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Here is my sermon for the Eve of Rosh Hashanah this year, 5781 / 2020. I hope it might be of help or inspiration to some of my Wellsprings of Wisdom readers:
How Jewish Tradition Can Make Us More Resilient , by Rabbi Julie Hilton Danan, Ph.D.
There is a song of the Days of Awe that concludes: “Let the old year and its curses end; let the new year and its blessings begin!” Certainly this year, those words resonate for many.
As I have called and spoken with many of our members over recent months, I learned that some suffered and recovered from COVID, while others sadly lost loved ones. Others have stayed physically well but dealt with anxiety or depression. Some members have lost jobs or economic security. Others are worried about their kids, their young adult children or elders they can’t even visit in person. There is a sense of collective grief over all that has been and may be lost, as well as anxiety over the fissures in our society.
We know that there is no quick solution to the current crisis. Indeed, there is no way out but through, and we don’t even know how long that will take or what the long lasting effects of the pandemic will be. However, we do know that there is one thing we can work on to help see us emerge better in the long run, and that is the inner quality known as resilience.
Psychology and Resilience
Psychologists define resilience as the process of “adapting well in the face of adversity and trauma.” It is not just about survival; it’s about growth. To paraphrase my own rabbi, Reb Zalman, this is about turning the current emergency into an emergence of something greater in ourselves. Or in the words of Sheri Mandel, whose son was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel: “Resilience is about becoming, not overcoming.”
Resilience can help us to grow from every experience, even the difficult ones. Over the past year, I have participated in a memoir writing group, composed of baby boomers like myself. Members of the group have shared stories about sexism, divorce, PTSD, and national traumas like the Vietnam War or 9-11. What emerges again and again is that we have all grown from our difficulties and without our difficulties we would not be the people we are today.
You might not be writing a memoir, but Rosh Hashanah is about writing in the Book of Life. It is a time to remember the past and envision the future. On Rosh Hashanah, we can write a story of resilience, or growth emerging from adversity.
Jewish tradition can help us be resilient
When we think about it, Jewish history and Judaism are all about resilience on a national scale. As a people, we have been through many traumas: exile, persecution, and even genocide. But we have consistently emerged stronger, continuing to inspire the world as a “light to the nations.” It’s much more than the old joke that Jewish holidays are all about, “They tried to kill us; we won, so let’s eat.”
If you look back at Jewish history, every period of struggle was followed by a flowering of creative energy and new beginnings. The destruction of the second temple was followed by the flourishing of rabbinic Judaism. The expulsion from Spain led to the the dissemination of Kabbalah. Even the greatest tragedy of all, the Holocaust, was answered not by despair, but by rebirth with the new State of Israel and by a renaissance of Jewish culture and community in the diaspora.
What is it in Jewish tradition that makes us resilient? And how can that help us now? According to psychologist Dr. John Grych, the recipe for resilience has three primary components: self-regulation, interpersonal relationships, and meaning making. In general, people are most resilient when they can manage their own emotions and actions, find a web of social support, and make meaning from their difficult experiences. It is striking that all three of these elements are present in abundance in Judaism.
First, the Jewish way of life gets us to practice self-regulation. Judaism is a religion based on personal practice. In the Orthodox community, even young children learn impulse control when it comes to observing mitzvot like Shabbat and kashrut. But even if you don’t abide by all of those traditions, Judaism has many other ways of helping us manage our emotions and impulses. Our rituals unite body, emotions, mind, and spirit, helping us to integrate our whole selves. Our holidays evoke different emotional states: from the Awe of these High Holy days to the hilarity of Purim, and Shabbat gives us time to pause and reflect, even in the midst of chaos. Another Jewish practice is Mussar; the cultivation of inner qualities such as patience, humility, or gratitude. Once observed primarily in the Orthodox world, Mussar is now popular among Reform and liberal Jews as well, with many programs available online or in person. Together, Jewish practices help us to to manage our own emotions and build our own character.
Second there is social support. This may be Judaism’s strongest contributor to resilience. Judaism is truly a religion of community. We can only pray all of our prayers with a minyan, a quorum of ten. We gather in community for every lifecycle event. Social support is particularly strong when someone suffers a loss, and friends and family surround them with love, food, and prayer. Our traditions of tzedakah and deeds of kindness lend support to the vulnerable among us. Even on these Days of Awe, we say our confessions not in the singular, but in the plural, taking responsibility for the acts of the community. In these days of COVID, we are largely unable to gather in person. BUT at the same time, I’ve seen how we continue to support one another. I’ve watched our members checking on others, shopping for others, cooking for others, sewing PPE for others, and much more.
Finally, there is meaning making. Dr. Viktor Frankl was a psychologist who survived the Holocaust and created the school of Logotherapy, based on the idea that the human search for meaning is our prime motivator in life. Meaning making involves the ways that we frame and reframe our experience, often evoking our spirituality. And here again, Judaism is strong. Our sacred texts, our rituals, our holidays, even our arguments are centered around creating meaning, even or especially in difficult experiences.
Of course, the meaning making that emerges this pandemic will be different for each person. For some, it has been a time to clarify our values and realize the importance of family and community. Others have been energized to work for social justice. Each week as we gather for our Kabbalat Shabbat and Torah Study, I ask questions that get people to think and talk about how our ancient texts relate to the meaning that we need right now.
We are all going through a difficult time, though each is affected in different ways. It makes sense to lower our goals and be happy just to get through this time. But we can also keep in mind that we may actually come out stronger, that our society, while damaged, may also be able to build back better. Judaism can contribute to our resilience by helping us manage our emotions, find community, and make meaning. Over this holiday season and the year ahead, I invite you to avail yourself of what our community and our tradition have to offer in all these areas.
May we be blessed to emerge from this time stronger than before, knowing our values and working to support them.
This sermon was offered on (Zoom) Rosh Hashanah Eve Services for Pleasantville Community Synagogue, September 18, 2020 (Rpsh Hashanah 5781)
Image: Leaf with Heart for a “nature Tashlich” at Rockefeller State Park Preseve, Julie H. Danan
Shalom, everyone! I haven’t posted since Passover. . . has anything happened?
Seriously, over the past few months, as we have all–the whole human world–been dealing with the many challenges of the COVID Pandemic, Wellsprings of Wisdom has been going through a full redesign and re-imagining. Thank you to our designer and web-mayven Shaughn Barholle. I hope that you enjoy the beautiful new look of the site.
Each Gateway (i.e. themed page such as “Light” or “Trees”) now has a scroll-through catalog of posts at the bottom of the page. The posts still link to the next one if you want to go in the order that I planned for that theme. Or you can just pick and choose what interests you!
I started Wellsprings of Wisdom as a virtual retreat center, an alternative to the noisy and sometimes negative content on the internet. Here you can explore the wisdom of nature and the nature of ancient Jewish wisdom. At first, I used a lot of photos from other people. Over the past few years I have taken up nature photography as a passionate hobby. I went from a cell phone camera to a simple fixed-lens camera, to my first mirrorless camera with three lenses, and most recently have gotten a 100-400mm lens for wildlife and bird photography. So more and more of the photography on the sight is now my own, including the home page (For other people’s photos, I always credit the sources in the posts and use with proper permissions). One of my goals is to create inspirational materials with my nature photography and to offer them through this site.
I post daily nature photos–and some inspirational messages–as @Wellsprings on Instagram, and mirror much of that content on Wellsprings of Wisdom on Facebook. Your follows and friendship will be appreciated on either platform.
Also over the past few years, I have pretty much stayed quietly in the background of this site, as “your guide.” Going forward, that role will remain, but I will also be adding more of my own ideas and more about me as a rabbi and teacher. That’s because until now my primary job for three decades has been congregational leader (20 of those years as an ordained rabbi), and this was my personal creative, “fun” project on the side.
However, I found out this spring that, due to the recession and economic changes, my current pulpit in Westchester, New York, will continue only until Summer 2021. God willing, at that point I hope to embark on a new phase as an independent rabbi, writer, teacher, and photographer. So over this coming year, God willing, I hope to put in more about me and what i have to offer the world from my own Wellsprings of creativity: including teaching, life-cycle leading, writings, and inspirational materials made with my photos. Behind the scenes, I have also been working on self-publishing my late mother’s spiritual memoir and writing my own spiritual memoir (which of course, involves a lot about Nature).
So as we enter the New Year, I’m still busy as a congregational rabbi leading lots of services–albeit mostly on Zoom–but I will also be adding to this site. Contact me if you have ideas such as materials you would like from Wellsprings, or online courses you would like to see. I appreciate your support of Wellsprings of Wisdom over the Years, and hope to keep teaching and connecting, on line, and hopefully soon in person again.
Featured Image: Swan Lake with a crown of wildflowers, Rockefeller State Park Preserve, Summer, 2020, Julie Danan
Visit the HOME PAGE to check out the new experience!
P.S. If you are reading this page in the “What’s New” Column and want to comment, click here (or click on the title) and it will take you to this individual post where you can do so.
Finally, as you celebrate Passover, enjoy these Wellsprings of Wisdom posts with Inspiration from Nature for Passover. As you can see, this entire site has a brand new look, thanks to talented web designer Sean Leber-Fennessy. (Still working on a few of the technicalities but really excited about it!) I hope that this virtual retreat center will be an oasis of calm away from the news and social media, and God willing I hope to add to it for your benefit. Be well and may this Passover bring hope and redemption to our world! Featured Image: Daffodil Hill at the New York Botanical Garden, Julie DananView this post on Instagram
Postcard from summer! ???? If you feel stressed, try this: breathe in for a count of four, hold for seven, breathe out through your mouth for eight. Repeat until calmer. (Based on @drweil ) ????????If you are the more spiritual type, join with the Shechinah/divine presence, breathing in the suffering and sadness all ground us, holding it briefly in the divine eternal love/ahavat olam of your inner temple, then breathe out light, healing and wholeness/ Shalom to all, together with Ruach HaKodesh/the Holy Spirit. Repeat until your world feels calmer.
Tu Bishvat, the New Year of Trees, is always a happy time for tree-loving @wellsprings! Tu Bishvat this year begins Sunday evening, Februrary 9, into Monday, February 10, 2020. I’ve redone the post on Tu Bishvat and you can find it here, with lots of (mostly) free resources linked at the bottom of the post. And as always, you can learn more about trees–physical and spiritual–in the Gateway of Trees. I have recently added a mystical meditation on the Tree of Life energy centers in our bodies, and also updated the pathway post on the mitzvah of planting trees, to include a link to a great new initiative for Senegal.
In honor of Rosh Hodesh Shevat, the Hebrew month in which we will celebrate the “New Year of the Tree,” I have added a special meditation based on the way that I learned it from my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman), of blessed memory. The meditation takes us through the Sephirot, or divine energy centers, in the “tree of life” within our own bodies. An accompanying chart was generously shared by my colleague and friend, Rabbi David Zaslow.
Wellsprings of Wisdom’s last update was at the Jewish New Year. Now on January 1, 2020, I’ve added a new post to the growing Gateway of Holy Land. This Gateway is really taking shape and will soon be complete! It shows how my thinking and involvement in nature spirituality have evolved in the past couple of years. Take a look at the new post on the sacred art of sauntering in Nature, also known as Shinrin Yoku or Forest Bathing.
Hooray! I’ve added a new post on taking outdoor walks to Let Nature Guide You Into the New Year and also expanded The King Is in the Field: A Meadow Gallery, both in the new and expanding Gateway of Holy Land. These pathway posts will be part of Wellsprings first Webinar on Thursday, September 12, 7:30pm ET. Contact me through the contract form if you would like information on signing up for the webinar, which will also be recorded for those who can’t attend in real time.
It’s been a while since I’ve added new content to this website, but happy to say that summer vacation has allowed me some time to continue working on the new and developing Gateway of Holy Land. Each new Gateway (content page focused on one symbol from nature) is a kind of spiritual adventure, as I’m not sure quite where the paths will lead me! The newest pathway (post) in this Gateway builds on the tradition that King Solomon could talk to the animals and plants. One of Wellspring’s Facebook readers asked for more on that subject, which resulted in this new post on talking and (more importantly) listening to our fellow creatures.
I’m very excited to be taking an online (live) course on the Zohar from Professor Daniel Matt, who translated this epic classic of Jewish mysticism into English. Its mystical meditations on the inner levels on the Bible often identify the Shechinah, the feminine divine presence, with the moon. That motivated me to update a post on the celebration of Rosh Hodesh, the new moon. I changed to a new featured image, a moon photo that I took myself. I also added a button link that takes to you At the Well, a new organization that uses Rosh Hodesh as a venue for women to connect with their spirituality and health. Explore the imagery and symbolism of the moon in depth, in Wellspring’s Gateway of the Moon.