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.
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!