Saturday, September 8, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 29 - World as Lover, World as Self

by Daniel Kieval

there is a meditation practice
watching everything arising, inside and outside
responding with a gentle,
"not me"
this thought - "not me"
this anger - "not me"
this leg - "not me"
"not me"
it is a Big Truth
all this stuff is unfolding
in a giant performance art piece we call The Universe
and we are just a witness to this flow

They say the opposite of a small truth is a lie, but the opposite of a big truth is another big truth

is it not equally true to say to everything - "me" ?
this anger - "me"
this song - "me"
this wafting scent of honeysuckle - "me"

the silent waterfall in the trees - "me"
the cackling crow - "me"
the movements of this body - "me"
the vast yearning of the soul, and the small, petty thoughts - "me" and also "me"

to call ourselves but witnesses
does not do justice to the juice that flows down our chin as we bite into this life
to our wovenness in this web of flesh and story

no, there is no way out of this
this is our world, our fleshy body, and we are bigger and more whole than we ever realized
and more fragile, and more real

and we awaken
with heartbroken tears of gratitude
arms wide
calling everything in
come home
come home
you are me again, and always

The title of the poem is borrowed from the book of the same name by Joanna Macy.
The saying about the opposite of a small truth and a big truth is attributed to quantum physicist Niels Bohr.

Daniel Kieval currently lives in Western Massachusetts along the Connecticut River. Lately he most enjoys spending time creating art, taking it slow, and exploring wild places (outer and inner).

Friday, September 7, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 28 -- Not One

by Rabbi David Greenstein

There is not one blade of grass on earth without its angel descending from above, prodding it urgently: “Grow, grow!”* And, in return, the grass keeps growing.

There is not one lion on earth without its angel descending from above, prodding it urgently, “Roar, roar!” And, in return, the lion keeps roaring.

There is not one stream on earth without its angel descending from above, prodding it urgently, “Flow, flow!” And, in return, the stream keeps flowing.

There is not one bee on earth without its angel descending from above, prodding it urgently, “Sting, sting!” And, in return, the bee keeps stinging.

There is not one human being on earth without their angel descending from above, prodding them urgently: “Let the grass grow, the lion roar, the stream flow, the bee sting.” And, in return, the human being pauses to consider whether to heed their angel or betray it.

But, should they betray their angel, there is not one human being on earth who will be able to hide. They will look around and see a world that is naked, where -

There is not one blade of grass on earth;
There is not one lion;
There is not one stream;
There is not one bee;
And there is not one angel descending from above.

Except for the angel who will prod each person with a fiery sword, saying urgently, “Until you return to the earth, for you are from the earth, and to the earth you must return.”**

* See Genesis Rabbah 10:6
** See Genesis 3:19

David Greenstein serves as rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, NJ. He is the author of Roads to Utopia: The Walking Stories of the Zohar (Stanford University Press, 2014). He is the Daniel Jeremy Silver Fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard for the academic year 2018 - 2019.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 27 - Elul Solastalgia Blues

by Rabbi Benjamin Weiner

Like almost every Jewish festival, the High Holidays have both spiritual and natural resonance, which, at the deepest level, are intertwined. Our ancient ancestors, linking the quality of the oncoming rainy season with the quality of their deeds, derived the need to perform an intense ceremony of repentance at just the time they began anxiously scanning the sky for clouds.  

Growing up in central New England, it was not the rains I anticipated as the days of Elul ticked away but the first signs of autumn--cool dewy mornings and crisp breezes by day that brought refreshing contrast to the humidity of summer. These awoke in me not so much the existential gratitude of an Israelite receiving the water of heaven as a subtler sense of safety and familiarity, the childhood feeling of everything being in its right place that can ripen amidst the complexities of later life into an intense nostalgia. It was this seasonal advent, more than any sort of brimming awe and trembling, that defined the time for me--and it is this feeling that I yearn for now as the Days of Awe approach.

I have increasingly come to taste the disappointment of this yearning over the past several years, as September continues an inexorable transition into a full-blown summer month, with early fall heatwaves becoming more common, and leaves that in the past would already be tinged with color holding green and stubborn to their stems, and, last year, cherry tomato plants giving fruit well into October whose tartness in my mouth was mixed in my mind with the ominous tang of a poisoned apple.

So I have come to approach this time with quite a bit more fear and trembling than I would prefer to feel--maybe more like my ancestors awaiting the rains that have themselves become less abundant and predictable in our times--and my understanding of t'shuvah now grows precisely out of the chasm between my nostalgic expectation and the planet of today. As the High Holidays now bring climate change into this stark relief, accompanied by an emotional tension that I sometimes find almost unbearable, they must by necessity also occasion an intense soul-searching, as I seek the rhythm by which to live with love, righteousness, and joy in the face of the peril of this changing world.

Benjamin Weiner is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst.  He lives with his family on their 3.2 acre homestead in Deerfield, MA, where they keep dairy goats, chickens, and bees, and grow much of their own food.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 26 - Returning to The Trees of Life

by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

I am a tree hugger. From long ago. I have planted trees, hundreds of them. I have celebrated Arbor Day as a Girl Scout. I have hiked in the woods from the time I was little.

There is a tree that grows in the center of the Merritt Parkway on the way into New York. I passed this tree every week on my way to rabbinical school. It is a beautiful tree with many strong, curved branches coming out of the central trunk. It looks like a menorah. There is another tree like that, a very old tree on the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, ME. Over a hundred years old. Having withstood wind and salt spray, hurricanes and curious tourists. Every time I pass them they make me smile. Photos do not capture their beauty. Perhaps you’ve noticed my two trees.

I worry about these two trees. The one of the Merritt we may lose to “road work” and improving the infrastructure. Other trees in the center are already tagged for removal. The one in Maine maybe lost to erosion.

For me, these two trees are touchstones. Trees that I return to again and again. They both look something like a menorah, a seven branched candelabra from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. They remind me of the beauty in the world and my place in it.

There was a third tree. A birch tree at Jolli Lodge in Leland, Michigan. It stood proudly above the shores of Lake Michigan on Good Harbor Bay as a sentinel. It had a tall trunk and one large branch that curved out of it. The Native Americans called that type of formation a “signal tree,” pointing the way. For me, for decades, every vacation would include the family picture by the old birch tree. We would measure our growing stature against it as a yardstick. Children climbed it. Sitting in an Adirondack chair, sipping a glass of white wine, books were read, sermons written, dreams dreamt with a breeze blowing through the leaves, dappled shadows on my pages. Sunsets, beautiful Lake Michigan sunsets were viewed (and photographed) through it. And we would pause. And think about our lives. Where had the year taken us? Where do we want to be next year when we stand under the tree?

And then the tree was gone. Felled by birch bore—and invasive disease caused by a beetle. The Jolli Lodge is not quite the same without that beautiful tree. I am not quite the same.

There is a special place in Judaism for trees. We celebrate trees on Tu B’shevat, the New Year of the Trees. We are commanded to not cut down fruit tress in the Book of Deuteronomy. We are promised that one day everyone will sit under their vine and fig tree and none will make us afraid in the Book of Isaiah. And we call the Torah, Eitz Chayim, a Tree of Life.

Why is the Torah called an Eitz Chayim? Proverbs tells us, and we sing it as part of the Torah service, “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” We then sing “Hashiveinu” “Return to us and we shall return. Renew our days as of old….”

Return, “t'shuvah” is a central theme of the High Holiday season. How do we do “t'shuvah”? How do we return? How do we make amends? With G-d. With our friends? With ourselves? And even with the trees? Renewing our commitment to the trees, we renew ourselves. Then we can enter the High Holidays and fully sing Eitz Chayyim and Hashivenu, fully.

As we return this High Holiday season, I am glad that I was able to return to visit my two special trees. We need to continue to protect our trees so that we can share Isaiah’s vision of peace sitting under his vine and fig tree where none make us afraid. And then those trees can truly be called a Tree of Life.

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, Illinois. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, Most Shabbat afternoons find her outdoors in nature, hiking, running or walking. She partners with many civic organizations to make the world a better place. She honed her love for the water at Mayyim Hayyim, the Community Mikveh in Newton, Massachusetts, where she served as a mikveh guide and educator. She received her rabbinic ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 25 - The Hawk and the Kippah

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
For the past 13 years since my ordination, I have been wearing a rainbow kippah. The kippahand its pattern hold many meanings for me: connection to family, covenant with G!d, hope for the future, acceptance of all kinds of people (including myself), and more. Periodically, I have had to make a new kippah, when the previous one wore out.
Recently, when I again needed to make a new kippah, as I thought about it, I realized that I wanted to make this new kippahslightly different from all my previous rainbow kippot. I crocheted the first few rows, but waited until I was in the company of AJR friends and colleagues at an alumni retreat to do the bulk of the work on it. 
I was pleased with the kippah'sbright new colors. I had, as always, started with yellow in the center—it strikes me as the Sun, the Source, the Radiance, but this time, when I completed the last rows of green on my new kippah, I didn't stop. I added a few more rows—of black, to symbolize and hold the deep grief that I feel about the destruction we are wreaking upon the Earth and the impact on people around the globe.
With the finished kippahin my hand, I shared its story with my companions. As I placed it on my head for the first time, it felt deep and powerful, meaningful and helpful.
One beautiful June day, a week or so later, I went out walking. About a half mile into my walk, I felt something WHOOOSH by, inches from my head. I looked back and saw what appeared to be a young hawk fly up and light on a high branch of a nearby tree.
Interesting, I thought. Weird. And I kept on walking.
Suddenly, I felt a thud on the back of my head. Catching but a glimpse of the hawk soaring away, I lifted my hand to my head. Mykippahwas gone! 
Shaken, I turned and hurried home. What did this mean? My legs felt wobbly. What was I to make of what had happened? Were there theological implications? What might they be?
I reached out to my AJR friends, seeking support as I held the tension of my experience in my heart.
Responses landed in my inbox almost immediately. They fell into two general categories: “We're so glad you are OK!” and, “You just had a mystical experience.”
These two kinds of answers accurately described what I was grappling with—I could absorb the distress of the experience and tumble down the tunnel of despair, or I could embrace the spiritual aspect of the experience and allow it to envelope me, and, perhaps, change me.
My friend Rabbi Linda Shriner-Kahn wrote, “Sometimes allowing an experience space to breathe is not inaction, rather we give ourself a moment to breathe and then we act.”
She was so right. I needed time to absorb my experience, and so I donned an old kippah with a different pattern,and, withthe words of friends in the back of my mind, I allowed myself that time.
[Your kippah] seems to me a symbol to unite heaven and Earth, together with the hawk as a shaliach/shlichah (messenger) to that union. I can imagine the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) in exile swooping down saying, "I too am grieving without a place to dwell, feeling disconnected from the souls of the people..." In grief we say that the soul will be reunited and yet here it seems like souls who have been reunited with The Mysterious One Above may have sensed the story behind the kippah. The sparks of intention seemed to radiate outward like a spiritual bull's eye, third eye, sensing a creativity of higher realms....--Rabbi Leslie Schotz
The [climate] hawk has brought your lament on high to remind God of the Rainbow promise of old. --Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum
Your connection to the environment is out there and the bird felt you...--Rabbi Ziona Zelazo
There is already too much sadness and grief to carry; let the hawk take some of the load off you. --Rabbi Enid Lader
Your experience strikes me as a threshold moment--only you know where the threshold leads... --Rabbi Linda Shriner-Kahn
As a lover of the natural world, you have given it a gift--both tangible and spiritual.  --Rabbi Michael Kohn
As the summer passed, I found myself thinking of the repeated Biblical injunctions to choose compassion over indifference or fear, to choose blessing over curse, to choose life over death.
In response to my experience with the hawk, I can choose blessing.
In response to my grief about our planet, I can choose compassion.
In response to every experience every moment of the day, I can choose life.
As Elul approached, I was ready, and I began my new kippah, another rainbow with Radiance at the center and grief at the edge. It is a kippah that will, G!d willing, inspire me to embrace both the delights and the grief in life with peace, acceptance, and resolve.
May I—may we all—today and always, choose compassion; may we choose blessing, may we choose life.
Shana tovah.

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 Spirit, and 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.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 24 - delights in breaking your own behavior and heading towards love

by Molly Bajgot

delights in breaking your own behavior
and heading towards love:

when water logged branch 
comes girdling down the stream
and gets caught by poised stick, gracefully,
i hang

on its varied


with its dancer.

i watch from a brightly blazed, hot sun rock
naked, this intimate exchange

and then, off it goes —

drifting away, pushed by some force lightly more powerful
than all the other tide pulses, loosening it free —
it glides on until, aha — caught again —
g l i d i n g , 

mowing forward,
relying on the 
current the
stream the 
effortlessness and
stubbornness of their
being —
you be - ing
of light and steam . . . 

i’m watching, learning —
the branch does not return up stream.
it’s gentle flow mentions, murmurs:
forward, i dream, 

keep fluttering, and ruffling, 
bumping against other branches and leaves,
mooring on shore here, shore there
and then back again, rolling,
back to yourself, back


learn from the journey; 
the branch does not return 

Molly Bajgot is a Jewish singer-songwriter and community organizer from Sudbury, Massachusetts. She currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. She is a lover of music, healing arts, and the outdoors. When she gets the chance to do these things together, she feels at home. She loves to craft ritual, and to be in community both as a member and as an organizer.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 23 - Working Together: Will a Single Plan Ameliorate Climate Disruption?

by Andy Oram

Climate disruption is a universal scourge that requires a coordinated worldwide response. As such, it is a constant frustration to activists who wish that institutions everywhere could collaborate on implementing the Paris accords and to do even more. We often lament that governments and companies go their own ways, violating their own promises to hold back carbon production. Why can't humanity learn to work together in its own interest?

Recourse to Jewish traditional texts can help us accept this situation. In particular, the story of the building and destruction of Babel warns us about a too consistent conformity. In the book Subversive Sequels in the Bible: How Biblical Stories Mine and Undermine Each Other, scholar Judy Klitsner investigates the mysterious question of why God disapproved of Babel's efforts. Her conclusion is that God reacted negatively to the very existence of a coordinated effort that buried the individuality of the participants. She also ties the conformity of Babel to that of the Egyptians in Exodus, where only the courageous dissent of midwives Shifra and Puah reversed the trend toward destruction.

Babel's inhabitants started out in disobedience of God's injunction to humanity to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28 and 9:1), coming together in a city. Klitsner further cites a 19th-century Lithuanian author, Netziv, who suggests that Babel built the tower so they could spy on all the people around them and stamp out disobedience. God thwarts this authoritarianism by scattering the people of Babel, and later rescues the Israelites who had succumbed to the conformity forced on them by Pharaoh and lost their capacity to fight back. The resistance to Pharoah coalesced from the separate actions of midwives, Moses’ parents, Miriam, Pharoah’s own daughter, and Moses himself.

Coming back to modern times, we recognize that fixing the climate requires manifold approaches that wouldn't adapt well to a single vision. We wouldn't do well, for instance, to impose a single technology on everyone regardless of geography and economic differences. As technologies improve, different communities and institutions need flexibility to choose the most efficient one that meets their needs. Carbon pricing (a mechanism invented by political conservatives) cleverly recognizes the wisdom of giving incentives to find separate ways to a common goal.

When US federal leaders withdrew from the Paris climate accords on July 1, 2017, and then took steps to weaken environmental protections, the climate movement discovered its far-flung strengths. Some 2,500 individuals and institutions--including states and cities--signed the “We Are Still In” campaign, and at least in the short term, the US’s carbon emissions decreased. In the long run, of course, national and international institutions must recommit to fighting climate disruption. But renewed national efforts will draw on robust local ones.

In Exodus, the Pharaoh was defeated by many individuals finding adaptive ways forward, sharing a common vision of freedom and human dignity but using the unique tools available to each person. Climate change also requires a clear vision of the threats facing us, but a willingness to change direction on the way to ameliorating the problem.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O'Reilly Media, a technology publisher and conference provider. A member and past president of Temple Shir Tikvah in Winchester, Massachusetts, he is currently interim secretary of the Jewish Climate Action Network. Some of his other writings can be found at and

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Earth Etude for Elul 22 - You Shall Be Like a Watered Garden

by Rabbi Toba Spitzer

Of the many ways that the Divine is described and experienced in the Hebrew Bible, one of my favorites is Water. In the prophets, in Psalms, God is referred to as Peleg Elohim/“River of God”; M’kor Mayyim Hayyim/“Source of Living Waters”; Ma’ayanei Hayeshua/“Wells of Liberation,” and more. For our Biblical ancestors, the metaphor of God as Water was a powerful way of describing their connection to the Source of Life:
How precious is Your love, O God!...Humanity is nourished from the riches of Your house, You give them drink from the stream of your delight(Psalms 36:8-11).As the deer longs for water streams, so does my soul long for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (Psalms 42:2).YHVH shall guide you always, and satisfy your soul in drought...and you shall be like a watered garden (Isaiah 58:11).
This metaphor was also central to the Torah’s understanding of how we are to live our lives in alignment with our highest values. As the book of Deuteronomy explains, when the Israelites fulfill their covenantal obligations—the ritual and ethical rules for creating holy community—then the rain will fall, and the crops will grow. And when they turn away from their Source, bowing down to the creations of their own hands, then “the skies will close and there will be no rain, and the earth will not yield its produce, and you will soon be lost from the good land that YHVH is giving to you.
These verses describe a sacred ecology of human actions and their consequences, in which the flow of water is key to understanding our relationship with the Divine. They teach us that fulfilling our ritual and ethical obligations means aligning ourselves with the Flow of goodness and truth. And when we do this, "the rain falls," the waters of divine blessing flow as they are meant to, and both we—and our mother Earth—benefit.
If we choose to live our lives out of spiritual and ethical alignment, then we will suffer the consequences, which can be understood both as a state of spiritual drought, and as environmental devastation. During these weeks of Elul, we are given an opportunity to re-align ourselves with the Divine Flow. We can pay attention to where we feel spiritually “dry,” and find opportunities to nourish ourselves,to“drink from the stream of Godly delight.” If we feel as if we have gotten off course, drifting away from living in accord with our values, then we have the opportunity to make a course correction in the new year. And perhaps most importantly, we can simply open ourselves to the blessing that flows within us and all around us, immersing ourselves in the Fount of Living Waters, becoming a “watered garden” that will blossom in the year to come.

Rabbi Toba Spitzer serves Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton, MA, and currently serves as President of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. She is working on a book that explores the rich palette of metaphors for God in Jewish tradition.