Friday, November 30, 2012

Thinking about Shabbat

Thanks to my friend and colleague Rabbi Anne Heath, I have just been reading a blog by Rabbi Rami Shapiro to a new rabbi. I quote:
Resting on Shabbat matters because working 60-80 hours a week is killing us. Not shopping on Shabbat matters because consumerism is killing us. Pesach matters not because we were slaves to Egypt's Pharaoh, but because we are slaves to the Pharaohs of the military-industrial-financial-media complex.
Shabbat is beginning. What do you or will you do to observe and celebrate this day? Traditional Judiasm teaches us many things that we are traditionally commanded to do and not to do on Shabbat. But in today's world, we are free to find our own way. What makes Shabbat special for you? What could make it special if it is not already? What is it that don't you have time to do during the week? What would it take to set aside time between sundown on Friday and nightfall on Saturday to do / not do what matters most to you?

I invite you, I challenge you, I encourage you -- find a way to make Shabbat a special day for you and your family, a day when your blood pressure goes down notch, a day when you smile and laugh more, a day to help you refresh and renew your body and your soul. And I also invite you, challenge you, and encourage you to give this day a Jewish flavor. Lighting candles on Friday evening can touch your heart. Setting aside a few moments for prayer can touch your soul. Gathering with family and friends can touch your sense of community. There are a myriad of ways to bring a sense of Shabbat and Judaism into your day. May you find one or many, and may you feel strengthened and renewed in the process.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Katy Allen

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Food Challenge Day 7

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Today is the last day of my personal Food Challenge, focusing on and thinking about food and all the issues that came to my mind as a result.

Reflection - action - reflection. This is the process by which I learned the art of being a chaplain. And it is a process that is well suited to learning anything. And so I have been reflecting, and now it is time to turn my thoughts toward action. Yesterday, I spoke about personal actions, at the household level. Each of us can reflect and take action on our own personal food habits and try to make improvements that positively impact us, our community, and our planet. Today, I am thinking about action at the community level. 

Here is my thought. Recently, I learned about Growing Places Garden Project. This non-profit organization, based in Clinton, MA strives 
"to improve the food security and nutrition education of people with limited economic means. We do this by providing vegetable gardens and nutrition education so that people can grow food on their own and become more conscientious about their nutrition.

Our goal is to grow proficient gardeners who maintain their gardens on their own and, through our encouragement and support, continue to grow fresh, healthy food for themselves and their loved ones year after year."
Basically, they build gardens for those struggling with poverty and teach them how to garden. The pluses are many: more food for the hungry, healthy food for them, and gifts to the planet at the same time. It is about giving people a fishing pole and teaching them to fish instead of giving them a fish.

I am newly renewing my efforts and energy at gardening, and loving every minute of it (thanks to inspiration and support from Renee Bolivar of Gardens by Renee and my friends Kaat and Rebecca as well as the resiliency message of Transition). Growing Places Garden Project has a limited geographic area, and Wayland, as well as Framingham and Natick, are outside that area. I would love to find a core group of people who would like to work to get GPGP to extend their project into our area, so that we, too, can help build new gardens, create new gardeners, connect people to the Earth, and feed more people with more good food. 

The words of Rabbi Tarfon come to mind: "It is not upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it." (Pirke Avot 2:21) We do not have to save the whole world, but we also cannot sit idly by, eating everything in sight, eating without realizing how connected we are to the world, throwing away food, and more. Instead, let us understand that eating has the capability of being a form of prayer and strive to make it so. Let us eat thoughtfully and in reasonable quantities. Let us strive to eat in ways that are kind to the planet. Let us engage in meaningful efforts to remove hunger from the world.

I invite you to share your thoughts and ideas about how to help with food issues at the community level, and if you are interested in Growing Places Garden Project or have another idea you'd like to help launch, please be in touch.

Shavua tov -- may your week be filled with many blessings.

P.S. If you want to read one woman's story of her family's summer-long engagement with the Food Stamp Challenge, check out this blog.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Food Challenge Day 6

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

As we approach the rest and letting go of Shabbat, I think of our need to turn our reflections into actions and not to stand idly by when someone / something is needed and important in our community. We read in the Mishnah for Rosh HaShanah, Chapter 1, Mishnah 5 and 6:
Whether the crescent was clearly visible or whether it was not manifestly visible, they (the witnesses) may profane the Sabbath because of it. Rabbi Yose says: If the crescent was undoubtably seen, they must not profane the Sabbath because of it.
It once happened that more than forty pairs of witnesses passed through, but Rabbi Akiva detained them in Lod. Rabban Gamliel sent to him: "If you detain the many, you may lead them astray in the future."
This was about witnessing the new moon, and then, in ancient times, going before the rabbinical court in Jerusalem so that the new month could be announced at the proper time. The entire calendar and the timing of all the holidays depended on reliable witnesses making the effort to do their civic duty. (A little like voting, perhaps?) It was so important that one could violate the laws of Shabbat and travel on Shabbat in order to be a witness in the court. In fact, it was so important, that if 40 pairs of witnesses (two were needed) all went testify before the court, they could all break Shabbat in order to be witnesses. The message Rabban Gamliel is sending us is that if we don't let them all go, in the future, people might just think, "Oh, someone else will go. I don't need to."

How often have we thought this? Bystander syndrome is what it is called today. No one wants to be the first to intervene to help someone. Our ancient rabbis understood this psychology, as can be seen in their understanding that it was better for 80 people to break Shabbat than to take the risk of detaining them and telling them not to go, for the result could be that at some point in the future, no one would go.

The rabbis' message is about personal action, and the need for each and every one of us to take responsibility. So as we rest and renew ourselves this Shabbat, let us consider what we each as individuals can do in the areas of food justice and the environmental importance of how we eat. Personally  I pledge to examine my eating habits, to discuss the options with the other half of my household, and to try to make more of a difference personally. I invite you to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Food Challenge Day 5

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Gratitude also makes me think about the Earth. I ate tomato and cheese soup and thought about the tomato plants growing in the soil, fueled by the Sun and watered by the rain, and I thought of the cows that ate the alfalfa and oats and drank the waters of the stream and produced the milk from which the cheese was made. I munched on tropical nuts and thought about the trees they came from and wondered where they might be growing. I savored fresh eggs and thought of the farm not far from my home and of the hens that had produced these eggs pecking in the dust. As I ate, I thought about the wheat in my bread and the water that flows out of my tap. These foods and so many others, I eat them and I eat of the Earth, they connect me to the Earth, the Earth I so love, the Earth that nourishes my spirit and my soul, as well as my body. 

The Earth that is hurting.

Sometimes it seems as if I am feeling the Earth's pain.
Rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans dirtied by runoff from agriculture and cars and other human waste. Carbon from our cars and homes and factories and planes filling the air and changing our climate. Particles we produce entering the air and making us sick. Toxins from our chemical actions poisoning the soil and all that comes forth from it. 

The pictures are stunning, but so very often behind them are unseen contaminants. 

Do we care enough to pay attention? Do we care enough to act? 

Does it make a difference what we do?

All through this week's Torah portion, Chayyeh Sarah, are camels. Camels that carry people. Camels that drink, and drink, and drink. Camels that connect lovers. Camels as symbols.

If the camels in the story matter, then so do the people. And if the people in the stories I read matter, then so must I.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav taught, "If you believe that you can damage, then believe that you can fix. If you believe that you can harm, then believe that you can heal."

Yes. It does matter. It does make a difference. With every bite, it makes a difference. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Food Challenge Day 4

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Gratitude for what I have makes me think about those who have less. Research shows that we don't respond as well to big numbers as we do to individual stories. But here are some big numbers anyway. In 2011 in Massachusetts, 700,000 people were struggling to put food on the table, and a whopping 10.8 percent of households were food insecure. Throughout the United States, 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households, which included 16.7 million children. That was 14.9 percent of all U.S. households! Many of the people in these households were more than insecure about where their next meal would come from, they were just plain hungry. 
I don't have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. But more than 1 in 10 people in Massachusetts and 1 in 7 in the United States worry about this every day.
These are big numbers, and our human brains do not respond well to such information. This is also a chronic, on-going situation, and it is easy to grow immune to it, especially since it is a problem that is so hard to solve. It doesn't get big press like a hurricane or a flood. It is always just there, in the background - unless, of course, you are living it, in which case it is always in the foreground.
So we do a food drive on the High Holidays and are glad to provide meals to hungry children to help them grow better. We pick wild cranberries, nourishing our spirits with the gift of produce from the Earth and being outdoors together for a picnic when we wouldn't normally do so, with a calming view of the reservoir beside us all the entire time. We write a check to help out those in need in a crisis like Sandy.
We put our finger in the dike.
And then we sit down to a delicious meal. We overeat. We throw away excess food or food that went bad waiting in our refrigerators to be eaten.

Hunger is real, and it is in our backyard. 

Is gratitude just a feeling, or is it a motivator? 
I invite your thoughts.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Food Challenge Day 3

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

I find myself trying to figure out what exactly this challenge is about for me, and the feeling that I keep returning to as I eat is gratitude, gratitude for the many options I have, for the taste of the food, for having enough food, for eating either with others or alone, for the way my food connects me to the Earth and the sky and so many other people. No matter whether I am eating leisurely or am more rushed, whether I am alone or with others, I keep feeling gratitude. There are other thoughts and feelings, but this one is always there. I joined with a family at dinner this evening that is considering starting to express gratitude before they eat. That, together with my own thoughts, makes me think of the many blessings we have in Jewish tradition for before and after eating. My favorites are the two that feel they connect me best with the plants responsible for bearing the fruit or vegetable I am eating: 
For fruits, whether fresh or dried, from trees, such as apples, oranges, and peaches, as well as grapes, raisins, and nuts (except peanuts):
Blessed are You, Adonai our G!d, Sovereign of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the tree.
For vegetables and greens from the ground, peanuts, legumes, and fruits such as bananas, melons, and pineapples:
Blessed are You, Adonai our G!dSovereign of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the earth.
After eating we also recite blessings. This is the blessing for these same foods:
Blessed are You, Adonai our G!d, Sovereign of the universe, Creator of numerous living beings and their needs, for all the things You have created with which to sustain the soul of every living being. Blessed is He who is the Life of the worlds.
These are the traditional blessings, and they address the core gratitude - G!d, the energy that flows through the universe brings these amazing foods into being, and that same energy, through the hands of many people, bring the foods to my plate. 

Gratitude is a powerful emotion. I have never gone hungry. I have never lacked for options. But I have been known frequently to take for granted what is on my plate and the bounty that is available to me. Gratitude is about not taking it for granted. May it be my will and my practice not to slip back into a state of taking any bite of food for granted. May it be my will and my practice to notice what goes into my mouth and to be grateful for it. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

Food Challenge Day 2

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

So many possible directions in which to go with the conversation about food! It is hard to choose, but two images in particular keep rising into the foreground.

First, I am reminded more than once of the times when our bodies don't function normally, and as a result we cannot eat much, if anything. Two people who spoke to me about this in the hospital in recent days stand out in my mind, and those conversations, coming at this time that I am focusing on food, reminded me of my own such experience this past year. When our systems are not working properly, food suddenly becomes very different to us. We may lose our appetite and not even want the choicest of delicacies, we may feel deprived and isolated, we may feel angry at the limited diet our bodies force upon us, we may be frightened by the evidence in our daily habit that all is not well. When even just a few bites refuse to behave properly in our digestive tracts, suddenly food becomes an enemy instead of the object of our desire or our delight. The need to be gentle to our bodies at such a time results in a greatly limited definition of food, a necessity of life, a source of nutrients. I think of the blessing for after using the bathroom:
Blessed are you, Adonai, our G!d, Sovereign of the universe, who formed the human body with wisdom, creating the body's many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.
Thus it turns out that thoughts that began with not being able to eat end up bringing us back not to food, but to our own bodies, their wondrous nature, and our desire that they continue to function properly - in part so that we may eat. We come full circle.

The second thought for today is about eating on the run. How clear it is that rushing through a meal or eating at one's desk or in the car all belie the concept of eating as sacred, eating as prayer, eating as a way of connecting to the Universe, to the Divine. How can I be contemplative with my eating if I'm also working, driving, walking, or just plain in a hurry? The two do not mesh, and in such  circumstances, eating becomes strictly utilitarian. We are getting hungry and we need to / want to eat. So we grab a sandwich, an energy bar, a yogurt, a banana, and we gulp it down and move on. We...yes, I, too, am guilty. We are in this together. It is a battle with the demands upon our time, with the culture in which we live, with the jobs we have, and the commitments we make - whether willingly or not. Altogether, they infringe upon this sacred time of bringing into our bodies the nutrients we need in order to survive from day to day, in order to be healthy, in order to nourish not just our bodies, but also our spirits. Help us, Holy One, to slow down, and to eat, one bite at a time, savoring and appreciating each bite. As we see our food before us, help us to "be still, and know that I am G!d." (Psalm 46:10)

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Food Challenge Day 1

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

So today is Day 1 of my own personal Food Challenge, as opposed to a Food Stamp Challenge. I intend this as a week of paying close attention to what I am eating, what is in my refrigerator, where my food is coming from, how much I am eating, how I am approaching eating spiritually and emotionally, how I am eating, how I respond to eating, my state of mind as I eat, how much my food is costing, and any other thoughts or questions that arise. It will also be a week of recording my thoughts and responses here. (Don't worry - I promise not to give you menu listings!)

As I begin this week, I understand that the only meaningful reason for taking a Food Challenge is to come to some deeper understanding about food, food justice, the environmental meaning of eating, and other broad questions related to food and eating, then to respond. Only if new meaning flows out of my week will it be useful for me, and possibly for you. Better yet will be if some kind of action flows out of it. 

And so, I invite you to journey with me and to post your responses in the comments section below.

Here are some of my thoughts, observations, reflection and questions from this first day.

A sign is up on the electronic communication board at the hospital inviting people to participate in an online support group designed to help participants remain healthy and not gain weight during the holiday season. We need support during this time of overabundance to keep from stuffing ourselves from the amazing and continuous spreads we will be exposed to. What if it weren't all there to begin with? What can we do to make our own restraint meaningful beyond our own health?

The most powerful and pervasive feeling / thought that has entered my mind and my spirit today has been that eating is a holy / sacred act. It is an encounter with the Sun and the rain, the soil and the rocks, and all the myriad hands - from the turning of the soil, to the planting, weeding, harvesting, shipping, packaging (in some cases), cooking, serving - involved in bringing this food from the fields to my fork. I am awed by the thought of the amazing complexity involved, even for the spinach that was grown down the street from me. 

"Who is like you, Adonai, among the gods that are worshiped? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?" It is a wonder, it is majestic, it is awesome and it is splendid that I am able to eat spinach and squash and soup and granola and cookies. Thank you Earth. Thank you sky. Thank you people. Thank you G!d. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Parashat Vayera: Cranberries, Climate Change, and Cheer

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

I have been thinking a lot about The Food Stamp Challenge. I have found it is interesting that this does not seem to resonate with folks around me, and as I continue along with this idea alone, I find myself modifying my thoughts and intentions about it, in part because I’m still getting food from a CSA and don’t want it to go to waste in the process of trying to get myself to think about others who don’t have enough to eat, in part because it has less meaning to do it alone, and in part because, honestly, it is a little scary. 

I just spoke with a friend whose daughter teaches in Revere and many of her students come to school every day hungry. Revere is near by. Hunger is near by. Then I look at the spreads of too much food that are put out my workplace – and in other locations and situations, including in my own home – for a celebration or a gathering of one kind or another, and, if I want to not overeat, I must be judicious in what I take. And I think about the Earth from which we take this food, and how it is suffering from our damage to it, and I wonder. I wonder why we continue to eat more than we need and to throw out food, when we could be saving the money and using it to find food for those who don’t have enough. I wonder why we continue to eat more than we need and to throw out food, wasting our Earth’s precious resources. 

What would it take for us to change our ways and be more loving to those who are in need and to the planet that sustains us?

And then I always return to a question that often haunts me: Does it matter what I do? I just heard Bill McKIbben telling us that conservation won’t work. We can’t save the planet through our conservation efforts. His new push is getting institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies as a way to influence them to stop searching for more fossil fuels and to try to end climate silence. His global organization,, is working on this around the planet.

In contrast, there is a new movement to encourage us to calculate our Handprint (– as opposed to our Footprint, as a way to think positively about the things we are doing, because (and research apparently supports this idea) otherwise depression sets in and we feel that the world would be better off without us. There is something very Jewish about this way of looking at the world. We are commanded, each and every one of us, to perform every mitzvah, every commandment, ourselves. If we save one life, the Mishnah teaches, it is as though we saved the world. Judaism teaches us that our individual actions matter. And Judaism tells about both things we are to do as well as things we are not to do. In this week's parashah Vayera, Abraham welcomes strangers at his door; they turn out to be messengers from G!d, and from his welcoming of these guests we derive the mitzvah, with us still today, thousands of years later, to welcome guests into our home, to feed them (too much, of course), and give them the comforts they need.

We just put solar panels on our home. We haven’t yet flipped the switch. An individual action yes, but one done in community – the Solarize community. On the one hand, it feels good, like an important step in the effort to slow climate change, but at the same time I understand better now that the process of producing the panels is toxic to the planet, and I still haven’t gotten an answer to my question of how long the panels have to be at work before they “earn back” the energy it took to produce them in the first place.

The questions are complex, but our tradition teaches us not to avoid the questions just because the answers are not readily available, but to keep on moving forward

A disciple, tormented by wavering faith and unable to study, came to see R' Pinchas. The rebbe responded that, as a young man, he, too, had wrestled with questions and doubts. “About man and his fate, creation and its meaning. I was struggling with so many dark forces that I could not advance; I was wallowing in doubt, locked in despair. I tried study, prayer, meditation. Penitence, silence, solitude. In vain. My doubts remained doubts, my questions remained threats. Impossible to proceed, to project myself into the future. I simply could not go on.” Then, one day, when the Baal Shem Tov was visiting his town, R' Pinchas was led by curiosity to attend the gathering. “I was convinced that he was seeing me and no one else. … The intensity of his gaze overwhelmed me, and I felt less alone. And strangely, I was able to go home, open the Talmud, and plunge into my studies once more. You see, … the questions remained questions. But I was able to go on” [140].

The many questions remain, but we can go on, together. One of the ways at Ma’yan Tikvah that we went forward together was by picking cranberries at our annual Cranberry Shabbat, where we welcomed folks from Mosaic Jewish Outdoor Club. We had more than a dozen people picking and picnicking and praying together last Shabbat, and we will deliver the wild fruits of the earth that we picked to a homeless shelter for their Thanksgiving meal. It was renewing and healing for all of us.

Looking to the future, we are having Shabbat services outside tomorrow morning, so join us at Hamlen Woods on Rice Road in Wayland and dress for the weather. We are switching to our winter schedule and starting services at 10:30 AM

We never know when the strangers who suddenly appear in our lives will be messengers of God, as they were for Abram in our Torah portion, and so we ask the Holy One of Blessing to help us keep our hearts and our minds open, and to trust that, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav tells us, just as we can do damage, so, too, can we heal.

Shabbat Shalom!