by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
Blessed is all that is sacred and holy in this universe, which has kept us moving forward, sustained us in every way, and brought us to this day, still alive and kicking.
Such is the essence and spirit of the Shehecheyanu, the prayer we say at every holiday and special occasion, including Hanukkah, what some call the Jewish gratitude prayer.
Gratitude. It’s a wonderful, beautiful word. Associated with an emotion that can be transformational for us personally, toward the good.
I seem to have had a need to focus on gratitude lately, and one of the ways that has expressed itself is that I’ve been teaching about gratitude. Having the concept constantly on my mind has opened new windows into my own feelings of gratitude, especially in one particular aspect of my life.
Nine years ago this month at LimmudBoston, Elie Gerzon and I succeeded in gathering together a Jewish cohort concerned about climate change, a cohesive enough group to begin the process that led to the creation of JCAN, the Jewish Climate Action Network. At the time, I was immensely grateful for that breakthrough, especially because a couple of years earlier, I had also tried, and my efforts had fizzled - nothing had taken shape.
Nine years ago, climate change was less blatantly the incremental disaster that it more obviously is today, and the national Jewish climate action landscape was almost barren, save for a few important voices. Little serious effort was being made within the Jeiwsh community to respond to the growing threat of climate change. Personally, I needed to be doing something, anything, about climate change, but I also needed to be doing the work rooted in Jewish tradition. And so I stretched myself, and co-created and, for eight years led, an activist organization.
I had never been an activist and could never have anticipated such a move on my part. I was totally outside my comfort zone. I was a chaplain and saw the work I was doing as eco-chaplaincy, a previously non-existent field that only a few people were beginning to speak about or practice. I considered my work founding and running JCAN to be chaplaincy work: I was creating and holding a space for others to engage in climate action through a Jewish lens, an opportunity that filled a previously empty niche.
In those early years as the leader of a Jewish climate action organization and a rabbi, my name often came up when someone in the Boston area wanted a Jewish presence at an interfaith climate action event. Need a speaker at a rally? Need a Jewish representative to plan a climate action? Need a Jewish panelist at an event? A Jewish voice for an interfaith group testifying at the statehouse? Ask Rabbi Katy.
I was glad to do this work, and more. It was meaningful, it stretched me, and it provided a Jewish voice in the faith climate world.
But I also longed to not be so alone. I wasn’t the only Jewish leader in Greater Boston to be involved, but the options were definitely limited. I longed to be part of a team, and to know that I could more readily turn to a colleague to hold some of the spiritual leadership.
With time, other voices began to enter the fray, relieving some of the sense of responsibility from my shoulders.
But also, with each passing season, the climate crisis grew more obvious. One-by-one, then two-by-two and three-by-three, other Jewish leaders entered the field, many of them new and young professionals, but some of them older and more experienced.
And then suddenly, over a short couple of years, the national Jewish climate action landscape exploded, and the situation drastically changed. The Shalom Center had long been doing climate work, but now the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest hit the scene. Dayenu came into being. Hazon took a bold national stand. Small organizations popped up around the country. I was not alone. I was suddenly a small player in an amazing and diverse sea of Jewish climate activists. And I was delighted.
The relief I felt was palpable, at the same time that it was mixed with a certainty that we are in the midst of a growing catastrophe.
I find it ironic that as the climate situation worsens, I am feeling incredibly grateful. I am grateful that I don’t have to hold the space with so few others. There are dozens and dozens of rabbis and cantors and Jewish educators, laypeople and unaffiliated folks and students and even children, from every walk of life, who are leading the charge in the Jewish community to act in the face of this incomprehensible and existential threat to the world as we knew it.
I am relieved, and I am grateful. And as I kindle the lights of the hanukkiah this Hanukkah, I think about the miracle of the single cruse of oil that lasted for eight nights, and I see its meaning expressed in my experience. It is through community, through holding each other through hard times, through gathering together to do the work of justice and compassion that each of us, a single cruse of oil, can last beyond one dark night. Together, we can do what none of us can do alone.
And so we say, Shehecheyanu!
D'var Torah for Parashat Hayei Sarah
November 14 2022
Heshvan 20, 5783
Click HERE for an audio recording of this D'var Torah
By Rabbi Katy Allen ('05)
Hayei Sarah -
the life of Sarah
tells of her death.
Abraham is old,
nearing his death as well,
and he says to his servant,
I will make you swear--
I, Abraham, will make you,
another human being,
swear an oath unto G!d.
On my deathbed,
I will make you promise.
What right have we
to force someone else
to promise something
in the name of G!d?
Can it really be valid?
Can it really be sound to its core?
And, it’s about finding a wife
for his son, Isaac.
Swear, Abraham says to his servant,
swear in the name of all that is sacred and holy,
that you won’t take a wife for my son
from among these Canaanites,
but that you will go back
to the land of my birth
and find him a wife there.
AND DON’T ON ANY ACCOUNT
TAKE ISAAC WITH YOU!
Why is this command,
with such vehemence,
needed at all?
After all, we are taught in BT Sotah 2a
that “forty days before an embryo is formed
a Divine Voice issues forth and says:
The daughter of so-and-so
is destined to marry so-and-so.”
So, if it’s already decreed, it’s already foretold,
why does Abraham have to get so het up about it?
But we also read in Sotah 2a
that it is as difficult to match up
a man and woman in marriage
as it was to split the Sea of Reeds.
Wait! We know that it was G!d who split the sea,
but we also know that human action
preceded Divine action
in the form of Nahshon ben Aminadav
walking into the sea (Sotah 37a).
So, perhaps Abraham’s words to his servant
are like Nahshon’s willingness
to walk into the sea?
But there’s still the issue of Abraham
forcing his servant to swear
that he will go
to the land of Abraham’s birth
but that under no circumstances
will he take Isaac with him.
One wonders if Abraham said anything to Isaac,
or if this lack of direct communication
was a continuation of a troubled relationship
resulting from Abraham’s willingness
to sacrifice his son.
Perhaps the memory of that traumatic moment
is part of why Abraham is so vehement.
Or perhaps fear is a factor,
fear of the future,
that, as more than one sage has suggested,
if somehow or other — apparently against G!d’s decree --
Isaac married a Canaanite woman,
his claim on the land might come into doubt.
But isn’t there also,
in Abraham’s vehemence,
a lack of trust or faith in G!d?
With his close relationship to HaKadosh Baruch Hu,
wouldn’t Abraham have understood
that G!d was in charge of making the match for Isaac?
Maybe Abraham remembers that listening to G!d
hasn’t always served him and his family so well, (Meir Shalev, Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts, p. 14)
and now he worries that things might again
be painfully difficult for his son.
Or, is it Isaac that Abraham doesn’t trust?
And is that, too, a bit of PTSD,
the lingering impact of the Akedah? (Hizkuni Gen. 24:8:1)
Maybe Abraham thinks Isaac doesn’t realize
that he is still
that having been an olah temimah — a total offering
on G!d’s altar on the Holy Mountain of Moriah --
he is forever bound to the Holy Land,
never to leave it.
There is, in this midrash,
What tie holds us eternally in connection
to those moments of deep but sacred pain?
It is beyond trauma.
It is beyond comprehension.
It is having walked the narrow line
between fire and ice
and having experienced something
that no one else can ever understand.
Isaac is silent in this story.
He, perhaps, knew
that he mustn’t go away,
and that his bride must be brought to him,
of her own free will,
and that then,
and only then,
would his partnership for the future
be a match
made in heaven.
We humans are bound to this Earth.
What is happening to it is beyond trauma.
It is beyond comprehension.
We are daily walking the narrow line
between fire and ice
and experiencing something
that no one has ever experienced before,
and that none of us has the capacity
to fully understand.
What is required of us
to enter into a partnership for the future
that might hold
at least the possibility
for a match
made in heaven?
Rabbi Katy Allen ('05) is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long and has a growing children’s outdoor learning program, Y’ladim BaTeva. She is the founder of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA, a board certified chaplain, and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She is the author of A Tree of Life: A Story in Word, Image, and Text and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah
by Rabbi Louis Polisson
Congregation Or Atid of Wayland, MA
Rosh Ha-Shanah Day 1
1st of Tishrei, 5782 - Tuesday, September 7, 2021
This Rosh Ha-Shanah, we’re entering a Shemittah year. In Biblical Israel,
every seventh year was a Shemittah, which literally means “release,” when the land
was not actively farmed, and all debts were canceled. In the Yovel or fiftieth year,
after seven Shemittah cycles, the land was redistributed, and slaves were required
to go free. This system of rest and renewal fulfills on a grand social scale the ideal
of Shabbat, when we rest, accept the world as it is, and let go of what we cannot
control. But before we delve deeper into the relevance of Shemittah, I’d like to
share an anecdote about my almost-two-year-old son, Asher.
A few weeks ago, I was walking outside with Asher. He saw some ants on
the ground, pointed at them, and shouted “go away!”
His exclamation made me realize how easy it is for us to feel like the land is
ours, that it exists to be owned and controlled by us, as if nothing and no one is
allowed to trespass on it. But if we want to live peacefully and joyfully in this
world, we need to share our space with the manifold plants and animals. We need
to learn how to be in right relationship to them.
So I told him: “it’s okay, Asher - ants live outside, this is their home. We
don’t like them inside our house, but we need to let them live out here.”
What I was trying to teach Asher is that we need to be in right relationship
with the Earth - acting with care and respect for the natural world, understanding
that each creature, plant, and mineral plays an important role in the ecosystem.
Yesterday, we began Rosh Ha-Shanah by asking: What makes a relationship
healthy? We answered with a few qualities, including mutual respect,
understanding, and good communication. We must learn how to respect,
understand, and communicate with the natural world, since we, human beings, are
not in opposition to Nature, but, in fact, part of it. Our disconnect from the cycles
of the earth has made us physically and spiritually ill, but by engaging in
Shemittah, together with our communities, we can heal and be healed.
Gabriella, her sister, her mother and I have all recently been reading the
book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the
Teachings of Plants, by scientist, author, poet, and member of the Native American
Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer. This book has changed the way we each
relate to the world around us. In the opening of the book, Dr. Wall Kimmerer tells a
story that demonstrates how our society struggles to even imagine being in right
relationship with the more-than-human world. She writes:
“On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 9:35am, I am usually in a lecture
hall at the university, expounding about botany and ecology - trying, in short, to
explain to my students how...‘global ecosystems,’ function. One otherwise
unremarkable morning I gave the students in my General Ecology class a survey.
Among other things, they were asked to rate their understanding of the negative
interactions between humans and the environment. Nearly every one of the two
hundred students said confidently that humans and nature are a bad mix. Later in
the survey, they were asked to rate their knowledge of positive interactions
between people and land. The median response was ‘none.’
I was stunned,” writes Dr. Wall Kimmerer. “How is it possible that in twenty
years of education they cannot think of any beneficial relationships between people
and the environment? Perhaps the negative examples they see every day -
[abandoned, polluted] brownfields, factory farms, suburban sprawl - truncated their
ability to see some good between humans and the earth. As the land becomes
impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. When we talked about this
after class, I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations
between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move
toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the
path feels like? ” (Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 6)
So? What does the path to sustainability feel like? Luckily, the Jewish model
of Shemittah offers us one path toward ecological sustainability and right
relationship with the earth.
According to the discussion on Shemittah in the Book of Leviticus, when the
rights of the land conflict with the needs of people, the rights of the land take
precedence. (Leviticus 26:34, 43) Wild animals have the right during the Shemittah year to forage freely
on land that would normally be farmed. (Leviticus 25:7) The latter rule suggests that Shemittah is a
kind of return to the Garden of Eden, where all creatures shared the same plant-based food supply. The Torah is explicit that our moral frame of reference must extend beyond the human world and that our sense of responsibility and care must include animals, plants, and the earth. In the words of Rabbi David
Seidenberg, “Justice can never be complete without justice for the land.” (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 127) The Torah understands the land as a subject, with interests and rights that may take priority over human needs. Especially in the laws of the Jubilee and Shemittah years (Leviticus 25)
- and in the consequences that are supposed to befall the people if they do not observe these laws
(Leviticus 26) - it is clear that God is ready to take the side of the
land of Israel against the Jewish people. According to the Torah, humanity as a
species, and as a collection of individuals, has no moral superiority when its
interests conflict with the intrinsic interests of the land, who will “enjoy her
Sabbaths” (Leviticus 26:34, 43)
- even if that means the people are exiled or wiped out.
Yes, this is hard to swallow. What is incredible to me, however, is how
deeply and accurately the Torah understood the Earth. The Earth will survive, even
if we create conditions that are unlivable for human beings. And God will not
intervene on humanity’s behalf. According to one midrash, when God made the
first human, Adam, God showed him the panoply of creation and said to him: “See
all My works, how beautiful they are. All I have made, I have made for you. Take
care, therefore, that you do not destroy My world, for if you do, there will be no
one left to mend what you have destroyed.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13. )
We can avoid such destruction if we act in accordance with the Torah’s
understanding that “human beings as a species are citizens of the land and not
rulers over it.” (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 167)
From the perspective of the Torah’s land-centered ethic, we are
equal to, and not inherently better than, the earth and its creatures. The Torah's
ethic is also a natural outgrowth of the Hebrew root shared between Adam - the
human being and adamah - earth, in Genesis 2, and a corollary of the Torah’s
teaching that God put humans in the garden of Eden "le-ovdah - to serve her", a
phrase that uses the Hebrew verb la’avod, a word otherwise reserved for serving
God. In all these examples, the highest ethical priority is given to the land or, in
modern terms, to the ecosystem, while all the creatures - even human beings - find
their place and ethical status in the greater context of the earth. (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 167)
In this way, the Torah guides us towards the vision of ecologist Aldo
Leopold - a world in which the righteousness of an action is determined by whether
it “preserve[s] the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community [of living
beings].” (Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 152)
The goal of Shemittah is to create right relationship between human beings
and the land, and between fellow human beings. Though the Shemittah laws
technically only apply to the Land of Israel, it offers a model that we should
practice in some form throughout the world. We should consume only what we
need and avoid harmful forms of agriculture and industry; we should allow the
land to rest.
Shemittah reminds us that everything we consume is a gift from the earth.
And, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “[g]ifts from the earth or from each other
establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to
reciprocate.” (Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 25)
Those who regularly garden or farm might better understand that
tending to plants opens an ongoing relationship between human and plant. Each
fruit or vegetable is a gift that comes not only from our efforts but from the success
of a healthy, complex ecosystem. Wall Kimmerer teaches us that “[f]rom the
viewpoint of a private property economy, a ‘gift’ is deemed to be ‘free’ because we
obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in a gift economy, gifts are not free. The
essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift
economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood
to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of
responsibilities attached.’” (Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 28)
The Jewish approach to gifts and the earth is similar to this Indigenous
Native American approach. Western culture speaks the language of rights, while
traditional Jewish culture speaks the language of mutual obligations.
Western capitalism teaches acquisitiveness and inculcates a scarcity
mentality. And it is true that the earth is not an unlimited resource. Infinite growth
is not possible. But - the earth is a living resource that can heal and regenerate
and grow when we care for it.
So what does this set of responsibilities, this relationship of reciprocity look
like? We must understand our interconnectedness as a “covenant of reciprocity.”
(Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 28). We must become an active,
helpful part of the more-than-human natural world.
Viewing ourselves as separate from other creatures and the earth is, in effect,
“cutting off parts of ourselves, and parts of the image and essence of God.”
(Seidenberg, Kabbalah and Ecology, p. 254)
In the words of Rabbi David Seidenberg, “the purpose of religion, from the
Torah’s perspective, was to teach people how to achieve a true symbiosis with the
land… to create a truly sustainable model of agriculture.” (Seidenberg, “The Third Promise,” in Tikkun Magazine, June 25, 2020,)The purpose of human endeavor is to bring tikkun - healing, repair, and balance - to our world.
We can reach this balance when we understand that we are a part of nature,
and that, as Dr. Wall Kimmerer says, “what happens to one happens to us all. We
can starve together or feast together. All flourishing is mutual.”
(Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, p. 15) This is true not
just within species across them as well: all flourishing across all living and
seemingly non-living things on this planet is mutual. The pandemic has begun to
teach us this truth. If we choose to learn from it, COVID could be a wake-up call to
the American Jewish community, and to the world, about the need to work more
cooperatively, in mutual responsibility. And even as disastrous as COVID-19 has
been, it still pales in comparison to the changes that a changing climate could
bring. (Cf. Nigel Savage (the founder of Hazon: the Jewish lab for sustainability) in this interview)
This is Jewish issue because Judaism cares deeply about the
more-than-human-world. There is no Jewish community, no State of Israel, no
United States of America, without breathable air and drinkable water.
The good news is that the Jewish People and the human species are
adaptable and have survived crises before. We have the spiritual and psychological
tools to remain kind, thoughtful, loving beings - even in the face of great suffering.
And, if we change our ways in the short-term, we can avert the most dire
outcomes. Teshuvah, tzedakah, u-tefillah, ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezeirah - repenting
and changing our ways, directing our resources towards justice, and spiritual
practice can lessen and help us navigate the severity of the decree.
We must take both individual and communal action to heal the earth, so that
the land can observe her Sabbath - her year of rest and rejuvenation. The moral
covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been
given, for all that we have taken. It's our turn now, long overdue. We are each
obligated to contribute gifts in honor of this reciprocity.
This will not be easy. In the words of author Rebecca Solnit: “It will take
heroic effort, unprecedented cooperation, and visionary commitment. It would
mean making profound changes in our societies, economies, our ways of doing
things. But it is possible to do.” (Rebecca Solnit, “The IPCC’s latest climate report is dire. But it also included some prospects for hope,” in The Guardian, August 13, 2021,)
Even though individual action is not enough to stop climate change, taking
action toward sustainability can be a powerful spiritual practice. We can learn
about permaculture and native species and grow backyard gardens. We can redirect
some of our spending from supporting ecologically harmful mass production to
supporting people in need, which is one of the purposes of Shemittah. We can buy
used clothing, take better care of our clothes, or learn how to sew, instead of
supporting fast fashion. We can adopt a gratitude practice so that the winter snow
becomes not a burden to shovel, but a beautiful marvel that covers the earth like a
blanket. We can learn from our distant animal relatives, who slow down and
hibernate in the winter in order to rest and refresh. All of these practices will foster
a closer relationship to the land and the more-than-human world.
On a global level, What we must do is clear from scientific consensus: we
need to cut global emissions at least in half by 2034 and reach net zero carbon
dioxide emissions by 2050.
This is no longer about ensuring a livable planet for our grandchildren. It’s
for our children, for ourselves. It’s for the plant and animal species that could go
extinct within our lifetimes if we don’t change course immediately.
How exactly to make the profound changes needed to return to right
relationship with the land is a matter of reasonable debate. But experts have
suggestions. Several months ago, we were fortunate to hear about the
hope-inspiring work of scientists like Dr. Anthony Patt, who studies and teaches
about successful governmental approaches for eliminating greenhouse gas
emissions within a short timeframe, and how to adapt to the changes in climate that
are already occurring, in a program organized by the Eitz Ḥayyim Climate Change
Committee, led by Barbara Boykin and Tilia Klebenov-Jacobs.
Incredibly, miraculously, the more-than-human world really can heal itself, if
we slow down and stop our constant extraction of resources. Shortly after the
beginning of the COVID lockdowns in the spring of 2020, people noticed cleaner
air and clearer views of the sky just a few miles away in downtown Boston.
Similarly, some scientists project that we can halt and even reverse some of the
ecological devastation, on a global scale. But things need to change, and change is
hard. Thankfully, we’re in the season of teshuvah - the perfect time for change.
Take a moment now and ask yourself: How will I heal my relationship with
the more-than-human-natural world this year? How will I advocate and take action
for healthier, more sustainable human societies? How might I invite the natural
world to help me, and all of humanity, to heal, as this pandemic continues?
Thoughts of climate change, on top of the pandemic and other social issues,
may feel overwhelming, too frightening. We may consciously or subconsciously be
in denial. But we are not alone. We can join together to cultivate hope through
action, as we build sustainable communities. How will we join others in the
movement for global healing? How will we become part of the Shemittah this year,
and part of the movements to heal the earth, each and every day of our lives?
This new Shemittah year is an opportunity to reconnect and rebuild our
relationships with the more-than-human-world. We must engage as a community in
this critically important task. Shemittah is one of the keys to long-term healing and
renewal as we seek to survive this pandemic. This year, may we practice
Shemittah, building responsible, sustainable, right relationships with all people, all
beings, and all the earth. Shenat Shemittah metukah u-metakenet - may it be a
sweet and healing year of release. (This Hebrew greeting for the Shemittah year is from Rabbi David Seidnberg; English interpretation by Rabbi Polisson.)
Rabbi Polisson is thrilled to have joined Congregation Or Atid as Rabbi. He received rabbinic ordination and an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in May 2018. As a Gladstein Fellow in Entrepreneurial Rabbinic Leadership, he previously served as Rabbi of Congregation Eitz Chaim of Monroe, NY and as Rabbinic Intern at Temple Israel Center of White Plains, NY.
Shana Tova 5783!
by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
The Eternal came down in a cloud. וַיֵּרֶד ה’ בֶּֽעָנָן (Ex. 34:5)
from minute to minute,
from day to day,
from season to season,
from year to year,
even sometimes seeming to disappear,
doing whatever is necessary,
whatever is needed,
to fit the conditions,
never losing your key identity,
as a cloud.
In this new year, may we find what is needed
to be like a cloud
yet to not be a cloud,
but always to be ourself,
our very best self.
And. the Eternal went before them as a column of cloud by day. וַה' הֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם יוֹמָם בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן (Ex. 13:21)
Shana tov from all of us at Earth Etudes for Elul!
Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long and has a growing children’s outdoor learning program, Y’ladim BaTeva. She is the founder of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA, a board certified chaplain, and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY, in 2005, and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the.singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.
by Sarah Chandler
The rolling fog
To stretch my neck
To peek at a new perspective
Not quite bright enough
My eyes wide across the valley
Trying not to wait
For something else to be
Just when I think
My orientation is eastward
The clouds above the mountain
Tickle the sky
Spreading north across the orange glow
These trees form a frame
Filled with smaller frames
So that each frame of light
Can shine through
It’s the light in front of me
That allows me to re-enter
The darkness behind
Sarah Chandler aka Kohenet Shamirah is a Brooklyn-based Jewish educator, artist, activist, healer, and poet. She teaches, writes and consults on issues related to Judaism, earth-based spiritual practice, respectful workplaces, mindfulness, and farming. An ordained Kohenet with the Hebrew Priestess Institute and Taamod trainer since 2018, she is also is an advanced student of Kabbalistic dream work at The School of Images. Previously, Sarah served as the Director of Romemu Yeshiva, Chief Compassion Officer of Jewish Initiative for Animals, and Director of Earth Based Spiritual Practices at Hazon's Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. Currently, she is the CEO of Shamir Collective, as a coach and consultant to high-profile artists and authors to launch new music and books.
Earth Etude for Elul 28 - When One Door Closes, Another Door Opens. (Alexander Graham Bell)
by Joan Rachlin
Like many of a certain age, my husband and I had decided to downsize, but unlike many others, ours was less a choice and more a necessity following his stroke two+ years ago. We loved our town, neighborhood, and street and had been making plans to “age in place” before life intervened.
As I began to survey the overwhelming task ahead, it was clear that my obsession with helping preserve what pristineness remained in nature had become disconnected from my personal behavior of “littering” our home. My husband gently commented that the books (e.g., “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” “Clear Your Clutter,” and “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up”) sitting atop our ubiquitous piles of “stuff” were symbols of that disconnectedness.
I rationalized the presence of this “stuff” by explaining to myself and others that it included gifts from beloved grandparents, parents, other family members, and friends; souvenirs from travels; memorabilia from childhood and beyond; cards, letters, and miscellaneous paperwork that had to be filed; and/or cherished mementos of the years in which we raised our kids. I had managed to ignore the fact that—despite an object’s back-story and despite my self-proclaimed status as an environmental activist—I had become a “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrite. Although I’ve encouraged many others to read Affluenza over the past 20 years, I never admitted to having an undiagnosed case of that planet-crushing disease.
With help from friends and a downsizing professional, our house was emptied and most of our possessions donated to organizations* and individuals. Though bittersweet, my dominant emotion is gratitude for the four+ decades we spent there, the sweet memories that remain, and the opportunity to tread more lightly on the Earth presented by closing the door to our old home and opening the door to our new one.
I therefore entered Elul with the kavannah, or intention, of following the sage advice on my fridge magnet: “The most important things in life are not things.” I’m focusing on progress, not perfection and hoping that my previously overzealous efforts to prevent things from being buried (landfills) or burned (incinerators) will be replaced by the realization that I am doing the best I can and my efforts are good enough. Although not a big fan of self-help books, I’ve just begun listening to Enoughness, which emphasizes sustainability and contentedness and, when finished, plan to start A Good-Enough Life.
I pray that I will, with mindfulness and discipline, increase the simplicity and balance in my soul, home, and in my microscopic corner of our shared home, Planet Earth.
Here’s to a safe, healthy, just, peaceful, purposeful, and “enoughness-filled” New Year for all.
Shana Tova U’Metuka.
*Below is a partial list of the organizations to which we donated:
1 - More Than Words
2 - Boomerang’s
3 - Mass College of Art ReStore
4 - Furnishing Hope of MA
5 - Simple Recycling
6 - Village Vinyl
7 - Our Facebook “Buy Nothing” group (Buy Nothing Brookline) was also helpful in finding homes for everything we no longer needed or wanted. We gave away golf clubs, old cameras, slide and movie projectors, furniture, encyclopedias (“More Than Words” does not take encyclopedias) and many other things.
8 - I also donated collections of family memoirs, photos, and memorabilia to archives and museums. Although this was a time-consuming endeavor, it enabled me to find permanent homes for the treasures passed down through the generations of my family.
Joan Rachlin is the Executive Director Emerita of PRIM&R (Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research) an international bioethics organization. In addition to her work with PRIM&R, she practiced law in the areas of women’s health, civil rights, and criminal and civil litigation. Joan loves nature and its preservation is her priority, purpose, and passion.
by Judith Felsen, Ph.D.
How will I love You when we meet in this year’s fields of Elul?
You who have sent illness, pandemic, bloodshed, injustice, hypocrisy, fire, starvation and death…
We have been estranged and denying our separation for eons
Now it has come to this…
With my ambivalence how will I love You?
Will I remember that You sent us Your
starry sky on Your darkest night
blooms of wild flowers in Spring
symphonies of songs and calls
vocal ensembles of insects and birds
pools of wild waters, waterfalls and streams
cool forests and trees
spongy meadows and lichen
fractal images of Your presence and love
Elul calls to us to turn to You to
Your presence always in love
Judith Felsen, Ph.D. is a practitioner and seeker of paths facilitating the transformation of human suffering to wisdom, gratitude and grace. Engaged in this pursuit for most of her life, Judith has incorporated the natural world as well as mankind’s alliance in her work. Living in the White Mountain National Forest, Judith feels at home with two and four legged and all creatures and has likened the forest around her to a metropolis of symphonies creating a language of their own. Insight, comfort and connection are often concealed to us yet readily and always available in nature’s world. Addressing issues of complex earth changes and resultant grief, loss , voluntary and unchosen outcomes, Judith spends daily time in mindfulness practice and presence to all of life. Elul is a time to embrace our part in meeting G-d in daily life in all ways including our hardships. We are asked to show up as a partner. Partnering with spirit is day to day practice on our way to the palace as we wend our way on the trail home.
by Dr. Leah F. Cassorla
In the loaming, Boobah the One-eyed Wonderdog and I sit outside in our vast, shared backyard, watching the swallows.
As the evening descends, we watch the tree line of the nearby patch of forest. The lightning bugs begin their fiery dance before us, the swallows swoop in and out, and hares hop in and out of the line of sight--my line of sight as Boobah's is thankfully too restricted to catch them. I consider this beautiful, if tiny, patch of Olam Ha'bah, and it shifts me to another space.
I've been a whole-foods, plant-based eater for several years now and know it is the single most powerful choice I can make for the continuation of humanity on this beautiful earth. I don't say I'm doing it for the planet; the planet will be just fine. She is designed to clean her house as needed. But I am aware that cleaning house may require sweeping away the humans who have overpopulated, overused, and over-dirtied her. And I am concerned that we are not doing enough. This thought leads me to Shmita and Shabbat, and I wonder:
What if we treated Shabbat as an opportunity to practice environmental responsibility rather than a set of strictures for "keeping" or "not keeping" the Shabbat commandments? How could I make my Shabbat a mini Sh'mita, just as Sh'mita is considered a grand Shabbat?
Sh'mita is a year that allows the land a recovery period from the agricultural needs of humanity as well as the economic drivers of social inequality. Perhaps I can try to reduce my Carbon/Nitrogen footprint each week on Shabbat by refraining from using electricity, gas, or oil--or by buying credits if such use is mandatory for my survival (and my religious role in my community). I can refrain from purchasing anything on Shabbat as well, knowing that I cannot fully remove myself from the capitalist system and that reduction of consumption is only one step. I can set aside my pishke each week to support organizations that further ecological recovery.
And those of us who aren't vegan may choose to refrain from eating meat on Shabbat--a truly radical idea.
Yet with these approaches in hand, I can feel myself (re)turning toward the needs of the ecosystem and my species. With each small step, I can come closer to making more space for the swallows, the lightning bugs, and the hares. Inch by inch, I can bring myself closer to the ideal Shabbat. And so can you.
Dr. Leah F. Cassorla is the Cantorial Soloist - Educator at Temple Beth Tikvah, in Madison, CT. Her etude reflects on her time in Huntsville, AL, as well as her belief that we can enact Teshuvah to a better relationship with our planet. She has written works of journalism, fiction, non-fiction, and academics. She is currently studying for a dual-ordination as a Rabbi and Cantor at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY.
by Rabbi Louis Polisson
And the land shall not be sold for ever; for the land is mine;
for you are strangers and sojourners with me (1)
And now we are learning
That the Land belongs to No One,
To the One with No End
For the earth was confusion and chaos (2)
And we too have become
wild and waste
Human beings from the earth
Human beings, full of harm (3)
for the earth
But our fate is not sealed
There is hope
There is choice
There is justice (4)
And there is return, an answer, repentance
The time to come close
has drawn near
The season of Elul
The time of “we are our Beloved’s,
and our Beloved’s is ours”
At the end of this Year of Release
There is an opportunity
There is a new year
There is time to repair the world
Through the sovereignty of the Almighty,
through presence of the Supreme Mighty Mother
There is time to say: Here I am
For we are Her People and She is our Beloved (5)
Not for us, not ours
Is the Land
Not yours and not mine
For Her Own Self
strangers and sojourners are we
and human beings from the earth
We are connected and responsible
From the worm in the ground
to the fish of the sea
From the tiniest grain of sand
to the air in the sky
Together we must recognize and lead (6) and pray and act
So that She might grant in our hearts
The ability to understand, to be aware, to listen and to hear (7)
To learn and to teach (8)
To serve her and to protect her
The Garden of Eden, where is it? (9)
In the earth.
And not mine
כי לא לי הארץ
הרב לב שלום
בן אשר זעליג וטובה פוליסון
והארץ לא תמכר לצמתת
כי לי הארץ
כי גרים ותושבים אתם
כי הארץ היתה תוהו ובוהו
וגם אנחנו הפכנו
בני אדם מן האדמה
רבה רעת בני האדם
אבל גורלנו הוא לא חתום
ויש תשובה, תשובה,
זמן אנו לדודינו
בסוף שנת השמיטה יש הזדמנות
יש שנה חדשה
יש זמן לתקן עולם
במלכות שדי, בשכינת אמא עילאה
יש זמן לומר הנני
כי אנו עמה והיא דודינו
לא שלכם ולא לי
כי גרים ותושבים עמדה אנו
וגם בני אדם מן האדמה
מקושרים ומחויבים אנחנו
ועד לדגי הים
מגרגר החול הזעיר
יחד כולם נודה ונמליך ונתפלל ונעשה
שהיא תתן בליבנו
להבין להשכיל לשמוע
?גן עדן, היכן הוא
Louis Polisson is a musician and rabbi, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2018, where he also earned an MA in Jewish Thought focusing on Kabbalah and Hasidut. He currently serves as Rabbi of Congregation Or Atid of Wayland, Massachusetts. He and his wife Gabriella Feingold released an album of original Jewish and nature-based spiritual folk music in November 2018 - listen at https://louisandgabriella.bandcamp.com/album/as-full-of-song-as-the-sea..
by Rabbi Judy Kummer
It was my ankle that went. There I was, in the gorgeous Berkshires countryside, walking briskly with my sister-in-law on a glorious true-blue spring day, sun spilling giddily over wildflowers by the sides of the country road, bugs thrumming merrily in the long grass and the smells of freshness and potential all around.
My sister-in-law pointed out cows in a nearby field; as I glanced over at them, savoring the sunshine on my face, my foot failed to notice missing pavement at the edge of the road — and I took a tumble, twisting my ankle and swearing loudly as I hit the ground.
Pain, deep pain throbbed, along with embarrassment at my klutziness. I was shocked—how on earth had this happened? I had just been walking on the road, hale and hearty, exulting in my good health and in the warm sunlight—and a second later I’m on the ground with a twisted ankle?? I was also aware that I had sustained a real injury— and with that realization came an awareness of the stupid timing of this accident: I had been looking forward to an active summer filled with lovely woodland hikes and long lake swims…
But oddly, as I sat by the side of the road, bits of gravel pressing sharp against my legs and hands, I found myself going into a mode of stillness —and then, unexpectedly, into a mode of gratitude.
My gratitude built over the following hours: I felt grateful that it was my left ankle that I had injured, allowing me still to drive. I could put weight on the leg, which meant it likely wasn’t broken. I felt grateful that I had laced myself firmly into hiking boots before setting out, which had clearly protected my ankle from any worse injury. I was grateful that my sister-in-law had been at hand and that she had flagged down my nephew, driving by en route home from an errand, so I could be transported back to her house quickly and in style, rather than limping home in pain and in shame. I made it to urgent care near home in the company of my mom. I felt grateful to be wrapped in the cotton-batting protection of family connection; I was clearly not facing this injury all on my own.
Our lives are filled with challenges, large and small— and our lives are also filled with gifts and blessings. And the same moment that feels challenge-filled may also hold within it some facets of blessing as well. It is our choice as human beings which we will focus on at any given moment.
Our ancient ancestors knew the wisdom of choosing to focus on the positive. When gifts come our way in life, what a wonderful additional gift we can give ourselves by offering a blessing, an expression of thanks in response. When we choose to focus on the bounty of our gifts and then express our gratitude for them, the impact is not only outward; it echoes in our own hearts. Gratitude warms the heart and often expands our own happiness — and it may also move us toward further acts of kindness and efforts to bring happiness to others. Gratitude, it seems, is a gift that keeps on giving, and giving.
As we approach the High Holidays, may we choose for the coming year a path of gratitude and of offering blessings for our many gifts — and through this choice, may we too be blessed.
Rabbi Judy Kummer is a board certified chaplain in private practice, offering skilled spiritual care visits, eldercare programing and lifecycle events. She has served as executive director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of MA and other nonprofits, and has served congregations in DC, NY and NJ. She is happiest outdoors hiking in the woods, swimming in a lake at sunset or tending to her Boston organic garden.