Jewish Earth Day and a Mystic’s Meal

Posted February 2, 2012 by Rabbi Rick Schechter
Categories: Environment, Holy Days, Spirituality

Ecology, spirituality, and appreciation of nature come together in Tu BiSh’vat, our Jewish Earth Day. Occurring on February 8 this year, it’s a time for planting trees in Israel and our communities. It’s an occasion to focus on the environment’s well-being and our stewardship of the earth. The Talmud calls Tu BiSh’vat the “New Year for Trees.” And, like much of Judaism, there are deeper, spiritual layers of meaning to this mid-winter holiday.

The Jewish mystics of our tradition see Tu BiSh’vat as part of a cosmic and divine drama. Judaism teaches that God’s blessings continually flow to all beings. In kabbalah—the Jewish mystical tradition—the divine flow of God’s energy in the universe is imagined as an Eitz Chayim—a Tree of Life—with roots above, branching down toward Creation, offering us its beneficent fruit.

So on Tu BiSh’vat we not only celebrate a new year for trees, we celebrate a new year for the divine Tree of Life, as well. Kabbalah teaches that when we eat specific fruits and nuts at a Tu BiSh’vat seder, we stimulate and renew the produce of the divine Tree of Life—that is, we help increase the divine flow of blessings and abundance into the universe.  As Rabbi Arthur Waskow expresses it in Seasons of Our Joy, “It is as if [Tu BiSh’vat] were God’s own Rosh Hashanah. Just as we need God’s presence on our Rosh Hashanah to help us renew our days, so God, as it were, needs our presence on this one.”

The sixteenth-century kabbalists of Safed, Israel, instituted the Tu BiSh’vat seder. It is modeled on the Passover seder, replete with special foods, four cups of wine or grape juice, and a unique haggadah that speaks of nature and these cosmic and divine themes. A fine Tu BiSh’vat haggadah is Seder Tu Bishevat: The Festival of Trees by Adam Fisher (CCAR Press, 1989). A wonderful Jewish organization that focuses on environmental issues is The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). To learn more about kabbalah, please see this introductory overview from myjewishlearning.com: kabbalah.

If you’ve celebrated Tu BiSh’vat, what are some of your favorite practices and experiences?

A Sustainable Chanukah

Posted December 14, 2011 by Rabbi Rick Schechter
Categories: Environment, Holy Days, Jewish Values, Technology

“A great miracle happened there,” we say, as we spin the Chanukah dreidel each year while eating latkes fried in oil. But what was “the miracle” of Chanukah?

Our tradition recounts more than one.

The first miracle is that a small band of Jews defeated the more powerful Syrian army in their struggle for religious freedom and independence. As our thanksgiving prayer at Chanukah time puts it, “God delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.” The Maccabean victory is a remarkable story of courage, dedication, and resourcefulness.

That small cruse of sacred oil found in the desecrated Temple—that should have burned in the menorah of the rededicated Temple for only one day, yet instead lasted for eight days—of course, constitutes the second miracle.

Add both Chanukah miracles together and we realize the miraculous partnership between God and human beings to do amazing things together. The Chanukah story demonstrates that, with God’s help, limited resources—both human and natural—can be stretched to transform our world.

We can apply the story of the Chanukah miracles to our lives today, particularly to our environment. Human use of earth’s natural resources—fossil fuels—has led to dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the air, threatening the health of our environment and the sustainability of the planet. How can we stretch one cruse of oil so that we can protect the well-being of the earth and its ecosystems?

Scientists have already given us the solution: reduce our energy consumption, reduce our carbon footprint, choose to use renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind. With God’s help, limited resources can be stretched to transform our world.

At this Chanukah season, our temple is making a commitment to environmental sustainability. Our modern-day cruse of oil will take the form of 125 solar panels to be placed on our synagogue rooftop, employing solar energy throughout our temple to reduce our energy consumption by 30-50%, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint, reduce our costs, and do our part to help sustain and improve the world.

This solar project of the temple will help realize significant Jewish values such as tikkun olam, repairing and improving the world, and shomer adamah, protecting the earth and being good stewards and caretakers of our world.

Like the Maccabees before us, we’re going to take a small cruse of oil and with God’s help—in the form of the light of the sun—combined with human resourcefulness and ingenuity, we’re going to rededicate and renew our temple, as well as our environment and our planet.

What activities have you found to be effective in reducing your carbon footprint?

“The Soul’s Compass”

Posted September 6, 2011 by Rabbi Rick Schechter
Categories: High Holy Days, Jewish Values

I’ve always loved the High Holy Day season. In the outer world, the weather turns cooler, the air feels crisper, and the leaves on the trees dance and change hues. In the inner world, the soul comes alive.

The days leading up to and including Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur, then extending through Sukkot and Simchat Torah, are replete with family and community, deep memories and emotions, rich imagery, and the eternal spiritual verities of renewal, forgiveness, reconciliation, gratitude, joy, and the Divine that animates all life.

The High Holy Day season is a time of deep introspection and reflection. Teshuvah—Return—marks this deeply soulful time. Return to ourselves, to our loved ones, to our community, to our traditions, to our God, and ultimately and hopefully: Return to our most cherished values and to the best that is within us.

We have the precious opportunity during this sacred time to dust off the compass of our lives, get our bearings, and return to the direction we most deeply need to be heading in our lives. The “soul’s compass”—to borrow a beautiful expression from spiritual teacher Dr. Joan Borysenko—takes precedence during the High Holy Day season, pointing us toward renewed life with our families, friends, community, and God.

If we can acknowledge the pointing of that compass and trust in its guidance, God’s blessings will flow forth in abundance, and Life and the world will truly be renewed for us.

May you and your family be blessed with a good, sweet, and happy New Year.

Debt Ceiling Lessons for the High Holy Days

Posted August 17, 2011 by Rabbi Rick Schechter
Categories: Current Events, High Holy Days

As the federal debt ceiling controversy raged this summer, you may have looked on with dismay, as I did. Healthy and respectful discussions to address the important issues would have been one thing. What actually occurred appeared to be something quite different.

“The manner in which [the debt deal] was produced,” wrote Fareed Zakaria (journalist, author, and editor-at-large) in the August 15 issue of Time magazine, “added poison to an already toxic atmosphere in Washington, making compromise even more difficult.” Zakaria went on to use words such as “unyielding” and “bullying” to describe the behavior of congressional members during the debt ceiling controversy, resulting in questions of U.S. trustworthiness, credibility, commitment, and how well our governmental system actually functions today.

Perhaps if members of Congress had taken a page from the Talmud, things would have fared better. The page I’m referring to is Ta’anit 20a-b, when it says, “Our Rabbis have taught: A [person] should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar.”

A reed is flexible, pliable, and supple. A cedar is rigid, intractable, and inflexible. There can be little doubt as to which characteristics are more valuable in human life and relationships, particularly regarding conflict, controversy, and the inevitable differences between people.

As we enter the High Holy Days next month and reflect upon our lives, our actions, and our relationships, the teaching of the Talmud can wisely guide us in our spiritual movement of teshuvah—our return to God, return to Life, return to meaningful relationships, and return to the best that is within us.

Our willingness to be flexible and pliable with others and ourselves allows for change, growth, and transformation. Adjustments and corrections to behavior and perspectives require such flexibility and suppleness. The necessary art of compromise in relationships and various situations entails the ability to adapt and stretch without breaking.

This may have been forgotten or denied during the debt ceiling controversy this summer. But Judaism calls us to remember it and affirm it throughout our lives, especially during the Days of Awe.

“It’s a New World, Golde”

Posted August 1, 2011 by Rabbi Rick Schechter
Categories: Jewish Values, Technology

You may recall that’s what Tevye said to his wife in “Fiddler on the Roof” when they were both trying to wrap their heads around the fresh, new ideas of the next generation. “It’s a new world, Golde. A new world.”

I can’t help but think of Tevye’s response when I consider the new ways in which people communicate with each other in the 21st century. Facebook, texting, Twittering and tweeting, Skyping—it all makes my head spin.

At the same time, I think there’s something wonderful and remarkable about these new forms. Ultimately, the new communications and social media technologies are simply new and different ways for people to do something essential that we’ve been doing for a long time—connecting with each other. I’m still partial to the one-on-one, face-to-face variety. Yet I do see the value and potential in these other forms.

Which leads me to blogging—web journaling. Blogging is another way for us to connect with each other, to tell meaningful stories, to share resources, and to dialogue together. Prefering the face to face encounter, I recognize that blogging is a complement to it, not a replacement of it.

I hope you enjoy these musings, thoughts, ideas, feelings, links to resources and articles, all things Jewish, and then some.

“It’s a new world, Golde!”

Come take a look.