Pass the Quinoa and Save the World

With the recent dire news about the delicate balance of our planet’s ecosystem and the human impact upon it, many of us (including me) are in a bit of a panic.  I keep looking at my children, ages 10 and 16, and wondering if I have brought them into a doomed world. If you are like me, you feel like you have to do something… anything… to start helping this planet, even if it seems like a small gesture.  We all already know we can buy eco-bulbs, install solar panels, and drive hybrid or electric cars to do our part. And perhaps the most important thing we can do is vote for representatives who care about the environment as much as we do (An aside — I know some say the verdict is still out about global warming, but knowing somewhere between 97-99% of scientists agree we are to blame for the earth’s new moody nature, disagreeing is kind of like giving the finger to education, knowledge, and research, isn’t it?  So, let’s skip that argument and make sure that no matter how we feel about other issues, we vote for our children having a planet to live on, okay? — Back to our regularly scheduled blog…). However, no matter who wins the many elections around the world this year or in the future, or whether or not we can afford solar panels or a new fuel-efficient car, we can all try something very ancient and yet, for many of us, very, very new, that can help save the world right NOW. It won’t cost a thing.  In fact, it will save you money. Are you ready? Let’s do this!

In the Judeo-Christian creation story, God “manipulates” (that’s my word) the elements for six days to create everything on the planet… water, sky, land, moon, sun, stars, plants, animals and humans.  And for one day, God leaves everything alone. God stops changing things. It says that God rests, but does God need a rest or does God know the earth needs a rest?  We have an environmental lesson here, and we don’t need to believe in any God or book or religion to catch it.  In fact, forget about the God part. Let’s talk science. What would the scientifically proven, number-crunching impact be on this planet if every single human could (and would if they could) simply leave the earth alone for one day – one, 24-hour period – each week?  Now I know many of us work nearly every day, and any day “off” is not so off and is filled with errands, sports and other activities for the kids, etc.  But what if we could clear the decks for just one day? And if not one day, maybe 12 hours? That’s not so hard if we include our sleeping time! Can we commit to an Eco-Shabbat?

Here are the rules of Eco-Shabbat…

For a designated amount of time (24 hours in a perfect world, but fewer if that is all we can do) we all take a Sabbath.  Now this Shabbat doesn’t have to follow any traditional Jewish (or other) rules. We can turn off the lights when we go to bed (that’s better for the earth not worse!) and walk to the farmer’s market and use money (buying locally without use of a car must be okay!).  Plus, it’s fine to “manipulate” the earth if it helps it, like planting a garden or a tree. But in the spirit of the creation story, for that designated time, we do minimal to no harm to the planet. What does this mean? It means for one day:

  • Put down that phone and turn off Netflix! — The average home uses approximately 2.5 kWh per day.  If the TV is off, the phones and tablets don’t need charging, the air conditioning only used for extreme heat, and the eco bulbs are only on when needed, we can take a nice chunk out of that usage.
  • Skip the shower! — Yes, still wash your hands and flush the toilet!  But a 15 minute shower uses 32 gallons of water. Maybe skip the shower for today or take a really, really short one.  Plus the energy used to heat the water will hike up the electric or gas usage. Oh, and while we are at it, put on a sweater and save some of the energy used for heating too.
  • Walk, bike or take public transit instead of driving!  — The average car gives off 20 pounds of CO2 each day.  Maybe we can find another way to get where we want/need to go?  
  • Go vegetarian!  — Now, I am NOT a vegetarian, so know this one truly comes from the heart and not part of any animal right agenda.  But eating vegan for one day can do more for the earth than everything above combined. Did you know that eating no animal products for one day is equivalent to taking your car off the road for 5 WEEKS??  So maybe it’s time to at least greatly limit our intake of meat, dairy, and eggs, and for our eco-Shabbat, pass the quinoa.

It’s time to take matters into our own hands.  We can’t wait and shouldn’t wait to save our planet.  Pick a day… pick half a day. Let’s do this, and let’s do it together!  Let’s give the planet and us a break. Let’s gather in each other’s homes and entertain and eat and inspire each other in ways that allow us to leave mother earth alone.  She needs a Sabbath more than anyone.


Liberal Judaism is (Mostly) Making the World a Better Place

There has been a fair amount of heat surrounding a recent cover article of the Jewish Journal, “Why Tikkun Olam Can’t Fix American Judaism,” and with good reason. Its author Gil Troy attacks liberal Judaism in which community is often based around tikkun olam action rather than around (as he describes them) “red lines.” He says, referring to the acceptance of intermarriage (which the editors chose to print in a bold, hot color), “How can a community survive with no red lines: not regarding belief, not regarding belonging, not regarding intermarriage, not regarding Israel?” Of course Troy is missing the fact that in the progressive movements, Rabbis are not supposed to create red lines or be judges of halacha. The whole point is to create a more universal and individual practice.
Mr. Troy’s article continues by insulting (as he calls them) “tikkun olam-ers,” and he supports his argument by citing a recent book entitled To Heal the World? by Jonathan Neumann. Troy states, “The tikkun olam overstretch, Newmann shows, reduces modern Judaism to an ‘E-Z listening’ format, covering American liberalism — but hostile to Jewish continuity…”
It’s enough to make any modern Jew cringe as we are attacked for what we thought was perfecting the world, not destroying it. Many Jewish leaders have come out against this article, including Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR who said on Twitter, “It is an ill-informed, unnecessarily antagonistic jab at an imaginary enemy: the pernicious, dimwitted liberal rabbi who cares so little for Judaism s/he’ll use it only to prop up the Dem Party platform.” And the irony is not lost on me that in this same copy of the Jewish Journal, there is an article about Rabbi Brous’s own son, who makes handmade dolls to raise money for the legal defense for children separated from their families at the border. The Journal enables the bashing of liberal activism and then supports its praise, 30 pages later.
In my mind, making such an article the cover story of the Jewish Journal alienates the progressive Jews among its readership,… a mistake they should not make. For how many of us who consider ourselves liberal activist Jews still pick up a copy of the JJ on our ways out of the deli with the goal of connecting to and feeling accepted by the greater Jewish community? How many of us will think twice before picking it up next time?
And yet, as much as as I disagree with Troy, and as queasy as I got reading his article, I am going to go out of my expected liberal commentary here and say there is one element of this article with which I do agree. It is true that some Jewish communities have become finger-wagging entities in which one who does not align with the liberal social/political agenda of the congregation does not and cannot feel comfortable (ironically, those are exactly the “red lines” Troy asks for, just [for him] drawn on the wrong sides of the issues). Now, I’m not saying that those causes they champion aren’t worthwhile. What I’m questioning is the purpose of synagogue and whether or not being lit by the same fire has to be a requirement for being part of a community.
At my own congregation, Cool Shul, I don’t think anyone wonders about my political leanings (especially if they peek at my personal Facebook feed). If they know me, they know how I tilt. But they also know they will still be embraced by me even if we disagree. We have created and nurtured an environment that is non-judgmental, and I don’t believe it is my role as their spiritual leader (not political leader or activism leader) to tell them what to think. I offer them traditions, possible interpretations, a few innovations, historical truths and facts, and then I ask them to make up their own minds about their activism. Yes, I’m sure that my curriculum is colored by my beliefs, but I never give conclusions. I don’t tell my young students or adult congregants what to do or what causes to get behind. I give options. I invite them to express their Jewish identity and spirituality through their choices, but it is up to them to figure out who they are, what they want to support, and at what level they will use their money, their bodies and their minds to do so. Yes, I invite them to join me in supporting the causes that mean something to me, but there is no shame when they choose not to.
To me, as a spiritual leader, I believe my job is to help my community find peace, stillness, and completeness (in other words, shalom), not force a fire of my choosing to burn within them. If marching in the streets is how they find their peace, how they can look at themselves in the mirror and believe they spent their freedom as they should, then they should go for it! However, if sitting in meditation and studying mindfulness is how they find peace, and what they need to do to be whole, then that’s how their time should be spent. If raising money, or teaching, or weaving, or painting, or registering voters, or anything else helps them in this crazy world to have the strength to carry on, that is what I wish for them. And for those who can do little more than care for their families and tend to the careers that allow for a roof over the childrens’ heads, no guilt. Their lives are full enough. The mistake some of us make is judging those who don’t choose to spend their time as we believe they should, and forgetting that inner-peace can emanate quietly but still do a world of good.
So, yes, we need to heal the world. Some of us do that on a grand level to affect large changes. Some of us do it on a more local level by delivering meals, donating blood, or volunteering at a hospital. And some of us feel so out of control already, all we can do is find a little quiet to center us before we snap. Action before peace can be effective, but I believe it will be more effective if a little stillness comes first.
There is a story about a Rebbe who was deeply studying Torah while his baby cried nearby in the cradle. He was so lost in his texts, he didn’t notice the wails and did nothing to soothe the child. However, the Rebbe’s father (another Rebbe) heard the cries, soothed the child, and later admonished his son saying, “No matter how engrossed one may be in the loftiest occupation, one must never remain insensitive to the cry of a child.”
This story is a double edged sword.
For Troy and Neumann, the lesson is: there is no point in studying Torah if we aren’t aware of the cries for help around us. If we don’t soothe those cries, we have missed the point of studying in the first place.
For those infuriated by those who won’t express their outrage at a desired level, in the same fashion, or on an agreed topic, there is a different lesson: we must listen to the cries of our children, loved ones and inner-selves as well as those outside of our immediate circles. If our minds or bodies are telling us we need a break and some self-care, we cannot continue on and ignore those calls for help unless the “doing” heals those injuries. And if our children (as has happened in my home) are showing signs of distress because our involvement in the “world out there” is causing our home lives to be strained, then we must hear those wails for attention and need as well.
The key is not to judge. Mr. Troy should not be judging the many ways in which American Jews discover and express their Jewish identities, including an identity based more on action than traditional religion. However, we also need to remember that people need to be allowed to believe what they believe, and that some peoples’ “activism” is quiet and subtle. We need to consider the possibility that an inner-knowing, peace, and strength will eventually help us do more, not less, for others.
At Cool Shul, my mission is to help our congregants find all of this, and then it’s up to them to decide where their feet will walk, where their signatures will fall, and for whom they will vote.
Peace photo


Light my Fire

Sharing my sermon from last Shabbat…

If his book The Sabbath is a window into Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s thinking, I believe that if he were commenting on Parshat Emor (the portion for last Shabbat), he would say that it deals a lot with time and not so much with space.  In his book, he emphasizes Shabbat as a way to reflect on time, and worry less (or theoretically not at all) about our space and what we may have or have not produced during the other 6 days in that space. 

So, in Parshat Emor, we are instructed to stop work and have a Sabbath of rest. We are told to eat unleavened bread for Passover. We are given rules about the Day of Atonement and Sukkot, and we are taught to bring an omer (a portion of the very first reaping) to the priest, followed by 7 weeks of counting until we were required to bring new grain.  Note that all of this is attached to a specific time and not to a place or space.

We are in the midst of the season of counting the Omer right now, which begins at Passover and ends at Shavuot.  It is considered a time of semi-mourning because when it was tied solely to agricultural concerns, we were worried about weather patterns and we knew (and those of us who have lived through extremely abnormal weather still know) how important good conditions are for the harvest.  It is also said that there was a great plague that afflicted the students of Rabbi Akiba at the time of the Omer and that that is why it’s a time of mourning. Observant Jews, therefore, refrain from public joyous activities during the Omer such as weddings, parties, listening to instrumental music, or even cutting one’s hair.

However on the 33rd day of the Omer there is a break called Lag B’Omer (33 being represented by the letters Lamed and Gimel which add up to 33 in their numeric equivalents).  It is a semi-holiday also about marking time.  Observant Jews move from utter seriousness to utter light-heartedness for one day. So there are bonfires symbolizing the light of the Torah, and folks go hiking. Children have field trips at school. There are many, many marriages on Lag B’Omer, and 3 year old boys line up for their celebratory first haircuts. … And all this was last Thursday.

As modern Jews we may or may not count the Omer, and we may or may not see this as a time of semi-mourning. But as with all things Jewish, we can always pull from the tradition a Universal lesson for us and for all humankind.  So, in the spirit of Lag B’Omer and the many bonfires that were lit recently, here is my question for you…

What lights your fire?

We all have times in our lives, maybe 7 weeks like the Omer, maybe longer or shorter, that are mournful or stressful or dark in one way or another.  And when we are facing difficult times, we all need a little break, don’t we? We need a chance to forget about whatever crisis we are swimming in, even if we only have the strength or ability for a small distraction.  And when we are in that situation, what lights us up?  What help us feel alive and charged and ready to take on reality?  Is it throwing Pottery? Or Volunteering?  Swimming in a lake??  Playing with children or grandchildren?  And do we really have to wait for an extended time of pain or for Lag B’Omer to light that fire? Can we dedicate a slice of time to adding some excitement to our lives even when things are pretty normal?

Take a moment now and think of at least 3 activities that light your fire.  And maybe give extra thought to ones that not only light your fire but someone else’s too through an act of loving kindness.  If you’re willing, share them in the comments so we can inspire each other to find even more ways to light our fires.

I’ll share some of mine to get you started

  1. Sleeping where I can hear the ocean
  2. Volunteering for Meals on Wheels
  3. Teaching
  4. Cuddling with my kids in the morning when we don’t have anywhere to be
  5. Traveling… anywhere.

So, to come full circle, let’s try to remember that it’s time that is precious. The way we spend that time and how we mark the cycles of that time are more precious than the products of that time.  And let’s, as part of that observance of the cycles of time, make sure that we find some activities that light our fires.  For some of them, maybe we can simultaneously light someone else’s fire too by bringing them joy, warmth, love, food, or care and a little distraction.  

So let’s seal this sermon with a blessing from Havdalah.

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melech ha-olam, borei m’orei ha-eish. 

Blessed is the Source of the creation of the light of the flame.

heart of fire

Gratitude is Prayer

I haven’t written a blog entry or done a video blog (I refuse to call if a Vlog!!) in awhile.  I apologize.  But I’m grateful for each and every word you read or listen to even after I have disappeared awhile. 🙂

So, here goes…

With my students, we often talk about the possibilities of and many forms there are to what we might call prayer.  For most teens, there is no point to any of it, and we have extremely interesting conversations about whether or not there IS a point to prayer.

To give my students an example of when and why prayer can be important, I often tell them about when my father was dying.  Yes, I prayed, but what does one pray for when one is dealing with an inevitable?  He was, at that time, already overwhelmed with cancer.  So, was I to pray for him to live?  That would have been asking for too much in my opinion.  That would have been asking for the impossible — a miracle on par with the splitting of the sea.  If I prayed for recovery, I would have only been disappointed that my prayer had not been “heard” or “wasn’t answered”.  But for me, there was still reason to pray.

What do we pray for in times of distress if not for recovery or miracles?  To me, prayer is all about gratitude, and my moment in distress was no different.  Maybe it’s a gratitude that we assign to an outside Force with a particular text or our own poetry.  Maybe it’s just an inner gratitude we can allow to emanate without any words at all.  To me, the deepest “prayer” I can muster is just a sensation of thanks.  If nothing else, it creates an opportunity for me to talk (even if it’s to myself) and an opening to realize what I really need at any given time, which is usually not a miracle.

So, for my father, all I prayed was gratitude… Thanks for the life we had together.  Thanks that I could be there with him and my mother at that crucial time.  Thanks that our relationship wasn’t complicated or riddled with unanswered questions.  Thanks that we had peace.  Instead of “God, would you?”, I prayed, “God, thank you.”

A few days ago, I found myself deep in prayer again.  No one was ill this time, fortunately, but I was definitely in full-prayer-mode as I awaited a 12-person jury to make a decision.  The issue wasn’t about me personally, but it was about an organization I cherish, love, rely upon, and desperately want to be safe and healthy.

You can probably guess that when I prayed, I didn’t ask God for a miracle.  I didn’t even ask God to give us the decision we hoped for, and I certainly didn’t pray for the decision to hurt the other side.  Instead, I tried to fill myself with gratitude for my family’s relationship with this organization and thanks for the many lives that had been touched by it.  I chose to simply pray for fairness and justice, not the ultimate possible outcome.  I kept repeating to myself like a mantra… “Please let there be fairness and justice, whatever that looks like.  Please let there be fairness and justice, whatever that looks like.”

I won’t get into the details, but I will tell you fairness was delivered (big sigh of relief!).  Do I think it was because I prayed?  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.  🙂 But at least praying gave me a way to do something with and for myself in a time of feeling powerless.  It also forced me (and my entire family) to realize how lucky we are for the past and present, without focusing on the outcome of the future.

The next time you find yourself in a moment that calls for prayer, let it flow, whatever it is.  Don’t judge yourself if you don’t believe in God or if you think praying is silly.  Sometimes we just need to talk, and it doesn’t really matter if anyone is listening.  It’s just about us figuring out what we need to say.  And as you pray, even if the “prayer” is just an uprising of emotion, ask yourself what you REALLY need out of that moment.  Is it for an outcome?  Is it for a thing?  Or is it the opportunity to connect to the sliver of gratitude we can find in even the darkest of situations?

In fact, we usually say a Shehechianu at joyous occasions, but I’m starting to think it’s for the less joyous times too.  Perhaps the next time we find ourselves in a pickle, we can also say: Thank you (God) for my life which continues to flow, and thank you and for this exact moment right now, be it joyous or challenging.

Okay, maybe I took a little poetic license with the Shehechianu, but that’s what it means to me. 😉

Talk again you soon,

”Rantor” Diane