Dance of Teshuvah; Dance of Tikkun

Shalom Shachna, the son of Holy Angel, the grandson of the Maggid of Mezeritch, learned to dance from the Shpoler Zeide.  For the rest of his life he would share with all who would listen how the Shpoler Zeide was a master of dance and able to achieve Holy Unifications with each step of his foot.  Adapted from Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber.

“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer….Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Sometimes, when I can no longer stand my careless abuse of the Earth, I know I have to take a stand- In the streets with my neighbors.  Teshuvah as protest.  The power is in the action.  My legs hold real power to help me remember what’s most important and start fresh.

Amazingly, it used to be common knowledge that the power contained in our legs affects the cosmos.  An ancient midrash says every commandment has a corresponding place in our body and day of the year. We are not only saying ‘As above, so below’, but also ‘As below, so above’  This teaching was carried forward into Medieval Kabbalah providing a unique form of empowerment.  The Kabbalists actually taught that the cosmos needed our prayers and our actions for its own healing.

The Hasidic creativity of the pre-modern world transformed this teaching applying it specifically to everyday dance ( song and story too!).  Did you know the Shpoler Zeide continued to dance with the lightness of youth well into his old age?  Once, a Jewish life was in danger.  A giant cossack soldier was cruelly treating him like a cat treats a mouse.  The giant declared that if anyone could out-dance him, then he would spare the life of this simple Jew.  However, if not, than both dancer and hostage would die!  Everyone was so scared.  It was the Grandfatherly Shpoler Zeide who stepped forward.  He danced the Bear-Dance with such focused power and vigor that the cossack was unable to keep up.  He fell down laughing saying, ‘You win old man, you win’.  For the Shpoler Zeide, dance was a superpower!  Able to affect Teshuvah with a single bound.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, actually prescribed dance as a remedy for the hopeless despair that prevents joy.  He knew, the act of dance was enough to raise joy high in the saddest of souls.  Dance as medicine.  How’s that for creative health care!

Now we come to Rabbi Heschel and his creativity.  He’s not just protesting, he’s praying with his legs!  This power still reaches us, like light from a distant star. It is testimony to Rabbi Heschel’s strong cosmic powers.

How many of us are inspired to do more because of Rabbi Heschel?  The power of praying legs in protest.

This Elul, let’s bring all of the enchantment we can muster to our Teshuvah. Let’s add our modern awareness for the evolutionary miracles that allow legs to stand, ankles to rotate, and 26 humble bones in the foot that allow us to stand steady even on uneven ground.  The spontaneous freedom of dance, the improvisational prayer of protest reminds us that we can choose a new path. We can alter the shape of tomorrow.  As Emma Goldman said, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution!”  Rally Ho!

For additional background on the powers of dance see, “The Mystery of Dance According to Reb Nachman of Bratzlav” in The Exegetical Imagination by Michael Fishbane.

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The Seder’s Burnt Egg

Shemot 2: 23-24 …and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.  And God heard their groaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.

I raise the burnt egg of the seder plate.  Inside a cry lies dormant; a cry that contains all cries.  The Rabbis teach us not to avoid this cry.  Further, they say, trust, feel, open, speak; know that these cries will not lead to annihilation, but to regeneration and redemption.

Yet, this wisdom is so hard to trust.  Have we not been trained since childhood to avoid pain, to avoid tears?  I have. All year our family ate a steady diet of American hope and optimism, wonders and miracles, in the form of Wonder Bread and Miracle Whip mayonnaise.  Our childhood seder was no different, under guidance from the house of Reb Maxwell, we had no burnt egg at all.  Instead, we had a pre-peeled, gleaming and tasty hard-boiled egg on our seder plate, laden with birth and spring joy.

It wasn’t until I was a college student studying in a Jerusalem Yeshiva that I saw a grown man cry.  It was Tisha B’Av and the heat of the summer was intense.  We first ate hard-boiled egg dipped into ashes, and then we sat on the ground and began prayers that included mournfully chanted lamentations.   These laments of the persecuted and starving community in ancient Jerusalem were accompanied by unabashed groans, shouts and tears.

I couldn’t breathe, I was overwhelmed.  I was sitting inside the day of the burnt egg.  A day of many tragedies including the destruction of both ancient temples, the destruction of the city Betar, many medieval anti-semitic persecutions and even the Shoah, the Holocaust, are all folded into Tisha B’Av.

The burnt egg of Pesach is deepened by Tisha B’av.  Tisha B’Av invites us to understand that no matter how much we do, hunger, hatred, greed, murder and malice will continue throughout the world.  No matter how much we organize, the atmosphere will continue to heat.  No matter how much we protest, species will stop being; the ending of birth; the death to all that could have been.  Burnt eggs all.  Can we sit still long enough and allow ourselves to grock this immense, on-going pain?  Can we feel the sadness as it fills us?  To hear the Earth cry?  To weep with the Holy One?

This is so hard.  Inner voices from childhood, from past generations, caution against crying.  They warn of the attack that comes with vulnerability, they fear annihilation and the WAIL transforms into enemy.  The burnt egg transforms into searing flame, burning all who come near.  All the while, we become hypervigilant; choosing to live inside a lookout tower, dedicating ourselves to plugging leaks, plastering over, preventing disturbance.  Or perhaps, we just skip merrily towards utopic redemption; forever choosing Disney’s ‘happily ever after’, over the pain and realism of Kafka.

The Rabbis offer us a helping hand, a contradiction to the path of avoidance and numbness.  They know, from Shemot 2 found above, that redemption is activated by crying out; our very tears and groans are able to wake up this world; wake up ourselves.  Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught from experience that avoiding the pain of our lives and the pain of the world, while seeming smart, only brings a numbness and silence that threatens both our very being and the Source of Life which animates the world.  His teachings, from that ‘Time of Wrath’, testify that through our painful depths we also connect with the pain of the world and the Source of Life itself.

In the ritualized poetry of Tisha B’Av, the Mashiach is born only on the afternoon of Tisha B’Av after lamentations. In the words of the Safed Kabbalist Moshe Cordovero, with breaking, comes hope.  Our Rabbis know that if we skip lamentations, we are in trouble.  If we succumb and silently accept the misery and pain of our life without complaint, be it the slavery in Egypt or living blithely through mass extinctions, poisonous products and heating climate, then we are surely lost.  Lost in numbing distractions, cynical, powerless anger or the constant busyness and distraction that is America.

So the burnt egg is kept on the seder plate.  Allowing us to connect ancient temple sacrifice with the temple that is our body; the temple that is our earth; and the temple that is our home.   Containing every ash laden egg, midnight lament, unpatched wall and heart-felt cry that is uttered.  Reminding us to trust, feel, open and speak.

And our story begins.  Guiding us, encouraging us to not sidestep, sugar-coat or harden our hearts with indifference; to not turn away from places of pain and catastrophe.  Spin the seder wheel and we also have Karpas, green leafy hopeful Karpas, the real spring joy.  We are blessed with visions of new growth, of actual escape from Egypt, of sustaining Manna, formed with the regenerative powers that are continually flowing through our world.  Trusting this inherent wisdom is waiting inside our story of wholeness, waiting to be retold, refreshed and relived.  We step inside the spiral again this year, knowing that redemption is not a ‘once and for all time’ event.  After all, we are only human.

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Elul Joy and Love

I’d like to speak about joy and love.  I know that Elul is upon us; a time for relentless self reflection, spurred on by the blasts of shofar.  And yet, the Rabbi’s in their complexity have added another dimension to Elul, Love.

Remember the acronym for Elul?  It’s from the Song of Songs, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li- I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  Reciprocal love is spiraling back and forth right here in Elul along with our lists of how we missed the mark.  Isn’t this worthy of attention?  What might it mean?

I’m not sure, but it’s certainly not insignificant.  Rabbi Akiva said that if all of Tanach (the five books plus all the prophets plus all the writings) is the HolyTemple, then the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies!  The Song of Songs is sensuous and loving, filled with sexual desire and yearning; lovers are seeking fulfillment on every page.  We all know that steamy passion can easily burn and destroy, and yet, Rabbi Akiva holds this up as the archetypal place of holiness.  Blessed Be.

This is why I’m turning to joy this Elul.  The Song of Songs is reminding us that loving and desirous energy defines our relationship with the world, with the Source of Life.  Far from being unrequited, it is given back fully.  And then, when I receive the love I’m desiring, I feel fully me, fully seen, feeling even fuller than me!  I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  This face of loving joy is also a face of Teshuvah.

I heard that the great psychoanalyst Milton Ericson tells a story of a mean nasty man who never smiled.  He became thunderstruck and lovesick with the new school teacher in town.  He asked to see her formally, and she said, only if you clean up your ways and try to smile once in awhile.  The goofiest grin came over his face, kindness filled his heart and he never looked back.  They lived happily ever after, smiling and holding hands like young fools until the end of their days.  Who says love is not powerful!

But wait, if Rabbi Akiva is saying that this great love is our birthright, then it also means there is nothing to earn.  I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.  Our very natural relationship with the world itself is to love and be loved in return merely because we are alive!  Why is it so hard to imagine and carry this intense level of joyful loving?

Teshuvah can help me learn the ways that I actively block this joyous knowing; the many ways that I pickle myself in worry and bewitch myself in fear.  The ways we are unaware that our lifted hand blocks the sun and yet we can only whine and wonder why the light is so dim.

The social scientist Brene Brown adds another facet.  She asked why is it so hard to maintain our joy?  Her research discovered our fear of the vulnerability that leads to grief.  She noticed a widespread and uncanny ability to use fantasies of disaster to try and inoculate ourselves.  You know, the way we can look at something beautiful and say, ‘uh-oh, what’s coming’.  The sad truth is that these fantasies do not protect us at all, they just rob us of our joy.

Amazingly, her remedy, her tikkun is gratitude.  Practices of gratitude in the moment; utterances of thankfulness for what is here right now, irregardless of what may happen in the future.  Hmmmh, the Rabbi’s teach that 100 blessings a day keeps the Dr. away (or something like that-smiles). A good practice for Elul, eh?  With blessings of gratitude, I can remember the utter uniqueness that is life; the perpetual joyous singing that is the symphony of the natural world.  Fortified with joy, I can face the stark truth about the many ways that I and my community inflict personal and planetary harm.  Like Milton Ericson’s mean man, If I’m bathed in love who knows what I will be capable of!

Let the Joy deeds of gratitude be fruitful and multiply! As Rumi said, “Let the beauty we love be what we do.  There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”  In the name of Joy, let’s bless all that we hold precious… the Rabbi’s blessings, yes, and even more!  A child’s song, a friends laughter, cooking (and eating) a special meal for/with loved ones, silent welcoming of dawn and dusk, calling good morning to the birds, saying Shechianu when the Junco’s come in the fall and the constellation Orion appears overhead, when the chicory blooms in July and the tomatoes ripen in August are all for me special joyful moments worthy of honoring with a blessing of gratitude.  What other myriads of blessings would you like to add?

May your Elul be meaningful and filled with the joy that only love can bring.  Here’s a joyous love poem I’ve adapted from psalm 150.

Jump, Sing Out,

Raise Joy, right here in your chair.

Celebrate life’s source 

in your home, in green fields,

at rivers edge, from high ledges.

Remember how we are supported,

as lilies in open water.

Blast your car horn,

turn up the radio,

sing loud with the windows rolled down.

Whisper love at night. Remember Nothing,

than moan with delight,
whistle with puckered lips,

click your tongue.

Tap one, no, stomp

both your feet;

pop fingers, clap hands, slap knees,

hoot, howl, bang your chest,
clash and rattle your tin pots.

 Raise joy high with this holy commotion.

With every single breath. Hallelujah.

 Adapted from psalm 150 by Maggid David Arfa


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Reb Zalman Tribute

For Reb Zalman

I first met you in the summer of 91’
You were leading services in a Mt Airy church.
We sat in a circle with a basket of fun and inviting instruments in the center; egg rattles, tambourines, bongo’s!

You said the Psalms were the songs of David- that caught my attention!
You continued by asking us what were our psalms?  Do I have psalms too?  You invited us to turn to our neighbor and combine our psalms with King David’s. And when we turned, you said, remember that your neighbor is not your neighbor but nothing less than the Face of G!d.

I don’t know why, but when you talked of the Psycho-Halachic Process I would get chills.  When you opened the emotional and imaginal dimensions of prayer with such ease, I was yours.

You were a teacher’s teacher, a premier experiential educator. I was able to journey with you through dream-like biblical landscapes, go on pilgrimage to the holy temple, and learn how animal sacrifice could actually be seen as an ancient path of devotion.

For $35 I could join your Mt Airy classes that summer.  I didn’t know what I was in for.  For instance, after locating Buber as a pioneering ‘Neo-Hasidic Renewalnik’, you told us this haunting story: One night, Buber was deep in study and contemplation.  A knock at the door, a young man wanted to talk, Buber wanted to continue his studies. He briskly ordered, “come back later”.  The next day that youth was found drowned in the river.  Even many years later, I still can’t help but wonder, how can I bring more attention to my relationships?

I learned that you really loved verbs when you dedicated an entire class to describing Kabbalistic ideas in terms of verb tenses. I didn’t understand even one lick.  I said as much to another student in that Germantown Jewish center classroom.  He said, “of course you didn’t, that’s because Reb Zalman’s a certifiable genius!  He not only reads everything but remembers it too!”

Most importantly, you taught paradigm shifting as an active verb.  That made all the difference.  You shifted the stodgy (and brilliant) description of how physics and science change over time, to an active process, a participatory adventure that included all of us.  You not only chronicled the change from temple, priest and sacrifice to synagogue, rabbi, prayer and deed; you also inspired us to ask, where are the winds of change blowing today?  This allowed me to Jew with zeal and passion.

I have a beloved and whispered name for you: Heart’s Gate.  I’m sure your intimate writings in Gates of the Heart opened many hearts.  It certainly did mine.  All of your prayer services and retreats taught us that contemplative practices were core.  Every part of you taught that our kabbalistic heritage is both old and new and carries great relevance.  Even your casual socks and sandals seemed to radiate the importance that living with care and growing in caring were vitally important for both people and planet.

I love that you shared your first step.  There, by the NY subway in 1947, you found a book on prayer written by a catholic monk.  What inspired you to actually read it?  I’m sure it was not on the Rebbe’s reading list!  With shock and awe, you realized that more than Chabad knew about prayer.  With great excitement, you began a life long search leading to advanced degrees in psychology and comparative religion.  With great strength you began learning with great teachers and sharing what you love.

Somehow, supported by the Age of Aquarius, a post-triumphalist new religious order began to take shape.  You managed to find common ground with Native Americans blessing the morning sun; you gazed deeply into the Dalai Lama’s eyes and spoke of surviving exile; you went on retreat at catholic monasteries, and even prayed with Muslim’s in Jerusalem.  When those students of that Sufi Sheikh challenged you directly, even threateningly, you answered with your usual charm, grace and calm, “I’m a child of Abraham guided by the Holy One of Love and Peace”.

I remember your mischievous smile, when teaching with Roshi Bernie Glassman, you wanted to play a trick on him.  You had us all chant the Shema with each word being a full ohm long.  When Bernie came in, he was not surprised one bit, in fact, he thought we were actually praying.  A new tradition was born.

Bnai Ohr had already become Pnai Ohr when I met you.  Your work with Shlomo, your Summerville years, Esalon experiments, and imaginative mystery schools were all behind you.   Your non-heirarchical, egalitarian and earth-centered values were already set.  After all, you were nearly 70.  You were launching your newest project, Spiritual Eldering.

When I heard you share your vision at Borders Books, describing spiritual eldering plus the infrastructure that would give it legs, I just stood back in awe at your audacity, can-do spirit, hopefulness and organizational mastery.  I ran to the shelves and found a biography of one of my favorite elder/visionary/organizers: David Brower.  In my excitement, I wanted to share it with you.  You listened and took the book with such a warm smile.  I still wonder with anxiety if you thought that book was actually paid for? I do hope the door alarms did not go off when you left that day.

A favorite moment: I was so glad to honor you at Elat Chayyim.  We learned a complicated niggun and all stood in that packed room when you entered.  You were a regal Rebbe, wearing fur streimel and satin robe.  The joy and reverence of Rebbe and Hasidim carried that moment of awe into eternity.

I do not actually remember the niggun or if your robe was black or white.  I do remember the excitement of exploring a post-modern Judaism for the 21st Century.  When someone mentioned your new book of Hasidic stories, I stood, with heart beating, I quickly gave my testimony- saying it was an incredible mix of Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem, scholarship and story combined, with the best part being that personal memories were included too!  Your instantaneous, “Thank you Maggid” is a blessing that I still carry with me here in my heart.

Later, when we sat together, I remember your tired eyes.  You shared stories of your free-lance work with summer camps and synagogues, and gave counsel to let the future rise like bread.  You also shared sage advice to not be afraid of technology! After all you said, “digital recorders are coming down in price everyday”.

Most of all, I remember your love of imagination.  Your conviction that imagination is everpresent, engaged with every story we hear; with every lift of our arms.  This is why the landscape of prayer is also the landscape of imagination.

The power of imagination is such, that you were able to guide us in meeting our grandparents.  It was so simple.  We closed our eyes, imagined a path in the forest and followed it to a clearing by a cool flowing stream.  And there we could visit with our Bubbie or our Zayde, whether we ever actually met them in this world or not.  Sitting streamside, we could talk together, share our excitements, our questions and receive too.

For me, this was your greatest gift of all.  It’s like a master key hidden in a cake given to a prisoner.  Because with this gift, I can still visit with you.  All I need to do is close my eyes, imagine a path in the forest and follow it to a clearing by a cool flowing stream.  And there we can visit.  We can talk together, share our excitements.  I can hear about your contact with Reb Shlomo, Rabbi Heschel, Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin.  I can hear about all the Hasidic masters you are davenning with in Gabriel’s Palace.   I can ask questions and receive your guiding wisdom.  In all these many ways, your life will continue to be a blessing.

Maggid David Arfa, Tammuz 5774

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Malchut- Omer 49

Malchut b’ Malchut

I heard a group of historians debating whether we can say Hasidism carries “green” values.  The nays were winning when, as I remember it, Rabbi Tikvah Frymer Kinsky stands up and says that our people’s project has always been ‘recombinant theological engineering’.  Don’t you love that phrase?  She reminded us that textual associations have always reflected contemporary influences, are built on the past and can even contain creative flair!  Fitting for our work here, eh, as we have chosen to combine Omer counting with Sefirot and Earth.

We started out 48 days ago politically free but hurting.  We’ve journeyed over hill and dale to spiritual freedom and have now reached the penultimate step, Malchut b’Malchut which will carry us to the peak and revelation at Sinai.  How do we honor Malchut?  What portrait is worthy?  The key was unlocked for me when I found this truly subversive Shavuot teaching from the Sfat Emet, a grand Rebbe of for the Jews of Ger and Warsaw.  He emphasizes that our awe is more important than our learning.  He calls learning ‘the gateway’ and awe ‘the dwelling place’.  This Talmudic quote is all the proof needed! “Woe to the one who has no dwelling place, but makes of their life a gateway”.  Yes, Torah can open our hearts, but the dwelling place is the awe and love we carry in our lives.

In a beautiful series of creative associations, the Sfat Emet says this is why we read the scroll of Ruth on Shavuot- after all, Ruth is the great grandmother of David, which is linked with Malchut which is linked with awe.  If awe and wonder is connected with Malchut, than Malchut b’Malchut becomes Awe b’Awe.   Here’s my story offering to take us into revelation, a 6 minute story I’m calling Sense of Wonder b’Sense of Wonder. Chag Shavu’ot Same’ach.

Reflection/Action: Please find a friend or a loved one to sit with and share your sense of wonder b’sense of wonder story.  Perhaps share at a meal and ask others for their stories as well.  What would it mean if we could remember on our hearts that this everyday world we live in contains experiences such as these?  Chag Shavu’ot Same’ach.

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Yesod- Omer 48

Yesod– creative, procreative, desire, flow, foundation, fertility, Joseph and tzaddik

When Gary Snyder, the great poet and essayist was a teenager in the mid 1940’s, he wanted to read the sexiest book around.  He went to the library and held his breath as he asked for Lady Chatterly’s Lover, by DH Lawrence.  The librarian paused for a second, and then reached for the key to open the glass doors behind her.  She pulled out the book and handed it to him.  He grabbed it, left the library as fast as he could without running, and went to a private place to look into this book.  To his amazement, upon opening this book he found warm breezes, fragrant flowers, strong trees, rocks in cool water…Craving sexual images, he found beautiful and sensual land images interconnected with beautiful sensuality.

Do you think this is why the Song of Songs is filled with luscious imagery from the natural world- aromas, mares, stags, gazelles, fruiting fruit trees, soft shade, vineyards, pastures and all the rest?  After all, Rabbi Akiva did say that if all of Tanach (Torah, prophets and writings) were the Holy Temple, the Song of Songs would be the Holy of Holies.  What might this Eros mean for us?  It  can so easily take us into divorce or leading secret lives, or make us crazy and embittered from neglect.  How do we learn to raise the holy power of our desire?

Let’s slow down here.  I don’t want to shatter this blog, with the intensity of writing about something so big in a space so small.  I can see how it can easily happen.  Our focus is how we might expand our sense of sacred desire to include the land.  That’s all.  DH Lawrence wrote this inspiring and often quoted line back in 1929: “Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made personal, merely personal feeling. This is what is the matter with us: we are bleeding at the roots because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars. Love has become a grinning mockery because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the Tree of Life and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilized vase on the table.”

Beautiful, eh?  But how do we expand our imagination to encompass the entire world and cosmos?  I don’t think it will be as hard as you think.  Try this.  Leave your home and wander the land until you find the entryway that descends into a cavern.  Note the cool moist air, enjoy the echo.  Follow the labyrinth cave passages until you reach the cave mouth that drops you into a grotto.  Sit on the lip of the cave’s mouth and just enjoy the warm sunshine, green plants and the peaceful calm of the dragonflies.  Remember that ours is the only world that we know of that has sites such as these.  Utter the words, Tov M’od- Very Good.

Now take a deep breath and dive into the water and swim to the river where the waters are calm and wide, shallow and warm, allowing you to float and be supported without worry.  This river, which flows from Eden is available to us at all times, ready to infuse our desires with the waters of life.

Ready to go deeper?  Let the living power of letters and language grow in your imagination and become part of you.  These common words are from the newish dictionary, Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, by Barry Lopez.  This  great writer and adventurer has gathered dozens of poets and novelists to create a geographical dictionary of uncommon power.  Lopez says at first the geographers on the project rejected the idea for this book. “There are already lots of geography dictionaries”, they said. And then they read the first definitions coming in. Here are a few that will help us remember that our home ground is sacred land; and help us journey into the River that is always flowing from Eden.

CAVERN:  A cavern is a large chamber within a cave, a subterranean hollow- some with astonishing dimensions.  The word cavernous implies a place where body and psyche can be lost, a sanctuary where philosophical speculation, a la Plato, can blossom.  The words cavern and chamber are sometimes used interchangeably with cave, but the cave is labyrinthine, a maze of subterranean chambers, galleries, and passage-ways, while the cavern is the biggest room of them all.  Mark Twain described the discovery of such a space in the Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “Tom went first, cutting rude steps in the clay hill as he descended.  Huck followed.  Four avenues opened out to the cavern which the great rock stood in.”  Carlsbad Caverns National Park contains more than 100 limestone caves, outstanding in the profusion, diversity, and beauty of their formations.  The details of caverns – drip-stone features such as stalactites and drapery- are fragile environments affected by human activities and natural process both above and below ground.  Gretel Ehrlich

CAVE:  A cave mouth is a door to mystery and beauty, the entryway to a mineral world of water and moving air that, over time, has become a sacred place.  A womb of  Earth.  Many cave walls were once painted with animals and the history of different peoples.  In far deeper caves, Earth has painted its own history.  Some caves developed during the life-nourishing eruptions of the planet: lava tubes, where magma runs underground and leaves empty tunnels behind.  Some are tectonic, created by quaking movements of the planet.  And there are long-lived caves of ice.  The caves most widely known in the United States, however, are those created by dissolution and erosion in karst landscapes.  “The finest workers in stone are not copper and steel tools,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time.”  Karst caves include passageways and rooms with mineral deposits in the form of stalactites and stalagmites, soda straws and draperylike ribbons, all built up by trickles of calcite-bearing water.  Patricia Hampl describes this water in Romantic Education as “running steadily, timelessly, making its slow, hypnotic mark on the stone, on the ear, on the brain.”  Caves have their own ecosystems and many animals and insects depend on them.  Not just hibernating bears but resident blind crayfish and endangered cave fish.  Many caves harbor bats and indigenous beetles and salamanders.  Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico shelters crystal formations in cathedral like rooms.  The stable temperature in caves near San Antonio preserves bat guano, once used to make gunpowder.  Mammoth Cave in Kentucky is the world’s longest cave system, with 350 miles of chambers and passages.  Linda Hogan.

Note:  every handful of entries have a quote from a novel or poem on the side in italics.  Here’s the text next to CAVE:

Standing against a sheer face of red rock one thousand feet high; kneeling in a cave dwelling two thousand years old; watching as a million bats stream from the mouth of Carlsbad Caverns into the purple dusk- these nowheres and notimes are the only home we have.  Kathryn Harrison, The Kiss.

GROTTO:  A small cavern scooped in a cave wall, usually by erosion, is called a grotto.  The term vaguely suggests protection, shelter, or sustenance. As a river term, grotto usually refers to a small, shaded hollow a the foot of a cliff that, most often, leads back to a hidden spring or rivulet.  Harriette Arnow in Seedtime on the Cumberland, describes a type of grotto worn into the base of a limestone cliff by a river of stream, an undercut feature known in that country as a rockhouse.  Arthurs Sze.

STREAM: A stream is an expression of its watershed; that is, liquid is literally “expressed” from an ecological matrix, the green breast of Earth, to form a flow confined by discernible banks.  A stream’s water originates in snow, spring, and rain.  At its head, it may ooze from a muddy slope; at its mouth, it spreads wide and gives itself to another body of water- a lake, a river, an ocean, or even another stream.  Its velocities are various: it can flow in ribbons, braids, or as flat as a scarf.  Sometimes a stream runs underground or deep in the Earths surface….A stream can also, eventually, cut through rock like a blade.  A stream always moves under the spell of gravity.  It is a medium for transport-silt, pollen, pine needles, and leaves float its rapids and riffles and are deposited in its bed.  Under the water is that streambed, all rock and roll, a home for sediment and rock and a nesting ground for fish.  Steelhead, trout, and salmon lay their eggs one to three feet deep in  a gravel redd, while benthic invertebrates such as stoneflies, mayflies, blackflies and caddisflies hide in stream’s cobble.  A stream is dynamic- and it receives, and thus reflects, all that takes place on the land.  Gretel Ehrlich

Reflection/Action:  What are you favorite words? What’s the land by your home like? Where do you live in relation to the nearest ocean?  For me, out my door, I’m sheltered by the Berkshire foothills and can see ridgelines (including firetower and highledges) on either side of my village.  Down through the garden, past our orchard (of 5 fruit trees), cross state street and we can dip into the Deerfield River.  It’s source is up in Southern VT, and flows South East, over 10 miles (as the crow flies) and as many dams, until it connects with the heart of the CT river. Just paddle down, past the Holyoke Dam with it’s fish elevator, helping Shad and Sea Lamprey and other anadromous fish up to spawn, through the state of CT all the way down to Long Island Sound and you reach the Atlantic Ocean!  What’s the journey like where you live?

PS  And now, for something completely different. Here’s another way to enter the river that is always flowing from Eden, and remember that we all live on sacred ground.  The simple act of dancing in the moonlight. Try it, I think you’ll find its a supernatural affair!

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Hod- Omer 47


Thank you Hod for being a reminding presence that everyday endurance also contains majesty.  Reminding us of the glory inherent in our steps.  If redemption is the horizon line, than our steps become the actual work that brings us there.  Glory be to the everyday work of planting trees; teaching children; and tending gardens, relationships and public groups.  Yes, we can gaze far across the world and through time seeing the many woes and joys of the world, knowing that much work is needed, and yet our work can only be here, where our steps touch the ground.  Did you know that in one of HD Thoreau’s journals, I can’t remember which one, he comments on the ancient proverb from a wise Rabbi (Hillel) ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me, If I am only for myself, what am I, if not now, when?”  What does Thoreau add- “if not here, where”?

But wait, if redemption is just the horizon line, a semi-mythical someday soon, where wars will be banished, greed and corruption disappear, sustainability governs our politics and vine and fig trees are grown in every home, than where are our steps taking us?  Besides, truth be told, I think my horizon line contains as much ‘staving of catastrophe’ as it does building a sustainable society.  Remember Pete Seeger’s quote about a million small acts.  In my mind that was the path to utopia… right? All our actions taken together?  However when I go back and look, he begins with “I’m convinced that if there’s a human race in a hundred years…”  Gulp!  Utopia or Dystopia;  Disney’s ‘happily ever after’ or Kafka’s ‘there plenty of hope, just not for us’.

And then, what about the redemption that just comes on it’s own schedule- we wait and wait, yearning without any correlation with our steps, coming in a graceful flash…or not coming at all.  Oy voi voi, my head is spinning.  Hod, take me away, back to the majesty of an enduring journey.

For me, even after all the head spinning challenges grocking redemption, I actually do believe in the glories of small redemptions, of milestones along the way- In civil rights legislation passed, acts of teshuvah changing the arc of lives, moments of grace filling us with a sense of deep healing.  And its our majestic small steps of action and our thank you’s that we have to offer.

The Sfat Emet (~1900 Poland) talks of “small redemptive acts we do each day” which makes ‘bread from the earth’.  This is sent upward, just as the  ‘bread from heaven’, the manna of blessing, is sent downward. Here, the Sfat Emet is radically reminding us that the flow of blessing is both received and given by us, round and round again.  A truly interdependent affair.

In another parsha, he goes on to say that redemption could have come at the very beginning and then, as Art Green comments, all souls would have come and gone in that same instant!  The quickening swoosh of a fast creation was thankfully slowed by the hebrew word “Dai”, sustainability’s watchword (from dayenu fame), Enough!  This enough not only allowed for the world as we know it to exist, but also for appreciation.  Slow creation is what allowed the Holy One to look around at all that was created and say, ‘Tov M’od-Very Good!’

Art Green writes in his commentary (to this teaching which appears in parsha Vayachel) that we humans also need to learn this lesson, “human activity needs the same self limitation; knowing when to stop is part of the task of our human doing.  We need to leave some room, after all, for the countless generations coming after us, who will also want to take a hand in building Gd’s dwelling-place on earth”.    Pretty cool, eh?  Not only are we not obligated to finish the task, but after all, other souls in future generations will want a chance to help out too! The glorious majesty of the limits of our everyday actions.

The last word goes to Yaakov Yitzchak, the Yehudi. He teaches in For the Sake of Heaven by Martin Buber, speaking in a whisper as audible as any voice, “The Shechinah is wandering the roads, in exile, dressed in black. Many turn away because they think they can do nothing, some turn away and grieve while waiting for a miracle…but our job is to offer a hand…after all, no one knows what may be accomplished until we try.” The glorious majesty of our everyday actions. Hod b’Malchut.

Reflection/Action:  Glory be to the everyday work of planting trees, teaching children, tending gardens, relationships and public groups.   What majestic everyday projects are you working on?  I’ll read it later…my daughter’s calling.

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Netzach- Omer 46


How do we endure?  How do we persevere for the long haul, over decades?  I remember how giddy I was during Earth Day 1990.  I graduated from Michigan State with my brand new Bachelor degrees in Environmental Policy and Wildlife Ecology while at the same time, I saw Earth Day go mainstream!  Newsweek, Time and dozens of other magazines had glossy covers with real information about the state of the Earth- forest, oceans, farmland, toxics, extinction and even climate change!  In my euphoric haze, it seemed to me that environmental education was to the 1990’s as ‘plastics’ were to the 1960’s.  Lists of simple changes were selling like hotcakes!  The world seemed ready.  I conveniently ignored my confusion when my Valedictorian speaker squawked excitedly about how she can now go out and buy all sorts of new things…stereo’s, clothes, cars…

Cognitive dissonance was easy- sure, no one paid much attention to the 50 difficult things to save the Earth list, however did that matter?  After all, a certain prince, er, senator, wrote the truly smart and visionary book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.  He had entered politics after taking classes in divinity school and working as an investigative reporter! And then he actually became vice president and a heartbeat from the presidency!  We were one step away from the Garden of Eden, weren’t we?

Needless to say, Mashiach, the Messiah, did not come.  I find I am a sucker for leaders who espouse hope, and yet, when I allow my hope to take up residency inside their heart, I find myself eventually forsaken.  Why is it so easy to deny our inner source of hope, (as easy as a hand blocks the sun says the Baal Shem Tov)?  How do I learn to listen, as Emily Dickinson did, to the hope with feathers perched in my own soul?

Could the prayerbook be seen as a hope manifesto?  A healing remedy for daily endurance and perseverance.  After all, it is filled with gratitude, wonder, love, emotional honesty, interconnectedness, presence, silence, grief and a fierce yearning for personal and collective redemption.  How does the prayerbook manage to send us into our days with renewed hope in our hearts?  What does the prayerbook teach about hope?

Well, to open one facet of this diamond that is the prayerbook, have you ever noticed how the powerful images of past national redeemings are placed strategically?  For instance, crossing the sea and becoming freed from slavery is placed in the redemption blessing that comes just after the Shema.  When the grind of daily actions begins to overwhelm, our zeal begins to flag, and we think our days will just go on and on with the same old drudgery, the same old cranky conversations without ever getting to redemption, bam- the Rabbis remind us of the success of past redemption.  It happened before and it can happen again.

Remember, they seem to say, that our world is a non-linear system, and our tomorrow can be very different from today.  No one knew the day before the Berlin Wall came down, and yet everything changed.  No one could predict a musical genius named Stevie Wonder would enter the world, and everything changed.  No one could predict that the small shrew like mammals living under the feet of the dinosaurs would evolve into the robust bush of mammals we see today!  Who really knows what tomorrow will bring? Netzach b’Malchut.

Reflection/Action:  What redemptive memories do you carry that inspire you socially or politically?   Reb Nachman of Bratslav asks us to also remember personal redemptions- along with redemption by sea…especially at Pesach.  To remember and share personal stories about surviving a life-threatening illness, fire or other calamity.  What stories of personal redemption do you carry?

For me, I remember being 17 and illegally riding in a camp car with 5 other camp counselors.  It was during session break and no campers were around.  We were driving 50 mph, which was way too fast for the dirt road we were on. The road turned left; we did not.  Miraculously, we skidded off the road into the only open patch of field along that roadside- all the rest of the roadside was forest trees. Hope renewed.  How about your stories of redemption?  Here’s to the power of carrying on. Netzach b’Malchut.

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Tiferet- Omer 45


I witnessed the Holy Shabbat marriage of Tiferet and Malchut while in Jerusalem.  Though, the funny thing is, it took me several months to realize it.  You see, I prayed with the Judean Hills, during my year of Yeshiva study in Jerusalem.  Our wonderful balconies were a great addition to our house of prayer and study, our room with a view (and a Torah).  Overlooking the hills, I could indulge my favorite non-talmudic pastime- simple gazing.

You could imagine my delight in realizing that simple gazing was incorporated into our prayers for welcoming Shabbat.  Like congregations everywhere, for the last verse Lecha Dodi, we turned around and faced the Judean hillside.  It was then I could just gaze and gaze.  And such a gaze it was!  purple hills dappled with the last rays of the setting sun which was kissing the earth.  I gazed, I bowed, I smiled and I prayed.

It took over two months, to the middle of November before the question occurred.  Why was the sun still kissing the earth during the last verse of Lecha Dodi?  Miracle of miracles- they were timing the whole affair!  Insuring that sun/earth kiss occurred exactly at the right time!  Doesn’t this mythic scene make your heart want to dance and dance?  Now the work of marrying my inner masculine with my inner feminine can truly begin.  Tiferet (sun) b’Malchut (earth).

Reflection/Action:  Did you notice I did not include exactly how long the sun kisses the earth before diving under the covers (so to speak)?  I invite you to watch the sunset, find out exactly how long the sunset lasts where you live.  Sing, dance, sit in silence, any way that will allow you to.bring this experience with you into Lecha Dodi.  Did you notice that a much bigger mystical question here is ‘Do our prayers bring the sun and earth together?’ and, ‘Are there other examples of Holy Union in our lives?’  Instead of going on and on regarding these very interesting questions, I’ll leave you with this wonderfully multi-layered poem by Patiann Rogers.


The Power of Toads

The oak toad and the red-spotted toad love their love

In a spring rain, calling and calling, breeding

Through a stormy evening clasped atop their mates.

Who wouldn’t sing — anticipating the belly pressed hard

Against a female’s spine in the steady rain

Below writhing skies, the safe moist jelly effluence

Of a final exaltation?


There might be some toads who actually believe

That the loin-shaking thunder of the banks, the evening

Filled with damp, the warm softening mud and rising

Riverlets are the facts of their own persistent

Performance. Maybe they think that when they sing

They sing more than songs, creating rain and mist

By their voices, initiating the union of water and dusk,

Females materializing on the banks shaped perfectly

By their calls.


And some toads may be convinced they have forced

The heavens to twist and moan by the continual expansion

Of their lung sacs pushing against the dusk.

And some might believe the splitting light,

The soaring grey they see above them are nothing

But a vision of the longing in their groins,

A fertile spring heaven caught in its entirety

At the pit of the gut.


And they might be right.

Who knows whether these broken heavens

Could exist tonight separate from trills and toad ringings?

Maybe the particles of this rain descending on the pond

Are nothing but the visual manifestation of whistles

And cascading love clicks in the shore grasses.

Raindrops-finding-earth and coitus could very well

Be known here as one.


We could investigate the causal relationship

Between rainstorm and love-by-pondside if we wished.

We could lie down in the grasses by the water’s edge

And watch to see exactly how the heavens were moved,

Thinking hard of thunder, imagining all the courses

That slow, clean waters might take across our bodies,

Believing completely in the rolling and pressing power

Of heavens and thighs. And in the end we might be glad,

Even if all we discovered for certain was the slick, sweet

Promise of good love beneath dark skies inside warm rains.

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Gevurah- Omer 44


Why did King David do it?  Was it pride or piety?  Arrogance or ignorance?  What possessed him to think he could dig a deep well under the temple, to the very center of the earth? Did he actually imagine THIS was the way to allow the ritual waters of Sukkot to flow and in turn bring fresh healing rains to the earth?  Self important Hubris! He had forgotten THE MYSTERY.

He dug and blindly removed the Eben Shetiyah- the Foundation Stone of the World. The waters of the deep surged upward- they were free- Instantly they rose and began flooding our world.

King David Shouted to the elders- “Help! What can we do?” Terror reigned- a disaster of this magnitude has never occurred before. “Answer me or we will all be lost!”

“We believe that parchment with the sacred 42 letter Name of the Holy One must be thrown into the well while simultaneously praying with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your might.  Only then will the waters of the deep return to their place, though we are not certain. This has never happened before.”

adapted from Makkot, 11a, and Patai, Man and Temple, 1947.

We cry out for the 7500 gallons of 4-methylclyclohexenemmethanol (MCHM) spilled into the Elk River poisoning all the Charleston West Virginia metropolitan area water supply.  The material safety data sheet for MCHM, though required by law to list impacts, is incomplete.  Effects of MCHM on humans are not known.  Ecological impacts have never been tested.  Gevurah b’Malchut

We shudder at the devestation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster.  The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission reported that the accident was “a profoundly man-made disaster that could and should have been foreseen and prevented”.  Hindering that process were a lack of regulations as well as “a collusion between the government, the [nuclear] regulators and [plant operator] Tepco and the lack of governance by said parties”.  In clear language, the report said clearly that “nature” was NOT to blame.  Gevurah b’malchut

We shiver at the sinking of the deep water horizon oil rig, leading to the largest oil spill in US history.   We grieve the choice to sacrifice the ocean to save the shore by adding 1.8 million gallons of the dispersant Corexit.  According to EPA data, Corexit is considered an acute health hazard and ranks far above dispersants made by competitors in toxicity and far below them in effectiveness in handling southern Louisiana crude.  Corexit has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1998. Gevurah b’malchut

Our anger rises as we learn of Propublica’s report that BP has flouted safety by neglecting aging equipment, pressured or harassed employees not to report problems, and cut short or delayed inspections in order to reduce production costs. Executives were not held accountable for the failures, and some were promoted despite them.  BP neglected key equipment needed for emergency shutdown, including safety shutoff valves and gas and fire detectors similar to those that could have helped prevent the fire and explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf. Gevurah b’malchut;content

Reflection/Action: They say that during the Roman persecutions, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Elazer were forced to live in a cavernous cave.  A miraculous Carob tree grew and fed them, a fresh spring flowed and quenched their thirst.  They saved their clothes only for prayer and buried themselves in the ground without their clothes, up to their necks, like root vegetables stored for winter, studying, studying and studying.  Some say the Holy Zohar was the fruit of their studies.  When they finally emerged, they were so enraged at how the world did not live according to their visionary ideals, fire flew from their eyes burning crops as they walked.  A heavenly voice called, filled with grief, stopping them with the question, “Have you become destroyers of my world?”.  They were sent back into isolation for another year.  During that time, Reb Shimon learned to control his fiery anger, though not his son Elazer.  The path of transformation for Elazer was writing lamentations, and in this way, his tears quenched his fire.   Adapted from Shabbat 33b and Reb ‘Art Scroll’ (for Tisha B’av)

If you were to write a lamentation for our world, where would you begin?  Would you share your sentence here?  You can read my lamentation for the terrifying oil well blowout deep in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 by writing to me at with gulf oil lament in the subject line.

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