A new Jewish environmental organization, Adamah (meaning “land” ) has been built from the merger of two great organizations, the Jewish environmental powerhouse Hazon (previously merged with the Isabella Freedman retreat center) with Pearlstone retreat center. The mission of Adamah is to “build community and cultivate a more sustainable future through immersive experiences, inspiring programs, and collective action.” They believe that in this moment of history, “we must be the bridge between our ancestors and our descendants, mobilizing the power of the Jewish people to respond to the existential crises of our time.” Learn more, find out about the Jewish climate coalition, or plan to attend a retreat here: https://adamah.org/
On the West Coast, another great Jewish environmental education/experience organization that I so admire, Wilderness Torah, is poised to grow but has encountered a financial crisis and seeks some urgent support to bridge the gap. I invite you to visit their website and consider donating, as I just did myself: https://wildernesstorah.org/.
All of these organizations have been profiled in my guide to Jewish retreat centers and organic farms on this site. I believe that the most urgent issue of today is for humanity exist in harmony with our natural environment on planet earth. These organizations offer Jewish responses to connect with our roots on the land. Please explore and support them!
On a personal note, I’m continuing with my new and gratifying job leading Seaside Jewish Community in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Life as a full time rabbi of a rapidly growing community, as well as “matriarch” of a growing extended family, has not allowed me a lot of time to update this site. But I plan to keep sharing updates here on my “What’s New” Blog. About once a month I share posts such as what’s new on this site, Jewish environmentalism and nature spirituality, and also my own work and writing. To see more of my nature photography, check out my dedicated website: https://inspiredimages.zenfoliosite.com/home.
Happy New Year of Trees, Tu Bishvat! The Torah compares a person to a tree! Trees are crucial to our survival and enjoyment of life on Earth, and we in turn can help trees by planting trees, saving forests, and caring for their environments.
Here are some favorite photos I took (back in New York state) of people interacting with trees.
Learn about Trees in Jewish Tradition and how to celebrate Tu Bishvat in the Gateway of Trees.
In the book of Exodus that we are currently reading in the Torah in synagogues around the world, we grapple with the famous phrase that “The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh,” (Exodus 9:12). This creates a moral dilemma; how can we blame Pharaoh if God took away his free will? Scholars have pointed out that God only does this after Pharaoh hardens his own heart five times. Rabbi Simon ben Lakish is quoted in Exodus Rabbah, a collection of Midrash: “Since God sent [the opportunity for repentance and doing the right thing] five times to him and he sent no notice, God then said, ‘You have stiffened your neck and hardened your heart on your own…. So it was that the heart of Pharaoh did not receive the words of God.’”
The story of the Exodus is eternally relevant. In our modern times, our hearts get hardened by the news, by the overload, by the powerlessness we may feel. We get a constant feed of news, of things we can’t do much to solve. The continual headlines may make us want to shut down or “change the channel.” We all need a break sometimes, but becoming Pharaoh-like and hardening our hearts to suffering is not the Jewish way.
At a recent Shabbat service my congregation discussed many ways to keep our hearts open when we read distressing news: by supporting worthwhile organizations, participating in community service activities, or simply “doing something kind for the next person you meet.” A doctor who was present shared about the benefits of mindfulness meditation and especially of friendship and community for well being. We can balance our news consumption with more positive sources and take small actions for Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. As taught in the Jewish wisdom book Pirke Avot: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
Here’s a meditation that I shared that you might want to try when you want to create a softer, more compassionate heart:
Focus on your breath (neshimah In Hebrew) to connect to your soul (Neshamah).
Breathe into your heart …You may want to put your hand gently on your heart
Consider a painful situation in the world where you have closed your heart to protect yourself.
Send a loving message, a blessing from your heart to those involved: May they be relieved, be well, be safe.
Send yourself a loving message, too: May I be well, be at ease. May I find my way to serve and help someone near me or far away.
Focus again on your breathing for a while.
Allow your heart to feel open and compassionate.
As you go about your day, be open to opportunities to connect with and help others.
The Menorah is a symbolic tree of light (Photo: Jule H. Danan at Rockefeller State Park Preserve)
Note: I’m resharing my Hanukkah post from last year, because this practice is always meaningful to me. I’ve also updated some of the links.
Many people like to have a different poem or reflection for each night of 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 with wicks. 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. And maybe we should keep the celebration going – here’s a service that I led with Cantor Abbe Lyons on a night after Hanukkah.
I recently got a great book in the mail, The Avian Rebbe Stretches His Wings. It’s the second in a series by bird photographer and Torah teacher/student, Aaric Eisenstein. known as the Avaian Rebbe for finding wisdom in the beauty of our feathered friends. The Talmud says that we can learn Torah from every creature, and Aaric brings this to life in his creative teachings.
I was honored to provide an approbation (fancy word for a book blurb) for the work of this true kindred spirit who, like Wellsprings of Wisdom, loves to discover the everyday connections between Nature and Torah. Anyone who adores birds, bird photography, and meaningful wisdom for life will be sure to enjoy the Avian Rebbe’s newsletterand his posts on Facebook or Instagram. (There’s also a podcast and videos…) I’m frankly in awe at Aaric’s ability to produce such consistent and meaningful content, although he might say that the birds bring it on their wings and he just receives and transmits it as a gift from the Source of All.
“Be Grounded. Fly High.” is the the Avian Rebbe’s motto, and I’m sure that you will enjoy his teachings and beautiful photography as much as I do.
Learn more about the meaning of birds in Jewish tradition in the Gateway of Wings.
Tikkun Hayam, Repair the Sea is a Jewish organization that I support, whose mission is “to share the spiritual wonders of water and the Sea from a Jewish perspective, and to raise awareness and encourage action to address the many threats facing the aquatic environment.” They teach and educate about the importance of water to all of life as well as Jewish tradition, and offer programs such as “Reverse Tashlich” beach cleanups, planting corals in Israel, and teaching scuba diving. Enjoy this video made earlier this year by Tikkun HaYam about the meaning of water in Jewish tradition, along with some good news about coral reefs, and keep learning more about Jewish lore of the Sea in the Gateway of The Sea.
My friends, singing duo “The Levins” (pronounced Le-VINS) just wrote a beautiful and heartfelt song in the spirit of Yom Kippur and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation. And they asked to use my videos made here at the Delaware beaches. I hope you find this meaningful:
There is an old rabbinic teaching that we should leave a little bit of our house unfinished. (Had these guys seen my townhouse in Philly?) But seriously, leaving a bit of our house unfinished was to be a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. More broadly, it signals that life is unfinished, that all good things are incomplete.
Shabbat is another reminder that things are never finished. Rabbi Tarfon’s famous saying starts, “It is not up to you to complete the work.” Lo alecha hamelachah ligmor. Interestingly, while there are several words for “work” in Hebrew, but the word that he chose for “work” is the precise term that the Torah uses for the tasks that are not allowed to do on Shabbat. Lo ta’ase kol melachah(you shall do no work).
It is a mitzvah—one of the big 10—to leave our work unfinished once a week. Whether or not there is something major on our to-do list, it can wait a day. Think of it as a practice of knowing we can’t and shouldn’t try to do it all.
I was brought up to believe that you should finish what you start, no matter how long it takes. But in an existential sense, life is all about unfinished business. In his book: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” author Oliver Berkeman takes on time management. Whether it is our youthful list of dreams, endless to-do lists in our working years, or our beckoning bucket list in retirement: life is finite, and we have to let go of the illusion that productivity or even prioritization will somehow enable us to accomplish everything we dream of or that society expects of us.
The High Holidays, too, remind us that our life is limited. Prayers like “Unetaneh Tokef,” which we said in this morning’s service, remind us that human life is fleeting and much is beyond our control. But to paraphrase a saying from the technological world: our inability to complete everything in our lifetimes not a bug in the system; it’s a feature. Let me suggest that the very fact that we can’t do it all, that we hand over the world to other people after us, is the thing gives our live meaning.
The idea of unfinished business in life is central to the Torah. In a couple of weeks we will “finish” reading the Torah and the conclusion may feel less than satisfying. After we have spent 4 books following the career of Moses as the leader of our people, God tells Moses to ascend Mt. Nevo in the Jordan Valley, and from there he shows him the whole panorama of the land of Israel. But then the kicker: “I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.”
Moses dies with a kiss from God and is buried in an unmarked grave. The story of our people will continue without him, yet always with him. Reading this story again and again, year after year, is not just for more information. Some people say that the book of Joshua, of entering and conquering the land, should be the sixth book of the Torah. But tellingly, we don’t read it in full in the synagogue. We are much more riveted by the unfinished business of Moses than the glorious continuation. The unfinished story at the end of the Torah is a continual reminder that even our greatest leader couldn’t complete the work, and neither can we.
In a sense Moses represents the idealist in each of us. He wants to be in the promised land, but also with an exemplary society, a holy nation following the Torah. With pain and protest, he learns to be satisfied with a vision of his dream and with knowing that he has nurtured a successor and generation(s) to come. Many of us here are also idealists and we want to see our hopes for society come to fruition, whether it’s true equality for women, healing the environment or a fully just society. We want to see it all in our lifetimes, but like Moses, we eventually realize that the journey to our ideals may be the destination.
Moses eventually focused on building up his successor, and preparing a new generation to go on without him. Because he let go, he lives on. Some 3400 years later, we still call him, “Moses our teacher.”
Our tradition of unfinished business doesn’t stop with Moses. Fast forward a few centuries, and we have the indelible story of King David, who also had a great project he never got to fulfill. King David ascended to the throne, vanquished Israel’s enemies, and made Jerusalem his capital. But his greatest dream was left to the next generation. He doesn’t get to build the Holy Temple because he has been warlike and shed innocent blood. (Chronicles 1 22). His son, Solomon whose name means peace, Melech Shlomo, can build the Temple, a place of peace. King David wanted to build a “house” for God, but he learned, somewhat ironically, that God would be the One to build the “house” for him, meaning, not a fancy building, but people – his family and dynasty (Samuel II 7:11).
Like King David, some in our midst have been achievers in our careers. We didn’t conquer nations, but we may be—or have been—heroes and VIP’s. While gaining satisfaction from our work, many high achievers eventually come to find that other things are more valuable in the long run. It reminds me of a saying by actor Jim Carrey: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of…so they can see that it’s not the answer.” While King David thought this his crowning achievement would be building an edifice in the capital he had founded, instead he learned that his descendants would be the greatest legacy to survive him. And some 3000 years later, we still sing, David Melech Yisrael, chai ve-kayam, “David, King of Israel lives on.”
The third example in classic Jewish texts of the unfinished comes from the time of the early rabbis, a thousand years after King David It is the story of Honi Ha-Me’agel. Honi was a kind of Jewish Johnny Appleseed – he went around the Holy Land planting carob trees.[i] One day someone asked Honi how long it would take for the tree to grow tall and bear fruit. He replied, “Seventy years!” The next question was, “Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?” Honi answered, “I found carob trees in the world; as my ancestors planted these for me so I too plant these for my children.”
Now our Jewish Jonny Appleseed (or carob-seed) turned into Rip Van Winkle. An afternoon nap turns into 70 years, and when awakens, the tree is fully grown and bearing fruit. Honi realizes what’s going on and journeys to his village which is now so changed as to be almost unrecognizable. He enters the House of Study and tries to convince people who he is, but no one believes him or honors him. This hurts Honi so much that he prays for death. The Sage Raba notes, “Hence the saying: Either companionship or death.” (oh chevruta oh mituta). It was better to plant for an unseen future than to actually visit there. If Moses was the idealist, and King David the achiever, Honi was what philosophers call an effective altruist, doing things for the good of people he never expected to meet.
The story of Honi has been rediscovered in an age of environment concern, along with the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees. We are like Honi every time we plant a seed, real or metaphorical, for something in the future without needing to know what that future will be like or who will be the ultimate beneficiary of our work.
When I meditate, I’m told to “be here now.” But being happy in the here and now actually depends on knowing that there is something bigger than us that outlasts us. According to philosophy professor Samuel Scheffler, author of Why Worry About Future Generations?, knowing that we aren’t the completion, that life continues after us, is critical to our happiness and feelings of value and meaning in the present. He suggests various scenarios: if we knew that we would live a great life, but the human race wouldn’t last much longer, through violent or even peaceful means, we would become depressed and lose much of our meaning in life.
According to Prof. Scheffler, because we take this belief in the future for granted, “we don’t think much about its significance. Yet …this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments, and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths — even that of complete strangers — matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.” And that’s why knowing that we are part of efforts that may take generations, from scientific discovery to social justice, give life greater meaning, not less.
This is something secular society seems to be discovering as our future is threatened by climate change. But as Jews, we have always been blessed with a consciousness of the links between generations, what we owe the past and what we want to convey to the future: the chain of tradition, the legacy of values and ideas, the Masoret, literally that which is passed on from one generation to the next.
We aren’t Moses or King David or even Honi Ha Me’agel. But like Moses, we can devote our whole lives to our ideals, while knowing that we will end up passing the work of a better society to the next generation. Reflecting on King David, we can realize that no matter how impressive our career achievements, our greatest satisfaction may the relationships that will live on after us. And like Honi Ha-Me’agel, knowing that we are doing the best to provide a healthy and beautiful environment for future generations can allow us to truly enjoy the blessings of life, right in the here and now.
[i] The Talmud’s original Aramaic is ambivalent if he was doing the planting or learning from someone else doing so. (Bavli Taanit 23a)
Here’s a talk that I gave recently at my synagogue about Awe. Awe in nature is one of the touchstones of Wellsprings of Wisdom, so I’m sharing it here:
Sunrise at Cape Henlopen State Park, photo by Julie Danan
I’m not really a morning person…but I get up before sunrise as much as I can to go see sunrise at the beach…because of the Awe. A recent Torah portion tells us that God wants us to feel Awe. Awe of the force of life of YHWH and I would say we can get that from Awe of creation, of life, of the mystery.
And now, O Israel, what [Mah] does Adonai your God ask of you?
But only: to be in awe of Eternal,
To walk in all God’s paths,
To love God and to serve Adonai Your God with all your heart and soul,
Keeping God’s mitzvot and laws, which I command upon you today, for your good.
This Torah portion commands us to have awe of God. Yir’ah, Awe, is sometimes translated as fear. According to my teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, it differs from the word for fear, “pahad” (po-had=here is something sharp), which is just be scared because one is a “pah–had,” a separate, lonely entity. Yir’ahיראה comes from the root, “to see,” and signifies a sense of seeing beyond our everyday blinders and of feeling ourselves seen by the Divine.
We are living in a world of fear-mongering. Our news, our social media, stir us up to a continual state of anxiety. But instead the Torah urges awe. Awe, Yir’ah, is the antidote to fear, Pachad.
In Man is Not Alone, 1951 (p. 31) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder [at the root of all true religion] almost necessarily declines. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.
“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
If that sentiment was true in 1951, it is all the true decades later, when we are inundated by information, but sometimes much too rushed for awe and appreciation. The Washington Post did a famous experiment a few years back, and commissioned famous violinist Joshua Bell to play on a magnificent Stradivarius violin in a DC Washington Metro station. He played six classical pieces for 43 minutes as over a thousand people passed by. Only seven people stopped to listen, while another 27 gave money as they ran buy. Almost every child stopped, and every single time, their parents rushed them along.
Photo by JHD: Sunset Clouds at Cape Henlopen Fishing Pier, Lewes)
Psychologists tell us that Awe is good for us. According to an article by Summer Allen for “Greater Good Magazine,” research suggests that Awe can do at least 8 things for us:
1.Awe may improve your mood and make you more satisfied with your life
2. Awe may be good for your health
3. Awe may help you think more critically
4. Awe may decrease materialism
5. Awe makes you feel smaller and more humble
6. Awe can make you feel like you have more time
7. Awe can make you more generous and cooperative
8. Awe can make you feel more connected to other people and humanity
Note in our Torah reading above…feeling awe leads to walking in Godly ways…
It sounds great—how can we get more Awe? Can we seek it – as RebZalman would day, can we “hothouse peak experiences.”
Consider or discuss with someone: How do you find Awe?
Rashi read this Torah portion in an interesting way. When Moses asked, “what ‘mah” does G-d require of us?” Rashi creatively reread Mah as : “ Meah” a hundred.
Rabbi Meir in the Talmud (Menahot 43b) we are required to say 100 blessings or berachota day Menahot 43b. By saying many blessings in prayer and for each food, sight, or scent we experience in the course of a day, we can arrive at 100.
But we can also just stop and say a blessing in our own words. We can pause during our busy days to notice, to feel a moment of wonder and awe, and acknowledge it, perhaps by saying “Mahtovu!” (How Good it is!) or “Holy Wow!” (I first heard that from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat). Or Baruch Atah, “blessed are you” and make your own beracha, or just take a moment to be aware that “That’s awesome.” Our beloved member David Kobrin of blessed memory used to say, “1, 2, 3, -ah!”
Jews around the world are preparing to embark the Days of Awe, YamimNoraim. We often call it the High Holy Days but it’s really a time that we are supposed to experience Awe in community. How can we bring the things we all suggested into our communal experience? Clearly, awe won’t happen if it’s just the Rabbi and Cantor as copilots and the congregation buckles in and comes along for the ride. It requires active participation, before and during. This is a whole season to cultivate awe. If you are going to participate in the Jewish holidays, I suggest that you come with your eyes open for wonder as Rabbi Heschel would say. May the upcoming Days of Awe help us to open to the Awe that is available to use very day!
Note: I also shared this sermon on my Rabbi Blog for Seaside Jewish Community.
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!