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This Rosh Hashanah, Return to Yourself: My Un-Sermon for 5782

 

A Good and Sweet New Year Photo: Julie H. Danan

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 Tashlich provides 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.)

Time to Blow the Shofar!

 

Shofar

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 shofar has been revised with a new video from Hazon, the premier Jewish environmental organization. Enjoy experiencing and learning about this ancient instrument.

Let Nature Guide You into a New Year: Online Gathering on August 30

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.

Register here:

https://tinyurl.com/WellspringsofWisdom

 

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

Join Wellsprings for an evening of Reflection, Ritual, and Renewal

 

Grackle in Magnolia tree, Julie Danan

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.

Register here:
https://thealignedcenter.com/events/after-covid-with-rabbi-julie-danan/

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!

Many blessings,

Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan

Happy Earth Day!

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. 

Geese Flying over Swan Lake, Julie H. Danan

Proud to Partner on The Shmita Project (a Sabbatical for the Earth)

Spring at New York Botanical Gardens, Julie Danan

At this time of year, many Jews are “counting the Omer,” literally counting the days and weeks each night for the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. In mystical tradition, this is a time to work on our personal qualities and refine our character. (Check out this online series with meditations, learning and activities for the Omer: Planting Our Souls: Meditations and Practices Through the Omer.)

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.

Passover Inspiration on Wellsprings of Wisdom

 

Passover Seder Plate, JHD

As Passover approaches, be sure to check out these Wellsprings Pathways (posts) that relate to themes of the season:

Splitting the Sea With Wind looks at the Biblical account of the Exodus and invites us to explore the nature of miracles.

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.

Enjoy a video of Passover in the Desert, a new-old way to celebrate Passover with an outing with Wilderness Torah, an organization devoted to discovering Jewish spirituality in the outdoors. And journey with Rabbi Barry Leff to explore Israel’s Negev Desert, Finding God in the Wilderness like our ancestors.

Speaking of the outdoors, here are a couple of pathways that focus on the spring itself:Kibbutz Flowers by Daphna Rosenberg

Passover celebrates freedom and the rebirth of spring. Experience a bit of springtime in Israel with this Gallery of the Mediterranean Sea in Israel in Spring by Daphna Rosenberg.

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!

 

 

Happy Purim!

 

Purim Moon and Birds, Julie Danan, 2021

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 Moon and enjoy Purim!

Tu Bishvat Seder and Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest

 

Tu Bishvat Table set by Fran Halimi

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.

Haftarah (prophetic reading) for MLK Day

 

Rev. Dr. Martlin Luther King, Jr, via Wikimedia

Midway down this page in the Gateway 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.

Big Chico Creek