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Here’s a talk that I gave recently at my synagogue about Awe. Awe in nature is one of the touchstones of Wellsprings of Wisdom, so I’m sharing it here:
I’m not really a morning person…but I get up before sunrise as much as I can to go see sunrise at the beach…because of the Awe. A recent Torah portion tells us that God wants us to feel Awe. Awe of the force of life of YHWH and I would say we can get that from Awe of creation, of life, of the mystery.
עַתָּה֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל מָ֚ה יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ שֹׁאֵ֖ל מֵעִמָּ֑ךְ כִּ֣י אִם־לְ֠יִרְאָה אֶת־יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ לָלֶ֤כֶת בְּכָל־דְּרָכָיו֙ וּלְאַהֲבָ֣ה אֹת֔וֹ וְלַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃
לִשְׁמֹ֞ר אֶת־מִצְוֺ֤ת יְהוָה֙ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לְט֖וֹב לָֽךְ׃
And now, O Israel, what [Mah] does Adonai your God ask of you?
But only: to be in awe of Eternal,
To walk in all God’s paths,
To love God and to serve Adonai Your God with all your heart and soul,
Keeping God’s mitzvot and laws, which I command upon you today, for your good.
This Torah portion commands us to have awe of God. Yir’ah, Awe, is sometimes translated as fear. According to my teacher Rabbi Marcia Prager, it differs from the word for fear, “pahad” (po-had=here is something sharp), which is just be scared because one is a “pah–had,” a separate, lonely entity. Yir’ah יראה comes from the root, “to see,” and signifies a sense of seeing beyond our everyday blinders and of feeling ourselves seen by the Divine.
We are living in a world of fear-mongering. Our news, our social media, stir us up to a continual state of anxiety. But instead the Torah urges awe. Awe, Yir’ah, is the antidote to fear, Pachad.
In Man is Not Alone, 1951 (p. 31) Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “As civilization advances, the sense of wonder [at the root of all true religion] almost necessarily declines. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation.
“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”
If that sentiment was true in 1951, it is all the true decades later, when we are inundated by information, but sometimes much too rushed for awe and appreciation. The Washington Post did a famous experiment a few years back, and commissioned famous violinist Joshua Bell to play on a magnificent Stradivarius violin in a DC Washington Metro station. He played six classical pieces for 43 minutes as over a thousand people passed by. Only seven people stopped to listen, while another 27 gave money as they ran buy. Almost every child stopped, and every single time, their parents rushed them along.
Psychologists tell us that Awe is good for us. According to an article by Summer Allen for “Greater Good Magazine,” research suggests that Awe can do at least 8 things for us:
1.Awe may improve your mood and make you more satisfied with your life
2. Awe may be good for your health
3. Awe may help you think more critically
4. Awe may decrease materialism
5. Awe makes you feel smaller and more humble
6. Awe can make you feel like you have more time
7. Awe can make you more generous and cooperative
8. Awe can make you feel more connected to other people and humanity
Note in our Torah reading above…feeling awe leads to walking in Godly ways…
It sounds great—how can we get more Awe? Can we seek it – as Reb Zalman would day, can we “hothouse peak experiences.”
Rashi read this Torah portion in an interesting way. When Moses asked, “what ‘mah” does G-d require of us?” Rashi creatively reread Mah as : “ Meah” a hundred.
Rabbi Meir in the Talmud (Menahot 43b) we are required to say 100 blessings or berachot a day Menahot 43b. By saying many blessings in prayer and for each food, sight, or scent we experience in the course of a day, we can arrive at 100.
There are traditional blessing formulas that we can learn, that are beautiful to say.
But we can also just stop and say a blessing in our own words. We can pause during our busy days to notice, to feel a moment of wonder and awe, and acknowledge it, perhaps by saying “Mah tovu!” (How Good it is!) or “Holy Wow!” (I first heard that from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat). Or Baruch Atah, “blessed are you” and make your own beracha, or just take a moment to be aware that “That’s awesome.” Our beloved member David Kobrin of blessed memory used to say, “1, 2, 3, -ah!”
Jews around the world are preparing to embark the Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim. We often call it the High Holy Days but it’s really a time that we are supposed to experience Awe in community. How can we bring the things we all suggested into our communal experience? Clearly, awe won’t happen if it’s just the Rabbi and Cantor as copilots and the congregation buckles in and comes along for the ride. It requires active participation, before and during. This is a whole season to cultivate awe. If you are going to participate in the Jewish holidays, I suggest that you come with your eyes open for wonder as Rabbi Heschel would say. May the upcoming Days of Awe help us to open to the Awe that is available to use very day!
Note: I also shared this sermon on my Rabbi Blog for Seaside Jewish Community.
Shalom! I hope you will enjoy a re-design of many pages on this website, to make it easier to explore the posts on each theme.
Wellsprings of Wisdom is a Virtual Retreat Center where you can explore and interact with Jewish symbols from nature. This site is organized around four Portals: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Each of those four Portals contains four Gateways, including symbolic themes like, “Gardens,” “Wilderness,” Flowing Water,” “The Moon.” And each of those Gateways contains an abundance of Pathways, individual posts that explore the theme. The posts include teachings from ancient sources as well as media, photography, personal reflections by me and others, Tikkun Olam (social action for making the world better) and a Sharing Circle in each Gateway for you to share your own experiences on that theme.
The Pathways (posts) in each Gateway were previously displayed in a carousel. I thought it was a little hard to find what you’re looking for, so I asked my web designer, Shaun Lieber, to redesign the pages so that you can see all the posts at a glance (they won’t all fit on one page, but you can follow an arrow at the bottom of the pages for more). That way, you can choose to follow the pages in the way they are offered, which takes you on a journey through Jewish tradition and into the personal and social aspects of the theme, and concludes with the Sharing Circle. OR feel free to browse through the posts and see what interests you most — follow your heart!
Here’s an example of a newly redesigned page, the Gateway of Gardens: https://wellspringsofwisdom.com/project/gardens/.
Let me know in the comments how you like the redesign.
When violent and hateful acts roil the world, many leaders share that the victims are in their “thoughts and prayers.” The phrase has become an empty slogan for many, seen as just an excuse for inaction, or a passive wish that God will solve problems that we don’t want to address. But the Jewish traditions that I know always link prayer to action. I’ve been reflecting and teaching on this topic in recent weeks.
Here are some things that I’ve learned about the link between prayer and action in Jewish tradition.
First, there are many customs and practices that link prayer with action. At a traditional weekday minyan, tzedakah is collected. The Shulchan Aruch (major Code of Jewish Law) states that one must give tzedakah before praying. My teacher, Reb Zalman, taught us to always give tzedakah when we prayed for people’s healing, with the idea of, “put your money where your mouth is.” I also learned that if we are praying for someone who is ill, we should visit them (and conversely, when visiting them we should prayer for them—even a wish of Refuah Shelemah, a speedy recovery, is a type of prayer).
During the Days of Awe (a.k.a. the High Holy Days), even children learn that we can’t pray to God for forgiveness with first making amends with the person we have wronged. And the High Holy Day liturgy calls us to Teshuvah (repentance), Tefilah (prayer), and Tzedakah (charity). Note how prayer is wedged between two kinds of action.
A second way that Judaism ties together prayer and action is that prayer can give us the strength to act. Prayer services are a time to connect with others, be sustained, celebrate or mourn, and then be restored to act.
In Judaism, prayer is linked to responsibility. The very word to pray, “li-hitpalel” means to examine oneself, to judge oneself. Brad Sugar of American Jewish World Service, writes, “A true ‘tefillah’—an act of reflective self-examination by one who seeks to emulate compassion and kindness—changes us. Beyond offering thoughts and prayers, the natural next step is to take action to make change in our lives and in the lives of others.’”
Finally, Jewish tradition teaches that sometimes action itself is the best prayer. One of the most famous quotations from the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian and social activist, who marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke of this when he said “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
I recently learned from from a Black colleague, the Rev. Marjorie Burns that, Rev. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and statesman, had used the same phrase in a different way. He said, “When I was a slave I tried praying for three years. I prayed that God would emancipate me, but it was not till I prayed with my legs that I was emancipated.” But we could also go all the way back to the Torah (Exodus 14:15) to find something similar: “The Eternal said to Moses: Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and have them go forward.” The Talmud (Sotah 37a) explains that this happened on the verge of the splitting of the Sea:
At that time, Moses was prolonging his prayer. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me? Moses said before Him: Master of the Universe, but what can I do? God said to him: “Speak to the children of Israel that they go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand” (Exodus 14:15–16).
There are some of the many ways Jewish tradition (and beyond) teaches that thoughts and prayers should lead to action. Let me know in the comments (If reading this on the “What’s New” Blog, click on the title to get to a page where you can comment) if and how prayer and action are linked for you.
Note: I also shared a version of this Devar Torah (Torah teaching, sermon) on my Rabbi Blog for Seaside Jewish Community.
I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, which was started to work for environmental change after 20 million people took to the streets in protest after a massive oil spill the year before. In 2009, the United Nations deemed it Mother Earth Day.
Each year Earth Day.org has a special theme for the day: “This year, earthday.org has selected the theme, ‘Invest In Our Planet’. It explains, ‘This is the moment to change it all — the business climate, the political climate, and how we take action on climate. Now is the time for the unstoppable courage to preserve and protect our health, our families, our livelihoods… together, we must ‘Invest In Our Planet’.” (Source: The Indian Express). Science, government, education, business, and many other sectors must come together to heal our ecosystems.
I believe that religion and spirituality can and must have a positive role in healing and caring for our precious planetary Garden of Eden in the cosmos. In Jewish mystical thought, nature itself is is a manifestation of the divine presence (Shekhinah). Whatever your personal belief system, consider how you can direct it to support the environment. Those of us who do nature photography can also play a role by inspiring a greater love, reverence, and understanding of the natural world.
Each of us has a part to play in caring for and healing our relationship to Mother Earth. The stakes are urgent, and the rewards are boundless for generations to come.
We’ve started a new series at my congregation, “Deep Dive into Prayer” (pretty appropriate for Seaside Jewish Community 🌊)
At certain services, we will focus in on one prayer or one section of the liturgy, and “dive deep” by exploring it’s history and meanings, while also experiencing it in new ways. The first one was on March 12, 2022, when I shared this teaching about the Shema, with an exercise at the end from my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. I wanted to share it with all of you at Wellsprings of Wisdom, too.
by Rabbi Dr. Julie Hilton Danan
Let’s take a deep dive into prayer and focus on one line, just 6 words, words that define us as a people and have even changed the course of history:
Sheme Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
Or let me call this, #essenceofjudaisminsixwords (essence of Judaism in six words).
Let me take you back: In the aftermath of World War II, Youth Aliyah workers from Israel circulated among the refugees in Europe’s displaced persons camp, looking for Jewish children who had lost everything. They met destitute young orphans who had no conscious memory of their early homes or prewar lives. How to know if they are Jewish? The workers say to them each child in turn: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad. When the children showed a moment of recogniction or said the words with them, they had found another Jewish child to bring home to the Land of Israel.”
Flash forward a few decades. As a rabbi, I visit at the bedsides of infirm and frail Jews who seem lost in their own worlds, not responding to anything I say. But when I sing the Shema, they brighten and sing along with me.
What is the power of this six word prayer that is among the first words taught to Jewish children, the prayer that Jews aspire to make our last words? The Shema encapsulates in one sentence the essence of the Jewish mission in the world. (Yes, the full Shema has three biblical paragraphs that go after it, but for now I will focus on six Hebrew words of the first line).
The odd thing about the Shema is that it’s a prayer that isn’t exactly a prayer. Consider: who is it addressing? Not God, but us, Israel: Listen Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. It is calling on us, more a declaration of belief than a plea or a praise.
The words of the Shema, straight from the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4), are first said by Moses to the people of Israel near the end of his life, as he gives them instructions on how to live as a people. If you look in a Torah scroll (and some Siddurim / Jewish prayer books), you will notice that they are written a special way: the ayin—the last letter in Shema, and the dalet, the last letter in Echad, are written extra big. One reason that has been given is so that we pronounce them correctly. But the more spiritual reason that has been given for this is that those two letters together spell out a Hebrew word, “’Ed,” meaning “witness.”
When we say the “Shema,” we are witnesses to our most profound truths as Jews. But what are we witnessing? A while back on social media there was a hashtag called “Six word stories.” #sixwordstories Just like it said, you shared six words to tell a story. The Shema is the Jewish version. In six words:
Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheynu Adonai Echad
we get an essence of Judaism.
Let’s unpack those six words, one by one:
Shema: Listen! Hearken! Understand!
Deep listening is the beginning of making peace and creating a better world. That’s a profound truth that I learned from my friends and mentors, Len and Libby Traubman. Len, of blessed memory, was a pediatric dentist in San Mateo California, and his wife Libby, may she merit long life, was in social work. But their real profession was being lamed-vavniks (those legendary humble righteous people who sustain the world).
Life changed for the Traubmans in 1969. I found out recently that the two things changed their life trajectory that year were the birth of their first child, and seeing an image of our earth from outer space, the very that my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman) called the most important religious icon of our age. Motivated by this radical new perspective, the Traubmans became global citizens. They devoted their lives to dialogue, from Cold War citizen diplomacy between Americans and Russians, to the Middle East, to Africa, and to their own California neighborhood. They started the first and longest lasting Palestinian-Jewish living room dialogue group, that inspired many others, including one that I started in San Antonio with a Palestinian Muslim Imam. The Traubmans constantly shared hopeful news of peace and made connections between people around the world, and it all started with one idea: LISTEN to others, HEAR their stories. By doing so you turn a stranger and potential enemy into a friend.
Len described it like this: “What is distinctive about dialogue as a way of communication is very different than ‘conversation’ which is shallow, conversational, and usually pretty safe. And ‘discussion’ which is like percussion–batting a ping-pong ball back and forth, waiting for what I want to say. And it is definitely not ‘debate’ which is I win, you lose; we learn nothing; and we become further apart. Dialogue has a really new quality of listening and listening to learn, not waiting for what I’m going to say next. And what it does is it dignifies both people. It dignifies the listener and it dignifies the person who is being listened to.”
How much we need this approach to dialogue right now! The word Shema and the Shema prayer call us to live our lives as deep listeners, bridging gaps and increasing understanding.
There is also a hint in the word “Shema,” to seeing. Reb Zalman adds that the big letter Ayin in the word “Shema” tells us to see as well as to hear. That’s because the word “ayin” means, “eye.” So the word Shema is telling us to open our ears to hear others, to listen to their stories, and to open our eyes wide to see others.
The second word: Yisrael / Israel.
That’s us. We are the children of Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. One Midrash holds that the real first time the Shema was recited was when Jacob/Israel’s sons said it to him on his deathbed: “Listen Israel—listen Dad—we are all faithful to the covenant and we all declare that God is one.” And then he answered “Thank G-d! Praise the one whose glory fills all time and space –Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed.” You probably recall that Jacob got his name changed to Israel when he wrestled with an angel. Rabbi Arthur Waskow famously translates Yisrael as “God-wrestler.”
Shema Yisrael: As Jacob-Israel’s heirs, we are bidden to see and hear, and then to struggle mightily on God’s behalf to make a better world.
Words three and four: Adonai Eloheynu,
are usually translated, “The Lord is Our God.” But really, the meaning is much deeper. Start with Adonai. We say Adonai (“our Lord”), but that’s really just a substitute word for the original four letter name of God from the Torah: Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, a name tradition says is too holy for us to pronounce. It’s not about a childish image of an old man in the sky. The four letter Divine name could mean: “I will be what I will be” – all tenses past-present-future – undefinable – the awesome ungraspable life force that fills and creates our world without ceasing. And at the same time, those four letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey are intimate. In ancient times, the vav was pronounced like a “W,” as it still is in Yemenite Hebrew. So it’s Yud – Hey – Wav – Hey.
Breathing in and out through your mouth, you can hear the sounds
(as you breathe in)
(as you breathe out)
They are the sounds of breathing, especially when we pronounce the Vav as a Wav, as it was in ancient times. Y-H-W-H. Rabbi Arthur Waskow calls the Four Letter Name of God, “the Breath of Life.”
And then, Eloheynu, Our God, “Our Elohim.”
In Biblical Hebrew, Elohim can mean both God and Judge. In mystical thought, Elohim can mean the immanent God, that experience of divinity we sense close to us, filling our world and all of nature, the Shechinah. Jewish mystics pointed out that in Gematria, Hebrew numerology, Elohim is equivalent to Ha-Teva, nature.
Word Five: We come back to Adonai: YHWH, the paradox of God, utterly transcendent and beyond us, yet as close as our breath, our life spirit…
and this time we affirm:
God is ONE: Echad! Which can mean there is only one God. It can also mean that God is totally unique. And it implies: God is a Unity and therefore we are all part of a great Unity. Ultimately all of us are one, all connected. “One, every single one, each one joined and united in the One.”
So Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad: Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One, can be understood more fully: Listen and see, you wrestlers for God! YHWH, the indefinable, transcendent, divine life force –that’s our God! This is our ultimate measure, the only thing that can we judge life by. And that same, un-namable God, that breath of all life—is ONE, is a unity, and therefore nothing is outside it and we are all part of a whole!”
Or to make it simpler, we can just say: Hashtag #essence of Judaism in six words.
So think now, if we would truly live our lives bearing witness to the meaning of the Shema, the essence of our faith, what would that mean every day:
To really listen, To really see,
To declare for all the world that the mystery of creation fills everything and all,
And that ultimately we are all one in the one!
How would that change how we deal with:
People who look different? Have different opinions? The needy, the poor, the immigrant? The person we walk by on the street? How would it change how we regard: Endangered species? Trees and bird and animals? Our whole world?
One thing that really opened the Shema for me was learning this simple but powerful Shema exercise from my teacher, Reb Zalman. In this exercise, you say that first line of the Shema five times, each time addressing it to someone else.
First: The traditional way, imagining as if you are hearing Moses say the Shema for the first time. He said God’s actual name of the YHWH, but since we no longer pronounce that aloud, you could say “Adonai,” or “Yah.” …
Now proclaim the Shema to yourself, to your own name, Hebrew or English. For example: “Shema Julie!: Or “Shema Yehudit Tovah!
Now offer the Shema to someone else, someone you want to hear this essential message, to one person or a group. Like: “Shema, my grandchildren,” or “Shema, leaders of the world…”
Think for a moment who needs the message. …
Now back to the traditional words, but this time as if it’s your last Shema, like you are pouring out your soul. We can think of all the Jews who said these words word with their last breath, and join with them.
Finally, once more, say the Shema, this time with all the intentions held together. . . .
Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto Le’olam Va’ed! “Through time and space, your glory shines, Majestic One.” (Reb Zalman’s Translation).
When you say it at home before bed, or you say it in Shul (synagogue) on Shabbat or shouted out at the end of Yom Kippur, remember these six words bear witness to the essence of our faith. May we merit not only to say them but to live by them: to listen and wrestle and affirm the unity behind all diversity.
May it be so! Amen.
Here is a beautiful video by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann to learn more:
Happy Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of Trees! (the 15th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, corresponding to January 17 this year)
Visit Wellsprings’ Gateway of Trees for 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 New page 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.
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
Many people like to have a different poem or reflection for each night of Hanukkah. I think that’s great, and I also like to just feel into the lights and what they awaken in my soul. My teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, emphasized the importance of contemplating and meditating on the lights of Hanukkah, whether you light candles or olive oil. 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.
(*Yes, Hanukkah is a holiday of light, but that doesn’t mean that dark = bad. Explore the Gateway of Darkness to learn about the strength and power of darkness as the partner of light. Here are some more thoughts on that and a rewritten Hanukkah song from my friend and colleague Rabbi David Seidenberg.)
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.”
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.
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!
PS Be assured that I’ll keep Wellsprings of Wisdom as my site for educational and spiritual content!
Inspired Images will be my photo store.
As I work to complete the Gateway of Holy Land, I’ve updated my pathway/post on Shemitah (Shmita), the Biblical Sabbatical year. It now appears both in the Gateway of Gardens and the Gateway of Holy Land.
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 post and 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.
–Rabbi David Seidenberg
Enjoy reading and watching the Gateway of Holy Land fill up with pathways (posts).
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.
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.)
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.
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!
Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan
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.
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.
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:
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!
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!
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.