shmitah infuses Shekhinah into the Earth itself. Of course, the Earth is already filled with Shekhinah. If we have inured ourselves to that, Shmitah can open our hearts. But first we need to make Shekhinah dwell within us, so that our hearts can meet the world "ba'asher hu sham", at the level of holiness that is already there. That's what Yom Kippur
does.

Sabbath, Yom Kippur, and Shmitah represent progressive stages of bringing kedushah/holiness and Shekhinah into this world, from God, to us, to the Earth itself. May we accomplish this goal.

Rabbi David Seidenberg is the creator of neohasid.org and the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God's Image in the More-Than-Human World (Cambridge, 2015), now in paperback. He lives in Northampton MA.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 25 - Practicing Teshuvah

by Maxine Lyons

I lost a lot of azalea bushes this past winter. The space looks stark and bare, and I am deciding what to place there to fill that void that a harsh Boston winter destroyed in my garden. The weight of the snowfall broke branches. I was at first very upset looking at the spot where azaleas once flourished in the springtime, and angry that the snow’s destructive force did this when I was not home for two months (to brush them off and relieve the pressure of the snow’s weight). I used a combination of practices from Mussar (using the soul-trait equanimity) and Buddhist mindfulness to focus on a solution and not just to over react to a natural occurrence. I am replanting there to restore that space with color and perhaps a new bush.
Hands for working in the earth and in being open to blessings.
Likewise with teshuvah, I am growing to accept that when I do not turn in the right direction towards the good and compassionate response that both Mussar and mindfulness offer, I create a destructive space that will require attention and effort to fill in the negative areas.

Teshuvah is not a one-time action to elicit change during the high holidays; rather, it involves an awareness throughout the year for a conscious approach to living a more satisfying life with good intentions and purpose. Just as we can perform some actions to prevent harsh outcomes in our gardens and in the natural world around us, so we must also add preventive efforts to develop healthful habits and everyday awareness to achieve the “higher self.”


Which way are you turning this year?? This bird of paradise shows us one way, towards the sun.
I am learning to respond to frustration and adversity with a little more care and balance consistent with the guidelines and dictates of spiritual practices. The process begins within me and then expands out to others as I focus on traits that require much discipline in order to integrate them within me. Moving from the cognitive understanding of what we experience and what we can know is vastly different from regularly and mindfully using our time to reflect and internalize the learning.

I have seen Mussar students who take course after course and still show signs of great reactivity and insensitivity, whereas there are neophytes who can more easily take in the nourishment that these practices provide, digest them and change to more healthful living. You can take endless spiritual courses but if you don’t use it then it limits your growing and ability to change.

Rabbi Soloveitchik asserts that “Judaism has always held that it lies within man’s power to renew himself. In this task, man must rely upon himself; no one can help him…he is his own redeemer.” Conversely, quoting Deuteronomy, "we are called upon to open our hearts and return to God even as we acknowledge that for every turning, we need God’s help…we encounter both the transforming grace of God and an urgent call to repentance.”

I choose to subscribe more to the former rabbinical opinion rather than the biblical dictate. I believe that through extensive human effort, inspirational spiritual centering, conscious discipline and setting a daily intention, people can and do change and transform themselves in small and often large ways.


Maxine Lyons is becoming more and more of an avid gardner, both in the summer months outdoors and in her home (a year round sanctuary for many succulents and cacti to flourish). She is exploring the wonderful resonances between  Mussar and Buddhist mindfulness practices while she enjoys some of her time in spiritual accompaniment with local individuals seeking homes.


Thursday, September 14, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 24 - Water Down the Wall

by Carol Reiman

from www.thinkcds.org/category/policy/

Borne
on the water 
that etches
the rock
(of tablets
and of temples),
the breath of life
glistens
as it falls
down
and down 
and
down
the wall,
pooling below, in blue green deep,
a balm for bathers, to wash away 
the ash of grief and tired day;

turning on,
the waters pass slowly here, 
clotted
by the blood of battle,
iron arms lapped  
in reeds--
land of dust and stone
sealed off to some--
left in pieces,
separated parts.
Eicha!

From the voices 
of those gathered,
tuned to the shofar, 
condensing
breath
of all with open ear and heart,
a mist of spray
forms,
rippling out,
spiraling, 
to rise,
amidst the mix,
until
the 
water
once again
glistens
with its light;
borne upon
its journey,
making
its way
down
the
wall.

Afloat at her Boston harbor campus, Carol Reiman is shored up by friends in various faith communities and grounded by her cat.


Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 23 - Collective Versus Personal Action in the Jewish Bible

by Andy Oram

Environmental activists are constantly juggling between the personal and the political. Do we devote our efforts to using our cars less, substituting vegan meals for meat, and recycling? Or do we canvas our friends and neighbors to pressure governments and businesses to adopt more planet-friendly technologies? We know that we need to do both the personal and the political, but those of who have taken the environment as our cause have found ourselves swinging between them in a way that is frustrating and distracting. And as we prepare for the High Holidays, we always look for how to do more good in the upcoming year.

Perhaps we can learn something from the historical experience of the Jews. As a community (kehilah), we have constantly explored the relationship between personal responsibility and communal action. Many High Holiday prayers, such as Al Chet and Ashamnu, refer to the community in the plural even the the sins must be addressed by each individual on her own. The twice-daily V'ahavta prayer shifts abruptly (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) from the singular "you" when prescribing behavior to the plural "you" when describing the positive or negative outcomes of this behavior: rain and food at the proper times, versus drought that drives us from the land.

The grammatical shift suggests that each of us must take personal action to preserve the Earth, while the results will affect all of us irrespective of our roles in creating environmental damage. And the truth of this observation is visible throughout the world, as people with small carbon footprints get deprived of their livelihoods by climate change and leave their homes to suffer war or deteriorate in refugee camps.

So Jews understand that personal concerns are also communal ones. But the record becomes muddier when we look at the history of "people power" in Israel. In fact, the Bible gives us little to celebrate. Communal Israelite acts include the idolatry of the golden calf, the invitation to the Benjaminite men to replenish their tribe by abducting women from a religious festival (Judges 21:20-23), and the demand for a king (I Samuel 8:4-22). The leaders of the Israelites concur in all these disastrous decisions.

To find a positive example of the relationship between policy and individual action, turn to the evil city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. After the reluctant prophet proclaims the destruction of the city, the people of Nineveh, "from great to small," take penance on themselves (Jonah 3:5). Upon hearing of the prophecy, the king joins them and declares the spontaneous fast to be a policy. Sackcloth and ashes here represent both a personal sacrifice and a public statement, like building a solar farm and then pressuring the government to connect other people to it for electricity.

When we want to change behavior, we should start with ourselves. But we need not be so ascetic as to hamper our beneficial efforts. For instance, environmental leader Bill Kibben has assured followers that taking an airplane to attend a climate change rally is a good expenditure of carbon--the best, in fact.

If we persuade friends and religious congregants to change their individual behavior, we can also transform them politically. After putting hours of effort into composting or taking public transportation, a person naturally starts to think, "What if another hundred million people could do what I have done?" This should lead them to investigate the structural barriers that keep others trapped in environmentally damaging lives, and to demand political changes that spread the good they've done even further.

Like all deep and abiding social changes, the shift to sustainable human life will be a grass-roots movement that blossoms into political action.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O'Reilly Media, a technology publisher and conference provider. He is currently interim secretary of the Jewish Climate Action Network and participates often in their activities in the Boston area. Some of his other writings can be found at http://praxagora.com/andyo/fiction and 



Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 22 - The Wonder of Life

by Maggid David Arfa
If I had influence with the good fairy... I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life. --Rachel Carson, Women’s Home Companion Magazine 1956
Awareness of a mystery is shared by all..., yet, as we have seen they usually mistake what they sense as being apart from their own existence, as if there was only wonder in what they see, not in the very act of seeing, as if the mystery were merely an act of observation….The mystery is not apart from ourselves, not a far off thing like a rainbow in the sky, the mystery is…not a something apart, but a dimension of all existence.  --Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, 1955
I heard a young activist disparage an activity that helped us get in touch with our sense of wonder.  He said the world is burning!  We must stop the burning.  He implied that ‘sense of wonder’ moments are a luxury; lovely, yet irrelevant.  He had no patience to remember and share wonder.  Sigh.  

I have been so enlivened by so many moments of awe and wonder.  Haven’t you?  Small, simple moments- a warm summer night canoeing on a calm lake surrounded by stars; sitting pondside among colorful dragonflies and swaying cattails, mesmerized by a Great Blue Heron on the hunt.  We all have dozens and hundreds of such moments that linger over the decades, don't we?   But I’ve been plagued by nagging doubt- is it Jewish?  I’m so inspired by Rachel Carson and the great American tradition of natural history writers and poets that write their wonder and remind me of the vastness of which I belong.  But is it Jewish?

A story from Elie Wiesel: Yaakov Yitzchak, the young Seer of Lublin, used to skip school.  It made his teacher mad. He followed him.  The teacher saw that the boy was going to the forest to daven mincha- to say his afternoon prayers.  The teacher’s heart softened, he showed himself and called out, “Yaakov Yitzchak - don’t you know God is everywhere the same?  We daven mincha at school.  Why come out here?”.  Young Yaakov Yitzchak replies, “Yes teacher, I know God is everywhere the same- but I’m not!”

Elie Wiesel tells this story in Four Hasidic Masters and their Struggle with Melancholy.  I love this story also for what comes next:  As I remember it, Yaakov Yitzchak became so distressed by the senseless violence and suffering found in our world, that he stopped looking and used his sight only for study.  For seven years he stopped looking at the world.  I feel the news of the day can still inspire this severe impulse.  

Elie Wiesel doesn’t say it, but I can imagine his time in the forest, his experiences of awe and wonder, helped him to open his eyes to the world once again.  When feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of senseless rips, tears and suffering; filled with world weary weeping, anger and disgust; our experiences of wonder can remind us that all is not despairing.  The world needs help, yes, lots of help- and our reset can happen within awe and wonder.  As Wendell Berry reminds us, “When despair for the world grows... we can lie down where the Wood Drake rests... and come into the peace of wild things…”  

It’s clear to me this is all deeply human, but is it deeply Jewish too?  After all, one story is just a thread and ‘a thread does not make the cloth’.   My doubts fell away and I realized, yes, this IS deeply Jewish when I found the immigrant theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He was rescued from the clutches of the Shoah, the holocaust, and in response, he wrote books filled with chapter after chapter exploring wonder as theological grounding! I couldn’t take my eyes off the page.  Listen to this:
Endless wonder unlocks an innate sense of indebtedness.  Within our awe there is no place for our self assertion.  Within our awe we only know that all we own, we owe.  The world consists not of things, but of tasks.  Wonder is the state of our being asked.  The ineffable is a question addressed to us.
Amazingly to me, he was writing just a few years after the horrors of the Shoah where many of his family and millions of others were murdered.   He wrote boldly of wonder as a fundamental human experience; whose cultivation is so important we risk losing our humanity and civilization itself if we do not activate our ‘will to wonder’ and respond in fullness.  Wonder as tikkun, as antidote and remedy to the Shoah itself!  It doesn’t get more authentic than this.*  
This primal wonder beckons us.  In the words of AJ Heschel:
Our sense of wonder, the sublime mystery of living becomes the doorway, the gate of our faith; a foundation stone that allows for our realignment to wholeness, engulfing even our own self assertion. 
Yes, the world is burning AND the world is a castle of light.  When despair for our world grows, and we become overwhelmed with the news of the day, let us remember that awe and wonder are still here- calling us back into relationship, asking us: how will you respond to this new moment, this new day that is here.

* I heard a teaching from Rabbi Sheila P. Weinberg, who heard from Rabbi Art Green that indeed nothing is more Jewish than the question, “Am I Jewish enough”.  Even the most ultra, uber traditional Rabbi you can think of has an aunt, wagging a finger, saying, “you can do better!”.  Thankfully, the depth of spiritual encounter that came to America from Europe reminds us that doubt is a healthy part of our journey.  

Click here to read Rachel Carson’s entire article for Women’s Home Companion.  A true beacon in the night. https://training.fws.gov/history/Documents/carsonwonder.pdf


David Arfa, Maggid (Mah-geed/Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism's storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom.  He identifies as a 'Sense of Wonder' Jew and leads Shabbat-inspired contemplative strolls at his local High Ledges Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. David has also produced two CD's, 'the Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe' and the Parents Choice award winner, 'The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Who Ever Lived'.  His live performances include the full length storytelling performance, 'The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe'.  The rest of the time, David is Director of Education at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, volunteers with Franklin County Hospice and has completed two CPE units totalling 800 hours of clinical pastoral education.  CPE is a nondenominational, nationally accredited clinical training program for spiritual care providers. His programs and performances can be found at www.maggiddavid.net.


Monday, September 11, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 21 - Eco-Kaddish Blessing

By Judith Felsen, Ph.D.

Master of the Universe, Lord of All Worlds
May I know You
when I see a tree
feel the wind
gaze at stars
touch the ground
smile at flowers
May I see You
in all cycles of life
through and around me
May I sense You
with every breath
footstep, touch, thought and feeling
knowing You are near
and we are always One.

This Elul
may I join with You
becoming One
in nature’s presence
never to leave.

 © Judith 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 poetess, consultant, creator of collaborative integrative programs involving  nature, Judaism and the arts,  daily student of Torah, sacred texts and various teachers particularly the Baal Shem Tov and Chassidus, sacred circle dancer and an avid kitchen worker. She enjoys sharing studies, all of the outdoors, the garden, harvesting, prepping ,walking, hiking, running, meditating and conversing with the earth. She serves on the board of the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation, Neskaya Center for Movement Arts, and the Mount Washington Valley Chavurah.  She lives in the White Mountains with her husband, two large dogs and thenative community of the surrounding forest.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 20 - In the Hands of the Billionaires

by Mirele B. Goldsmith, Ph.D.

Recently I had the opportunity to hear a presentation about the UN Sustainable Development Goals by Jeffrey Sachs, the world’s best-known economist. Sachs emphasized that poverty and climate change are interrelated. He focused on the financial cost of a “just transition” to a world of decent livelihoods and renewable energy for all. Sachs explained that the cost of this transition could easily be financed if the world’s 2,043 billionaires contributed a mere 3% of their annual income. 

I find this analysis to be very encouraging. The problem is simple. Instead of changing the behavior of the 7.5 billion people on earth or even the policies of hundreds of governments, the transformation we seek can be accomplished by a handful of people. These individuals can easily afford the cost. All that is required is that they refrain from using their power for wrongdoing and instead choose to take righteous action. All that is required is that we persuade a few of our fellow human beings to follow the time-tested formula of tefilla, teshuva, and tzedakah (reflection, repentance, and action for justice.)

During this month of Elul I am reflecting on how Sachs’ analysis will influence my activism in the year ahead. This month of preparation for the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) is a time to focus on relationships between people. What can I do to influence those with immense power that can be used for good or evil?  How will I relate to the corporate executives, politicians, and billionaires with the power to save or destroy our world? And, as I seek to change their behavior, how can I be guided by my understanding of tochecha (rebuke,) teshuva (repentance,) and chesed (compassion)?


Dr. Mirele B. Goldsmith is an environmental psychologist, educator, and activist. Mirele created the Tikkun Mayim, a ceremony of repair for our relationship with water, and founded Jews Against Hydrofracking. She directed the Jewish Greening Fellowship, a network of 55 organizations committed to sustainability.  She attended the UN Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen and was a leader in the Jewish mobilization for the People’s Climate March in New York City. Mirele’s writings on Judaism and sustainability have been published in the Jerusalem Report, Jewish Week, Forward, Shma, and Huffington Post.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Earth Etude for Elul 19 - Keeping Agreements as a Spiritual Practice

by Rabbi David Jaffe

I am a people pleaser. On the surface that may sound just fine. I get along well with people, care about people and want to give them what they want. But the motivations for my people pleasing reveal its dark underside. I don’t like conflict, so I will do whatever is necessary to make sure people like me. For example, I will say yes to things I know I will never do, sacrificing my integrity to avoid the momentary discomfort and hard feelings of saying no. 

I am not sharing this publicaly to self-flagellate. Rather, my own condition is instructive for many people because these patterns of behavior are not of my own invention and are not a “personal problem.” On the contrary, I have been trained well by the dominant Protestant middle-class culture of the United States to be a good cog in the capitalist machine. This training teaches us to work hard, keep your head down, conform, avoid conflict, get people to like you and you will achieve a level of comfort that is the goal of life. Then, do whatever possible not to lose this comfort. This means avoiding hard things with other people that might create conflict.

Caitlin Breedlove, a community organizer with the Auburn Seminary, names the broader implications of conflict avoidance in Elizabeth Aeschlimann’s powerful unpublished master’s thesis, Getting Mixed Up With Each Other (May, 2017, Harvard Divinity School). Breedlove, who was raised working class, recounts numerous experiences with middle-class college students and organizers who said yes to certain agreements and then broke their word in the course of work together. The difficult changes community organizing seeks to make take relationships people can count on. Without knowing that someone really has your back, it is hard to fight for real change. Breedlove tells Aeschlimann that people involved in campaigns, “… really wanted spiritual accompaniment on the road… I think when you’re really accompanying them, you have a spiritual covenant with them. You’ve given them your word, and you’ve asked something in return.” This idea of covenant is key for Breedlove.  Covenanting with someone means that you are there for them in a real and continuous way and will not break your agreements, even if it makes you deeply uncomfortable. 

Am I willing to give up the momentary comfort of saying yes to a request and instead have the integrity to make agreements I will keep? Am I willing to always keep my word? A lot is at stake in the white middle class in our country confronting these questions. On an environmental level we have an implicit agreement with future generations to steward the earth and leave it in better shape than how we found it. Will we follow through with that agreement? Will we keep our word to our children or sacrifice our integrity for short term economic comfort. In the language of Middot – Jewish soul traits – the commitment and integrity Breedlove advocates is called Emunah – trustworthiness and reliability. A traditional blessing given to couples upon marriage is, “May you build a Bayit Ne’eman B’Yisrael – a trustworthy and reliable home.”  

This Elul I am asking myself to sacrifice comfort and risk creating conflict with people by only saying yes to things I can actually do. Taking on a commitment, no matter how small, means actually following through and doing it. If everyone with these same people pleasing patterns can commit to keeping our word, we can make this world a Bayit Ne’eman, a reliable, trustworthy home, where we responsibly steward this miraculous earth for the generations to come.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out: A Jewish Approach to Personal and Social Change, winner of the 2016 National Jewish Book Award for Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the Founder and Principal of Kirva Consulting, which helps individuals and organizations access spiritual wisdom for creating healthy, sustainable relationships and communities. He blogs at rabbidavidjaffe.com.