Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 24 - Harachaman for Shmita

by Rabbi David Seidenberg

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are also fast approaching the next Shmita year, when all the land in Israel was supposed to rest, all debts were supposed to be canceled, and all food was to be shared, even with the wild animals. Just like Elul through the High Holidays, the Shmita year itself was a long journey of t’shuvah, returning to God, during which our sense of business-as-usual could fall away, revealing what it means to be in community with each other and with the land. A human world that observed Shmita fully is a world that would never ruin Earth’s climate.

Before the last Shmita year (2014-2015), my friend Nili Simhai asked me to work up some Shmita year liturgy.  The word Shmita means "release" and liberation, and the Shmita year is about three kinds of liberation: liberation among the people themselves, liberation between the people and the land, and release or liberation for the land itself. I wrote a Harachaman blessing that references all three, using three different verbs that have the root letters Shin ש and Bet ב, the same letters that are in t’shuvah. 

Before sharing it, let me explain what a Harachaman blessing is. “Harachaman” means “the Merciful One,” a name for God, and it refers to a series of blessings and wishes for ourselves and the world, all of which begin with the word Harachaman, which we say at the end of the blessing after the meals, called in Hebrew Birkat Hamazon. So, for example, we pray “May the Merciful One let us inherit a world that is entirely filled with Shabbat” and “May the Merciful One renew for us a year that is good and sweet” for Shabbat and for Rosh Hashanah respectively. 

Here then is the Harachaman that I wrote for Shmita:

May the merciful One turn our hearts toward the land,

so that we may dwell together with her in her sabbath-rest, the whole year of Shmita.

Harachaman hu yashiv libeinu el ha’aretz
l’ma’an neisheiv yachad imah b’shovtah, kol sh’nat hash’mitah!

הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יָשִיב לִבֵּינוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ לְמַעַן נֵשֵב יָחַד עִמָהּ בְּשָׁבְתהּכָּל שְׁנַת הַשְׁמִיטָה

What are the three verbs connected to t’shuvah that relate to the levels of liberation? The first verb is yashiv (“turn our hearts toward the land”), and it comes from the word "turn", lashuv, לשוב. It refers to our returning to a right relationship, on a heart level, with the Earth. Just as we ask God to turn us toward the divine intention in the verse Hashiveinu (“Turn us Hashem toward You”), here to we ask God to turn our hearts toward the land. 

The second verb, neishev (“that we may dwell together”), comes from "settle" or "dwell", lashevet, לשבת, as in shevet achim gam yachad – “how good it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together.” It refers to liberation between individuals in the year of release, when debts between people are canceled and food is shared with all, even with the wild animals. 

The third verb, b'shovtah (“with her in her sabbath-rest”), comes from lishbot, לשבות, to rest, just like Shabbat, and it refers to the shabbat that the land itself enjoys in the Shmita year, as it says, "the land will enjoy her sabbaths" (Lev 26:43). 

It is no accident that these three roots are connected to the same letters, since they are also connected on a soul-level with each other. They represent the true nature of tikkun olam. Tikkun, repair and restoration, must happen on all these levels together: turn back, settle down, rest. To fix the world, that must happen for the land, for the animals, and for the human beings, and that is what we are called to do in this Shmita year, as in every Shmita year to come. 

A world that can learn Shmita might yet save us and turn us in t’shuvah toward choosing Life. May the Merciful let our turning come in time to avert the worst of climate disaster and to restore the health of the planet, along with her magnificent species that together make up the web of Life.

You are invited to download the Harachaman, and learn the song from Jonah Adels, z”l, that we sing it to, here.

Rabbi David Seidenberg is the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God's Image in the More-Than-Human World, and the creator of neohasid.org. He has ordination from JTS and Reb Zalman, teaches on ecology, human rights, and animal rights in Judaism, leads astronomy programs, and is an avid dancer and musician.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 23 - Teshuvah and Water

by Rabbi Steven Rubenstein

Teshuvah is reflected in the power to change

And the waters that cleanse our souls.

Rabbi Steven Rubenstein recently celebrated my 25th anniversary since my ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion. In that time he served congregations in San Francisco, CA, El Paso, TX, and Beverly, MA.  In addition, he has served as Director of Spiritual Care at Shalom Park in Denver, CO and currently is performing a similar role at Jewish Senior Life in Rochester, NY.  He is equally as proud to be a member of NAJC, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains where he received recognition as a Board Certified Chaplain.  His hobbies include collecting Israeli Stamps, baseball cards of Jewish ballplayers, and capturing the God moments in his photography that he shares with my residents on a weekly basis.


Sunday, August 29, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 22 - Healing in Nature and Helping Nature Heal

by Joan Rachlin

It has been just over 17 months since my husband suffered a stroke. It wasn’t just our lives that changed that day, though, as March 11, 2020 was also the day that Boston went into lockdown in an effort to stem the spread of Covid. We therefore found ourselves living in a bubble within a bubble and rehab services were consequently hard to find. All of the outpatient clinics were closed and home care was limited. In this “timing is everything world,” my husband’s rehab was slowed down because the world had turned upside down.

We drove up to our cabin in New Hampshire on a mid-July weekend in hopes of having at least one dance with summer before the cool August breezes began to blow. I felt the tension begin to drain out of my body as soon as we arrived, especially upon seeing our neglected but forgiving garden with its welcome mat of lilys, daisies, and bleeding hearts. The peonies had gone by, but their faded, falling blossoms still evoked delicacy and beauty.

My husband and I were overjoyed to be there and felt as though his rehab journey had been instantly boosted by the healing power of nature. The peacefulness of our surroundings decreased our stress and increased our energy. It was thus easy to make the decision to move to NH for the foreseeable future.

Our NH home is in a planned community that was built by a trio of developers, among them the Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests. The developers’ mission was to “develop the land so that the impact upon the natural environment is minimized and the surrounding landscape is conserved and enhanced.” They knew that preserving this small patch of paradise would take rules, e.g., trees larger than 4 inches in diameter could not be removed without compelling reasons, boats had to be washed and then checked for invasive species before being launched into the lake (where a 10 mph maximum is strictly enforced), trails, streams, and other watersheds are well maintained, wildlife is monitored and protected, Association buildings are LEED certified, there is an active conservation corps, and the list goes on.

Living here full time has given me a new appreciation for the long term commitment to sustainability exhibited by the developers. Their responsible stewardship stands in stark contrast to the developers in my hometown—Hollywood, Florida—where money was the only “prize” on which they kept their eyes and where environmental regulations were seen as so much red tape and therefore mostly ignored.

The foresight of the NH planners has planted within me a commitment to do my part to ensure that the woods, trails, lakes, streams, and wildlife will be preserved for future generations, as commanded in Genesis. I’ve been planting trees, shrubs, flowers, and pollinator friendly plants, nourishing the soil with organic supplements in hopes of helping it capture and store carbon, and collecting the abundant rainwater so as not to tax the water supply. Like Choni*, I won’t see the trees or shrubs reach maturity, but I am planting for future generations.

The work of repairing the Earth is holy and I’ve come to think of it in “I-thou,” versus “I-it,” terms. Buber maintained that “I/Thou encounters are possible with the other-than-human,” which I have interpreted to mean that I/we owe the Earth respect, attention, and time. I don’t want to enjoy and exploit its gifts without infusing some mutuality into the relationship. That concept is not new to me, as I’m one of those individuals who get irritated when I hear that only 10% of NPR listeners donate to NPR, i.e., THE OTHER 90% are “free riders.” I fear that even a smaller number of nature lovers actively work to repair the damage that we humans have done to the Earth and the creatures who inhabit it.

As the Days of Awe approach, I am trying to inject more mutuality into my relationship with nature. Our surroundings in NH have been healing for us, so I am strengthening my kavanah to help heal the healer. The Earth recognizes and cares for us, but do we adequately recognize and care for our fragile, burning, flooding, dying planet? We must try. Harder. Now. May it be our will to do God’s work here on earth. Amen.

*”The Talmud tells the story of the sage Choni, who was walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked, "How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?" "Seventy years," the man replied. Choni then asked, "Are you so healthy that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?" The man answered, "I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children." (Avot d'Rebbe Natan 31b)

Joan Rachlin is the Executive Director Emerita of PRIM&R (Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research) an international bioethics organization. In addition to her work with PRIM&R, she practiced law in the areas of women’s health, civil rights, and criminal and civil litigation. Joan was the founder and longtime chair of Temple Israel Boston’s Green Team and now works with other local and national environmental groups.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 21 - Tikkun Olam and Climate Change

by Michael Garry

Tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means “repair of the world,” has always been a guiding principle of the Jewish people, one that we teach our children and try to practice in our everyday lives.  In the modern era, tikkun olam means that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.

It is well known that the welfare of the planet is threatened by an environmental crisis called climate change, caused by unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

While climate change can sound very grim, our Jewish faith can help sustain us and inspire us to action; indeed, caring for the Earth is one of the cornerstones of Judaism, and it’s found throughout the Torah. During this season of teshuvah, it is especially important for Jews to reflect on our obligation to help correct our transgressions against the environment.

The very act of creation in Genesis marks the sacred quality of the Earth, and humankind’s duty to respect, protect and preserve God’s creation. We are God’s caretakers; as it is written in Genesis 2:15, God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden “to work it and conserve it.” 

There is also a body of Jewish law called the Law of Neighbors (Hilkhot Shekeinim), which states that there is no presumptive right to cause pollution that damages another’s health, no matter how long we have been doing it.

In Psalms, farmers are asked to be conscious of what they plant, not sowing their fields with mingled seeds. Proverbs stresses the importance of trees – which are a great remedy for climate change since they absorb much carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Indeed, planting trees has been a bedrock of our tradition, and a principal part of the Tu BiShvat holiday. The Torah itself is called “a tree of life.”

For Jews, Shabbat is an opportunity to step back from everyday activities, which helps preserve the environment. The Torah also stipulates a practice called Shmitta (Sabbatical Year) such that every 7th year shall be a Shabbat for the land; farmers shall not plant that year so as to not overuse the fields. People eat whatever grows on its own in the fields. In Israel, Shmitta is practiced in a lesser form to this day. 

What else can we do to reverse climate change? I’ve discovered that the climate issue becomes less overwhelming when you work in a group, not just by yourself. That can foster camaraderie and make it a joyful experience, not a grim one. So join with other like-minded people.

When you consider the lessons of the Torah, fighting climate change becomes a religious and moral issue, not a matter of politics. As Jews, we can all agree on the moral underpinning of protecting and preserving the environment for ourselves and our children. And we can spread that message to all people of good will. 

As Jews, who have historically had to survive threats to our existence, we are especially suited to helping the world adapt to and overcome the climate crisis. Which takes us back to the bedrock principle: tikkun olam.

Michael Garry is Editor in Chief for shecco, which promotes climate-friendly cooling and heating systems that use natural refrigerants. He is also the author of Game of My Life: New York Mets, published in 2015 and 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 20 - Rolling

by Carol Reiman

Scroll turners, wooden 
handles, trees of life, our thumbs evolved, rolled down from years to screens;
Leading us through dry sands, streams, times of manna, now of drought;
Fires of the burning bush, now woods flaming by dream homes;
Wanderers yearning for place,
kinship of community, ability to thrive;
Where do we take our strength?
When do we listen to the land, to those who warn us of what comes?
Are we as sturdy as our hopes,
As fragile as our whims,
Intemperate in our senses,
Inconsistent in our care?
Lest our drives consume us,
Let us rest in the shadows,
Break of day or rim of stars,
Calm the breath,
Listen for the source
Of streaming bounty,
Filling the cup
Of thought, body, soul,
Nestling us in gentleness,
Fluidity, adaptation,
Creation again,
Rolling us
Into life...

Carol Reiman’s spiritual resources include Rabbi Katy’s reminders of calm, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist sources, the arts, cats, and human connections.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 19 - It's all about the Soil

by Rabbi Robin Damsky

“It’s All About the Soil.” So reads the headline for a website discussing regenerative agriculture. 

I’m torn between fear and possibility. Evidence of climate change worsens every place we breathe. I read several summaries of the most recent UN report on the climate crisis in which Antonio Guterres declares a “code red for humanity.”


I’ve always believed we have the power to heal our planet. I still do. But the window of opportunity is getting smaller and the actions we must take are more substantive. 

There are a bunch of terrifying data in the news. Most of what we need to heal seems out of my/our reach unless governments take a radical look forward and make change accordingly. And then I read about methane gas. We’ve known about carbon neutrality, and it is critical. Yet emissions of methane gas are skyrocketing as well. With large-scale plant [read: traditional one crop farming using pesticides and herbicides] and animal production, methane gas is released into the atmosphere at a far higher rate than it can be captured. Methane creates more than 80 times the planet-warming power of carbon dioxide in the short term. Operative words here: short term. Why? Because addressing methane release feels more immediately within my – and our – reach. It’s all about the soil. Regenerating the soil reduces both carbon and methane emissions. And let’s us breathe.

I’ve been growing food for years, and I invest in teaching others to do the same. In May I saw Kiss the Ground, a remarkable movie about regenerative agriculture. While it has far-reaching effects for farming around the globe, not all of us have animal farms. But most of us can have a garden. In their short video, Ron Finley and Rosario Dawson teach us about food gardens, known during WWII as Victory Gardens. Today these home gardens have a place in helping us achieve victory over the warming of our planet. They share these five simple steps to heal the soil and thus, slow – and on a large enough scale, even cease – global warming:

  1. Ditch the chemicals

  2. Keep the soil covered – with plants!

  3. Encourage biodiversity

  4. Grow food

  5. Compost

What if each of us took a small space in our yard – or if we’re in the city – on our terrace or rooftop, and grew vegetables, fruits, herbs? A small bed produces lots of food. And potted plants produce well, too. I’ve been growing food in containers the last few years and the results are awesome. We can start small and still bring powerful results.

We are earth beings. Genesis teaches us that “adam” is the human being that Havayah – the Divine – brought forth from the “adamah” – the earth; the soil. We are literally earth beings. We are the soil. Let’s make the commitment to engage in regenerating our soil, ourselves and our future. 

Rabbi Robin Damsky has recently launched Limitless Judaism, a project of learning, movement, meditation, melody and practice that draws the lines of connection between our physical bodies, our spiritual expression and Gaia, our earth-cosmos. Embracing this connection, we heal and grow ourselves as we heal and grow our planet. She is also the founder of In the Gardens, a nonprofit that works to enhance health and well-being through organic edible garden design and mindfulness practice. Reach her at: limitlessjudaism@gmail.com.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 18 - Perfection

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen


I've been thinking about it a lot. 

Intellectually, I know I can't be perfect. Inside me, in hidden spaces, I feel like I'm not supposed to make mistakes. Which would, of course, mean seeking perfection.

Perfection is supposed to belong only to G!d, though I'm not sure I know what that means. Sometimes, when I'm able embrace my humanness, it's incredibly freeing to acknowledge that I don't have to be perfect. But I also realize there's a balance between not trying to be perfect all the time and not trying to never make mistakes.

I experience different kinds of feelings when I think about striving toward being a better person all the time versus when I consider in a particular moment what I need to do to be as whole as possible in a particular instant and situation. Those ways of thinking are very different. Considering the moment, just this particular moment, feels doable. Thinking that I must constantly seek to improve and always strive to do the right thing becomes overwhelming.

As a climate activist, when I consider climate change, environmental injustice, and the destruction of our environments, I can feel that sense of being overwhelmed. Listening to people confidently profess that we can absolutely turn around the course of climate change also feels like a tremendous burden that I cannot bear.

But when I stop trying to seek perfection regarding the planet and justice, I can also let go and feel a release. When I acknowledge that climate change is already happening and communities are already being devastated, and that this is simply our present reality, not my personal responsibility to fix and to create perfection in the world, I can touch my truer better self. I can let go of the weight upon my shoulders.

Neither of these mean that I stop believing we must act, but they take off the pressure. Letting go of a need to achieve perfection in the global sphere makes it easier to breathe and to think just as it does in my personal life.

Beginning during Elul and climaxing on Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition, articulated in our liturgy, makes it abundantly clear that we humans are very far from perfect. This Elul, may I fully embrace that reality. May I enter into this season of reflection and atonement humbly putting aside the need to always be right.

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 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. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in  Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the.singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 17 - The Birds

by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

“Return again. Return again.

Return to the land of our soul.” (1)

The liturgy sings. 

I hear it in my head.

This is the season of returning.

It’s quiet here.

A steaming cup of coffee,

Billowing clouds of whipped cream.

We thought it would be different by now.

Stay at home. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.
No guests for Shabbat dinner.


It’s quiet. So very quiet.

Too quiet.

And lonely.

Ready to begin my morning,

I choose a book

Ready to read,

I open the back door,

Coffee cup and book in hand.

Ready to sit on the deck.

The music greets me.

It is anything but quiet

While the world was healing,

The birds returned:

Gold finches, cardinals, robins, blue jays,

Canada geese, blue heron, sandhill crane.

A cacophony of color and sound.

They are the guests for New Year.

Bringing hope.

We can return too.

(1) Neshama Carlebach, http://hebrewsongs.com/?song=returnagain

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, www.theenergizerrabbi.org, She enjoys watching the birds on her deck overlooking a retaining pond (that is dangerously low with the severe drought in Northern Illinois this year) or at her dentist’s office where she gratefully watches the birds he feeds. She has noticed that the birds are more prevalent providing a noisy din during the pandemic. She hopes that the pandemic has helped the earth itself to heal, and for us to reset our priorities, living a more authentic life. She is a recipient of a Scientists in the Synagogue grant for bringing science and Torah to our families in a program called “Parsha and Planets on the Prairie.” 

Monday, August 23, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 16 - Lessons Learned from my Garden

by Maxine Lyons

Reflecting on my connection to t’shuvah means returning more mindfully to positive words and actions and performing mitzvot - commandments. T’shuvah also includes recognizing our connection to the earth, and for me, learning what my garden has to teach me. In a short book, Don't Throw in the Trowel, the author quips, "a garden is a sublime lesson in the unity of humans and nature.” A good garden to me is one that is well planned and cared for, and I am grateful to the Earth’s wisdom and resilience to provide the basis for plants, shrubs and trees to grow and flourish if given the correct nutrients.

As I tend my gardens, I am also practicing ways to cultivate and grow into those more healthy body, mind and spiritual aspects of wellbeing.

Through concentrated time of t'shuvah, I am focusing on refining the skills to expand my capacity to be forgiving of the broken and vulnerable places within myself and also forgiving those fragile and difficult places in dear family members and friends. Jewish law clearly outlines biblical concerns to protect the earth. I follow closely many of the more contemporary texts, writings and social justice activities that are so vitally important; they  assist us in learning how to sustain the earth today that benefits all of us globally. 

I am ending with words from Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk who teaches about connection that is one of the five mindfulness trainings.

"I will contemplate interbeing and consume in ways that preserve peace, joy and well being and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth."

And let us say, Amen.

Maxine Lyons enjoys sharing her understanding of the benefits of Jewish and Buddhist meditation practices, engages in racial justice activities, and is a perennial learner as she gardens in any available space around her home in Newton!

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 15 - Counting to the Next Shmita Year

by David Krantz

Among our more under-appreciated traits, we Jews are counters. We count for a prayer quorum, we count the omer, we count the days of the months to know when our holidays are. We might know the days of the week by their names – Sunday, Monday — but in Hebrew they are Yom Rishon, the First Day, and Yom Sheni, the second day. And before borrowing their current names from the Babylonian calendar, the Jewish months were numbered. What we now know as Elul was once the Sixth Month, leading to the Seventh Month that we now call Tishrei. 

Counting can (ideally) foster planning and patience. It is by counting that we know when to do what needs to be done. It is because we count that we know not to start Rosh Hashanah until the first day of the Seventh Month — or as it is described on first reference in the Talmud (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:3), 30 days after the start of Elul. So every day of Elul is a count toward Rosh Hashanah, a count we punctuate with a daily blowing of the shofar. To everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1), we learn, and Elul reminds us that we do not skip ahead.

A year ago, in Elul 5780 (there we go counting again), a climate denier was in the White House and his biggest climate-denying enablers were in charge of the Senate. We knew it was the season for organizing, for getting out the vote, for pushing for action so that new leadership could step in and take bold, substantial action on climate change. Now, in Elul 5781, we find ourselves still lacking that desperately needed action on climate change. 

Perhaps we thought that we could let up our efforts after Election Day, but to everything there is a season, and now remains our season for civic engagement with our elected leadership. Contact them and remind them of the shofar’s call to action. Our sacred Earth is burning from excessive carbon emissions and we must take action. 

A year ago was our first Elul of this coronavirus pandemic. This Elul we may feel we are done with the pandemic, yet the pandemic is not quite done with us. Viral infections, hospitalizations and deaths remain too high and vaccinations too low. To everything there is a season, and now remains our season of masking, social distancing and vaccination. (And if you have not yet gotten vaccinated and you have access to the vaccine, then now is your season for inoculation!) 


A year ago we found ourselves in the middle of a crisis of structural racism against ethnic minorities along with nationwide violent acts of hatred. This Elul we unfortunately find that we are still in the season of the fight against these persistent banes. 


But this Elul we also finish the count of six years of work before beginning a seventh year of rest, the shmita year. In the shmita year, we will have the opportunity to count a year of rest for the land, rest for our fellow animals, and rest for us humans. Yet we need more than that to truly retire. We need our fossil-fuel burning machines and our addiction to them to rest. We need the virus to rest by not giving it the opportunity to spread further. We need the irrational hatred of racism to rest. 

Clearly we still have much work to do this Elul if we are to be in a better place in Elul 5782. Of course, these tasks are more than any one of us can do alone, however it may not be more than we can do together. On Rosh Hashanah we may fill our thoughts with personal reflection, but we must remember we are all counting on each other. 

David Krantz is the president of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism. 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 14 - Turkey Tails and Teshuvah

by Rabbi Marisa Elana James

In the park near my house is a large tree that fell last winter, the trunk slowly falling into decay thanks to four seasons of sun and rain and snow and wind transitioning it back to the soil. When I pass it on walks, I always stop to see what’s new on the slowly-rotting trunk, because I’ve learned that it’s just as beautiful as the living, flowering trees that surround it. 

Mushrooms can grow incredibly fast, seemingly appearing from one day to the next, helping break down dead wood while taking nourishment from it. And they don’t need to be exotic to be fascinating. My current favorite mushroom is the turkey tail: a wildly-common mushroom that can be found almost anywhere, in every season, growing in layered rows on dead wood. 

The big trunk in the park often has rows of turkey tails popping up, usually dark brown with lighter rings, sometimes tinged lavender to almost purple. And the landscape of the trunk changes regularly, especially after rain. 

Every year, as we enter Elul and approach the new Jewish year, I notice what I’ve lost over the previous year, but it’s often harder to see where I’ve grown. Like mushrooms after a night of rain, our growth often starts invisibly, and the evidence of our growth may seem to appear out of nowhere, unexpectedly. 

Renewal often depends on decay. The fall of the tree was dramatic, but the growth of the networks of turkey tails has been a slow blossoming, and for me, an unexpected blessing. We may think of teshuvah as only a returning to who and what we have been before, but we are more like trees than typewriters. We don’t reset to an original place; we grow into being fully ourselves in this season, in this year. We become who we are more deeply as we grow in new directions. 

This Elul, I’m taking my cue from the turkey tails, looking inside to see what small, beautiful things are growing and being nourished by the things I’m leaving behind. This Elul, I’m going to try to visit the tree daily, to remind myself that the dead wood in my soul can nourish the new growth. And this Elul, I bless us all with the ability to appreciate small miracles that emerge to delight us after a storm. 

Rabbi Marisa Elana James is Director of Social Justice Programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she was previously a college English teacher, competitive ballroom dancer, insurance broker, student pilot, bookstore manager, and professional Torah reader. Marisa and her wife, contrabassoonist and translator Barbara Ann Schmutzler, live in New York City.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 13 - Crater Lake

by Rabbi Shira Shazeer

Many months after the world changed
After worry, adjustment, connections lost and found
Relearning how to live 
How to work
How to family 
How to community

After holding on
Holding together
Holding, holding,

I took to the open road
Family in tow
To see the land and the wonder it holds

To reach out 
and in 
and rediscover
Who am I 
Wherever I am
In this world

I am no Thoreau
Not Diana of the Dunes
Alone with the world 
In quiet contemplation
Rugged self sufficiency
Blissful isolation

I sought the beauty and peace of the world
With a soundtrack of the sounds of children
Filled with wonder, with hunger, with blisters
With games, with worries, with joy
With singing, with arguing, with whistling

And nature teemed with humanity
With so many people
All searching for peace and awe
All in need of relief
Of renewal
Of wonder
All seeking something 
Beyond home, mask, screen

One cool afternoon
From a parking lot, slowly emptying
We crossed the road and descended
Sometimes it is necessary to descend 
Before we can rise. 

From the rim of an ancient volcano
Into the crater
Trees hanging on 
To the steep incline of rock and soil
To the lake
The water clear

Humanity had come here
To love, and nurture 
To feel the power
Of this pristine place

We arrived late
The throngs gone for the day
Or leaving as we came

At the top of a mountain
In the crater of a volcano
In the deepest, clearest, bluest lake

I immersed body 
and soul 

The cold and wet 
Spreading through my tired limbs 
and spiritual hiding places
Soothing the pain and tension
that build up there
when I am too busy to notice

Living Water

The world spins on
And unchanging
I am ready to return

Rabbi Shira Shazeer spent this summer traveling and blogging on Shlepn Nakhes, the Great American Pandemic Road Trip with her husband and three children. She studied in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, received rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in 2010, and looks forward to completing an additional masters in Jewish Education, with a focus on special education, in the coming year.  After many years serving as school rabbi of a small Jewish day school, Rabbi Shazeer is looking forward to new professional adventures teaching in the learning center at Gann Academy starting this fall.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 12 - Shmita: The Seven Year Switch

by Mirele Goldsmith

This Rosh HaShanah is also the start of the Shmita, the Sabbatical Year.  The Torah’s Shmita focuses on land as the nexus of our relationship to Earth and demands that we let it rest from the damage caused by agriculture. To ensure that everyone can participate, all debts are released.  During the Shmita year the produce of the land is shared so that everyone has what they need to survive.  Today, Earth is threatened by the exploitation of fossil fuels that is causing damage that was unimaginable to our ancestors.  But Shmita gives me hope.  The underlying assumption of the commandment to observe Shmita is that transformation is possible.  Not only can we change ourselves individually through teshuva, but we can change as a society.   We can change the most fundamental rules by which we live to put our world on a sustainable path.

Listen to The Seven Year Switch

For six long years we’ve muddled along, this year we can right the wrong

Why not try a change of pace, take a break from the rat race

Listen to my Shmita pitch, get ready for the seven year switch

Fertile fields are getting worn, we can’t keep planting so much corn

Leave the chemicals at the store, fertilize just with manure

Time to climb out of that ditch, get ready for the seven year switch

Drilling for coal and oil and gas, ruining the land for short term cash

Heating up the atmosphere, let’s stop it for the Shmita year

We can’t afford even one more glitch, get ready for the seven year switch

Mortgage, student, medical debt, the Torah says forgive and forget

Release it so we’ll all be free, reduce the inequality

The one percent are way too rich, get ready for the seven year switch

The rules of the Sabbatical may sound very radical

But if we are adaptable, we can make it practical

Now’s the time to scratch that itch, let’s go ahead and make the switch!

Mirele B. Goldsmith is co-chairperson of Jewish Earth Alliance, a national, grassroots network empowering Jewish communities to raise a moral voice for climate action to the US Congress.  

Words and music to The Seven Year Switch, copyright Mirele B. Goldsmith 2014.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 11 - Morning Prayer

by Judith Felsen, Ph.D.

I awaken to a world
uncertain of its future
…Your will…???
I perceive an earth
in conflict and divided
…Divine design…???
I envision a tomorrow
wondering and doubtful
...Heavenly plan…???
I imagine next year’s future
knowing it may not arrive
...Exalted humbling…???
I experience uncertainty
life’s newness in unknowns
...Celestial opening…???
I dissolve myself in guidance
fused in trust
...Divine order… ???
I enroll as one
in service building earth anew
...Majesty’s request…???
I become a vehicle of reconstruction
grateful in employment by mankind
...My truth… … … 
© J. Felsen, Ph.D. 7/22/21

Judith Felsen, Ph.D. is a NYS licensed Clinical Psychologist, lover of Torah and Torah study, enthusiast of poetry and literature of the mystics, the natural world, teaching, exploring consciousness, learning, meditation, walking, hiking and most of life’s adventures. She is on the board of BHC, the Mt. Washington Valley Chavurah and Neskaya Movement Arts Center. A resident of Bartlett, N.H. Judith has lived on the edge of the White Mt. National Forest with her husband and two large rescue dogs where she is an active community member. Since covid she has resided in Long Beach, N.Y..  A 2nd generation Holocaust survivor and long Covid survivor. She and her husband love  family, friends, the ocean, boardwalk, the garden, canine connections and deep relationships with the world of nature. Judith writes, offers consulting and gives dvar’s on Torah portions upon request.


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Earth Etude for Elul 10 - Too Much of a Good Thing, or When All You’ve Ever Wanted Is Really too Much

by Rabbi Judy Kummer

When this summer started, we in the Northeast were facing a drought. The levels of water in area lakes seemed to be down by as much as 4 feet, and rivers that should have been tumbling with early spring melt weren’t rushing and gurgling so much as dribbling, the vegetation on their nearby banks a droopy stunted mess.  I was skeptical that the seedlings I had nurtured indoors all winter would survive if planted in my garden.

And then, as we moved into summer, the rains began to fall. Where we gardeners may have expected an occasional rainfall to water our gardens, rainfall which would need to be supplemented with regular watering by hose, instead it has seemed that almost every day we have received rain — and these were no gentle summer showers; instead, torrents of rain have fallen, soaking and re-soaking already sodden ground. Tomato plants accustomed to warm baking weather have yellowed and wilted, and the mosquitoes have been having a field day in the jungle that has appeared almost overnight in my back yard. And all of this is in the face of a hellish contrasting image of terrible drought and wildfires in the western part of the US. 

My kishke/ internal response has gone in several directions.  First, we do have a right to wish for things to be good in life!  I think of the Talmudic sage Honi the Circle-Maker who earned his sobriquet during a drought, when he drew a circle around himself in the dust and told God he would not leave the circle until it would rain.  A light drizzle began to fall, at which point Honi shook his fist at the heavens and demanded that God send down more substantial rains.  When torrential rains began to fall, he again took issue with God and demanded rains of goodwill and blessing — at which point proper rains began to fall.

It really is OK to be asking for just what it is that we need in life, and not be satisfied until we get it.  And then, once our needs have been satisfied, the challenge is to shift our response away from a sense of scarcity and toward a sense of abundance and gratitude.  

While it’s always a good thing to conserve our blessings, setting up a water barrel -- physical or metaphoric -- to save blessings like water against a future drought, it’s also important that we express our gratitude and savor the blessings we have received in life.  The overgrown plants in my back yard may be feeling to me like just too much — but when I give myself a chance to focus on them, I can be aware of the miracles present in my yard on an everyday basis.

Expressing gratitude and really savoring our blessings are two gifts we can give ourselves, as if to underline the good fortune we are enjoying, deepening the experience of having received these gifts in life and as if watering our own souls.  

We live in a society plagued by a scarcity mentality, where more is always considered a good thing.  What would it be like to try on a mentality of abundance, of “enough-ness,” and savor what we actually do have, rather than always wishing for more?

And while we are thinking of “enough-ness,” perhaps we can harness the inclination in our hearts for “more, more, more” to feel energized in joining others and taking action to fight the environmental degradation that has tipped our natural world so out of balance.  “Im lo achshav, aymatai?” we read in Pirke Avot, “if not now, when?”

So how can we deal with having too much of a good thing? By setting up a rain barrel, conserving blessing to last beyond today. By savoring that blessing, expressing gratitude and finding a way to enjoy the jungle that ensues. By letting it spur us to take action around environmental degradation.  May our efforts truly be blessed!

Rabbi Judy Kummer is a board-certified chaplain working in person and remotely in her spiritual care private practice, Spiritual Support for Life’s Journey. Among the organizational work she has done, Rabbi Kummer has served as Executive Director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of Massachusetts for 18 years and and the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis for two years. She has worked as a chaplain at Hebrew SeniorLife and has served congregations in Washington DC, Long Island and New Jersey. She is a composer, contemporary liturgist, hiker, artist and organic gardener. She lives and gardens outside of Boston, MA.