ReImagining Teshuvah


An Etude for an Ode: ReImagining Teshuvah

As I enter into Teshuvah, into fierce self examination, into the landscapes of guilt and renewed responsibility, I worry about stumbling into the bottomless pit of despair.  After all, in systems, every part matters.  In systems, every individual action contributes to outcome.  How do I feed family fights, community squabbles, ruined habitats and global wars?  The list grows and grows and the pull towards despairing unworthiness is strong.  

Confronted with the scary ‘book of life or book of death’ mythology, or the grim path of ‘penitence through punishment’, I surely will sink, swimming in punishment after punishment with my long list of imperfections in hand.  Will I ever make it above water?  This dark vision is not unknown in our tradition.  For me, what makes all the difference is that small something extra, the ‘od’/ode of the universe.  

Let me explain:  Rabbi Everett Gendler, using classical word play, brings together the two small English and Hebrew words ‘ode/od’ for reflection in a brilliant and daring essay found in Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life[1].  In addition, he connects Reb Nachman of Bratslav with Gandhi, King and the Dalai Lama.  Curious, eh?  

Here’s the one-footed, blog-friendly version.  Reb Nachman teaches the secret of human redemption (I love how big and bold our teachers reach!).  It’s kind of like classroom management based on PBS, positive behavioral supports.  He says that we all can change the path people are on by focusing on the small points of merit that we see in them (based on the Hebrew word od; ayin-vav-dalet).  No matter how much misbehaving, everyone has these small points of merit within. It is our job to focus there and magnify.  Soon, Reb Nachman teaches, the person will change.  

The simple meaning of ‘od’ (ayin-vav-dalet) is ‘more’ and ‘additional’.  Here Reb Gendler is excited how Reb Nachman has turned this small adjective of a word into a noun that can be found in the heart of every human.  This is how he connects Reb Nachman with the moral leaders of our era, who teach a form of radical hopefulness by focusing on actions and never condemning people.  

Reb Gendler, with delightful romantic inspiration, firmly rooted in the evolutionary nature of our tradition, expands the small “od” even more.  He suggests that this “more of merit” is everything that is beyond our minimal biological needs, “our creativity, our imagination”.  This is our ‘surplus’, our ‘addition’, our ‘more’ that helps us “play, pray, sing dance, draw, design, think and build”.  From the smallest of “od’s” to the greatness of our human gifts.  He suggests that this small ‘od’ is our Tzelem Elohim, the very image of God that is in us all.  Pretty cool, eh?  

However, let’s not stop here.  Using the creativity that Reb Nachman of Bratslav has opened for us, How about we add one more additional ‘od’.  The ‘od’ that is found in the hebrew word m’od, (mem-aleph-dalet).  This is a small adverb of a word that means, ‘very’.  It seems to me that if we change this small word to a noun that lives inside our hearts, then it also could be a candidate for our Tzelem Elohim, our inspiring zest and zeal, our ‘veryness’ that makes us “more than”.  

So now, when Reb Gendler prays Azamer lelohai b’odi – I will sing praises to my God with my od- from the morning liturgy, and now we can also add the Shema’s V’ahavta, -with all your heart, your soul and your might- (might is literally ‘your very’as in m’ODecha), these words of prayer become invitations to remember our inner point that is infusing us with all the gusto and gumption we can humanly muster.  I know of a teacher who says, “dance from your kidneys”.  Here is our version, “sing from your od”.  

But wait, Reb Gendler continues to compose and create.  He brings the unlikely ally, poet Robinson Jeffers writing of the “Excesses of God”[2] in an ode that carries this title.  In this breath-taking and daring move, Reb Gendler places inside that smallest of “od’s” an excess of surpluses including rainbows, blossoms, birdsong.  He quotes Jeffers saying “the great humaneness at the center of things/…extravagant kindness”.  All of a sudden, this small mustard seed of “od” is reflected in the abundance of the entire earth and cosmos, not only the human heart.   How’s that for magnificent?  Now, all of a sudden, the great ALL that is our world, innately inspires and is defined as ‘extravagant kindness’.  

I’d like to add one of my favorite verses here.  It’s been waiting for this glorious context in which to rest.  For me, this truth of the inherent sacredness in every ‘letter and crown’ of the entire earth has long been reflected in this wonderful verse: “And God saw EVERY THING that God had made and behold, it was VERY GOOD- (TOV M’OD!), and there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1:31).  Yes, the entire world is good and infused with that something ‘extra’, an ‘extravagent kindness’ that is naturally found throughout all of creation.  An Ahavah Rabbah, a great love that pervades all, ready for when we can awaken even more.  

But how does this support our work of Teshuvah you ask?  For me, when I collect my failings, errors and imperfections, and I’m ready to acknowledge it all in the depths of my heart, with whom do I imagine sharing?  Who is my personified Thou for the work of Teshuvah?  I’ll pass on the mythos of the strict district judge.  For me, when I imagine and personify this wondrous field of energy, fed by every rainbow, blossom and birdsong, believe it or not, I imagine my Bubbie, my grandma.  

My Bubbie is the ultimate, personified portrait of extravagant kindness I carry in this world.  Her understanding, her compassion, her smile, her comfort, her hugs, her wintergreen lifesavers hold me close and I am able to acknowledge to her all of my imperfect truths.  Through all my failings and error, her ability to cherish my ‘od-ness’ gives me strength and courage to stay honest.  Through her ‘extravagant kindness’ I do not fall into the depths of despair.  Instead, I’m provided with renewed hopefulness and vigor to do what I need to do to make things right and to start again.   Thanks to our deep inner ‘od’, I’m able to once again sing odes.  

Thanks to Rabbi Katy Allen for encouraging this post.    

(editor’s note:  This is the 2nd edition of this essay, adding clarifying details on the two Hebrew words ‘od’ and ‘m’od’.)  

[1] Fine, Fishbane and Rose,  Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life: Classical Texts, Contemporary Reflections.  Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing,  2011. [2]  For the full Robinson Jeffers poem, see below:  

The Excesses Of God Is it not by his high superfluousness we know Our God? For to be equal a need Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling Rainbows over the rain And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows On the domes of deep sea-shells, And make the necessary embrace of breeding Beautiful also as fire, Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom Nor the birds without music: There is the great humaneness at the heart of things, The extravagant kindness, the fountain Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise If power and desire were perch-mates. from:    


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Tears and Tisha B’Av

Humidity, thunderstorms, threatening hail- without hummingbirds, lizards and fragrant sage growing wild. I’m in a very different place now, here in the Berkshire foothills, far from my month outside LA teaching and sharing stories.  During this week before Tisha B’Av, I’m remembering a conversation with Nimrod (a young, post-army Israeli) about the hard work for men to reclaim our tears.  Here’s a poem for those on this journey.

The first grown man I saw openly crying was in Jerusalem, on Tisha B’Av, our day of mourning and lament.  I was in Jerusalem during the summer of 1987, sitting on the floor with the ash from a burnt egg on my forehead.  When the chilling and eerie sounds that came from the book of Lamentations filled the room, I found not only one, but several men were crying.

Needless to say, growing up in Suburban Detroit, we boys did not learn to nurture our tears as a vital part of our humanity.  My journey awakened that day, and has been supported by many including this amazing poet of truth- Jimmy Santiago Baco.

Do you have a favorite poem or story that has helped you on your journey?

Maggid David

PS  Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av (10th if falls on Shabbat), a full fast day filled with mourning and laments.  Remembering past tragedies including the siege and utter destruction of ancient Jerusalem and entering a period of exile and slavery.  Many other national calamities have been added to the memory of this day of mourning.  Along with the sorrowful chant of the book of Lamentations, reading Kinot (hebrew for poetic elegies) are also part of our remembering.

A Story:  Reb Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Elazer were banished to a cave by the Romans- inside they survived because of the generosity of a Carob tree that was fruiting and a fresh stream that was flowing.  They learned the mysteries of Torah with the Angel Gabriel for 12 years and survived.  When they finally came back into the world- they saw, heaven forfend, people farming and not studying!  Their eyes burned with the fire of righteousness and memory of roman persecutions and the fields burned wherever they gazed.  A Bat Kol, a heavenly voice had to stop them.  After another year in the cave- they came back out- yet Elazer still burned all that he saw- thankfully, his father was able to restore what he burned.  What happened to Elazer?  Reb Art Scroll suggests that only by writing of the Kinot was he able to soothe the inner burning that came out his eyes.

Contemporary communities also understand the wisdom that a day of grief is important in our world as well- our world which contains many persecutions and horrors portrayed in any daily newspaper.  Tisha B’Av allows these truths to be acknowledged, in grief.  To acknowledge that activism alone is not enough.  The Rabbi’s emphasize this point in the Midrash by saying that the afternoon of Tisha B’Av is the time that the Mashiach, the Messiah will be born.

Crying Poem

By Jimmy Santiago Baco

For the longest time,
I haven’t been able to cry.
Tears start to come while I’m watching a movie tears
starts to come,
swelling my whole body a tulip starting to open under moon,
then the petals of my eyelids
and something in me braces
and I don’t cry.
When we crashed into a telephone pole
my dad yelled me not to cry,
I was terrified, almost killed –
but don’t cry,
he said.
I couldn’t cry because men don’t cry.
When the dog bit me on the leg I couldn’t cry,
when Joey died I couldn’t cry –
how cool it would feel
to have a tear slide down the corner of my eye
on my cheek,
to the curve of my lip,
where I could taste it –
but I don’t cry.
Something blocks the paths, channels
under my skin.
Tear ducts are red cracked clay,
for thirty years,
drought famine’d,
since I was eight when I got a beating for crying.
My heart an open furnace oven door,
rage seething for tears to cool it down,
but coal hoveling men keep feeding it
don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry.
I want to untie my hands like a tired boxer’s gloves
and lay them down on the table, gripped in their tight
clench of defense,
and I want to grow new hands
open flowers,
moistened by my tears.
I love the color blue
color brown.
I’d love
to touch my chapped cheeks
and whisper in tears
my compassion.
But I’ve always had to stop it up in me, hold my breath back,
keep my mouth shut tight
so as not to cry.
Man, I cry,
and it’s a lie I don’t.
I embrace my brother and pray shoulder to shoulder.
I kneel and kiss earth,
and I cry — if only I could cry.
Don’t translate my tears into thought,
I want to sob autumn tears on my window,
streaking the pane blurring the world.
I want to fill every hole in my heart with glimmering tear pools,
fill my kitchen sink with tears,
just thinking of me not crying all these years,
makes me want to cry,
but I been taught not to cry –
big people don’t cry, people say,
ain’t those alligator tears boy,
can’t fool me with those tears –
Fooling no one but myself not crying
step aside –
I’m going to cry,
until my shirt is drenched,
and my hands shimmery wet
with tears,
running down my face on my arms,
my legs and breast,
and you have to look at me,
because I’m drowning your manly ways in my tears,
to get back my tears.
I’m crying until there isn’t a single tear left
for what we been through not crying,
how we fooled ourselves thinking men don’t cry.
I’m crying on the bus, in bed, at the dinner table, on the couch,
enough to float Noah’s boat,
let out the robin of my heart,
bringing me back my own single shoot of greening
life again –
and you go fuck yourself
dry eyed days,
here I come,
giving you a Chicano monsoon season,
here comes this Chicano cry baby,
flooding prison walls,
my childrens’ bedrooms,
splashing and tear slinging
tears up to my ankles,
planting rice and corn and beans
in fields glimmering with my tears,
and all you dry skinned nut-cracking ball whackers,
don’t want to get your killer bone-breaking boots wet,
step aside,
because I’m bringing you rain.

Goodbyes were crying events –
Goodbye to grandma, to my brother,
friends, my neighborhood,
teachers and other boys,
and I never shed a tear,
though I felt them coming up in me.
I bit my teeth down hard to hold the tears back,
lowered my face and thought about something else.
I kept hearing voices in me,
telling me not to cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!
Boys don’t cry,
leave yourself open,
become liable to get an ax in your heart by some non-crying fool,
be a sissy,
puto, you be hurting
yourself if you cry.
I hurt when I didn’t cry,
all those times when I didn’t cry ashamed
to in front of people,
fearful others would think I’m not a man,
fearful I’d be made fun of,
whole groups of us heard tragic news
and no one cries,
because it ain’t right –
we need to weep –
get up in the middle of the night,
and cry, like a endurance’s hips and stomach convulse during
child birth, we need to give birth
to that terrible convulsion of tears,
weep for those we never wept for,
let the legs shake and your arms embrace you
in a junkie habit for tears,
weep for the poor in prison
taken from their families,
the fieldworker’s daughter
eaten by cancer from pesticides,
and weep,
for all those homeless
who couldn’t meet mortgage payments,
those sleeping under bridges,
and the hopeless,
cry our differences into a lake,
where we can all cleanse our goodbyes and apathy,
papas cry for their children,
let children cry in my arms,
men cry in my arms,
endurance cry in my arms,
let us all cry,
after lovemaking and fighting,
make cry a prayer,
a language made of whimpers and sniffles and sobs,
cry out loud, louder, cry baby, cry! Cry! Cry!


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Hidden Inside Names


I love how Purim teaches that our names carry depth and meaning.  Take Esther our queen and star.  Her very name in Persian means star.  In Hebrew, her name means hidden and sure enough she not only hides her Jewish identity, but like a serious secret agent, also her intentions.

Did you remember that she is actually given two names?  “He brought up Hadassah, who is also Esther, his uncle’s daughter…” (Megillah Esther, 2:7).  The name Hadassah, Hebrew for myrtle, brings to mind the lovely myrtle tree, with smallish star shaped flowers and bluish, purplish berries- giving off a delightful spicy odor.  Wikipedia teaches that myrtle is the Mediterranean plant of love, connected with both Aphrodite and Venus- very apropriate, don’t you think?  Oh, did I mention that another Greek name for Venus is our stars name- ‘Astara’! Perhaps we can reconstruct Valentine’s Day and reclaim the myrtle as the new rose?

We can also look into uncle Mordechai’s name and discover the sweet smell of myrhh hidden inside Mordechai.   In the midrash (Esther Rabbah 2:5) we find, “just as myrhh (‘mor’) is head of the spices, Mordechai is the head in righteousness.” You’ve heard of ‘strong like bull’ or ‘brave like lion’, now we can add, ‘a leader like myrhh’. Names are never merely flat letters pressed into a page.

All of this leads me to my great ‘Aha’.  It came fourteen years ago, searching for a name for my new born son.  I was shocked into a profoundly fun realization gazing through lists of Hebrew names: Zev, Dov, Talia, Aviva, Ilan, Evan, and Devorah.  Have you guessed where I am going with this?  Our Hebrew schools and communities are filled with people named Wolf, Bear, Dew Drop, Spring, Tree, Rock and Bee!  Isn’t this wild!?

The amazing thing for me is that these names (and many more) are but one facet of a beautiful diamond that is also reflecting Jewish holidays, texts, prayers and ceremonies that deeply connect us with the land. Our ancestors wisely preserved this multifaceted diamond within our tradition, like ancient seeds stored in dry clay jugs, waiting for a generation like ours to recognize the potency of these particular facets.

Thankfully, the time has come when we can proudly proclaim Judaism as an ancient indigenous tradition.  We no longer teach that myth, story and ritual are “primitive” and “inferior”.  May we all find authentic ways to make these many connections with land and Jewish life self evident to ourselves, our families and our communities.

Please enjoy this small gift of names for fun and inspiration us as we explore and experiment our way into the future. My experience has been that they not only spice up our name games, but they help us share the ‘Aha’ that Judaism really is deeply connected to the land.  They help counter the assumption that these ideas were cooked up at some hippie hillel.  No, these ideas are as old as Adam, whose very name connects blood and earth (Heb: dom and adamah) inside one being.

Please email me with questions, reflections, new names for the list or just to say hi.  All the best,

PS  A wild and crazy thought experiment in honor of Purim.  What if one of our yiddin was the first European to Vermont?  Instead of French, Yiddish would have won the day.  The wonderful state that is just a stones throw north of me would now be called Greenberg- Green Mountain- French for ‘ver(ts)-mont’!  Chag Purim Same’ach!!

Earthy Hebrew Names

Compiled by Maggid David Arfa


Abel – Breath                                        Adam-Earth
Admon- Red Peony                           Alon- Oak tree
Alyan- Heights                                    Arnon- Roaring Stream
Aryeh- Lion                                         Ari- Lion
Aviv- Spring                                         Barak- Lightning        
Beryl- Bear (Yid)                                Chaim- Life
Devir- Holy Place                                Dror, Deror- a Bird or Freedom
Efron-  A Bird                                      Eshkol- Grape Cluster
Evan- Stone                                         Eyal- Stag
Gal/ Gali- Wave or Mountain         Gilad/ Gilead- mntns e. of Jor Riv
Gur/ Guri- Young Lion                     Hersch- Deer (Yiddish)
Ilan- Tree                                            Ira- Swift ( Arabic)
Ittamar/ Ismar-Island of Palm     Jonah/ Yonah- Dove
Kaniel- Reed/ Stalk    Lavi- Lion    Meyer/ Meir- One Who Shines
Miron- A Holy Place  Namir- Leopard                 Naor- Light
Nir/Nirea - Plow/ Plowed Field    Nirel/Niriel- G?ds Plowed Field
Nitzan- Bud                                                              Ofer- A Young Deer
Oren/Orin/Orrin/Oron- Fir Tree or Cedar     Peretz- Burst Forth
Ranaan- Fresh                                                         Raviv- Rain or Dew
Rimon- Pomegranite                                   Shimshon/ Samson- Sun
Tal- Dew of light                                               Tivon- Student of Nature
Tsevi/ Tzvi- Deer             Vulf/ Velvel/ Wolf/ Wolfe – Wolf (Yid)
Yanir- He Will Plow                                        Zamir- Song; Nightingale
Zev/ Ze-ev- Wolf                                                     Zerach- Light Rising
Ziv/Zivi- To Shine



Adva- Wave; Ripple               Alona- Oak Tree        
Arava- Willow
Ariella- Lioness of G?D         Arna/ Arnit- Cedar   
Arnona/ Arnonit- Roaring Stream
Aviva- Spring                         Ayala- Deer; Gazelle
Berit- Well                              Bluma/ Blume- Flower(Yiddish)
Carmel/ Carmela/ Carmelit- Vineyard
Chaya- Life
Dafna- Laurel                         Dalia/ Dalit- Branch
Deborah/ Debra/ Devra/ Devorah- Kind words; Swarm of Bees
Degania- Corn                        Dova/ Doveva/Dovit- Bear
Efrona- Songbird                    Elana- Oak Tree
Esther- Star (Persian)
Gali/ Galit- Fountain or Spring        Ganit- Garden
Gayora- Valley of light                        Gina/ Ginat-Garden
Giva/ Givona- Hill                              Gornit- Granary
Gurit- Cub
Hadass/ Hadassah- Myrtle Tree    Hasida- Pious One; Stork
Herzlia- Deer (Yiddish)                       Hinda- Deer (Yid)
Ilana/ Ilanit- Oak Tree
Irit- Daffodil                                           Jasmine- Persian Flower
Jonina/ Yonina- Dove                       Kalanit- Anemone
Knarit/ Kanit- Sonbird                      Karna, Karnit- Rams Horn
Kelila- Laurel Crown (symbolizes victory)            Keren- Horn
Kochava- Star                                       Laila; Leila,Lila- Night
Levana, Livana- Moon, White                      Levona- Spice, Incense
Limor- My Myrrh                                 Livia, Livya- Crown, Lioness
Luza- Almond Tree                              Margalit- Pearl
Netta, Nteia- A Plant
Nili- A Plant                                            Nirit- Flowering         
Nitza- Bud
Nurit- Buttercup                                   Odera- Plow
Ophra, Ofra- Young Deer                  Orna, Ornit-Cedar                           
Penina, Peninit- Pearl or Coral
Peri- Fruit                                 Rachel- Ewe (symbolizing gentleness)
Raisa, Raizel- Rose (Yiddish)           Rakefet- Cyclamen
Rimona- Pomegranite                         Serafina- To Burn, (tree sap?)
Sharon- Biblical Plain where Roses Bloomed
Shoshana, Susan, Susannah- Lily or Rose
Sivia, Sivya, Tzvia- Deer
Tal, Talia- Dew                                  Tamar, Tamara- date Palm
Tirza- Cypress                                    Tori- My Turtledove
Varda, Vered- Rose                          Vida, Vita- Life
Yarkona- Green; Bird in Southern Israel; River in Northern Israel
Yemima- Dove                                    Yona, Yonit- Dove
Ze’eva, Zeva- Wolf                              Zipporah, Tzipporah- Little Bird
Zivanit- Mayflower                             Zorah, Zora- Dawn (Arabic)

BAUM NAMES (Yiddish/German -Tree)

Buxbaum- Box tree                Feigenbaum- Fig Tree
Applebaum- Apple Tree       Birnbaum- Pear Tree
Nussbaum- Nut Tree            Tannenbaum- Fir Tree
Greenbaum- Green Tree    Goldbaum- Gold Tree
Kleinbaum- Little Tree

These names were compiled from:
1.  Buxbaum, Yitzhak, A Tu Beshvat Seder.  Jewish Spirit Publications, NY, 1998.
2.  Diamant, Anita, The New Jewish Baby Book.  Jewish Lights Publishing, VT, 1994.

Maggid David Arfa is dedicated to sharing Judaism’s storytelling heritage and ancient environmental wisdom.  Quality performances, workshops, and teacher trainings allow participants to explore story images, the natural world, traditional texts, and contemporary life.  The goals of these programs include expanding the participant’s religious experience and enriching their spiritual imagination.CD’s Now Available: The Birth of Love: Tales for the Days of Awe, includes David’s retelling of ancient mythology, Old World Yiddish tales (set in the Berkshire foothills), medieval folktales and more.

NEW CD: The Life and Times of Herschel of Ostropol: The Greatest Prankster Who Ever Lived- Light hearted folktales and Yiddish stories about Herschel, his wife Ida and life in Ostropol Ukraine.

For more information, please contact:
Maggid David Arfa, Shelburne Falls, MA

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The Owls of Shevat

Dear Friends,

Can you hear the owls of Shevat calling?  They are beckoning us to find ways to bring our Jewish communities outside.  I’d like to share a simple program that gets our community of different aged folks bundled up and joining a night hike filled with owl calls, wind song, star gazing, storytelling and fair-trade organic hot chocolate.

Here’s what we do.  We gather when the Shevat moon is waning, on a Saturday night post Tu B’Shevat.  Peak owl listening time may be 4am, but we just ramble around after dinner, wide open and trusting to the mystery of what we may experience, happy to simply experience the night together.  We begin sharing stories of special encounters we’ve had with owls or the moon, meeting a few of our owl neighbors through photos and calls and learning to listen with ears wide open.

We then stroll around the paved mile loop inside a beautiful park/cemetery.  It is here where many in our village of 2000 choose to walk, jog or teach their children bike riding.   It is nestled in the Berkshire foothills surrounded by forest, cliff and river.  The perfect place for a night hike.

When walking in winter, the art of building a container for silence is crucial for the success of this program (less so for the Owls of Sivan program that might be enjoyed in early summer!).  For us winter walkers, I’ve found that active pacing and group jumping jacks fare better than slow and mindful walking meditations.

When we arrive at the stations of our loop, marked by beautiful old trees or open spaces, we all call to our owl neighbors- the simple hoots of Great Horned Owl, and the more elaborate “Kugels and Jews, Kugels and Jews Y’all” of the Barred owl and then listen with all of our heart, soul and might.  Can you tell it’s kind of fun?  Even if we only hear back the song of night wind and tree cracklings, people don’t seem to mind.  After all, we are surrounded by the outlines of tall, stout and gangly trees, a glorious night sky filled with stars, and the warm presence of each other.

After 40 minutes or so, we arrive at a pavilion with benches, short walls just enough to support our backs and block the wind and a simple roof.  The trees are still with us as we enjoy hot chocolate, introduce the great role of the moon in Jewish tradition and hear a few stories from Chelm and Reb Nachman that are dedicated to the moon.   What might you share when everyone gathers around with hot cocoa?

If you want to explore ideas- feel free to write me at  Of course, the best ideas are to be found in the silence that fills the night.  There, in the darkness, it becomes easy to feel how the entire universe vibrates- and how those same vibrations also move through us.  Happy Hiking!

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Tu B’ Shevat Saplings

Dear Friends,

Our cliffhanger (see part 1 here ) left us with the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge firmly planted not within Tu B’Shevat, but within the middle of Mi Chamocha our blessing-song for redemption. Mi Chamocha is invoked in every prayer service directly after the Shema. We’ll begin by trying to make sense of this very old word, redemption, and then offer some ideas why Reb Elimelech of Grodzisk (d. 1892) might have placed his wisdom of the two trees there.  Ready to wade in the water?

As we get our toes wet, let’s first explore redemption- our personal, communal and cosmic invocation of trust in a bright future.  Let’s start with a surprisingly fun analogy from Rabbi Marcia Prager.  She compares redemption with the old collectible green stamps.  Back in the 1960’s, collecting them built grocery store fidelity- you would get a few with each purchase and could trade in books for new small appliances.  Individually each stamp was near worthless, but she saw her mom filled with zeal- (you know, trust, commitment, enthusiasm and yearning), as she licked her stamps and filled out the books.  She wasn’t just licking stamps- she was visualizing her new toaster!  And when her zeal would flag, and doubt would creep in to her mind, and she wanted to say, “why bother!” she’d just look over to the counter and see that electric can-opener and know that it happened before and it can happen again!

Reb Marcia is playfully teaching us, like the Kabbalists before her, that redemptive power can be accessed in our small daily steps.  Guided by the brightest future our imagination can view up ahead on the horizon- we keep our eyes on the prize as we place our steps each day and each moment.  Planting trees, tending gardens, raising children, helping others…  And yet, sometimes the goal can feel impossibly far away, our zeal begins to flag and we think- why bother?  Then let’s remember crossing the Sea, the song celebrated in our Mi Chamocha prayer.  Whether it is crossing the Sea or a new electric can-opener sitting on the counter- there are many personal, national and cosmic miracles that bring us to this day.  Our tradition is teaching that to remember and celebrate is the path of renewed trust.

So now let’s take a breath and re-connect the wisdom of the two trees with this redemption contained within Mi Chamocha.  Can you sense how Reb Elimelech is kind of like a great systems thinker?  Holding with confidence that the world is non-linear, that tomorrow might be radically different than today; confident that surprises, even as big as the parting of the sea, can happen for us.  In this context, perhaps the wisdom of the two trees is his reminder to balance each placed step to the best of our ability- because after all, as every hiker knows, our steps take us into the future.  Reb Elimelech goes even further by implying that with this wisdom we can even help build the path as we are walking.

I’d like to swim a little deeper before we enter into the match of the century.  As you can imagine, it turns out that the kabbalists have explored these images for quite some time.  Reb Elimelech was not the first.

The kabbalists didn’t sculpt, paint with oil or create stained glass- their medium of choice, was image and story!  (you gotta love’em)  Their creative imaginations were set to the project of imagining God- before, during and after the existence of our world.  In their imaginations, they connected the unimaginable cosmic Nothingness that pervades all with the Tree of Life.  It doesn’t have to make sense- just flow with it.  Our world flows from the Nothingness creating the Somethingness that is this world.  This Somethingness is connected with the Tree of Knowledge.  The important point for us is that early on, the kabbalists paired the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge together, teaching that only together can they make up our world.  After all, they are both mentioned in the Garden of Eden= they must have to be connected.  A paradox is formed if you choose ‘either/or’.  By the mystics definition, no forms are possible in the sea of Nothingness from which all creation flows.  Alternately, the forms by themselves are merely outer coverings, like the bandages that create the presence of the invisible man.

In the 1700’s, a new community of mystics began to create new meanings.  Hasidism combined these ideas from the medieval Zohar with their characteristic psychological insight and creativity and created something new.  They connected the pathos of selfless humility with the cosmic Nothingness of the Tree of Life and the pathos of self assertion with the Somethingness that is also the Tree of Knowledge.  These personally intimate layers also generate paradox if you mistakenly try and imagine only one pole of this pair.

For instance, humility alone can devolve and collapse into meekness.  Imagine here Peretz’ long suffering Bontsha the Silent.  When Bontsha is given an opportunity to ask for anything from the heavenly hosts, including redemption for the entire cosmos, he can only ask for a warm roll with butter. In response, a sustained groan spills from the heavenly realms.  Self assertion can also prove problematic by easily turning into hubris and arrogance when we forget the mysterious gift of life that manifests our actions.  Growing up in America we don’t have to go far to understand this.

For those that know Hasidic stories, we can sum up by saying, ‘Number 27’.  You know, the one where Reb Simcha Bunam talks about the two notes we should always carry in our pockets- in one pocket we carry the note that says ‘we are dust and ashes, going back to dust and ashes’.  In the other pocket we carry the note ‘for my sake the world was created’.  Is this not the wisdom of the two trees?  In this way, we can remember that all acts of our self assertion are buoyed by the mysterious source of life.  The same wisdom that sustains the prophets as they confront injustice can also sustain us in our everyday life.  Reb Elimelech is reminding us that all of this is planted inside our humble Mi Chamocha prayer.

Now we are able to come back around to the “match of the century’.  What might Rabbi Heschel have meant when he said: “…I am not ready to accept the ancient concept of prayer as dialogue.  Who are we to enter a dialogue with God?”   He then declares that he is only an “it” immersed within the all that is God and can not be an ‘I’.   Why might Rabbi Heschel be attacking dialogue, which just happens to be the backbone of Martin Buber’s work?  Perhaps Rabbi Heschel is reminding us of the wisdom of the two trees and balancing Martin Buber’s vision of God that is found in our relationships, by focusing on the Tree of Life, the cosmic Nothingness, an aspect of God in which we are totally subsumed.  Reminding us not to forget the wisdom of both trees, of balance, of active God work in creating an “I and Thou” field, as well as the totally subsumed, “All is the immensity of God no matter what we do”, view as well.

I wonder if perhaps Rabbi Heschel is playing the trickster by specifically attacking dialogue in his comments.  It seems that Rabbi Heschel was particularly good at rebuking the traditional community for not being liberal enough and rebuking the liberal community for not being traditional enough. Perhaps, Rabbi Heschel is reminding us to remember that this word “God” whatever it might mean to us, means way more than we can ever hold in our words and in our being.

Whew, Deep breath.  One last question.  In what additional ways might we understand this image of the two trees?  What polarities might be smoothed when we open our hearts and imagination to Reb Elimelech’s wisdom.  Are we becoming out of balance by focusing too much effort on personal change and minimizing civic engagement?  Are we bringing our attention only to the human community around us and forgetting our neighbors that are birds, animals, trees, rocks and water?  Are we pouring our energy into words of utility and forgetting words of prayer?  Are we spending too much time with words and forgetting color, music, dance, forest and stream?  As we imagine the biggest and brightest sustainable and peaceful earth we can imagine, here’s to the wisdom of the two trees helping us move there, step by step.

Please share where Reb Elimelech leads your imaginings.  After all, as the divine voice from the heavenly realms was recorded to say in the Talmud, “These and these are the words of the living God”*.

PS  This blog is based on a beautiful teaching that I’ve learned from Elimelech of Grodzisk (d. 1892).  He was the father of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira who became known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.  I found it in a book about the Shema, a volume of Lawrence Hoffman’s (editor) amazingly vast, multi-volume, contemporary commentary on the prayerbook called My People’s Prayerbook.   Nehemiah Polen and Lawrence Kushner bring the mystical and Hasidic perpectives to this book and the teaching grows from Reb Elimelech’s perspective on the daily blessing Mi Chamocha, our celebration song for trust in a bright future- trust because after all, we have just crossed the sea to safety.

The teaching from Rabbi Marcia Prager was a small bit from her teaching on the Shema and blessings, heard in person at the Davenning Leadership Training Institute.  For further information on this transformative two year prayer leadership program, please visit,

Maggid David,

*The full text is found in this wonderful collections of texts on civility can be found on the Jewish Council for Public Affairs site here:

Rabbi Abba said in the name of Sh’mu’el: For three years the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel debated [a matter of ritual purity]. These said, “The law is according to our position,” and these said, “The law is according to our position.” A divine voice came and said, “These and these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to the House of Hillel.” But if these and these are both the words of the living God, why was the law set according to the House of Hillel? Because they (the House of Hillel) were gentle and humble and they taught both their own words and the words of the House of Shammai. And not only this, but they taught the words of the House of Shammai before their own.(Talmud Eruvin 13b)

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Tu B’Shevat Seeds

Dear friends,

The origins of this post began over a year ago when I came across a quote that looked to me like Rabbi Heschel challenging Martin Buber’s masterpiece, I and Thou.  Unbelievable, right? Like two superheroes fighting.  I was compelled to explore deeper.

 Here’s what Rabbi Heschel said: “…I am not ready to accept the ancient concept of prayer as dialogue.  Who are we to enter a dialogue with God?”   He then declares that he is only an “it” immersed within the all that is God and can not be an ‘I’.   How could this be?  After sitting with this question for over a year, I think I’ve found the key.  Surprisingly, it takes us into the heart of Tu B’Shevat. 


It’s as simple as this- both trees from the Garden of Eden- the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge- are the ways of God.  I know it doesn’t seem like much, however, it turns out this image from Elimelech of Grodzisk (d.1892) is mythic shorthand and is jam-packed with wisdom about life.  To open these words in our hearts, we need to journey through worlds of the imagination that will take us to Tu B’Shevat and beyond.

We begin before the beginning began. All is without end, without boundary, Infinitely One that is Zero.  Can you imagine?  No crown, no head, no fingers, no toes, no body.  The All is Nothing.  Desire grew, spurred on by great loneliness and love, until a small space of emptiness was created to receive an outpouring of Nothingness.  As Nothing was congealing into the Something that is our world, tragedy struck.  A cosmic wound, a shattering crack, the mythic “breaking of the vessels” occurred during the very act of creation.

Yes, our world is created from wounds, with great needs, giving us much work to do.  However, let’s not collapse into despair.  After all- our world was created.  Our world was created!  We could dance and dance with this one marvelous idea all night long, but Reb Elimelech is beckoning. He’s bringing us into the Garden.  Not just any garden, but the Garden of Eden, the place where the first humans had the opportunity to repair the breach of creation.  Not just a short fix either, a patch that might fall off after a few generations, but a forever-long guaranteed fix until the end of time!  The entire future of the cosmos was waiting for the action of those first humans.  Alas, we all know how that turned out- ouch!

Or do we?  Every story is affected by the storyteller- and our tradition loves storytellers!  Reb Elimelech takes a creative turn sharing from the Zohar, our mythic proto-novel of sacred fantasy (this really is how scholars describe the Zohar).  Reb Elimelech teaches that the problem was NOT eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.  No, the problem was our first representatives on planet earth ONLY ate the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge- they did not ALSO partake of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Life as well!

What is this?  The problem is that they did not partake in a balanced meal?  This is still a problem- but a very different kind of problem.  We are gifted with an image, like a dream from another generation, speaking of a world out of balance.  Two trees with potent powers and yet only one is activated; over activated; colonizing the landscape with the power of house sparrow and dandelion.  How might this ring mythically true and sound for you?   Living in a world overgrown with energies from the Tree of Knowledge?  For me, I experience plenty that is out of balance: How about, ‘Better living through chemistry’ and all the rest of the plastic-crazed, preservative-enhanced, speed-induced, data overloaded, super-sized, sprawling challenges of our world?  Not to exclude the various off-kilter wobblings in my personal life and neighborhood organizations.  Might the overbearing Tree of Knowledge share mythic blame?

If so, what is the counterbalance?  What might it mean for us to tend to the Tree of Life?  Like all good dreams, artwork, poems, the image is not a recipe in a cookbook.  Many more questions are present than answers.  It is here that I jump to Tu B’Shevat.  After all, the Kabbalists transformed the Mishnah’s minor event of a new years’ tax day for the trees, to the mythically rich Rosh Hashanah for the Tree of Life itself!

Mythically, our seders are reviving participation in the cosmic repair of the world, in tikkun olam- Right?   Every piece of fruit we eat, if we can expand our imagination enough, focused with blessing and intention, helps complete the sacred circuit, allowing for the flowing energy of Eden to enter and nourish our world.  We are taking a bite out of the fruit from the Tree of Life itself!  Rebalancing, nay, fructifying our world!  Surely this is tending to the Tree of Life.

But is our Tree of Life ceremony enough?  Reb Elimelech is sharing that the Tree of Knowledge remains a co-star in the story of our world.  To remember that if two trees are growing next to each other, we can expect their roots to be intertwined.  If facts out of context make the Tree of Knowledge overgrown and off kilter (in a scary tower of Babel kind of way), how might we positively stimulate the healing energies of the Tree of Knowledge on Tu B’Shevat?  If our sensual pleasure of the meal; chewing fruit, drinking wine, and saying blessings stimulates the Tree of Life- what is it that would positively stimulate the Tree of Knowledge?

Wait a minute- the answer is right here, already inside our ceremony.  How about knowledge in service of earth, community and life!  Couldn’t this be the positive stimulation of the Tree of Knowledge.  The best part of this story is that our seders are already filled with teachings that connect people with trees, the life history of our food, environmental issues, systems thinking, the natural world, the history of Jewish environmentalism, our totally awesome and cool traditions, inspiring source texts…?  We are already positively stimulating the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life- check and double check!

So let’s review and see where Reb Elimelech’s teaching of the two trees has taken us.  Basically, it seems like Tu B’Shvat is the perfect holiday- part educational teach-in, part mystical repair of the cosmos!  Able to activate both trees in a single bound, er, ceremony.

I am so ready to break out in congratulatory pats on the back and enjoy extra helpings of smugness seeing Tu B’Shevat celebrated throughout the Jewish landscape.  However, Reb Elimelech is here with us, and the thing is, he is not talking about Tu B’Shevat at all-  His teaching of the two trees is placed inside our daily song-blessing of deep hope, Mi Chamocha.  Curious, eh?

Let’s listen in as Reb Elimelech re-imagines the meaning of our daily celebration song for trust in a bright future.  In a swift daring move, he shifts the question of Mi Chamocha B’Eylim- ‘who is like you among the Gods’ to a declaration: the Mi- ‘Who’ is a traditional mystic name for God (from the Zohar) and B’Eylim- ‘among the gods’ is converted to B(et)’ Ilan- ‘two trees’.  Mi Chamocha becomes: God- the two trees.

Wow- I love the fresh power of this teaching!  And yet…what might it mean?  I love how our amazing tradition supports such bold and daring creativity.  Though, what might Reb Elimelech be trying to tell us by connecting this cryptic image of the two trees identified as God with our blessing-song of deep hope and redemption?

Stay tuned tree friends- I’ll be back same tree time, and same tree channel with part two exploring this dance with Reb Elimelech.  Could it be as simple as Tu B’Shevat Kol Yom (transl:  Earthday is everyday)?  Guaranteed ring side seats for the match of the century: Martin Buber vs. Abraham Joshua Heschel, for all who come back.  Please write with comments, questions and reflections.

This blog is based on teaching from Elimelech of Grodzisk (d. 1892).  He was the father of Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro who became known as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.  I found this teaching in  Lawrence Hoffman’s (editor) amazingly vast, multi-volume, contemporary commentary on the prayerbook called My People’s Prayerbook, volume Shema.   Nehemiah Polen and Lawrence Kushner bring the mystical and Hasidic perspectives to this book.

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No Free Lunch- Not Even a Data Snack

Exactly thirty years ago, a small quiz appeared in Co-Evolution Quarterly, with the hip sounding, slang trumps grammar name of “Where You At”.  Check out these quiz questions: “How many days until the full moon? Can you name five resident and five migratory bird species in your area?  Can you name the soil series you are standing upon?  Can you trace your water from source to tap?  Where does your garbage go?”  This quiz captured a sea change in modern environmentalism; the sea change that declares that single issues and single actions are never enough, the sea change that inspires many of us to live our lives with fuller ecological integrity, spiritual depth and with increased attention to our local neighborhoods.

In 1981, the personal computer was still just a babe, with no Microsoft software or internet yet available.  Today, in the spirit of “Where You At” I’d like to add a new question to the quiz: “Do you know where your data goes once you hit the enter button?”  Is there a life cycle to trace?  What kind of materials and how much energy is used that allows for all of our searches, emails, tweets, facebook updates, video watching, music listening, document sharing and online banking?  Hold on to your chairs- this short tour might be a white knuckle experience if this is your first close up look at this new kind of factory called datacenters.

Where should I begin?  Once, in a galaxy far, far away, giant computers called mainframes, as big as an entire room, handled the computing needs for the largest and busiest of universities.  Er, maybe I won’t go back that far.  How about we begin with a tour of a data center?  Imagine entering a warehouse (some as large as a football field) and the first thing you will notice are aisles with rows and rows of servers stacked in racks.   Bring layers of clothing, because to control the climate, the aisles where the fronts of the servers are to the right and left can be 55-65 degrees cool and the aisles where the backs of the servers are to the right and left can be heat sinks of 85-95 degrees.  An Emerson Network Power (ENP) survey estimates the world is populated with 509,147 of these newish datacenters taking up the space of 5,955 football fields.  Estimate is the key word because many companies do not disclose the number of datacenters they use.  For instance the largest of users, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and many others do not share this information.

The electric company’s dream customer is a datacenter.  Every datacenter is not just the servers, but all of the climate control equipment, power supply regulators, backup machines, smoke and fire detection sensors, security apparatus and ordinary overhead lights also need electricity 24/7.  The EPA estimates that half of all the energy a datacenter uses is for the servers and the other half is for all the air conditioners and other support equipment.

The EPA reports that data center energy consumption doubled from 2000-2007 (3.5 gw to 7 gw).  The potential for rapid doubling growth in this sector is causing attention to be paid.  During this time, datacenters have jumped to consume 1.5 % of all energy use worldwide and 2% of energy use in the United States.

Emerson Network Power aggregated amazing statistics about our data use.  Ready?  2011 will see 1.2 trillion gigabytes of data consumed, or 7 million DVD’s every hour.  The years worth of data could fill 75 billion (16gb) IPods, enough for 10 IPods for every person on earth.  1,157 people start a YouTube video every second which equals 100,000,000 videos shown each day.  In Feb 2011, 140 million tweets were tweeted each day- which is almost 3x’s the 2010 daily tweet average.

Can I keep going?  Here is a group of surreal numbers generated by Google.  Just let them waft over you- whether you get chills like from the cool aisle of a datacenter, or the sweats like when you are in the hot aisle of a datacenter, unavoidably, the devilish details live in the numbers.  Google reports that they used 2,259,998 Megawatt hours in 2010.  (I checked this number several times).  They also estimate the Co2 emitted from each search.  Any guesses on the carbon footprint of your search journey through a dozen servers (or so) and back again?  They know that one search is equivalent to two minutes of a YouTube video which is equivalent to 0.2g Co2 being emitted.  In other words, for every 100 searches is equivalent to 20 grams Co2 emitted which is equivalent to using our laptops for 60 minutes which is equivalent to watching YouTube for 3 hours and 20 minutes.  As invisible and effortless as my Star Trekkian computer searches seem to me, Google is confirming that a very real impact is being made in the world.  There is no free lunch- not even a free data snack.

Let’s take a quick break for a primer to compare a kilowatt versus a megawatt versus a gigawatt.  Remember that 1 thousand seconds (kilosecond) = 16.7 minutes; 1 million seconds (megaseconds) = 11.6 days; and 1billion seconds (gigasecond) = 31.7 years (from my workshop 15 Billion Years and Six Days )

We are now coming towards the home stretch.  Where is all of this leading?  For the near future, there is the need for biggering, biggering and more biggering.  Even with the reducing impact of the recession, energy efficiency, and computing capacity increases (ENP details a server grew 45x in computing power from 2001 through 2011).  Listen to these surveys. Computer world reports that 36% of all datacenters say they will run out of data center space in the coming year.  Of these, 40% plan on building new, 29% plan on leasing and 20% said they will rent from a “cloud” provider (meaning renting from another company that is managing a very real datacenter for them).  Another survey of 300 IT decision makers with budgets of 1 billion dollars or 5000 employees, reports that 85% of these companies will definitely or probably expand their datacenters in this coming year.

These very real challenges are also leading to new levels of creativity to reduce electricity costs.  Aggressive efficiency measures are being tested and encouraged.  These include: New generation of computer designs reduce the need for electricity (for instance, newest generation central processing units (chips use 30% of all server energy), mother boards, etc. continue to reduce the need for electricity);  Appropriately sized redundancy capabilities and power management tools- including power down technology and motion sensors for overhead lights (hardly rocket science); and new climate control systems that cool with fresh outdoor air instead of air conditioners.  In addition, new cooling regulations will soon be coming out, updating and increasing the temperature range that servers can survive in.   As these factories put their attention to saving energy and lessening their impact- much gain can be made.  It is hard to remember that datacenters are so new, best practices are still being written.  All the more so for green best practices.  LEED, the national Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program just began the process of drafting LEED for datacenters in 2009.

This is just the beginning of a response to the question “where does our data go?”  I hope this abbreviated “geek tour” through the land of data brings close what previously might have been far.  My hope is that this column might expand our mindfulness and appreciation for our ever present computer use.  In addition, I dedicate this for all of us who are teachers, helping to expand the story we tell about our many and diverse connections to our home planet.

Select Sources to follow.

Select Sources:
Original “Where You At” quiz
Greening datacenters- overview
Overview 2-6 steps to a greener datacenter

The EPA Report that first assessed the scope and size of datacenters from 2007
A Greenpeace report detailing the environmental impacts of datacenters: 
The datacenter innovators:
The Green Grid- a consortium of major companies setting up new datacenter practices.
LEED; Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design for datacenters
Basic primer on power and energy
Google’s Green Statistics:
Emerson Network Power summary report with summary infographic:
Background articles:
New York Times update on datacenter growth.  Includes the fallacy that modeling scenarios equals fortune telling predictions.  The original EPA report included 5 scenarios for datacenter electricity use growth- which is not reported in this article.
Computerworld surveys of datacenter growth
An attempt to chart datacenters- though as mentioned, many big companies are not yet reporting.  Check out the comments to get a sense of how big this landscape of datacenter owners is.


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The Greening of Teshuvah

Dear Friends,

I’d like to open a kettle of worms. To reveal the concealed. Though quite honestly, I’m feeling a little guilty about sharing it. I’d like to dig into the anguish and sometimes near crushing feelings that writing about tremendous mountains of electronic waste stir up (see my past blog here).

Living in America in the new millennium, I’m aware that even the most “virtuous” of green paths cannot escape deep impacts and repercussions. After all, the problems are so large, and my everyday life is intimately wrapped inside the causes. Rabbi Heschel has a famous declaration, spoken to express his concern about America bringing war to Vietnam “In a democracy, only some are guilty, but all are responsible”. I can’t help but amend this to say, “In the Ecological Age, all are guilty and all are responsible.” Not ONLY individuals- I’m not giving a free pass to corporate decisions, government policies and our many workplace decisions, though here I wish to focus on our experience as individuals.

I suppose I should just say it. I’d like to speak for guilt. I know guilt is not in fashion. Even on attack in some quarters. Does that mean it disappears from our life? I wonder how much therapy and how many contemporary crusades have been fueled by our repressed guilt and anxiety? Guilt is part of the anguish I feel as I comprehend the ecological impacts of my daily actions. Living in a society of such affluence, convenience and its wasteful consequences tempt us at every turn and in every sector of life; with every vehicle ride, meal prepared and home improvement project, and yes, even with every cup of coffee. None of us can ever be immune or “perfect”.

I’m motivated to give voice to this private feeling in this public forum because of the repeated and palpable groaning I’ve been hearing in classes lately. When groups hear Rabbi Heschel’s view that endless tension and obligation stem from our experiences of awe and wonder, people groan. Or “the greatness of humans can be judged by the troubles we carry… life is a challenge not a satisfaction” and,“all that we own, we owe” Groan, groan. Or this from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, from an essay by Rabbi Larry Kushner in the new book, Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, “Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind….The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going on- who has a feeling of completion, of peace… to be someone who has lost his way.” Groan, groan, groan.

To me, this feels like an authentic consequence of receiving an ecological education, a real part of my inner landscape. I wonder, does this also ring true for you? I feel my eyes are ever on the horizon and yet do I ever come to the horizon? Never. All we have are our steps- and when we realize the implications of our actions along with our own imperfections, I am motivated to tread lightly. Sometimes, I can even become overwhelmed, guilt activated, when I realize how often I choose convenience when I could have chosen differently.

I used to be surprised by the groans. After all, Jewish tradition has long explored this landscape since the earliest of strata- Leviticus 19:2 “You must be Holy for I the Lord am Holy.” We are called to the highest level, and yet perfection has always been unattainable. Thanksfully, atonement, tikkun hanefesh, self healing, is built deeply into our tradition- first with animal sacrifices, and then, after destruction of the Temple, the Rabbi’s taught that our deeds of loving-kindness will act as our atonement. Perhaps today we can add street protests, letters to congress, consciousness raising workshops, and donations (to Jewcology for instance) as further actions on the path of atonement.

Dr. Louis E. Newman, in Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah, a profound text written from decades of study and life experiences, states directly the importance of our guilt. He teaches that guilt can help wake us up to the consequences of our actions and lead us to making amends and most importantly, finalize the work of Teshuvah by not repeating the action when it comes around again, as it undoubtedly will. In this way we can touch the true and radical freedom our life has to offer. In this way, we can tap into true and radical hope that the world of tomorrow does not have to be the world of yesterday or today.

I don’t want to end this blog here, even if it were Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. The danger of dancing with guilt, is that we can so easily become mugged by this dance partner. We can lose perspective and slip into a dark pit of guilt and despair, a place of not being good enough- when we focus our attention on how vast is the need, and how puny are our efforts. Chaim Grade, the modern Yiddish novelist, points to this kind of dark landscape with some of the characters in his novels, The Yeshivah and The Agunah. Perhaps some of us recognize this as well?

Unsurprisingly, Judaism’s collection of ancient wisdom has also foreseen the dangers of this for us. In fact, our commonest wisdom considers this landscape. We probably know this from Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (PA,1:14) or this from Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (PA 2:16). Are not these teachings addressing very serious and overwhelming questions? Let us also add, “if not here, where?”

Rabbi Arthur Green encourages us to remember (riffing off the Sfat Emet and other Hasidic masters) that future generations will also like to share in “redeeming the world”. Yes, it is good to remember that none of us ever need to work alone. We are all part of a grand team, colleagues we share the same time with, and also we have colleagues in our future descendants, and we also are supported by our colleague ancestors from the past.

Similarly, Rabbi Kushner’s essay that contains the above Steinsaltz quote, addressed this topic, by citing Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s teaching that Moses was picked just because he did not feel worthy! The Berditchever is raising up this experience of unworthiness, presumably because of how common the darker feelings of inadequacy were in his day. This wisdom is solid, however, I wonder where is the wisdom stream that lies beyond the landscape of obligation and inadequacy?

It seems to me, this is the very heart of environmental education and what inspires me about this work. This stream is nothing less than the “aboriginal abyss of radical amazement” in Rabbi Heschel’s words. The everyday sense of wonder we might feel with a certain forest breeze or the wondrous birth of a child. Here Rabbi Heschel gives this experience ultimate significance. Speaking with the authority of 4000 years of Jewish tradition, Rabbi Heschel reminds us of mysterious blessing at the center of all life- not a mystery to solve, rather an unsolvable mystery for us to revere. Let’s listen in as he shares his wisdom about being human, “Where man meets the world, not with the tools he has made but with the soul in which he was born; not like a hunter who seeks his prey, but like a lover to reciprocate; not an object, a thing given to his sense, but a state of fellowship that embraces him and all things; not a particular fact, but the startling situation that there are facts at all; being; the presence of a universe; the unfolding of time.”

Perhaps in one pocket we need to hold the truth that life is endless obligation, the work is long, and we are puny, mere dust soon going back to dust. Our part is to work at what is given to us, wherever we find ourselves. In the other pocket, we remember the radical amazement that is present in every moment, we are awed by the infinite significance of our individual actions, we hold the realization that the world was created for us and we carry the voice of the earth inside our throats.

A new day is dawning. Tell me, how will you respond to the gift of these waking hours?

I’ll leave you with a clip from Rabbi Heschel, who inspires me with his fierce urgency for prophetic activism along with his deep understanding of the quiet power of prayer.

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The Little That Holds A Lot

How do I share about the hidden dangers of electronic waste? I find it hard to stare directly at this information. I’d like to start with a meditation from Reb Nachman of Breslov- his images from a hunchback beggar that depict a little that holds a lot. First, silence- the little that holds a lot. Next, let’s remember the life giving land- filled with fruit trees that become dwarfed by the bounty of fruit- the little that holds a lot. And only now do I turn to Reb Nachman’s nightmarish image of the mountain of excrement and waste- produced by one small man and his refuse- the little that holds a lot.

The mountain of electronic excrement we are producing is incomprehensible to me. Aldo Leopold’s words from his mid-century classic A Sand County Almanac ring in my ears- the price of an ecological education is to live in a world filled with wounds. Why is it so hard to remember that all is interconnected? That our right hand and left hand are connected in one system. We all know that our material waste, be it electronic or other, does not magically disappear because we take it to the curbside, drop it off at the dump or faithfully bring it to the recycling center. And yet I forget this simple ecological fact over and over again.

I type and share and connect- utilizing the benefits of the web, and at the same time, my computer is filled with toxins including mercury, lead (4-8 lbs if you have a large CRT monitor), hexavalent chromium, beryllium, cadmium, brominated fire retardants, PVC, plus assorted rare and common metals. Multiply this by every computer in the world, by every cell phone, digital camera, game boy, every gadget with a circuit board that’s been sold anywhere- ever. It is amazing how fast a little can become a lot.

Consider our little mobile phone and computer. When you add the 1.2 billion cell phones and 255 million pc’s sold in 2007, according to The United Nations Environmental Program E-report, “From E-waste to Recycling”, we mined 3% of the world’s silver, 3% of the world’s gold, and 13% of the worlds Palladium to meet this need. In addition, electronics make up for almost 80% of the world’s demand of indium (transparent conductive layers in LCD glass), over 80% of ruthenium (magnetic properties in hard disks, and 50% of the world’s supply of antimony (flame retardants).

Effective recycling of these metals is crucial not only because they are finite, and the energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are magnitudes higher in mining these metals versus reclaiming them for reuse, but also because some of these same metals are used in other industries- for instance, currently solar panels are also made with indium, and fuel cells are made with ruthenium.

So how much of our electronics are recycled? The Electronic Take Back Coalition reports just under 20% world wide. Most electronics are still destined for landfills and incinerators. I wish I could say AT LEAST one out of five are recycled. However, our electronics recycling infrastructure is not yet developed enough to handle even this much flow. As a consequence, ewaste overflow is shipped to cities in China, Pakistan, India, and Ghana.

It is in these places where children and adults, men and women heat circuit boards over small flames, and stir them in buckets of acid to reclaim what they can. They tend large fires of electrical wires to burn the plastic coating and collect the copper. All the rest is burned outside the city- the ash snowing down on their farm fields and homes. The acid is dumped into the local streams. Investigative reporters have been documenting the work life in these “recycling” operations for over a decade. See video below.

I write this to expand our imaginations- mine included. I find this larger life cycle of our electronic products is so easily denied. Whether you are an entrepreneur, educator or activist; a politician, lawyer or scientist, there is work to do all along the cycle from production to resurrection of the assumed dead appliances. Like Reb Nachman’s hunchback beggar, whose little shoulders could actually shoulder and bear great good in the world, may our small actions today grow into great impacts in the coming years.

I’ll leave you today with news from the European Union, and a collection of links for organizations working on these issues. Next blog we’ll explore new green electronics products (and the green chemistry movement that supports it).

I look forward to the continuing conversation. Maggid David.

The European Union became the international leader in reducing e-waste impacts by passing (over a decade ago) the Restriction on Hazardous Substance (Rohs) directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive. Rohs outlaws any products that use the most dangerous of materials including lead, mercury, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, and the brominated fire retardants. (Yes, this means the electrical gadgets we produce here in the United States can not be sold in the EU).

WEEE mandates the manufacturers to pay for the full recycling of their products. Following the European Union’s lead, China, Norway, Turkey and a few other countries are implementing Rohs based laws. Here in the US, only CA has put in place a similar law to Rohs.

Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition:
Basel Action Network:
CEH: Center for Environmental Health:
E-Stewards: The Globally Responsible way to recycle your electronics:
Electronic Take Back Coalition:

White Papers:
Electronics Take Back Coalition Fact Sheet:
United Nations Environment Program: Recycling- from Ewaste to Resources.
Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics:

Other Ewaste Investigations:
60 minutes:
BBC News Video:

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The Tainted Grain: On Facebook and the Dark Side of Computing

Dear Friends,

I was in our local co-op yesterday and, as often happens, I ran into a friend.  My friend started by saying, “you know, I’ve started to sign up for facebook three or four times, and then I realize it wants me to give over all of my emails…  I’m just not going to do it.  It looks innocent- but it’s all of my emails!”  I said, “I know- I’ve been almost logging on to facebook too- and when I get to those emails- I’m out of there!”

We talked there in the aisle, me holding my cereal and freshly ground coffee, one thing led to another and soon we had a full purging crank session lasting 45 minutes.  Themes flowed through lack of privacy, crazy games with 60 MILLION players monthly (and there aren’t even space aliens involved like when I was a kid!), large security threats to nations, corporations and individuals, and the physical hazardous waste that all of our electronics are producing.  There in the grocery aisle, I knew enough not to even mention the belief in the coming of the singularity (and believe me, it’s not about the oneness of the Shema or the mythic coming of Mashiach.)

And yet, at the same time, I’m also an independent storyteller and educator.  I want to find ways to utilize the mighty power of the web to connect with others in ways that will potentially serve story and the earth.  How do I do this without forgetting, without totally capitulating to computer technology’s dark side- its shadow- its sitra acher and all of the dancing demon agents of gevurah that live there.

Entering this paradox (still there in the grocery aisle), this new blog series was born.  So buckle up and hold on tight.  What you are about to hear may shock you, overwhelm you, cause you to stay up late at night frozen in fear.  My hope is to create conversations, a place to share our stories and our links, exploring the full impact we are witnessing computers are having on our lives as we use them.  What impacts would you add to the above list?

I dedicate this new series to my small trio of companions, back at the Teva Seminar 5770, who encouraged similar ideas when and her many blogs was still a dream.  And to Donella Meadows (may her memory be for a blessing), who reminds us again and again to think like a system.

Tonight I’ll leave you with a story (of course) adapted from Reb Nachman of Breslov, and a video introducing the electronics material production cycle from Annie Leonard:  The Electronic Story of Stuff.  I’ll write more next time, but for now, I have 33 new facebook friends to greet!

The Tainted Grain adapted from Reb Nachman of Breslov:

Once a King turned to his old friend and advisor and said, “I see in my mind’s eye that the wheat growing this year will cause those who eat of it to go crazy. What shall we do?”
“Let us prepare enough wheat from other sources so that we won’t have to eat of this tainted grain.”
“But then,” replied the King, “all the world will be crazy and only we will be sane. In this upside down situation we will become the crazy ones.  Instead, let us place a mark on our foreheads to remind us, so that when we look at each other we will see our marks and remember that we are acting crazy because we are living through crazy times.”

Link to the story of stuff website and video here to find out about the story of stuff project along with a national ewaste campaign and a whole mess of background materials.  Next time, I’ll introduce RoHs and WEEE, the EU’s restriction on hazardous substance law and Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment take back law (in place since 2007).  Stay tuned.  Questions?  Comments?  Please write to me at

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