The Jewish Fall holidays are over, and I’m celebrating Spring! I just posted a slide show of some of my favorite original Spring photos that you can watch in the Gateway of Seasons. I made it to share in an online program to launch “Love at the Center,” a new initiative by Rabbi Shefa Gold, who is a wonderful teacher and pioneer of the contemporary spiritual practice of Chant, You can learn more about bringing love into the center of your spiritual practice, and subscribe here to receive a weekly email with a chant from the Biblical Song of Songs, the love poetry of the Bible. In the Song of Songs, springtime in the Holy Land is the setting for a love story that can apply to our search for love: human love, love of the soul, love of the Divine. In my husband’s Sephardic tradition, the entire book is chanted weekly before the Sabbath Eve prayers.
Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, means so much to me on many levels. For centuries people have read this sacred book in different ways: as sensuous love poetry, religious allegory, or mystical secrets. The great Rabbi Akiba taught centuries ago that this seemingly secular book is really the Holy of Holies. My own deepest spiritual experiences have taught me that while most of us look for love as individuals, and all religions and cultures search for the Divine Thou – – we are often searching outside ourselves for something deep inside us, as close as our breath, pulse, and heart.
The Divine Beloved, the ultimate lover whose face we all seek, is as close as our heart, in our own face and in the face of everyone and every creature we meet. My teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi inspired my explorations of this Song. He composed beautiful musicfor some of its verses, and often repeated a Hassidic teaching from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav on Song of Songs 5:2: Kol Dodi Dofek—”the voice of my Beloved is knocking,,” In Hebrew dofek is pulse and God is as close as our pulse.
For centuries theologians exalted the soul over the body. But for me, the greatest love story is the love of body for soul and soul for body. And on the cosmic scale, it is the love of the Transcendent for the Immanent, bringing Heaven and Earth together.
The spiritual lessons of Songs of Songs are also found in the living sanctuary of the earth, where Nature herself is the other beloved of the Song. Please enjoy the photo show, and then I hope you can get out and enjoy some nature in any season!
I made this slide show of my original photos for the launch of “Love at the Center” by Rabbi Shefa Gold. Click here to receive a weekly chant from the Biblical Song of Songs, and put Love at the center of your heart. The program took place after the Jewish New Year 5781 (2020), so fall was arriving as I contemplated spring and the cycles of nature. The photos are from New York state, except for the redbuds and cyclist, from a February visit to Northern California, where spring comes early.
This song by Rabbi David Shneyer is from his album “Psalm Songs from Rock Creek,” a title which evokes both Psalms and flowing water. This lively melody reminds me of a rapid, rushing brook. The lyrics, from the Jewish liturgy, ask God to answer our prayers and to “Do it for the sake of your Name…your power…your holiness…your Torah.”
MIriam’s Well explores a famous legend related to the Exodus, of MIriam’s miraculous desert well. After you read it, you can enjoy a Guided Meditation on the theme of Miriam’s well and finding your inner resources, and consider having a Cup of Miriam at your Seder.
I will be one of the leaders for an online creative gathering about Miriam, Saturday night (ET), March 20. Sign up here.
And also related to the Seder, explore this pathway about the Bitter and the Sweet of the Garden for your Passover table. Learn about different customs and interpretations of the Passover bitter and sweet symbols, and how to make them from locally grown foods.
At Passover, we read the Biblical Song of Songs. Learn more about this book of Biblical love poetry, with new chants by Rabbi Shefa Gold.
Finally, for a fresh perspective on the organic cycle of the Jewish Year, The Reason for the Season, by Rabbi David Zaslow, shares the story of his trip to Brazil with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and a consideration of when the “Festival of Spring” should be celebrated in the Southern Hemisphere.
Wishing you a joyful and liberating Passover season!
Here is my slideshow of nature photos, in the spirit of the Songs of Songs to welcome spring!
The midrash about the Moon’s diminishment in the previous postdid not remain static over the centuries, but was reinvented to reveal new meanings. Explore the changing face of this ancient legend in depth, through this fascinating article by Melila Hellner-Eshed, the Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem. It’s a bit longer than most of our pathways, but well worth the read.
‘Of What Use is a Candle in Broad Daylight?’ The Reinvention of a Myth
The desert oasis is an important biblical image. The beauty and life-giving power of water in the desert suggest a source of spiritual as well as physical refreshment. Ein Gedi, Spring of the Goat Kid, an oasis near the Dead Sea, is known as the place that future king David hid out from King Saul (I Samuel 24:1-2).
Passover, the Festival of Spring and Freedom, is a holiday associated with food. Matzah, of course, the flat unleavened bread (I recommend whole wheat), to remind us of the unleavened bread that our ancestors baked in their haste to leave slavery in ancient Egypt, with no time for the dough to rise. The other tastes of Passover have their own associations, bitter and sweet. Eating these symbolic and seasonal natural foods helps to literally internalize the Seder’s message of freedom.
When violent and hateful acts roil the world, many leaders share that the victims are in their “thoughts and prayers.” The phrase has become an empty slogan for many, seen as just an excuse for inaction, or a passive wish that God will solve problems that we don’t want to address. But the Jewish traditions that I know always link prayer to action. I’ve been reflecting and teaching on this topic in recent weeks.
Peace Pole at Seaside Jewish Community
Here are some things that I’ve learned about the link between prayer and action in Jewish tradition.
First, there are many customs and practices that link prayer with action. At a traditional weekday minyan, tzedakah is collected. The Shulchan Aruch (major Code of Jewish Law) states that one must give tzedakah before praying. My teacher, Reb Zalman, taught us to always give tzedakah when we prayed for people’s healing, with the idea of, “put your money where your mouth is.” I also learned that if we are praying for someone who is ill, we should visit them (and conversely, when visiting them we should prayer for them—even a wish of Refuah Shelemah, a speedy recovery, is a type of prayer).
During the Days of Awe (a.k.a. the High Holy Days), even children learn that we can’t pray to God for forgiveness with first making amends with the person we have wronged. And the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to Teshuvah (repentance), Tefilah (prayer), and Tzedakah (charity). Note how prayer is wedged between two kinds of action.
A second way that Judaism ties together prayer and action is that prayer can give us the strength to act. Prayer services are a time to connect with others, be sustained, celebrate or mourn, and then be restored to act.
In Judaism, prayer is linked to responsibility. The very word to pray, “li-hitpalel” means to examine oneself, to judge oneself. Brad Sugar of American Jewish World Service, writes, “A true ‘tefillah’—an act of reflective self-examination by one who seeks to emulate compassion and kindness—changes us. Beyond offering thoughts and prayers, the natural next step is to take action to make change in our lives and in the lives of others.’”
Finally, Jewish tradition teaches that sometimes action itself is the best prayer. One of the most famous quotations from the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian and social activist, who marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of this when he said “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
I recently learned from from a Black colleague, the Rev. Marjorie Burns that, Rev. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and statesman, had used the same phrase in a different way. He said, “When I was a slave I tried praying for three years. I prayed that God would emancipate me, but it was not till I prayed with my legs that I was emancipated.” But we could also go all the way back to the Torah (Exodus 14:15) to find something similar: “The Eternal said to Moses: Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and have them go forward.” The Talmud (Sotah 37a) explains that this happened on the verge of the splitting of the Sea:
At that time, Moses was prolonging his prayer. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me? Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, but what can I do? God said to him: “Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand” (Exodus 14:15–16).
There are some of the many ways Jewish tradition (and beyond) teaches that thoughts and prayers should lead to action. Let me know in the comments (If reading this on the “What’s New” Blog, click on the title to get to a page where you can comment) if and how prayer and action are linked for you.
Note: I also shared a version of this Devar Torah (Torah teaching, sermon) on my Rabbi Blog for Seaside Jewish Community.