Monday, December 23, 2019

Sparks of Light

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

The mystics teach that every person contains within a spark of the Divine, the result of G!d's tzimtzum, the contraction of the Divine self to make room for Creation. The resulting holy vessels, containing the sacredness of the Universe, shattered, and sparks of holiness flew outward and entered into that very Creation.

It's not always easy to see the sparks of holiness in a person. When we are hurt by another, our ability to see their holy spark vanishes.

Sometimes I can't see the spark inside my spouse, my children, my siblings, my friends or my partners in social justice work. Sometimes their words or actions touch old wounds within me, and I cannot see the sacredness within them. Sometimes their words or deeds touch new wounds within me, wounds from the world around me, and I cannot see their spark.

And with some people out there in the world, it's sometimes, or often, hard for me to believe the spark is even there.

Rabbi Nachman reminds us to “Seek the good in everyone, and reveal it, bring it forth.” To see the spark.

Mystical tradition teaches that our job on Earth is to help the holy sparks join together. To bring the Divine in all into Unity. To heal the wounded world.

After a rain or an ice storm, when the Sun comes out, all the trees and bushes shine. I'm not able to capture meaningful images of this magical sparkling world, but I can see it and I can feel it. And I am enraptured. But it vanishes quickly, and the images from my camera don't adequately express what I saw and felt.

I do my best to retain the images in my mind's eye and in my heart.

I do my best to allow the image to meld with my own Divine spark, that together they may grow the holiness within me. Together they may help me see the spark in others. Together they may help me find the good in others. And altogether that they may create something new and unique and healing.

As I kindle the lights of Hanukkah, I am reminded that this is both a festival of light and a celebration of rededication. The sparkle of the flame, like that of the Sun on crystals of ice, is fleeting. But I pray that the lifespan of this light is enough to rekindle the spark within me and to remind me that there is a spark within each of those I love, within each of those with whom I struggle, within each of G!d's sacred creatures. And it is my job to find that spark and to join together with it to see the good in others, that I may do my part to increase the holiness in my personal universe and to help bring Unity into the world.

May it be so, for all of us.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Hanukkah!

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 Jewish Climate Action Network-MA. She is a board certified chaplain and a former hospital and hospice chaplain and now considers herself an eco-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. 

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Today Elohim

by Judith Felsen, Ph.D.

Today I spent an hour with You
a treat, a prayer, a meditation
I heard you speak
hum in silence
consonant with the wind
air has a language of its own
the universe, green kingdom
intertwined within and out
all substance of one cell
nature spoke for You, Elohim
messaging the Shema
in truth and experience
we are one/One

in peace

Judith Felsen, Ph.D. is a poetess, Clinical Psychologist, coach, 2nd generation holocaust survivor, hiker, dancer, walker, volunteer, lover of nature, gardens, wilderness, beach, ocean and mountains. Her work addresses issues of recovery, 2nd generation survivors, the natural world, gardens and harvests, life cycle issues, spiritual questing, social issues, community issues and personal requests. Her poems have been published and widely distributed in national and specific publications. She is a New York native and resident of new Hampshire. She frequents Long Beach and lives with her husband and two large rescue dogs at their camp in the White Mountains of N.H. and house near the ocean in Long Beach. She actively studies the mystical and esoteric aspects of Judaism and is a member of the board of the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation and the Chavurah of Mount Washington Valley. She writes often and offers consultation upon request.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Geologic Love

by Jonathan Billig

What does a glacier say?
Let the mice declare, “striation! striation!”
Geologists and the keepers of the holy names.
Glaciers proclaim hilltops
With impossibly slow song,
Glaciers sing rivers,
Fjords and moraines,
Million-year cycles repeating refrains.

Listen, O children of your own creation,
The cosmos is our body, the cosmos is
Wounded here at home,
Where squirrels lie open in the roadways,
Children of our parkways,
Heavy with oaks but few foxes,
And flowing with rivers of cars.

What is the sound of a glacier not coming?
What is the sound of a glacier of flesh?

Pebbles in my hand
Weighty and cool as the hand of a loved one is warm-
Billions of years,
Nebulas flaring and spreading.
Coagulation in space from a dust cloud of rocks.
Water condensing on turbulent volcanic surface,
Until somewhere in the oceans lived
A smattering of molecules-
The world decided harmony.

Oh rocks whose name is breakdown layer transform,
Oh elements holding my hands up and down,
Oh cosmos, oh God, oh fellow humans,
Will we avert our harsh decree?
How does a human glacier learn to love?

Jonathan Billig is a connection educator, exploring diverse fields as mutually reinforcing play-grounds for who we are and could become. He has worked as an education coordinator for public gardens and synagogues, taught aboard a sailboat and at outdoor education centers, and spearheaded the design of the volunteer program on Mount Monadnock, the most climbed mountain in the United States. He currently works as a consultant in Jewish, outdoor, science, and mindfulness education. He is committed to the ongoing process of seeing and transforming systemic societal injustice, while diligently practicing love of people and the more-than-human world.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Shanah Tovah 5780 - May We Be Like Rocks

by Rabbi Katy Z Allen
photos by Gabi Mezger

We think of rocks as solid and unchanging,
like G!d.

We call G!d 
Tzur Yisrael - Rock of Israel,
Tzuri v'Goali - My Rock and my Redeemer.

But, rock changes.

Influenced by wind and water,

by plants

and lichens,

rocks break apart,

become smaller

and smaller.

Influenced by heat and pressure,
rocks join back together.

Influenced by global movements,
rocks rise up 
to form vast mountain ranges.

As we enter this new year,
may we allow those we love,
the circumstances of our communities and the world,

and the state of our planet

to change us,
to make us stronger,
and more flexible,

that we may be like G!d,
and like rocks --
but ever-changing.

Shanah tovah u'metukah --
wishing you a good and sweet new year,
Rabbi Katy and Gabi

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 29 - Waking up to the Climate Crisis

by Rabbi David Jaffe

My guess is that many readers of the Elul Etudes are fully “woke” to the climate crisis and read these blogs with the hope of gaining perspective and spiritual resilience to keep facing the crisis without panicking and burning out. This blog post is for a difference audience – those, like me, who intellectually understand the crisis but don’t feel the urgency. Despite reading articles and watching videos about the famines, flooding and other impacts of rising temperatures on people in the Global South and here in parts of the United States, including the predictions about war and migration, something doesn’t break through to my heart. For me, and others like me, it is not an issue of more information, but, in the words of the prophet Ezekiel, it is more about turning the heart of stone into a heart of flesh. 

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַ֣ב הֲלֹ֑ם שַׁל־נְעָלֶ֙יךָ֙ מֵעַ֣ל רַגְלֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ עוֹמֵ֣ד עָלָ֔יו אַדְמַת־קֹ֖דֶשׁ הֽוּא׃

And God said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground." (Exodus 3:5)

My colleague, Elder Will Dickerson II, understands God’s words to Moses at the burning bush to mean that Moses needed to take something off to have this full encounter with God. The ground was holy and shoes block the nerve endings at the bottom of the feet from feeling this holy ground. They are a buffer between ourselves and real experience of the world. The shoes are symbolic of what keeps us numb to the beauty and holiness of the world as well as to feeling how the world is burning.

What do you need to “take off” or remove to really feel that our common home is burning? For me, I need to remove a certain buffer I wear as a middle class person in the United States. There is a way I’ve been acculturated to not notice the ways capitalism and our consumption-oriented society does not work for many people, but rather, to be thankful for any comfort I’ve been privileged to receive as part of this society. If I am really honest with myself I need to admit how addicted I am to this physical and emotional comfort and how many of my beliefs and behaviors are directed towards maintaining this comfort for myself and my family, despite the cost to the larger world. I need to take off middle class comfort to feel the house burning and move to action. 

Maimonides understands the Shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana to be symbolically saying to us, "You that sleep, bestir yourselves from your sleep, and you slumbering, emerge from your slumber, examine your conduct, turn in repentance, and remember your Creator!” (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) Middle class comfort is a form of spiritual sleep. Powerful dynamics in our economic system urge us to remain asleep. As long as I can have my living place, my car, my little life, I shouldn’t complain! Can the Shofar blast pierce this addiction to material comfort and create enough of a crack in the buffer so that the reality of the climate crisis can get in? For me and others like me, this is the spiritual work of Elul and Rosh Hashana.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the author of Changing the World from the Inside Out, winner of the National Jewish Book Award. He directs the Inside Out Wisdom and Action Project, which integrates Jewish spiritual wisdom and practice with social change. David lives with his family in Sharon, MA.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 28 - Swimming in Circles in Life

by Rabbi Judy Kummer

Every August I participate in a 1-mile breast cancer fundraising swim at a pond on Cape Cod. I have done this swim every year since 2007, training each summer day to swim further and faster. 

I especially delight in swimming outdoors. Sometimes my practice swims are in daytime, sometimes at “golden hour” as the sun is setting, and sometimes at dusk, when I can watch the moon rising, cycling inexorably through its phases towards the High Holidays. 

What a feast for the senses: I find myself savoring the sunlight spangling the pond where I swim or the glorious sunset colors spreading out over my head. I note the lovely contrasts of tanned arms, gilded by sunlight, reaching toward deep blue sky before slicing down into clear water, feeling the health and strength in my limbs and heart. 

Each time I step into the water and swim out and away, by the end of the swim I end up coming back to the same place on the shore– – but somehow, when I return, the place seems different. Perhaps it is just a change of my perception or perspective— or perhaps it is I who have changed in some way. 

As we move through the Jewish month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah, we are taught to examine our lives and our deeds. We are encouraged to do Teshuvah, to repent or return, to turn and return toward being our best selves, toward being the selves we wish we could be in life. While we may find ourselves coming back to “home base” and to the familiar at times, it is as if we are swimming in circles through our lives, ever aiming at improving and transforming ourselves —so that it is virtually a different self that comes back to the place from which we had we set out. 

The end of the season of summertime warmth approaches, and the days begin to grow shorter. We become more aware of the shortness of time — in this season, and in our lives. 

Time grows short. Life is short, time is limited, the time for us to make changes in ourselves and in our lives is now. May the circles we travel through in life bring our renewed and renewing selves to ever-brighter shores.

Rabbi Judith Kummer is a board-certified chaplain and Program Leader for the Community Chaplaincy Initiative at Hebrew SeniorLife. A Boston native, she earned a BA from Barnard College in Environmental Studies and Urban Planning and was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Rabbi Kummer is an avid organic gardener, liturgist, teacher and social activist.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 27 – A Vegetarian Journey

by Susan Levine 

When I think about Elul, I think about things I have done over my lifetime and the most important thing I’ve tried to do is to become a vegetarian. 

But let me start at the beginning: Both my parents grew up in kosher homes and when they got married, they had a kosher home. But it wasn’t kosher enough for my father’s mother who would visit my parents but wouldn’t touch the food. My mom didn’t see the point of being kosher if her mother-in-law still wouldn’t eat in her home. Instead she went full treif. As a child I pretty much ate what I wanted and really didn’t know what it meant to be kosher. I remember one Friday in fifth grade when I packed a ham-and-cheese sandwich for lunch and my friend Kelly, who was Catholic chastised me for eating meat on a Friday since at that time many Catholics ate fish instead of meat on Fridays. I took another bite of my ham and cheese and laughed, “Kelly, I’m Jewish.” 

My Jewish education consisted of going to an occasional family seder and getting a present on Chanukah. We didn’t belong to a synagogue, but I had a lot of Jewish friends and sometimes we would make cameo appearances at the Reform synagogue on Rosh Hashanah. When my husband and I met it seemed like we were from two different cultures. His parents were Holocaust survivors who spoke Yiddish as their first language. They belonged to a synagogue and kept a kosher home. In fact, keeping a kosher home was a condition that I had to accept to get married. I had a lot to learn, and I had to give up one of my favorite foods, shrimp. I started cooking kosher and gained weight as people often do after their weddings. By our second anniversary, I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes. 

Something had to change. I started eating more salads and less junk food and took a yoga class. At the end of each class we were flat on our mats with our eyes closed while the teacher spoke about reverence for life and not eating animals. But I wanted to know: What did Judaism teach about not eating animals? I read Richard Schwartz’s book, Judaism and Vegetarianism and I was surprised to learn that from the time of Adam and Eve, people were supposed to be vegetarians (Gen.1:29). And it wasn’t until after the flood that people were given permission to eat meat (Gen. 9:3). I chose to become a vegetarian and I asked my husband if he’d join me. We’ve been vegetarians — and living at healthy weights — ever since. 

Research has shown that vegetarian and vegan diets reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and some forms of cancer I also can help save the planet since vegetarian diets use far fewer natural resources and produce far fewer greenhouse gases than diets that include meat.2

I admit that I haven’t been a perfect vegetarian. While I haven’t cheated with shrimp, every now and then I have eaten some salmon or other kosher fish. Just a few weeks ago I ate trout for dinner. But a bone caught in my throat, reminding me that fish are living creatures. One of my goals for 5780 is not to eat fish anymore. And now I know that the Jewish thing isn’t simply to refrain from eating ham, but to refrain from killing and eating all of our fellow animals. 

* Schwartz, RH. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Lantern Books, 2001. (1st edition: Smithtown, NY: Exposition Press, 1982.) 
** Melina V, Craig W, Levin S. "Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets." Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2016; 116 (12): 1970-1980.

Susan Levine is the volunteer and intern coordinator, and social media coordinator for Aytzim: Ecological Judaism. She holds a master's degree in education. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 26 - What do animals feel and think?

by Rabbi David Seidenberg 

What do animals feel and think? Who are they?

That’s too broad a question by many degrees, but the difference between asking “who are they?” and “what are they?” is the gulf between civilizations, between epochs, between a world in which humans dominate and destroy, and a world in which humans collaborate with other species in the great project of the universe, Life. 

Since Descartes, the idea that the other animals (besides human beings) are not subjects has reigned in science. It became forbidden to say animals have feelings, consciousness, thinking, to the point that rationalists compared the cries of animals to the sounds a broken machine might make. But all that has changed over the past two decades. fMRI scans of other animals’ brains and human brains, for example, show unequivocally that animals have feelings and consciousness.*

It turns out that the question of “who?” versus “what?” is also the line between how different rabbis understand the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, sending away the nesting bird. The Torah descibes the mitzvah like this: “When a bird’s nest is met before you in the way, in the tree or on the ground, chicks or eggs, and the mother is crouching over [them], you will not take the mother on top of the children. Sending, you must send the mother, and the children you may take…” (Deut 22:6-7). 

There’s a well-known machloket (argument) between Maimonides and almost everyone else about what this mitzvah means. Most later commentators say its purpose is to teach us not to be cruel, so that we won’t be cruel to each other. But Maimonides says the reason is that in this case “animals feel very great pain”. He adds: 
[T[here [is] no difference regarding this pain between humanity and the other animals. For the love and the tenderness of a mother for her child is not consequent upon reason, but upon the activity of the imaginative faculty, which is found in most animals just as it is found in humanity. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:48, p.599 in Pines translation, cf. 1:75, 2:1). 
To the greatest rationalist in the history Jewish thought, animals were subjects. But something went awry in the generations after Maimonides, and the forest was lost for the trees. That’s reflected not just in this famous machloket, but also in how a later midrash on shiluach hakein was interpreted. The midrash comes from Devarim Rabbah (6:5): 
“Sending you must send”—Said Rabbi Elazar: there would be no need to say so, except that the Holy One says, “Since she is engaged with glorifying the world and establishing the world / ho’il v’nitaskah bikh’vodo shel olam v’tikuno shel olam, it’s worthwhile for her to be saved.
If the bird is engaged with a mitzvah, and we must not stop her from being able to carry it out, even if we may delay it. 

But its interpreters didn’t believe a bird could be a moral subject, so they concluded that the midrash couldn’t have meant. They changed the verb in which the bird is active, “nit’askah / she is engaged”, dropping the letter Heh at the end, so that it became “nit’asek / he is engaged”—meaning the person sending the bird away. To them the midrash meant something like this: “The person taking the eggs is building up the human world by taking from the natural world. To show that his purpose is truly for the greater good, for the glory of the world, he should not selfishly take the mother as well.” It’s an interpretation that actually doesn’t make much sense, but it made more sense to them than the idea that a bird was doing a mitzvah.

But today, we need to know, and learn, and recognize, that we are not the only species engaged in tikkun olam. We are not the only species fulfilling mitzvot, nor are we the only species that is thinking and feeling and hoping. 

If animals are subject, would that mean human beings can’t use the other animals? No! All animals necessarily use other creatures to survive. In a thriving ecosystem, every species takes what it lacks from other species, and is used by other species, in order to “give life through them to the soul of all Life”. But in every inter-species interaction, there must be a gift given, an implicit promise and covenant, that the way one species uses another will help everyone. In a word, if one subject is used by another, they must used well.

This gives us a way to reconcile Maimonides with the rest of Jewish thought. Forget about the rabbis who think animals aren’t subjects. Nachmanides, who also disagreed with Maimonides, who also thinks the mitzvah teaches us not to be cruel, says it means more than that: the point of the mitzvah is to prevent species from becoming extinct. We learn not to be cruel so that we won’t be so cruel as to cause extinctions. 

In this way, we also respect the mother-principle of all Life, which is the third reason Nachmanides gives for the mitzvah. In Kabbalah, this principle is called Binah or Mother, and she is the matrix from which all life evolved and is sustained, the principle which continues to move life to evolve. 

In this way, not only is each animal and each species a subject, but the principle of Life itself is a subject, a “who”, to whom we address ourselves, in humble submission.

* See The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness,, July 7, 2012. See also Kabbalah and Ecology, pp.21-24.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 25 - To the Silent Stones

by Sarah Chandler / Kohenet Shamirah

Do you count your days in footsteps?
In strollers? In sunlight?

Cement and concrete
Below my feet
I take a peek at the patterns
And the places
Where tiny rocks gather
Solid, safe, secure

What was it was like
To move your entire being
From a quarry of friends
To this square of sidewalk?

City stones
Bricks, brownstone, marble
Are your family now

The eyes of
Our neighborhood
My commute
My shabbat walk

Sometimes the trees
Insist that their roots
Decorate your patterns

Your cracks keep my steps whole
Each journey down the block
Following butterfly trails
Tracing bark into branches
Welcoming glimpses of stars

Reminding me
To breathe between steps
Circling and retracing
Routing our pathway
Of grids and spirals.

Based on the teachings of Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero in Sefer Tomer Devorah 3:6 - ספר תומר דבורה ג׳:ו׳

עוֹד צָרִיךְ לִהְיוֹת רַחֲמָיו פְּרוּשִׂים עַל כָּל הַנִּבְרָאִים, לֹא יְבַזֵּם וְלֹא יְאַבְּדֵם. שֶׁהֲרֵי הַחָכְמָה הָעֶלְיוֹנָה הִיא פְרוּשָׂה עַל כָּל הַנִּבְרָאִים דּוֹמֵם וְצוֹמֵחַ וְחַי וּמְדַבֵּר.
To have mercy upon all of the creatures: He must also have his mercy extend to all the creatures. He [should] not disgrace them nor destroy them. As behold, the Highest Wisdom is spread over all the creatures - the silent, the growing (plants), the living (animals) and the speaking (people). 

Sarah Chandler aka Kohenet Shamirah is a Brooklyn-based Jewish educator, ritualist, artist, activist, and poet. Currently, she is the program director of the new Romemu Yeshiva and a garden educator with Grow Torah. She teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to Jewish earth-based spiritual practice, farming, and mindfulness. Ordained by Kohenet: the Hebrew Priestess Institute, she studies as a shamanic healer apprentice at The Wisdom School of S.O.P.H.I.A and Kabbalistic imaginal dream work at The School of Images. Her new initiative, Shamir Collective, launches in 2020.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 24 - If Not Here, Where?

by Maggid David Arfa

For Reb Bob in honor of his ordination
Hillel says, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when? If not here, where?" Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14+
Ok, he didn’t say that last part. He didn’t have to. Back in the ancient world it was not so easy to get lost in the global view. Today it is different. The daily news causes international heartache on every page. We witness environmental degradation, rise of authoritarian nationalism, propaganda 2.0 and communities struggling in every corner of the Earth.

We today, like they, understand that all is connected, all is ONE. We today, like they, know that we must resist the pull into our small and merely personal life. We today, like they, know the time to act continues to be NOW- the importance of acting and acting again is a continuous process. And yet…

Today, our scope of vision is so much greater. We do not have to be Adam Kadmon, that first primordial human to see from one end of the world to the other. We all can see every mountain top with melting glaciers or detonating explosives in search of coal; we all can see every river valley with precious topsoil laden waters rushing, drowning and drenching cities. We can see the end of birth for whole species. We can see into the atmosphere itself as carbon continues to pour in, and we can see into the ocean’s changing salt levels and know that those ocean currents are changing everything. We see far, wide and deep and we naturally respond with intense emotions to these visions.

I imagine even Hillel, if he were here, would become overwhelmed with our reality; the result of our collective craze; our non-stop, on-demand lives. Like us he would learn and study, find the best reports from the world’s scientists and see from one end of our world to the other. LIke us, he would be flooded with fear, anger, grief and loss as he realized the destruction that is happening and immensity of change we are facing. And then Shabbat will come. 

Being HIllel, I’m sure he would find forest paths to walk and rivers to swim as he took care to come back to himself. He would pray with community in synagogues and appreciate the quiet meditation services we now offer. He would gravitate towards contemplative, outdoor Shabbat services and wonder why they are not more common, feeling renewed after drinking from the Wellsprings of Hope, remembering Abundance and finding fresh vision at the High Ledges.

The High Ledges Audubon Sanctuary, Shelburne, MA

And then, after the Shabbat Queen leaves, he would do what he always did, roll up his sleeves and switch from ‘savoring the ocean’ back to ‘saving individual starfish’. As the new week begins and he learns to limit the news spigot, he now understands our need for speaking aloud and adding this ancient common-sense, down-to-earth, local wisdom. Here in our time, Hillel would continue to teach “if not now, when?” and with equal urgency would also add, “If not here, where?”

David Arfa, Maggid (Mah-geed/Storyteller) is dedicated to Judaism's storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom. He has produced two CD's, 'the Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe' and the Parents Choice award winner, 'The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Who Ever Lived'. His full length storytelling performance, 'The Jar of Tears: A Memorial for the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe' won the Cohen Center's Hildebrandt award for its "artistic quality, technical mastery and depth of vision." David works full time as the Chaplain at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital and has completed four units of Clinical Pastoral Education. In addition, David leads monthly contemplative Shabbat service/hikes at the High Ledges in Shelburne MA. His programs and performances can be found at

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 23 - The Prayer for Rain

by Rabbi Louis Polisson

The Hebrew month of Elul is well-known as the month of preparation for the Jewish holidays Rosh Ha-Shanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). In Jewish literature, it is often called a month of teshuvah (repentance, self-improvement, and returning to the good parts of ourselves). However, one might also view Elul as a time to prepare for the fall harvest festival of Sukkot (which literally means Booths or Huts), when we eat all of our meals in a temporary dwelling, symbolizing our fragile yet joyous and sacred relationship with nature and the Earth. Sukkot comes just five days after Yom Kippur and ends with Shemini Atzeret (the 8th day of the Assembly), a day on which Jews recite a special prayer for rain, marking the seasonal transition from summer to fall and anticipating the coming rain in the late fall and winter. This poem is an interpretive translation of Tefillat Geshem, recited on Shemini Azteret and includes a new stanza. I was inspired to write it during as the heavy rain of a thunderstorm poured down at the beginning of August 2019.

The Prayer for Rain 
An Interpretive Translation and New Stanza 
of Tefillat Geshem (The Prayer for Rain) 
Recited on Shemini Atzeret 
Inspired by the Alternative Ashkenazic 
Prayer for Rain with Matriarchs 
in Siddur Lev Shalem 

Our Beloved Earth and the Earth of our Ancestors 

The parents drawn to your riverbanks,
Overflowing with water
One was blessed with thirst quenched
Like a tree planted by streams of water
Your downpour relieved another from the fiery heat with water
They and you sought each other’s well-being,
As they sowed seeds by your water

The once-barren woman who had mercy
On those who longed for just a sip of water
She lived with integrity on land nourished by water
She led countless women to stand with her in solidarity -
Taking shade under trees rooted in soil and water
Thanks to her careful planting and stewardship,
She suckled thousands with the natural milk that we call water

The prophetesses and prophets
Who invited us to partner with the water
Who shepherded us and lifted us up,
To free ourselves through falls of water
Who taught us rituals
To mark the ebbs and flows of seasons and water
The ones who taught us how to build fires,
Watch the clouds, who hydrated us
With water

To your sacred nature,
The spirit within your body of stardust and water
Renew yourself with days of feasting
And become pure with one day of abstaining from Water
Prepare by witnessing the cleansing, Life-giving power of water
Know before whom you stand and remember
We can repair the world,
If we learn to accept and to change like
May we reveal the Divine within and outside, above and below, 

That which causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall

May we return to water as a blessing and not a curse - Amen
May we return to water for life and not for death - Amen
May we return to water as abundant and not as scarce - Amen

Rabbi Louis Polisson received rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Jewish Thought with a concentration on Kabbalah and Hasidut from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in May 2018. He previously served as Rabbi of Congregation Eitz Chaim of Monroe, NY and as Rabbinic Intern at Temple Israel Center of White Plains, NY. Rabbi Polisson is also a musician and a composer. In 2017, he was awarded a grant from the Hadar Institute to record and produce an album of original Jewish and spiritual songs with his wife, Gabriella Feingold, released in November 2018, available at Rabbi Polisson also studies and teaches Jewish meditation and spiritual practices and is passionate about connecting people to Judaism, Jewish community, and the Divine. 

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 22 - Alaska

by Rabbi Suri Levow Krieger


I expected to be awed by the Glaciers. I was not disappointed. 

I anticipated being enLightened by 22 consecutive hours of sunlight. It was outstanding.

What I did not expect, was day after day of 80 degree weather. And the following week… Anchorage registered 90 degrees as a massive ‘heat dome’ hovered over the city. This topped the previous record set at Anchorage International Airport of 85 degrees on June 14, 1969.

It is good news for the Flora and Fauna! Everywhere we traveled in Alaska, from the Kenai Peninsula to Denali National Park, the gardens were breath-taking, like the ones depicted here. And this was not a one-off garden. Cities, towns and private homes boasted of impressive floral glory. And Alaska’s wildlife, from Moose to Caribou, are enjoying the readily available super lush foliage.

However, this is rather ominous news for climate-change watch-dogs! The high temperatures present an enormous fire risk for the State.In ne fire alone, 90,000 acres burned during the time we were there… producing an ever-present smoky visage overhead. And 23 other fires burned in the Upper Yukon area, in that same time frame. (Bureau of Land Management - Alaska Fire Service). And of course the exceptionally warm waters, warmest on record, and record-low sea-ice extent, are even more worrisome, as our ocean levels continue to rise, threatening sea-coast dwellers worldwide. Harsh lessons to take in from Alaska, in the wake of awesome Glaciers and spectacular Flowers.

So how is it there are still people who don’t believe in global warming?!

Rabbi Nachman taught us that every blade of grass holds its own tune (Likutei Moharan). In Alaska, every spruce tree has a melody, every one of the 3 million lakes adds harmony, every one of the 100,000 glaciers – a unique swan song, as each slowly recedes. The reality of Alaska's enormity (about twice the size of Texas) and awesome natural resources, echoes for me of the vast majesty and mystery of Ruach haKodesh – the Holy Breath of Life. But the splendor of this magnificent State will only remain with us for eons to come, if we heed the urgency of immediate eco-consciousness today.

Ordained from the pluralistic Rabbinic Academy AJR, Suri studied with Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in the early days of Jewish Renewal. Adjunct professor at Sacred Heart University for 8 years, Suri is currently Spiritual leader of B'nai Or: Jewish Renewal of Greater Boston.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 21 - A Little Omer on the Prairie

by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

I live on the prairie. In the Prairie State of Illinois. On a summer’s day with large clouds towering over the cornfields, it is spectacular. Awe-inspiring. I remember to be grateful.

For several decades, I have followed the practice of Rabbi Everett Gendler of planting winter wheat, rye or barley at Sukkot and harvesting it during the counting of the Omer, the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot. I have done this with generations of Hebrew School students and their parents. It roots the Jewish year in the agricultural cycle. It is concrete, hands-on, project based learning. And it is fun.

After celebrating Shavuot, the pilgrimage festival of “First Fruits”, we plow that winter crop under and plant our community garden, fulfilling the mitzvah of leaving the corners of our field for the widow, the orphan, the sojourner, the most marginalized amongst us. We send weekly harvests to our local soup kettles who appreciate the fresh vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, radishes, lettuce, spinach, kale. And surprise, Brussel sprouts. It turns out kids love eating Brussel sprouts if they grow them. Right off the stalk. Raw.

Every Friday night, as part of Kabbalat Shabbat, just ahead of singing Or Zarua, “Light is sown, planted, seeded for the righteous and joy for the upright in heart” I give the CKI Farm Report. We have had students who have never gotten their hands dirty. Never played in the mud. Never been to the grocery store and didn’t know that tomatoes grow on a vine. They begin to see the connection between Judaism and the earth. There is a deep spirituality in this practice.

In all the decades, this project works. We plant those seeds of wheat, rye or barley at Sukkot. It begins to grow and then it lays fallow over the winter. Then, just when the snows begin to melt, little shoots come up again. Magic. Each week we cut a little bit more and watch it grow. And we are grateful. By Shavuot it is fully headed out. Beautiful grain. Not enough to make bread or as some adults have suggested bourbon, but enough to decorate the sanctuary for Shavuot and receiving the Torah anew.

It has always struck me as a little bit of a waste. All that energy goes into growing that grain. The sun’s energy. The earth’s nutrients and the people’s work. This year, instead of plowing it under, we harvested the grain and took it to friends who own a dairy farm. Happy cows! Happy rabbi!

Yet, for two recent back-to-back years, we had a crop failure. Not a single stalk of grain, not a blade of grass. No one is sure why. Apparently there may have been a national issue of blight with the seed. We may have planted too late. The winter may have been too harsh. The spring too hot. Too wet. Too dry. It was a teachable moment. Instead of harvesting omer, we harvested 50 photos of joy. 

I am starting my eighth year at this congregation. For this coming Sukkot we are beginning to discuss whether we should rest the land or rotate the crops or make sure we plant for the sake of pekuach nefesh, saving a life, as we feed the most marginalized amongst us. I don’t know what we will decide, yet. 

However, as we enter the new Jewish year, I am astounded by the beauty of the prairie around me, and pledge to protect it. 

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She has become an urban farmer as part of teaching and leading this congregation. Her husband is proud of his dairy farming degree and experience. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, and is the author of two books. One of the 13 Attributes of the Divine and preparing for the High Holidays. The other is being released this summer on Hope for Survival for domestic violence and sexual abuse in the Jewish community.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 20 - Past and Present Pain

by Rabbi Katy Allen

What if...the feelings we have when we pass through...zones of destruction are actually arising from the land itself? What if it is the grief of the forest registering in our bodies and psyches—the sorrow of the redwoods, voles, sorrel, ferns, owls, and deer, all those who lost their homes and lives as a result of this plunder of living beings? What if we are not separate from the world at all? It is our spiritual responsibility to acknowledge these losses. What if this is the anima mundi, the soul of the world, weeping through us? We know and feel in our bones that something primal is amiss. Our extended home is being eroded, as is the experience of our wider self....Our souls are connected with the soul of the world, and it is through this bond that we acknowledge our interconnected lives.....The cumulative grief of the world is overwhelming. – Francis Weller, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief
I have long struggled with PTSD as the result of childhood trauma. And I have long worked to develop coping skills to prevent myself from being triggered and returning emotionally to that time.

Recently, I've realized something deeper. Part of my journey to healing is about recognizing those triggers that are from current traumatic events happening in the world that I – like all of us – read or hear or see about. Part of my task is to differentiate between what is imagined and what is real.

It is a painful journey to allow into our consciousness the reality of what is happening in and to our world, to recognize that the delights of the planet in which we grew up are no more and will not be again, to know that more devastation is coming today and tomorrow and the next day, to hear the next threat to our democracy and our stability, to wonder who and what will succumb next.

The pain I've felt from awareness of the current status of our nation and our planet has touched and triggered old pain. I am slowly learning to separate them. This can save me from returning to the past, but it can't save me from feeling the pain of the present. Allowing myself to feel that and coping with it requires different but related skills.

Living with the pain of the present and the corresponding envisioning of the future requires – for me – a profound acceptance of what is happening. There are no magic bullets to save us and all living beings from ourselves and our lack of understanding and caring. Disasters are bound to increase. Devastation is now the norm. Both in the human world and beyond. Both in the political realm and in the natural realm. It requires not being surprised by the next horrific event. It requires acknowledging that injustice and inequality abound. It requires, for me, deep in my heart, knowing that whatever will happen will happen, and that my job is is to keep on living, keep on loving, keep on growing, keep on giving to the best of my ability, keep on holding others to the best of my ability, keep on offering forth something deeper of my soul, and recognizing my limitations.

That is my task in life, this Elul, and throughout the year, for as Rabbi Salanter teaches us, we must start to prepare for next Yom Kippur at the end of havdalah this Yom Kippur. T'shuvah is a never-ending task.

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 Jewish Climate Action Network-MA. She is a board certified chaplain and a former hospital and hospice chaplain and now considers herself an eco-chaplain. Starting in September, she will be teaching an online class: Loss and Transformation: Maintaining Hope when Optimism is Elusive through JCAN. 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 18, 2019

Earth Etude for Elul 19 - Teshuvah in the Desert

by Rabbi Mike Comins

In order to acquire wisdom and Torah, one must make oneself hefker, open and abandoned, like this desert. (BaMidbar Rabbah 1)
Of the many reasons our tradition offers for why the Torah was given at Sinai, one is particularly relevant for Elul. The desert is an optimal environment to do Teshuvah. More than that. To reach our full potential, we are advised to become like the desert.

Why does the desert have the power to change us?

First and foremost, the desert is a dangerous place. Like Hagar* or Elijah**, you can easily lose the way, finish your water and find yourself facing collapse in a few short hours. Or you might fall prey to desert bandits. To be in the desert is to lack personal security.

Some places are hot, some are cold. The desert is both—at the same time! Since there are seldom clouds to block the sun during the day or hold the heat at night, and moderating oceans are far away, thirty and forty degree temperature swings are the norm. The word for the desert is extreme. If the day is pleasant, the night is too cold. If the night is temperate, the daytime heat will melt your candy bar, and perhaps your equilibrium. Light is too intense for comfort. The sun blinds, dehydrates, kills. You’ll never see a Bedouin resting in the sun.

In the desert, you get down to essentials. Water, shade and a bit more water. The body wants little food. A heavy pack draws moisture from your body, which evaporates so fast, you might not notice that you are sweating.

The desert, in short, is a place where people are tested physically, and thus spiritually. If you don’t know which canyons still have pools from the last rain or the secret water holes of the desert people, hope and confidence evaporate.

The desert can be mentally trying even when the body is not under duress. Quite often the horizon is a straight line. Indistinguishable wadis***, endless plains, the hot wind.Nothing to cling to. Nowhere to go.

Infinite space; infinite fear.

* * *

Infinite possibility. The only center is the center within, and so one looks inward. The desert is a place to become as straight as the horizon, as sharp as a thorn. Learn to live with little. Learn to live in light so bright that nothing in your soul can remain hidden. Learn to live at risk.

The contract reads: courage required.

No exceptions.

* * *

The truth is that life everywhere is just as extreme as it is in the desert. Only we do our best to believe that it isn’t, and in civilization, we can easily delude ourselves into thinking that we’re getting away with it.

The desert does not indulge those who cannot tell reality from a mirage. Take your rationalizations to the desert and they will lead you to your death. Pretense is not an option.

Teshuvah requires honesty. The desert demands it.

The desert is one of God’s most precious gifts.

*Genesis 16:6-7, 21:14
**I Kings 19:4
***Arabic for “dry riverbed.”

A yeshiva-trained, Israeli-ordained Reform Rabbi and a licensed Israeli desert guide, Mike Comins is founder of the TorahTrek Center for Jewish Wilderness Spirituality. Find resources and writings at He is author of A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism and Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do about It (Jewish Lights Publishing)