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Happy Earth Day and Happy Passover!

Happy Earth Day! 🌎 This year Earth Day coincides with the Seventh Day of Passover, a holy day to commemorate the splitting of the Red (Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt.

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.

blue lake and distant hills with a frame of pine trees and wispy white clouds

South Lake Tahoe, Photo: Julie H. Danan


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.
Photo: Lake Tahoe in November, Julie Danan

The Shema: The Essence of Judaism in Six Words (A Deep Dive Into Prayer)

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.”[1]

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[2] 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

Y

H

(as you breathe in)

W

H

(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:

Adonai Echad!

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:

 

Footnotes:

[1] http://www.hebroots.org/hebrootsarchive/9710/971029_h.html

[2] Devarim Rabbah 2:35

Happy Birthday to Trees!

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 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.

New Beginnings in the New Year

 

beach with sunset glow of pink and blue and sliver of moon

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, JHD

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

The Lights of Hanukkah

Tree with broard branches and colorful leaves by a lake

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 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.”

A silver menorah with oil flames and dreidels on a silver colored tray

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.

AND

🕎

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.

My New Photography Site

 

Geese taking off over a lake with clouds reflected in the water

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!

Julie is holding her camera, which reflects the green leaves and trees around her. She's wearing a purple shirt

Selfie with Camera, 2020

 

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.

New Posts on Ancient Wisdom for Sustainability

 

Orange blossom in Israel, Julie Danan

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).

 

Peacemakers make the Holy Land Holy

 

View from the Haas promenade in Jerusalem shows stone steps and cypresses with the old city in the distance

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.

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.

Big Chico Creek