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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Chesed- Omer 43


Have you ever been camping without a tent?  Sleeping outside and then it begins to rain?  I have.  I was amongst the oldest and biggest trees of the world, traveling around the Pacific Northwest, studying the ancient forests with my school companions.  It was a warm night; I pulled out my sleeping bag without my tent and slept under a friendly tree named Doug, Douglas Fir.

I awoke in the middle of the night.  My companions were shreiking, running through pouring rain to our bus, pulling out tents and frantically trying to set them up.   I was alarmed, concerned, I had no tent either,… but then I realized I was dry and the entire patch of land around me was dry.  I was close enough to my Fir tree that I was spared the raindrops- they were received by the treetop and gently routed downward via branch and trunk. Rivers of awe and gratitude flowed through me as I realized that I was the beneficiary of such grace and protection.  Chesed b’Malchut.

Reflection/Action:  Take a moment and imagine a time when you felt buoyed by the world?  have you ever picked fresh blueberries by the bearpaw full?  Have you ever filtered water from a stream and drank it to quench your thirst?  Have you ever had your cares lightened by a warm breeze?  What’s your story of Chesed b’Malchut?  Would you share here with all of us?


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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 LivedLight 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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