For the first time in a quarter century, I’m not leading the fall holiday services and I’m not writing and delivering sermons to a congregation. My job was one of the many lost over the pandemic, as my congregation’s finances suffered. Now I’ve relocated to a new city and state, where I’m trying to get my bearings and reinvent my rabbinate
Each year at this time, I used to dream of being free from the pressures of the season. it’s a relief to be excused from the annual marathon of organizing, planning, leading, and teaching that kicks off every Jewish year, and to be able to enjoy holiday dinners with the family without rushing off to get to the synagogue. I know that it’s a particularly stressful holiday season for my colleagues because it’s the second one with dealing with the pandemic.
On the other hand, I have felt a sense of loss, of shedding the defining professional role and identity that has shaped my adult life. Over the past half dozen years when I served Pleasantville Community Synagogue in Westchester, New York, I came up with a theme for each holidays. Together with our incredibly gifted holiday Cantor Abbe Lyons, we would weave the teachings, music, readings, and even the “swag,” to bring that theme to life. I spent weeks contemplating and composing my sermons, although inevitably finishing some of them at the last minute.
While I won’t be giving sermons, I decided to write an “un-sermon” in the form of this post that you can read at your leisure. It’s more of a personal reflection on how the holiday feels to me this year and what kind of teshuvah (return) I really need right now. I wrote it for myself, but some of it might be helpful to you, too.
Really though, a good sermon– even an un-Sermon– is all in the delivery, so read it slowly and with appropriate dramatic pauses!
This Rosh Hashanah, Return to Yourself
by Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan
The Days of Awe seem to be happening year-round this year. Unetaneh tokef, the dramatic high holiday prayer that inspired Leonard Cohen to ask, “Who by fire?” might as well be the endless stream of dispiriting news emanating from our phones day after day: who by devastating wildfire, who by sudden floodwater, who by plague and who by violent injustice. We are continually notified of crises around the globe that we can’t change, while trying to support people in own own circles through the normal and extraordinary challenges of life and loss – or to navigate those losses and changes for ourselves.
As my friend and colleague Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan writes on her blog “On Sophia Street, it can feel hard get in the special High Holiday frame of mind. when every nearly day for the past year and a half has felt like a judgement day. She writes that we hardly need a ritual wake up call to the precariousness of life and its “deep existential questions” while in the midst of a pandemic, climate crisis, and political and social turmoil.
This year, the usual holiday protocol of tearing down the ego isn’t working for me, because I’m trying to emerge from pandemic depression, cheer myself, and rebuild myself. I had to put down my customary choice of deep and unsettling holiday reading since it just made me feel worse. In fact, with all of the losses and strains of the past couple of years, I identified with the story of a simple Jew in the Old Country, who found a time before the Jewish New Year to slip into an empty synagogue and offer his own unique prayer:
“Lord of the Universe, I know that I have sinned this year. I have sometimes been careless with observing the dietary laws. coveted my neighbor’s possessions, and gossiped about others.
“But, you God…You have done grievous things, too. You have separated loved ones with death, afflicted good people with disease, and send natural disasters to devastate communities.
“So, I’ll tell you what, God. If you forgive me my transgressions, I’ll forgive you yours. We will be even!”
As the man finished this audacious “devotion,” he realized that he was not alone in the synagogue. In fact, the great Hasidic luminary, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810), had come to offer his own private prayer and had overheard everything he said . . .
But let’s leave the story for moment, and come back to it later.
This Rosh Hashanah, I feel called to a more personal kind of teshuvah, a return to myself. Not the same self I was pre-pandemic, but to the inner sense of rightness, of centering, of connection to my source and soul and purpose. I need to take on the practices and outlook that help me return to my body, my senses, to prioritizing personal relationships and interactions, to acting locally when I feel overwhelmed by all the thinking-globally.
This kind of gentler, more nurturing teshuvah seems appropriate to the Shmitah, the biblical Sabbatical year upon which we are embarking. Shmitah, which comes every seventh year, is a time traditionally devoted to rest, release, and restoration for the land and for society, and many people are rediscovering what it can mean today.
In these Days of Awe, in this Shmita year, I resolve to find my awe in Nature. Psychological studies have shown that “consciously turning one’s attention outwards to something “bigger than oneself” during a 15-minute walk outdoors (at least once a week for eight weeks) cultivates a sense of awe—which tends to boost positive, prosocial emotions and reduce stress.” (The Surprising Power of Seeking a Daily Dose of Awe). I’m exploring the importance of such practices by leading more outdoor spiritual programs and in this new gateway on Wellsprings of Wisdom.
Rather than the classic High Holiday metaphors of God as Avinu, Malkenu, Father and King, this year I turn to the motherly, affirming, nurturing Shekhinah as the experience of God that I need right now – with some wise and accepting Grandmother energy, too.
This year, it doesn’t work for me to approach the holidays through a lens of severe self-judgement. Responsibility and reconciliation, yes, but excessive guilt and shame, no. To be honest, I tend to critique myself a lot and wonder if some of the holiday liturgy was written by my male rabbinic ancestors who had much tougher egos to crack. “I’m like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation,” (yes, that’s in the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy), isn’t the greatest affirmation for those of us struggling with self-esteem, but it might make for a Brene Brown moment of realizing that shame isn’t conducive to personal growth. For balance on Yom Kippur, one Orthodox rabbi, Avi Weiss, wrote a positive confession to remind ourselves of all the good that we did in the past year.
Bee on the milkweed Julie H. Danan
There are nurturing and life-affirming way to approach to the Days of Awe. In the synagogue, we read not only of our first patriarch’s attempt to sacrifice his son on the altar by divine command, but we also read of the tears and prayers of some of our loving and longing matriarchs. On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I was particularly touched by the story of Hagar, exiled with her son to the wilderness, whose lives are saved when God opens her eyes to the presence of a life-giving wellspring, that perennial symbol of the inner life-giving potential to be revealed within our own depths.
This year, I find nourishment in the “folk” elements of the holiday that were kind of a sideline during my career on the bimah. On Rosh Hashanah we lay the table with curvaceous offerings of round challahs, ripe apples, soft dates, sweet honey, and symbols of fertility and abundance like fish, pomegranates, figs, and tzimmes stews. Surely my ancestral matriarchs had a lot to do with the choice of menu. After long hours at synagogue, we must get outdoors, and the people’s custom of Tashlichprovides some communal forest bathing to a flowing stream (or sea, depending on your locale). By a sparkling brook or lake, we can symbolically cast off our sins and regrets as crumbs (or more eco-friendly alternatives) into the water, as if repentance was as easy as Mommy washing the dirt off our faces.
This year, more than ever, my holidays are about returning to relationships: gathering with friends and loved ones, sending greetings, remembering the departed, giving donations for the needy. This kind of return is especially powerful since many of us have been physically separated by the pandemic for a long time.
This year, when I speak of the Book of Life, I don’t imagine some great scroll up in the sky where God recalls our deeds and fates. Instead, I consider how I tell my own story to myself, and I think of the memoir that I’m writing and my mother’s memoir that my family is publishing, and how affirming it is to retell our own stories in ways that make us realize how we have grown from all our experiences.
This High Hoildays, I’m letting God mother me. I’m making my devotions more gentle and meditative, spending more time outside, feeling the melodies of prayer wash over me and touch my soul.
How about you? Is this a kind of return-to-self teshuvah that would help you, and how would you put it into action, day by day and season by season? Will Nature help you to experience Awe?
Back to the story of the Jew who prayed, I’ll recap:
A simple Jew in the Old Country found a time before the Jewish New Year to slip into an empty synagogue and offer his own unique prayer:
“Lord of the Universe, I know that I have sinned this year. I have sometimes been careless with observing the dietary laws. coveted my neighbor’s possessions, and gossiped about others.
“But, you God…You have done grievous things, too. You have separated loved ones with death, afflicted good people with disease, and send natural disasters to devastate communities.”
“So, I’ll tell you what, God. If you forgive me my transgressions, I’ll forgive you yours. We will be even!”
As the man finished this audacious “devotion,” the realized that he was not alone in the synagogue. In fact, the great Hasidic luminary, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810), had come to offer his own private prayers and had overheard everything he said.
The man was scared of being rebuked for his cosmic chutzpah (nerve) in addressing the Almighty like that. But to his surprise, the Rebbe just shook his head, sighed, and said,
“Why did you let God off the hook so easily? You could have demanded that He redeem the world!
I fear that sometimes I have approached the Days of Awe like that simple Jew, figuring that I’ll do my bit of teshuvah, acknowledging that the big stuff is up to God, blow the shofar and all is right with the world. That isn’t quite enough this year. For looking at the state of the world I have to ask, whom did God put here to do that work of redemption, if not me and you? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner shares a version of the same story and follows it by asking, “If you believe, as I do, that ‘it’s all God’ then how do we argue with what we’re made of? That. . .means we have to talk to ourselves.”
It means that I have to ask myself what I am doing each day in my own small way to heal, and mend, and make this world better.
This leads to one more meaning of teshuvah that is really resonating with me this year: “response.” We Jews are dreamers and fixers; we want to solve problems and make life on this planet better for everyone. Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) has become such a ubiquitous phrase for us, that we might think it’s all or nothing, and right now the problems can seem too enormous to even dream of fixing. It’s almost like “the world,” is something vast “out there,” when in reality the world is here in and with all of us, and our tradition teaches that each person is an entire world. The Days of Awe this year are reminding me that I always have the power to respond, whether by learning, dialoguing, donating, demonstrating, or maybe–and I think that this is more important than ever–just doing something small and personal and kind that makes a big difference to someone–some world entire–near me.
This year I’ll let God mother me. I’ll experience some different aspects of the holidays and make my teshuvah a return to myself, to nature, to relationships. And hopefully from this I will draw the strength to respond to what the world asks of me.
To paraphrase a teaching of my rebbe, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi of blessed memory: each day I pray and affirm to be a healthy cell of the planet, and to join hands with all those who work to make it better for all.
Le-Shanah Tovah Tikateyvu ve-Tehatemu –be written and sealed for good in the Book of Life!
Featured Image: Sunburst through the fog, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Julie H. Danan (If you are reading this under the “What’s New” Blog, the featured image is viewable when you click on the title and see this is a separate post.)
It’s Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and time to sound the ram’s horn to awaken our souls for the New Year ahead. This Wellsprings post on the shofarhas been revised with a new video from Hazon, the premier Jewish environmental organization. Enjoy experiencing and learning about this ancient instrument.
Lakeside sunburst at Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Julie Danan
As we begin the lunar month of Elul, directly preceding Rosh Hashanah, Wellsprings of Wisdom invites you to an online class in which we enter the mystical field of divinity that prepares us for the New Year. Together we will explore and discuss teachings on nature based spirituality from Torah, Kabbalah, Hasidism and world wisdom, while being inspired by meditative practices and beautiful photography. We will share ways to begin or deepen our own nature based spiritual practices.
Join us on Aug 30, 2021, 7:00PM (19:00) Eastern Time USA. If you can’t join in real time, the program will also be recorded.
This program is free of charge. After the class, a donation of your choice will be appreciated to help continue our work.
How to prepare: If possible, take a walk outdoors sometime prior to this class and bring a small found object that has meaning to you.
Note: A couple of years ago, I led my first online Wellsprings class as a pilot program, with this same title. This new class will reflect much that I have learned about teaching online since then! – JHD
You are invited to join me ONLINE, Thursday, June 17, 7-9pm ET, through The Aligned Center, a unique holistic organization on the banks of the Hudson River in Westchester New York, for an evening of reflection, ritual, and renewal as we navigate our gradual reentry from the pandemic. (The ad copy says “after” the pandemic–not quite after yet!–but definitely changing.) A contribution of your choice from $18 and up is requested, and after registering for the event you will get instructions on what to bring when you log on.
Life is changing rapidly for those of us in the United States, as more and more people get vaccinated against COVID-19. That is such a blessing, and yet it’s a time of anxiety for some. I think that underneath the anxiety is a need for deep reflection and finding meaning in what we have experienced around the pandemic and many other tumultuous events. It is time to grieve the losses, but also to recall the gifts, so that we can learn from and integrate our experiences as individuals and as a society.
I hope that you can join me and also spread the word!
Happy Earth Day! 🌎
I truly believe that our planet is our original temple, our real garden of Eden gifted from the Divine. Look at the vastness of the cosmos and marvel at our tiny spectacular oasis that sustains an abundance of diverse life. The ancient Midrash (Jewish lore) tells that God showed Adam the earth, and said basically:: behold this beautiful world that I created for you. Don’t mess it up because you’re not getting another one! (Read about it here.) I think it has taken to our own day to really understand the powerful message of that ancient legend.
Through this website–and my writing, teaching, and nature photography–I strive to share the sacred beauty and preciousness of nature with you and inspire all of us to be guardians and stewards of our sacred planetary home.
Sevens are important in Jewish lore. We have the seventh day of the week: Shabbat, the day of rest, holiness, and joy. We have the aforementioned seven week Omer time for personal growth each spring. (You might even like to use a Wellsprings of Wisdom path to review your life’s journey in seven year increments.)
And then every seven years we have another special event: the Shmita, a Sabbatical year of rest for the land and restoration for people. In ancient times, and to some degree in modern Israel, the land was allowed to rest and replenish, and in addition debts were forgiven. But over the centuries, the spirit of this revolutionary idea has faded somewhat.
The next Shmita year starts this Rosh Hashanah, fall of 2021! Jewish environmental and social activists are rediscovering and renewing the potential of this ancient observance. Wellsprings of Wisdom is proud to be a partner of the Shmita Project. Take a look at their site: https://shmitaproject.org/to learn about the potential of this ancient way of honoring the earth and restoring society, and while you are there, look into the Shmita prizes, that will be awarded for creative endeavors on the theme of the Shmita.
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!
Today is Purim, the full moon of the Hebrew month of Adar, and the Feast of Esther. Happy Purim to all who celebrate…and you might want to enrich your celebration even more by learning about the Moon in Jewish tradition. In Jewish legends, the Moon is a symbol of the divine feminine, much like Queen Esther. The very name Esther is from a Hebrew root meaning “hidden,” and the moon, too is hidden from our gaze once a month but returns to its full light, giving us a regular reminder of restoration and renewal. Enjoy the gateway of the Moonand enjoy Purim!
This week marks Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees. The Gateway of Trees on this site is a perfect place to learn about Trees in Jewish lore and in our lives. The Tu Bishvat Seder is a mystical custom to honor trees and the earth. I will be leading a Tu Bishvat and Shabbat Seder online on Friday, January 29, 7:30pm ET. Please contact me (you can use the contact form ) for details of what to prepare and how to log on.
Also this week, in honor of Tu Bishvat, Hazon, the premier Jewish environmental organization, is holding the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest. There are many free online programs for everyone! I hope you will find something there to enjoy and to learn from.
Midway down this pagein theGateway of Mountains, you can find a recording of speech selections by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., set to traditional Haftarah (prophetic reading) trope (melody) by Hazzan Jack Kessler. Thank you, Cantor Jack, for sharing this inspiring way of sharing Dr. King’s messages.
On this day of national reflection and service, I’m considering how the last year has shown the courage and caring of so many people, even as it has thrown the inequality and painful racist legacies of our history into sharp relief. In the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel, an ally of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Let us each find our way to contribute to justice, equality, and healing in our nation not only on this day, but at this crucial juncture in our history.
Shalom, Friends! A colleague was asking for Jewish sources and practices on forgiveness, and I remembered this sermon that I gave some years ago. It includes a guided meditation on forgiveness. I hope it will be helpful to someone. I’m sure that I can use this myself.
[I love to start with a joke.]
One day at the gym, Nate asked Dave, “Say, do you know Sol Roth?”
“Do I know Sol Roth? Of course I know him! He cheats at business, he’s a lousy husband and a terrible father. An all around bum.”
“Wow…how do you know all that about him?”
“Hey, Sol–he’s my best friend!”
Sometimes the people with whom we are closest are the most difficult ones to forgive. In a small and tight-knit community, we can feel almost like family. Unfortunately, part of being in a family can include all sorts of feuds, resentments, and old grudges. Yom Kippur is the one day of the year when it should be a bit easier to examine these issues.
Yom Kippur is a time when we speak easily of forgiveness. But forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness is an enormous concept. Tonight I’m not speaking of existential questions like, “Can the Jews forgive their persecutors?” Neither am I speaking tonight of heroic forgiveness, of a Judea Pearl or a Yitzhak Frankenthaler, who responded to their respective sons’ brutal murders at the hands of terrorists to work for peace and reconciliation. I’m not even focusing on really tough issues like forgiveness toward a person who has been abusive. These are all special and complicated cases about which Jewish law and tradition has a lot to offer. But in our short time tonight, I’m speaking tonight of something much more prosaic, down to earth, and ordinary: forgiveness in our daily lives, families and community.
A rabbi takes two women into her study the week before Yom Kippur, and says, “The two of you have been feuding for too long. Now before Yom Kippur comes, it’s time for each of you to apologize to the other.”
The women are embarrassed for the way they’ve been acting, and they apologize and hug. After Yom Kippur, one of them comes to the other, and says, “You know, after our talk in the Rabbi’s study, I just want to say…Whatever you were praying for me today, I was praying for you, too.”
The other one turns to her and says, “Starting up already?”
Let’s Get Real
It’s hard for rabbis to do things like this in real life. Instead, we give the obligatory devar torah about teshuvah and forgiveness, and everyone acknowledges that it’s a fine sermon, but no one thinks it applies to them. It only applies to the other person.
After all, we have heard many times that Judaism demands responsibility, that real forgiveness can only come when the offender regrets what he or she has done, asks forgiveness sincerely and resolves to be different in the future. That’s teshuvah; that’s repentance. And how many times has someone come up to you and offered to do teshuvah? It seems that we are off the hook as far as seeking or granting forgiveness.
And yet…the Torah in Leviticus 19 has those difficult commandments: “Do not hate your brother or sister human being in your heart…hocheach tochiah have the courage to tell them directly when they’re being hurtful so that you won’t be partly responsible for their continued mistakes…do not take revenge and do not bear a grudge among your people. Love your companion as yourself.” One of my mother’s mottos is a saying of Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The Torah tells us to love our companion as ourselves. That must mean that we can.”* So we’re not off the hook. Ninety percent of the time, another person won’t come to us asking forgiveness, trying to do sincere teshuvah. Often we are in mutual conflict in which each of us feels justified in our side of the issue (of course I’m only 2 percent to blame and the other person is 98 percent J), and the burden is on us-to hold the grudge in violation of the Torah, or to forgive and lighten our hearts.
So I will try not to give another generic sermon about forgiveness. I’ll try to be real and practical. As they say, the job of a rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But it is really a hard to give such a sermon, because a lot of people may think it’s about them. And in fact, it is about most of us…it’s about you and me; it’s about being human and being in community.
We are engaged in the sacred task of creating an intentional community in which everyone is loyal and respectful to everyone else. But if you’ve been in a community for a while, there are some people who are your good friends, and others who rub you the wrong way. There is probably at least one person whose personality irritates you, or at least one person who has offended you or hurt your feelings (maybe even years ago). There may be someone you disagreed with on a congregational decision, or someone who was on the other side of an issue in the larger community or embroiled in a controversy at work. [And if there isn’t anyone like that…you’re probably new!J] If there is someone you can’t bear to speak to, volunteer, study, or socialize with …then the offense may well be theirs, but the corrosive pain of bearing a grudge is yours.
Then there is forgiveness in the family. While a rabbi can find lack of forgiveness in the community very frustrating, she can find lack of forgiveness in families tragic. People become estranged for decades, even lifetimes, until it’s too late, until death. Sometimes the falling out is based on true offenses but often it is the result of old rivalries and personality conflicts.
The inability to forgive can weaken communities and devastate families. But there are also completely selfish reasons to learn to forgive. There have been various studies that show that forgiveness is good for us. I disclaim giving medical advice, but forgiveness is said to reduce stress, be better for our heart and cardiovascular system, help with pain management, lead to better relationships, enhance psychological well being and create more happiness. We know that forgiving is good for us, but we don’t always know how to go about it.
How can we learn to forgive?
I found it very instructive to read an essay by Rabbi David Blumenthal, in which he describes three levels of forgiveness: mehilah (letting go), selichah (forgiving), and kaparah (atoning). Mechilah is the most superficial level. It is letting go, forgiving an emotional debt that the other person owes us.
“The second kind of forgiveness is … selicháh. It is an act of the heart. It is achieving an empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selichah…is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy.” “The third kind of forgiveness is ‘atonement’ (kappará)…This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness.
It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but [according to Blumenthal] it is only granted by God.”
To personalize these, I can say that I have granted mechilah many times. I’ve let go; I’ve moved on. Often, I haven’t waited for the other person to do teshuvah. I just needed to let go for my own peace of mind. And there have been rarer cases in which I’ve experienced true selichah-I’ve really healed my feelings about the person and forgiven them, because I realize that it was their own emotional distress or perhaps even an emotional illness that caused the person to offend. And the rarest of all have been that times that I have experienced kapparah. Yes, true kaparah, true atonement, can only be granted by God. But sometimes our outlook can be godly, when we get to the level where we realize that we are “at one,” that we are not really separate, that we are all part of the same story, and even perhaps that things happened for a reason. Then we are open to experiencing true reconciliation, like Joseph and his brothers. Those times are the rarest and most precious of all.
A Guided Meditation on Forgiveness
Let me suggest a forgiveness exercise from an old friend of mine in Texas, Glenda Rosenberg:
Picture yourself in very safe and loving setting, in your favorite place. It is a very happy occasion. Near you, surrounding you, are those you love the most, your most intimate family or friends.
Now picture the circle getting wider. Welcome in more extended family, or more casual friends. All of them are here to celebrate you, to rejoice in your happiest occasion. Your heart is so full that you welcome everyone today. You are safe, loved, and secure.
Now imagine welcoming in people to the party about whom you feel neutral, people you don’t know as well but have no reason to dislike.
When you are totally comfortable in this most wonderful scene, with all of your loved ones there, can you welcome in just one additional person to your mental celebration, one person with whom you feel an old grudge, like an old pebble that you need to take out of your shoe? Yes, they have offended you. But can you see one good thing they ever did for you? Can you think of one “nekudat hatov,” one good point about that person, one godly spark? Can you welcome them into the circle?
Try to take that energy and get at least to the stage of mechilah, or letting go. If you can work hard within yourself this Yom Kippur and get to forgiveness level one, to mechilah, and give that person a sincere “Shanah Tovah” at the break-the-fast, you have done good spiritual work. Then you can keep going from there, maybe even to selichah.
My great-Uncle Jay was always sending me inspirational stories that I put into sermons, and this one in particular stuck with me: There were once two old friends. When one struck the other, the offended friend wrote the deed in sand. But when the offender later saved the second man’s life, the rescued friend carved an account of the deed in stone. The moral of the story was that we don’t have to just forget and forgive. We can go ahead and take note of other’s mistakes, but do it in the sand, so that the winds of time can quickly erase those recollections. But let us inscribe people’s good deeds and good qualities in stone, so that we recall them and keep them in mind.
I want to bless everyone in the most practical way possible to find one person whom you can forgive over this Yom Kippur.** At least try to get to the level of mechilah, of letting go of that burden you have tucked away in your heart. From there you can work on the higher levels of forgiveness with understanding, and of true reconciliation.
May we find at least one good point in everyone we know, write people’s failings in sand, and engrave their merits in stone. If we can do that, we will have happier and perhaps healthier lives, more loving families, and a stronger community.
* My mother passed away the next year, and that saying is on her headstone.
**Which is when I gave this sermon some years back. But we can forgive any day!
Acknowledgement: Thank you to Rabbi Liza Stern for the phrase, “creating an intentional community in which everyone is loyal and respectful to everyone else.”
Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world,” has become one of the most popular concepts in modern Jewish thought. (On this website, one of the main subject tags is Tikkun Olam / Social Action.) A couple of years ago, my late friend Rabbi Dr. Sarah Tauber suggested that we teach on this subject at our annual OHALAH rabbinic conference, by delving into the earliest uses of the term in the Mishnah, almost two millennia ago. Although she was unable to join me at the conference due to family circumstances, Rabbi Tauber’s initiative got me interested in the subject. I knew that there was much more to it than social action, and I continued to learn and teach on Tikkun Olam in a variety of places, from the Chautauqua Institution to my latest mini-course on Zoom. May this teaching be a tribute to my late friend and colleague, who would have continued to add so much to our learning. For the convenience of my students and anyone interested in the subject, I’ve collected a variety of resources that are linked below, so that you can learn and explore this subject on your own (or invite me to teach to your group!)
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, JHD
A Bird’s Eye View of Tikkun Olam Through the Centuries
Rabbinic (Early Centuries of the Common Era) Tikkun Ha-Olam, repair of the world, is found in classic Rabbinic Texts: Mishnah, Tosefta, and Talmud to describe rabbinic rulings made to “regulate society,” “to adjust the system,” “for the public welfare,” or “for the good order of the world” (Prof. Jacob Neusner). In practice, these enactments protect the vulnerable while also safeguarding social stability and equilibrium. Those carrying out the repairs are the rabbis themselves, fixing and changing their own system for the common good.
Liturgical (possibly Third Century onward, Babylonia) The Aleynu prayer contains the phrase: לתקן עולם במלכות שדי Letaken olam be-malchut Shaddai (“to repair the world in divine sovereignty”) as an expression of a Messianic vision of a future world rid of idol worship. Here the job of humans was to be patient, acknowledge God’s sovereignty and rely on God to manifest it in the world.
Lurianic Kabbalah (16th Century, Land of Israel): The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, and his disciple Haim Vital, taught that a cosmic rupture during the creation process resulted in shards of divine light scattered in the world. These hidden sparks can be lifted up and repaired through human intention and exercises of prayer and meditation (yihudim, “unifications”), restoring a wholly spiritual creation. “The tikkun of which Lurianic Kabbalah speaks is not that of this world, but of ‘worlds’ beyond it.” (Prof. Lawrence Fine). Some human beings with the right esoteric knowledge and correct spiritual intentions can become partners in this divine project.
Hassidic (18th Century to present): Like much of its approach to the Kabbalah, the Hassidic movement offered a personalization of the concept of Tikkun Olam, with an emphasis on making individual rectification in people’s lives/families/communities and thus hastening the arrival of the Messianic era on earth. The mystical became more psychological, if you will. The ordinary Jew, with the help of their Rebbe (spiritual leader) can begin to do their own tikkun for their own life.
Contemporary Popularization: In the past century, especially in recent decades, Tikkun Olam has morphed into a popular term including social activism, social justice, and even general good deeds. Based on the thought of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, who drew on rabbinic and liturgical sources, Jewish educators begin to invoke Tikkun Olam as social activism, beginning in the 1940’s. The concept is also part of early Zionist thought and important to the theology of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi in the years prior to the founding of the State of Israel, who was influenced by Lurianic Kabbalah. Both Kaplan and Kook had in common “a rejection of Jewish passivity” (Prof. Jonathan Krasner). Reform Jewish leaders embraced the term during WWII, as a call to activism and hope. Shlomo Bardin, founder of Brandeis-Bardin Institute, LA area, 1950’s, was influential in teaching about the Aleynu in a new way, as a a prayer for social justice and repair of society. By the 1970’s, the term was adopted by diverse national Jewish organizations. Rabbi Arthur Waskow wrote an influential article about it in The Jewish Catalog (1973).
Important to the modern concept was the launch of Tikkun Magazine, founded in 1986 by Rabbi Michael Lerner and Nan Fink Gefen, “to heal, repair, and transform the world.” Today, the term is so well known that it has been used beyond the Jewish community. In this modern approach, anyone can become a partner in repairing the world through social action and good deeds.
As Hanukkah approaches, I will be teaching some online classes and invite you to join in!
Tikkun Olam Through the Ages
With Rabbi Julie Danan
A free mini-course (donations welcome). Hosted by Ruach HaMidbar, Arizona Sundays, Dec 6, 13 and 20 – starting at 5 p.m. EASTERN time (90 minutes each) The session on December 13 will focus on Tikkun Olam in Kabbalah and the connection to Hanukkah
To get the Zoom information, email: wellspringsofwisdom at gmail.
Rather than a perfect creation corrupted by humanity, Jewish tradition proposes that God created an imperfect world requiring human repair. “Tikkun Olam” (repairing the world) has become a popular term for social action, but its deep roots go back two millennia in Jewish thought. Over three sessions we will meet and dialogue over sources about Tikkun Olam in early Rabbinic literature, in Kabbalah, and in modern social activism. (The Dec. 13 class will take place on Hanukkah and include Kabbalistic traditions of Tikkun related to Hanukkah.) We will explore Jewish history and theology through the lens of world repair and consider the connection between our own spirituality and our commitment to social justice.
Entering the Darkness – The Night Before Hanukkah
With Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
Hosted by Havurah Synagogue, Ashland, Oregon
Join us on Wednesday, December 9 at 8:00 PM Eastern Time. Sliding scale contributions: $5-$18. All welcome. Go HERE to learn more.
Please bring a single candle or oil lamp
Music by Rabbi David Zaslow
The night AFTER this class starts the festival of light. To fully appreciate the light, first enter the darkness. We will explore the theme of darkness in Jewish tradition, then learn about a Midrashic and Kabbalistic tradition of a hidden light that may be hiding in plain sight and especially apparent at Hanukkah. Get ready to experience darkness, light, and to light up the night. Bring a single candle or oil lamp and something to light it with.
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!
Here is my sermon for the Eve of Rosh Hashanah this year, 5781 / 2020. I hope it might be of help or inspiration to some of my Wellsprings of Wisdom readers:
How Jewish Tradition Can Make Us More Resilient , by Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D.
There is a song of the Days of Awe that concludes: “Let the old year and its curses end; let the new year and its blessings begin!” Certainly this year, those words resonate for many.
As I have called and spoken with many of our members over recent months, I learned that some suffered and recovered from COVID, while others sadly lost loved ones. Others have stayed physically well but dealt with anxiety or depression. Some members have lost jobs or economic security. Others are worried about their kids, their young adult children or elders they can’t even visit in person. There is a sense of collective grief over all that has been and may be lost, as well as anxiety over the fissures in our society.
We know that there is no quick solution to the current crisis. Indeed, there is no way out but through, and we don’t even know how long that will take or what the long lasting effects of the pandemic will be. However, we do know that there is one thing we can work on to help see us emerge better in the long run, and that is the inner quality known as resilience.
Psychology and Resilience
Psychologists define resilience as the process of “adapting well in the face of adversity and trauma.” It is not just about survival; it’s about growth. To paraphrase my own rabbi, Reb Zalman, this is about turning the current emergency into an emergence of something greater in ourselves. Or in the words of Sheri Mandel, whose son was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel: “Resilience is about becoming, not overcoming.”
Resilience can help us to grow from every experience, even the difficult ones. Over the past year, I have participated in a memoir writing group, composed of baby boomers like myself. Members of the group have shared stories about sexism, divorce, PTSD, and national traumas like the Vietnam War or 9-11. What emerges again and again is that we have all grown from our difficulties and without our difficulties we would not be the people we are today.
You might not be writing a memoir, but Rosh Hashanah is about writing in the Book of Life. It is a time to remember the past and envision the future. On Rosh Hashanah, we can write a story of resilience, or growth emerging from adversity.
Jewish tradition can help us be resilient
When we think about it, Jewish history and Judaism are all about resilience on a national scale. As a people, we have been through many traumas: exile, persecution, and even genocide. But we have consistently emerged stronger, continuing to inspire the world as a “light to the nations.” It’s much more than the old joke that Jewish holidays are all about, “They tried to kill us; we won, so let’s eat.”
If you look back at Jewish history, every period of struggle was followed by a flowering of creative energy and new beginnings. The destruction of the second temple was followed by the flourishing of rabbinic Judaism. The expulsion from Spain led to the the dissemination of Kabbalah. Even the greatest tragedy of all, the Holocaust, was answered not by despair, but by rebirth with the new State of Israel and by a renaissance of Jewish culture and community in the diaspora.
What is it in Jewish tradition that makes us resilient? And how can that help us now? According to psychologist Dr. John Grych, the recipe for resilience has three primary components: self-regulation, interpersonal relationships, and meaning making. In general, people are most resilient when they can manage their own emotions and actions, find a web of social support, and make meaning from their difficult experiences. It is striking that all three of these elements are present in abundance in Judaism.
First, the Jewish way of life gets us to practice self-regulation. Judaism is a religion based on personal practice. In the Orthodox community, even young children learn impulse control when it comes to observing mitzvot like Shabbat and kashrut. But even if you don’t abide by all of those traditions, Judaism has many other ways of helping us manage our emotions and impulses. Our rituals unite body, emotions, mind, and spirit, helping us to integrate our whole selves. Our holidays evoke different emotional states: from the Awe of these High Holy days to the hilarity of Purim, and Shabbat gives us time to pause and reflect, even in the midst of chaos. Another Jewish practice is Mussar; the cultivation of inner qualities such as patience, humility, or gratitude. Once observed primarily in the Orthodox world, Mussar is now popular among Reform and liberal Jews as well, with many programs available online or in person. Together, Jewish practices help us to to manage our own emotions and build our own character.
Second there is social support. This may be Judaism’s strongest contributor to resilience. Judaism is truly a religion of community. We can only pray all of our prayers with a minyan, a quorum of ten. We gather in community for every lifecycle event. Social support is particularly strong when someone suffers a loss, and friends and family surround them with love, food, and prayer. Our traditions of tzedakah and deeds of kindness lend support to the vulnerable among us. Even on these Days of Awe, we say our confessions not in the singular, but in the plural, taking responsibility for the acts of the community. In these days of COVID, we are largely unable to gather in person. BUT at the same time, I’ve seen how we continue to support one another. I’ve watched our members checking on others, shopping for others, cooking for others, sewing PPE for others, and much more.
Finally, there is meaning making. Dr. Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who survived the Holocaust and created the school of Logotherapy, based on the idea that the human search for meaning is our prime motivator in life. Meaning making involves the ways that we frame and reframe our experience, often evoking our spirituality. And here again, Judaism is strong. Our sacred texts, our rituals, our holidays, even our arguments are centered around creating meaning, even or especially in difficult experiences.
Of course, the meaning making that emerges this pandemic will be different for each person. For some, it has been a time to clarify our values and realize the importance of family and community. Others have been energized to work for social justice. Each week as we gather for our Kabbalat Shabbat and Torah Study, I ask questions that get people to think and talk about how our ancient texts relate to the meaning that we need right now.
We are all going through a difficult time, though each is affected in different ways. It makes sense to lower our goals and be happy just to get through this time. But we can also keep in mind that we may actually come out stronger, that our society, while damaged, may also be able to build back better. Judaism can contribute to our resilience by helping us manage our emotions, find community, and make meaning. Over this holiday season and the year ahead, I invite you to avail yourself of what our community and our tradition have to offer in all these areas.
May we be blessed to emerge from this time stronger than before, knowing our values and working to support them.
Shalom, everyone! I haven’t posted since Passover. . . has anything happened?
Seriously, over the past few months, as we have all–the whole human world–been dealing with the many challenges of the COVID Pandemic, Wellsprings of Wisdom has been going through a full redesign and re-imagining. Thank you to our designer and web-mayven Shaughn Barholle. I hope that you enjoy the beautiful new lookof the site.
Each Gateway (i.e. themed page such as “Light” or “Trees”) now has a scroll-through catalog of posts at the bottom of the page. The posts still link to the next one if you want to go in the order that I planned for that theme. Or you can just pick and choose what interests you!
Swallowtail Butterfly, Julie Danan
I started Wellsprings of Wisdom as a virtual retreat center, an alternative to the noisy and sometimes negative content on the internet. Here you can explore the wisdom of nature and the nature of ancient Jewish wisdom. At first, I used a lot of photos from other people. Over the past few years I have taken up nature photography as a passionate hobby. I went from a cell phone camera to a simple fixed-lens camera, to my first mirrorless camera with three lenses, and most recently have gotten a 100-400mm lens for wildlife and bird photography. So more and more of the photography on the sight is now my own, including the home page (For other people’s photos, I always credit the sources in the posts and use with proper permissions). One of my goals is to create inspirational materials with my nature photography and to offer them through this site.
Also over the past few years, I have pretty much stayed quietly in the background of this site, as “your guide.” Going forward, that role will remain, but I will also be adding more of my own ideas and more about me as a rabbi and teacher. That’s because until now my primary job for three decades has been congregational leader (20 of those years as an ordained rabbi), and this was my personal creative, “fun” project on the side.
However, I found out this spring that, due to the recession and economic changes, my current pulpit in Westchester, New York, will continue only until Summer 2021. God willing, at that point I hope to embark on a new phase as an independent rabbi, writer, teacher, and photographer. So over this coming year, God willing, I hope to put in more about me and what i have to offer the world from my own Wellsprings of creativity: including teaching, life-cycle leading, writings, and inspirational materials made with my photos. Behind the scenes, I have also been working on self-publishing my late mother’s spiritual memoir and writing my own spiritual memoir (which of course, involves a lot about Nature).
So as we enter the New Year, I’m still busy as a congregational rabbi leading lots of services–albeit mostly on Zoom–but I will also be adding to this site. Contact me if you have ideas such as materials you would like from Wellsprings, or online courses you would like to see. I appreciate your support of Wellsprings of Wisdom over the Years, and hope to keep teaching and connecting, on line, and hopefully soon in person again.
Featured Image: Swan Lake with a crown of wildflowers, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Summer, 2020, Julie Danan
Visit the HOME PAGEto check out the new experience!
P.S. If you are reading this page in the “What’s New” Column and want to comment, click here(or click on the title) and it will take you to this individual post where you can do so.
I’m posting this a few days before Passover, in the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Let me take this moment
to send blessings of health and safety to each and every one of you! As a rabbi, I’ve been busy getting my synagogue online and supporting my community, but I wanted to share some resources with all my Wellsprings readers, too! Here
are some Wellsprings of Wisdom Posts that may be helpful right now:
Some calming guided meditations:
AND also a more involved but every effectve:
Calming Ocean Breath
And here is a recent post from my @Wellsprings account on Instagram,
describing two more breathing meditations that are proving very helpful to me: Simple and Spiritual Breathing Meditations
Finally, as you celebrate Passover, enjoy these Wellsprings of Wisdom posts with Inspiration from Nature for
As you can see, this entire site has a brand new look, thanks to talented web designer Sean Leber-Fennessy. (Still working on a few of the technicalities but really excited about it!)
I hope that this virtual retreat center will be an oasis of calm away from the news and social media, and God willing I hope to add to it for your benefit. Be well and may this Passover bring hope and redemption to our world!
Featured Image: Daffodil Hill at the New York Botanical Garden, Julie Danan
Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees, is always a happy time for tree-loving @wellsprings! Tu Bishvat this year begins Sunday evening, Februrary 9, into Monday, February 10, 2020. I’ve redone the post on Tu Bishvat and you can find it here, with lots of (mostly) free resources linked at the bottom of the post. And as always, you can learn more about trees–physical and spiritual–in the Gateway of Trees. I have recently added a mystical meditation on the Tree of Life energy centers in our bodies, and also updated the pathway post on the mitzvah of planting trees, to include a link to a great new initiative for Senegal.
In honor of Rosh Hodesh Shevat, the Hebrew month in which we will celebrate the “New Year of the Tree,” I have added a special meditation based on the way that I learned it from my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman), of blessed memory. The meditation takes us through the Sephirot, or divine energy centers, in the “tree of life” within our own bodies. An accompanying chart was generously shared by my colleague and friend, Rabbi David Zaslow.
Wellsprings of Wisdom’s last update was at the Jewish New Year. Now on January 1, 2020, I’ve added a new post to the growing Gateway of Holy Land. This Gateway is really taking shape and will soon be complete! It shows how my thinking and involvement in nature spirituality have evolved in the past couple of years. Take a look at the new post on the sacred art of sauntering in Nature, also known as Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing.