Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rosh HaShanah 1st Day D'var Torah

by Lisa Kempler

Shana Tova, everyone.

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

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

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

8: Putin and the Ukraine

7: Planes going down

6: Police brutality (such as Ferguson)

5: Immigration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-          Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, debarnu dofee

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

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

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

So what’s the problem with information?

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

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

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

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

So what’s wrong with knowing stuff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting justly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shana tova

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

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Al Chet - Confession for the Earth

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

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

Al Chet - Confession for the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 29 - Shana Tovah

photos by Gabi Mezger
text by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

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

surrounded by love like a seal in water...

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

moving slowly when necessary, yet always steadily...

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

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

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

spreading your wings as wide as possible...

leaping as high as the highest waves...

picking yourself up after the inevitable falls...

soaring with grace and beauty...

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

traveling often in the company of others...

treading gently when you must...

and always remembering who and what you are.

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

Earth Etude for Elul 29 - Shana Tovah

photos by Gabi Mezger
text by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

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

surrounded by love like a seal in water...

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

moving slowly when necessary, yet always steadily...

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

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

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

spreading your wings as wide as possible...

leaping as high as the highest waves...

picking yourself up after the inevitable falls...

soaring with grace and beauty...

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

traveling often in the company of others...

treading gently when you must...

and always remembering who and what you are.

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

Monday, September 22, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 28- Sweet and Sour Grapes

by Rabbi Robin Damsky

I am in my favorite place at my favorite time: in the garden, in the morning, before the cars have started up, before the noise of lawnmowers and leaf blowers. The crickets are singing, the birds responding. The rising sun’s light filters through the leaves. A beginning.
It has been a tough year in the garden. An endless winter caused a late start and temperatures have been cooler than usual. A call from critter to critter that I cannot hear lets them know there is bounty on my corner. Maybe it’s because the peach tree lost its flowers in a hard spring rain, but squirrels have eaten a fair amount of my produce this year, taking a bit of a turnip and leaving the rest (yeah, I’m not surprised). Mice, too, have traversed here. I have never seen one, but my garden helpers have. Let’s not forget the birds.
At the same time, the blackberries went wild. Literally. I have cut them back and dug up new plants several times. Cucumbers abound. Arugula sings its symphony. The carrots are fat and rich. I could go on. But what hits me this year is the contrast between disappointment and satisfaction; the moments of wondering why I do this at all, pitched against the incredible feeling of gratitude when I bag up 4 bags of produce filled with veggies, fruits and herbs, for our local food pantry. When neighbors come by and tell me they’ve been feasting on the blackberries. Who wouldn’t?

This is the rhythm of the Elul and High Holy Day season, the time when we take stock. How many things did not turn out the way we wanted them to this year? How many grapes did we plant that turned sour? (Most have mine have been chomped on by critters.) What do we do? Do we become depressed or disheartened? Angry? Do we give up? Or do we plant more seeds?
Perhaps we do all of the above. Perhaps we need to feel the grief and disappointment of our losses and our failures. Perhaps we need to feel the frustration. But Elul and the High Holy Day season tell us this is only part of the process. For us to fulfill the essence of this time of year demands that we somehow find a way to get to the other side. Maybe that includes a change of project, or maybe it means finding a new way in the same project.
I sometimes think that it is all the difficulties involved in growing food that inspired our Jewish ancestry to move away from its agricultural roots. This was revived, however, with the kibbutz movement in Israel’s pioneer days, and is experiencing further revival all over the Jewish world today. As we demand more sustainable lifestyles and healthier, more affordable foods, we are revitalizing our synagogue and neighborhood networks to feed ourselves and the hungry around us.
Even as I write this I observe a critter that has found her way into the grapevines. I go over to see the culprit. A squirrel. She takes her time untangling herself from the vines, climbs up the adjacent telephone pole, and when far enough away from me to rest in safety, turns. I see the bulge in her mouth. She takes out her dessert – a nice, fat purple grape, and eats it in front of me.
Not all of our plans will fruit the way we hope or plan. But this is the season to harvest the best of our works this year, and to plan and plant again, for a fuller, richer, more bountiful harvest in the year to come.
May your Elul and the year to come be rich with new ideas and renewed energy to plant and see them bear fruit.
Robin Damsky is the rabbi of West Suburban Temple Har Zion in River Forest, IL, (wsthz.org) where in the temple garden's first year, congregants donated over 120 pounds of produce to the hungry. Rabbi Damsky educates others while cultivating and donating her own food as well from her organic, edible landscape. She is the mother of Sarah.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 27- Gratitude

by Judith Felsen

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

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

Saturday, September 20, 2014

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

We will be the change we want to see

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

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

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

I am exhausted
I am exhilarated
I am joyful

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

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

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

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

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

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

We the family
The agents of change

Aged and ageless are we
Tireless and tired

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

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

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 24 - Elul Love and Joy

by Maggid David Arfa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Earth Etude for Elul 23- Teshuva and Beauty

by Lois Rosenthal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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