Shalom! I hope you will enjoy a re-design of many pages on this website, to make it easier to explore the posts on each theme.
Wellsprings of Wisdom is a Virtual Retreat Center where you can explore and interact with Jewish symbols from nature. This site is organized around four Portals: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Each of those four Portals contains four Gateways, including symbolic themes like, “Gardens,” “Wilderness,” Flowing Water,” “The Moon.” And each of those Gateways contains an abundance of Pathways, individual posts that explore the theme. The posts include teachings from ancient sources as well as media, photography, personal reflections by me and others, Tikkun Olam (social action for making the world better) and a Sharing Circle in each Gateway for you to share your own experiences on that theme.
The Pathways (posts) in each Gateway were previously displayed in a carousel. I thought it was a little hard to find what you’re looking for, so I asked my web designer, Shaun Lieber, to redesign the pages so that you can see all the posts at a glance (they won’t all fit on one page, but you can follow an arrow at the bottom of the pages for more). That way, you can choose to follow the pages in the way they are offered, which takes you on a journey through Jewish tradition and into the personal and social aspects of the theme, and concludes with the Sharing Circle. OR feel free to browse through the posts and see what interests you most — follow your heart!
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 and how prayer and action are linked for you.
Happy Earth Day! 🌎 This year Earth Day coincides with the Seventh Day of Passover, a holy day to commemorate the splitting of the Red (Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt.
I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, which was started to work for environmental change after 20 million people took to the streets in protest after a massive oil spill the year before. In 2009, the United Nations deemed it Mother Earth Day.
South Lake Tahoe, Photo: Julie H. Danan
Each year Earth Day.org has a special theme for the day: “This year, earthday.org has selected the theme, ‘Invest In Our Planet’. It explains, ‘This is the moment to change it all — the business climate, the political climate, and how we take action on climate. Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, our livelihoods… together, we must ‘Invest In Our Planet’.” (Source: The Indian Express). Science, government, education, business, and many other sectors must come together to heal our ecosystems.
I believe that religion and spirituality can and must have a positive role in healing and caring for our precious planetary Garden of Eden in the cosmos. In Jewish mystical thought, nature itself is is a manifestation of the divine presence (Shekhinah). Whatever your personal belief system, consider how you can direct it to support the environment. Those of us who do nature photography can also play a role by inspiring a greater love, reverence, and understanding of the natural world.
Each of us has a part to play in caring for and healing our relationship to Mother Earth. The stakes are urgent, and the rewards are boundless for generations to come.
We’ve started a new series at my congregation, “Deep Dive into Prayer” (pretty appropriate for Seaside Jewish Community 🌊)
At certain services, we will focus in on one prayer or one section of the liturgy, and “dive deep” by exploring it’s history and meanings, while also experiencing it in new ways. The first one was on March 12, 2022, when I shared this teaching about the Shema, with an exercise at the end from my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I wanted to share it with all of you at Wellsprings of Wisdom, too.
by Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan
Let’s take a deep dive into prayer and focus on one line, just 6 words, words that define us as a people and have even changed the course of history:
Sheme Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
Or let me call this, #essenceofjudaisminsixwords (essence of Judaism in six words).
Let me take you back: In the aftermath of World War II, Youth Aliyah workers from Israel circulated among the refugees in Europe’s displaced persons camp, looking for Jewish children who had lost everything. They met destitute young orphans who had no conscious memory of their early homes or prewar lives. How to know if they are Jewish? The workers say to them each child in turn: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. When the children showed a moment of recogniction or said the words with them, they had found another Jewish child to bring home to the Land of Israel.”
Flash forward a few decades. As a rabbi, I visit at the bedsides of infirm and frail Jews who seem lost in their own worlds, not responding to anything I say. But when I sing the Shema, they brighten and sing along with me.
What is the power of this six word prayer that is among the first words taught to Jewish children, the prayer that Jews aspire to make our last words? The Shema encapsulates in one sentence the essence of the Jewish mission in the world. (Yes, the full Shema has three biblical paragraphs that go after it, but for now I will focus on six Hebrew words of the first line).
The odd thing about the Shema is that it’s a prayer that isn’t exactly a prayer. Consider: who is it addressing? Not God, but us, Israel: Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. It is calling on us, more a declaration of belief than a plea or a praise.
The words of the Shema, straight from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4), are first said by Moses to the people of Israel near the end of his life, as he gives them instructions on how to live as a people. If you look in a Torah scroll (and some Siddurim / Jewish prayer books), you will notice that they are written a special way: the ayin—the last letter in Shema, and the dalet, the last letter in Echad, are written extra big. One reason that has been given is so that we pronounce them correctly. But the more spiritual reason that has been given for this is that those two letters together spell out a Hebrew word, “’Ed,” meaning “witness.”
When we say the “Shema,” we are witnesses to our most profound truths as Jews. But what are we witnessing? A while back on social media there was a hashtag called “Six word stories.” #sixwordstories Just like it said, you shared six words to tell a story. The Shema is the Jewish version. In six words:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
we get an essence of Judaism.
Let’s unpack those six words, one by one:
Shema: Listen! Hearken! Understand!
Deep listening is the beginning of making peace and creating a better world. That’s a profound truth that I learned from my friends and mentors, Len and Libby Traubman. Len, of blessed memory, was a pediatric dentist in San Mateo California, and his wife Libby, may she merit long life, was in social work. But their real profession was being lamed-vavniks (those legendary humble righteous people who sustain the world).
Life changed for the Traubmans in 1969. I found out recently that the two things changed their life trajectory that year were the birth of their first child, and seeing an image of our earth from outer space, the very that my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman) called the most important religious icon of our age. Motivated by this radical new perspective, the Traubmans became global citizens. They devoted their lives to dialogue, from Cold War citizen diplomacy between Americans and Russians, to the Middle East, to Africa, and to their own California neighborhood. They started the first and longest lasting Palestinian-Jewish living room dialogue group, that inspired many others, including one that I started in San Antonio with a Palestinian Muslim Imam. The Traubmans constantly shared hopeful news of peace and made connections between people around the world, and it all started with one idea: LISTEN to others, HEAR their stories. By doing so you turn a stranger and potential enemy into a friend.
Len described it like this: “What is distinctive about dialogue as a way of communication is very different than ‘conversation’ which is shallow, conversational, and usually pretty safe. And ‘discussion’ which is like percussion–batting a ping-pong ball back and forth, waiting for what I want to say. And it is definitely not ‘debate’ which is I win, you lose; we learn nothing; and we become further apart. Dialogue has a really new quality of listening and listening to learn, not waiting for what I’m going to say next. And what it does is it dignifies both people. It dignifies the listener and it dignifies the person who is being listened to.”
How much we need this approach to dialogue right now! The word Shema and the Shema prayer call us to live our lives as deep listeners, bridging gaps and increasing understanding.
There is also a hint in the word “Shema,” to seeing. Reb Zalman adds that the big letter Ayin in the word “Shema” tells us to see as well as to hear. That’s because the word “ayin” means, “eye.” So the word Shema is telling us to open our ears to hear others, to listen to their stories, and to open our eyes wide to see others.
The second word: Yisrael / Israel.
That’s us. We are the children of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. One Midrash holds that the real first time the Shema was recited was when Jacob/Israel’s sons said it to him on his deathbed: “Listen Israel—listen Dad—we are all faithful to the covenant and we all declare that God is one.” And then he answered “Thank G-d! Praise the one whose glory fills all time and space –Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed.” You probably recall that Jacob got his name changed to Israel when he wrestled with an angel. Rabbi Arthur Waskow famously translates Yisrael as “God-wrestler.”
Shema Yisrael: As Jacob-Israel’s heirs, we are bidden to see and hear, and then to struggle mightily on God’s behalf to make a better world.
Words three and four: Adonai Eloheynu,
are usually translated, “The Lord is Our God.” But really, the meaning is much deeper. Start with Adonai. We say Adonai (“our Lord”), but that’s really just a substitute word for the original four letter name of God from the Torah: Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, a name tradition says is too holy for us to pronounce. It’s not about a childish image of an old man in the sky. The four letter Divine name could mean: “I will be what I will be” – all tenses past-present-future – undefinable – the awesome ungraspable life force that fills and creates our world without ceasing. And at the same time, those four letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey are intimate. In ancient times, the vav was pronounced like a “W,” as it still is in Yemenite Hebrew. So it’s Yud – Hey – Wav – Hey.
Breathing in and out through your mouth, you can hear the sounds
(as you breathe in)
(as you breathe out)
They are the sounds of breathing, especially when we pronounce the Vav as a Wav, as it was in ancient times. Y-H-W-H. Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls the Four Letter Name of God, “the Breath of Life.”
And then, Eloheynu, Our God, “Our Elohim.”
In Biblical Hebrew, Elohim can mean both God and Judge. In mystical thought, Elohim can mean the immanent God, that experience of divinity we sense close to us, filling our world and all of nature, the Shechinah. Jewish mystics pointed out that in Gematria, Hebrew numerology, Elohim is equivalent to Ha-Teva, nature.
Word Five: We come back to Adonai: YHWH, the paradox of God, utterly transcendent and beyond us, yet as close as our breath, our life spirit…
and this time we affirm:
God is ONE: Echad! Which can mean there is only one God. It can also mean that God is totally unique. And it implies: God is a Unity and therefore we are all part of a great Unity. Ultimately all of us are one, all connected. “One, every single one, each one joined and united in the One.”
So Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad: Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One, can be understood more fully: Listen and see, you wrestlers for God! YHWH, the indefinable, transcendent, divine life force –that’s our God! This is our ultimate measure, the only thing that can we judge life by. And that same, un-namable God, that breath of all life—is ONE, is a unity, and therefore nothing is outside it and we are all part of a whole!”
Or to make it simpler, we can just say: Hashtag #essence of Judaism in six words.
So think now, if we would truly live our lives bearing witness to the meaning of the Shema, the essence of our faith, what would that mean every day:
To really listen, To really see,
To declare for all the world that the mystery of creation fills everything and all,
And that ultimately we are all one in the one!
How would that change how we deal with:
People who look different? Have different opinions? The needy, the poor, the immigrant? The person we walk by on the street? How would it change how we regard: Endangered species? Trees and bird and animals? Our whole world?
One thing that really opened the Shema for me was learning this simple but powerful Shema exercise from my teacher, Reb Zalman. In this exercise, you say that first line of the Shema five times, each time addressing it to someone else.
First: The traditional way, imagining as if you are hearing Moses say the Shema for the first time. He said God’s actual name of the YHWH, but since we no longer pronounce that aloud, you could say “Adonai,” or “Yah.” …
Now proclaim the Shema to yourself, to your own name, Hebrew or English. For example: “Shema Julie!: Or “Shema Yehudit Tovah!
Now offer the Shema to someone else, someone you want to hear this essential message, to one person or a group. Like: “Shema, my grandchildren,” or “Shema, leaders of the world…”
Think for a moment who needs the message. …
Now back to the traditional words, but this time as if it’s your last Shema, like you are pouring out your soul. We can think of all the Jews who said these words word with their last breath, and join with them.
Finally, once more, say the Shema, this time with all the intentions held together. . . .
Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed! “Through time and space, your glory shines, Majestic One.” (Reb Zalman’s Translation).
When you say it at home before bed, or you say it in Shul (synagogue) on Shabbat or shouted out at the end of Yom Kippur, remember these six words bear witness to the essence of our faith. May we merit not only to say them but to live by them: to listen and wrestle and affirm the unity behind all diversity.
May it be so! Amen.
Here is a beautiful video by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann to learn more:
Happy Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of Trees! (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, corresponding to January 17 this year)
Sunlight through the Mist, Julie Danan
Visit Wellsprings’ Gateway of Treesfor Pathways (posts) with teachings and resources including all about Tu Bishvat, as well as music, nature sights and sounds, ancient stories, videos, and a guided meditation for eating fruit. Learn about rainforests and the importance of planting trees in Jewish tradition.
This is a time for new beginnings. There’s a New Year coming on the calendar, 2022. And the corresponding Hebrew month will also bring one of the Jewish New Years: Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees.
I think these dates have something in common. Our Sages established the New Year for trees, not when the trees were fully blooming or bearing fruit, but in the middle of winter (in the Northern Hemisphere), just when the sap begins to rise. Although branches are bare and the wind is cold, this is the time when the trees’ hidden potential begins to be realized.
Similarly, when Rosh Hashanah comes around in the fall, we don’t celebrate it at the shining light of the full moon, but at the dark sliver of the New Moon. On Rosh Hashanah, we recognize and celebrate the potential for all the good that we can strive for in the year ahead.
In our secular world, the past couple of years have been difficult ones, due to the pandemic and many other stressors on society. Still, I believe that we should celebrate all of the gradual improvements that we have experienced, and appreciate the seeds of good beginning to sprout around our world.
I have a new beginning, too! I’m delighted to announce that I’ve accepted a new position as full time religious leader of Seaside Jewish Community (Rehoboth Beach, Delaware), a wonderful, growing and thriving congregation of about 400 households engaged with spiritual and personal growth, learning, mutual support, and social justice. It’s also a fabulous location to learn about the ocean and observe and photograph the coastal environment with its abundant birds and wildlife.
Although I will be busy of course, I intend to keep this website going and gradually add to the Gateways. The newest one, the Gateway of Holy Land, is almost complete (I continue to add content and update the completed Gateway pages). I aspire to add one more Gateway in the catagory of Water, so that each “Portal” (earth, water, air, fire) has four Gateways to explore. I’m working with my web designer to make the pathways (posts) easier to navigate, and I continue to update and add to the completed ones.
This “What’s New” column is the blog where I share thoughts, teachings, new content, and learning opportunities. Please sign up on the What’s Newpage to join the Wellsprings community and be on my mailing list.
You can also find my nature photography for view (and for sale) at my other site, Inspired Images.
Blessings to all on this Winter Solstice. A wonderful Christmas to all my Christian friends, and a Happy New Year 2022 to all. May it be a year of growth and improvements for all who dwell on earth.
The Menorah is a symbolic tree of light (Photo: Jule H. Danan at Rockefeller State Park Preserve)
Many people like to have a different poem or reflection for each nightof Hanukkah. I think that’s great, and I also like to just feel into the lights and what they awaken in my soul. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, emphasized the importance of contemplating and meditating on the lights of Hanukkah, whether you light candles or olive oil. Here’s what the lights evoke for me, night by night, along with some of the traditional lore for each night:
1. “Light a single candle, rather than curse the darkness.” Pause to look at this candle and consider what light you want to kindle in the world.
2. “Two are better than one.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9) Find a partner to help spread the light, and when needed to be your hevruta (friend, ally) in examining the shadow cast by your light.
3. “The threefold cord is seldom broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) Three represents the power of community to me. Where are my people making common cause?
4. Half light and half dark spaces in the menorah. This is a moment of faith. What do I choose to see?
5. Light is overcoming the darkness* and I feel the shift. Traditionally the fifth night is a time to give gelt (not the chocolate coins, but gifts of money). Why money? Because a) the minting of coins symbolizes the sovereignty won by the Maccabees, and b) there is a rabbinic saying that we are all like coins stamped by the divine sovereign, yet each of us is unique. And it seems that this time of year has always been the time to “tip” people who serve others all year long! Finally, this day can’t fall on a Shabbat, so that works out well as money can’t be handled on Shabbat.
6. Six days of creation – spreading light through our daily work. We get into the nitty-gritty of making the world better and discover that it’s a gradual, day by day process. The Reform movement has dedicated the sixth night as the “light of tsedakah (righteousness, charity)” a special time to give to others. This day is also Rosh Hodesh, the new moon of the Hebrew month of Tevet.
7. The importance of Shabbat (Sabbath) and rest, especially when working to spread light in the world without getting “burned out.”
Oil Menorah, JHD
When Shabbat seemingly “conflicts” with making the world better, remember that Rabbi Yitz Greenberg teaches that it’s crucial to pause and have a weekly taste of the world we are trying to create, a “rhythm of redemption.” it’s also the second day of the new moon.
8. The dimension of eternity, the super-natural. Lay the 8 on its side to symbolize infinity. Called “Zot Hanukkah” (this is Hanukkah), this night represents the full expression of dedication and illumination.
It’s also my husband’s Hebrew birthday! He was born at home in the Jewish quarter of Marrakech, Morocco, the fifth of eleven children.
The day after Hanukkah the menorah is dark but I look up to the stars and imagine the lights are ascended to the heavens and visible to inspire us all year. The flame of the Shamash (service candle that lights the others) can be in my heart to serve and light others all year ‘round.
Swan Lake, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Julie Danan
As my interest in Nature Photography has blossomed, people have asked to buy prints. So in addition to Wellsprings of Wisdom, I have started a separate site dedicated to my Nature Photography: Inspired Images. You can enjoy my galleries, browse my Instagram photos, and also purchase a variety of prints or downloads. More products will be added in the coming months. I’m still filling it with my very best and favorite photographs, but I couldn’t wait to share. Do check back in the coming days and weeks as more photos are added!
Selfie with Camera, 2020
PS Be assured that I’ll keep Wellsprings of Wisdom as my site for educational and spiritual content!
The Torah teaches that every seven years, the land must rest and lie fallow as people and animals live on stored or foraged food, In addition, debts are forgiven. This is called the Shemita or Sabbatical year. It is still observed today in a technical way, but many environmental activists are exploring how it can be relevant to our current ecological crisis. In fact, it’s happening this year! (5782 – from Rosh Hashanah of 2021). Learn more by reading the postand visiting The Shmita Project.
And there’s more: My friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg has generously shared a post that he wrote, “The Ecology of Canaan in the Eyes of Our Ancestors.” The experience of our ancient ancestors has lessons for us today, as we experience the sometimes disastrous “feedback loop” of our human interactions with the environment.
One could say that the purpose of religion, from the Torah’s perspective, was to teach people how to achieve a true symbiosis with the land. This is what it means to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). If the mission of the Torah was to create a truly sustainable model of agriculture, then another way to frame that is that the Torah’s mission is to change the direction of what we now call the Anthropocene.
View of Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade, Julie Danan
Shalom-Salaam-Peace! Peacemakers from the Interfaith Encounter Association never fail to inspire me with their tireless and dedicated work for dialogue and understanding among Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others in the Holy Land. Read and watch a short video about their activities in this new pathway post on the Gateway of Holy Land.
Each of the Gateways here at Wellspring of Wisdom features one or more pathways (posts) about Tikkun Olam, meaning to heal or repair our world. I’ve been writing and teaching a lot on the concept of Tikkun Olam. You can learn more here.