Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Taking a dip in the Pool of Blessing - A Thanksgiving meditation

This post was created as part of a global groundswell of gratitude calledTweetsGiving. The celebration, created by US nonprofit Epic Change, is an experiment in social innovation that seeks to change the world through the power of gratitude. I hope you’ll visit the TweetsGiving site to learn more, and to bring your grateful heart to the party by sharing your gratitude, and giving in honor of that for which you’re most thankful.

This Thanksgiving offering also appears in this week's Jewish Ledger newspaper, along with the Thanksgiving reflections of several other CT rabbis.

I’ve had the opportunity to share the following gratitude ritual at a number of retreats, conferences, and summer camp programs. It’s a way to tap into an attitude of gratitude that is part of our Jewish prayer rituals, but can sometimes get lost in all the words. So let’s focus on just one word – Barukh – Blessed. The Hebrew root of this word is also found in Berekh (knee) and Braykha (pool). Most people get the connection between the first and second of these – we bend the knee when we say the Barekhu and in the opening blessings of the Amidah. But what about the ‘pool’? We can envision a reality in which God’s Divine blessing is constantly flowing; we need only bring consciousness to aligning ourselves with this flow of blessing to experience it. As it flows from the spiritual realm to us, it is our job to send the flow back to its Source, and this is dipping into the pool of blessing, expressing our gratitude, and so the cycle continues. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Michelle Pearlman, recently likened the image, quite wonderfully, to a chocolate fountain (but one where the chocolate never runs out!)

When I illustrate this in a creative prayer service, we set up a table, decorated with watery images, into which are placed strips of blue paper, folded like ripples, each containing a gratitude teaching. Some contain traditional Jewish words, like Modah Ani lefanecha… - Thankful am I before You (the opening words of the first prayer that is traditionally uttered upon waking), but many contain teachings from other sources:

‘God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say "thank you?"’ (William A. Ward)

“Saying thank you is more than good manners. It is good spirituality.” (Alfred Painter)

‘Thanksgiving is good but thanks-living is better.’ (Matthew Henry;1662-1714)

If we remember that the fountain of blessing is always flowing, and we can always find it if we are open to receiving, each and every day becomes Thanksgiving.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Inspirational stories of Thanks-giving

 I am grateful to Rabbi James Stone Goodman for this re-posting from his blog.  Following these wonderful stories, please see below for direct links to some of Rabbi Goodman's thanks-giving poetry.

Two Thanks-giving Stories
There was a contest on the radio. Write or speak your gratitude on this Thanksgiving. What are you grateful for? the radio announcer asked. Send in your story.
I heard the winners. It was a tie. Two women, one from California, one from Massachusetts.
First, the woman from California spoke. She was a sheep rancher, she raised sheep on a ranch in California. Her father before her worked the ranch. The ranch had been in her family for several generations.
She was, I imagine, a woman in her late forties. Her husband now also worked the ranch, along with her eighty year old father. They all lived right there on the ranch.
She spoke of the difficulties in running such an enterprise these days. The cost of harvesting and processing the wool is for the first time greater than what it can be sold for, in addition to which there has been five years of drought in her area. “There’s dust in everything,” she said, “and the grazing land is parched and cracked,” her flocks thin and diminished, her father old and tired, herself and her husband frustrated.
I waited for the punch line. What was she grateful for on this Thanksgiving? I wondered.
The night before telling her story, it rained. It rained an inch and a half. The dust liquified back into the earth, the earth smoothed and healed off some of its cracks, but this was not the source of her gratitude. Certainly all the difficulties of running a sheep ranch in these days were not solved by an inch and a half of rain. This was a bonus, a sign, a clue, but not a solution, not even a temporary one, it may have been a joke: God writes straight with crooked lines. Rain, as if that would make a difference.
What was she grateful for had to do with her tired 80 year old father who has seen so many seasons come and go on the ranch, something to do with herself and her husband working the family ranch scouting the sky week after week, month after month, year after year for rain. It had to do with the shared judgment about their business which is fragile, outdated, bound up with the shared destiny of one family, one plot of land, one generation after another, being in that thing together, the tenderness as she described her father waddling into the farmhouse after a long day of work and the brave possibility that the ranch would yet turn a profit somehow. Another season. The possibility, the hope of a future, measured not only in rain but in the dignity of these human beings who hope, who imagine it working, again — for the sacred possibility of the future — hope, hope, hope. Hope sustains.
The second woman tied for first prize in the radio contest. She was from Massachusetts, a Jewish woman I imagined, from her name, from her brand of humor. She was very funny. About the same age as the other woman, late forties. This was her story: It has been almost a year since he died, she began, and still she hasn’t set up a tombstone for him. It was a marriage no one thought would work — he had been married 3 times previously, she several times herself. Neither looking to get married ever again, they met. Against all advice, against their own better judgment and plans for living, they married anyway. Out of the chaos of two lives and ex-wives and kids and step kids and recriminations they found deep love, love that outlasted the complexities of their lives, and tamed them both.
She spoke her story touching, funny, sad. A year after they married, he was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, given not much hope for even another year. He lived six, living with cancer, with dignity and joy and living more deeply than ever before because everything was so precious. Every moment.
Now he was gone. She was broke. Public aid in Massachusetts had all but dried up. She had not been able to find full time work, she was substitute teaching in Boston. What was she grateful for? I was waiting to hear.
This: first, many friends. They called her regularly and invited her to meals, she usually declined but loved the invitations. Someone brought over a load of firewood to heat her wood burning stove as winter came on. She was grateful because she had felt her heart unlock to life so freely that it would never close again, the great gift of love that changed her permanently.
The last thing she said: I’m alone, broke, but not unhappy, not in the least afraid. As a matter of fact, I’m rather content, she said, because I believe something, my little way of thinking about things, that may sound wacky but I really believe this –
I think of him as if he has gone away somewhere ahead of me, as if to find the perfect apartment, you know something near a bookstore, where there is a cafe that serves fresh raspberries all year round. He has gone there ahead of me to find the perfect place for us, she said. I am as certain of this as I am of anything: we will meet again, and because I believe this, I am full of gratitude this Thanksgiving, content and not at all afraid of the future. Everything is possible when you believe in something.
These are the two American stories of gratitude that I heard on the radio just before Thanksgiving.
I listened and then I wrote my own tale of gratitude. It had to do, like the ones I had heard, with loving somebody, with what I believe that gets me through the long nights, with a vague sense of possibility that everything is going to be all right, of hope, I suppose, that accompanies all our lives like a sense of something fine arriving from the distance, something good, hope, that’s it.
In the distance, it’s God you are discerning, or love, or nature, or whatever it is you believe in that animates your life. This is what you are hearing bearing down on you:
be grateful, it’s going to work out, somehow
It’s going to be just fine.
james stone goodman
united states of america
For poetry from 'Thanksgiving Suite', by james stone goodman, please continue reading here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eating Jewish - Values we can all believe in?

Please take a look at this wonderful article in this week's 'The Jewish Forward' by Jay Michaelson,
'Magen Tzedek: Model of the Jewish Future or Show Without an Audience?  

'Magen Tzedek' is the name given by the Conservative movement to a seal on food that  '... would certify conformity not to the ritual particulars of kashrut, but to the deeper and more profound requirements of Jewish social justice law.'

It's an excellent article and I commend it not specifically for how the Magen Tzedek seal seeks to emphasize the ethical values of Judaism (although I think it is an important and meaningful contribution to Jewish food consciousness), but because Jay raises some incredibly thought-provoking questions about the commitment of non-Orthodox Jews to obligate themselves to live by a specific code that raises our consciousness about the food we eat, how it is delivered to us, the treatment of the workers who helped to produce it, and the environmental and health consequences of certain kinds of food choices. 

Rabbi Eric Yoffie introduced the question of how Reform Jews engage with a range of Jewish food ethics in his Biennial address just a couple of weeks ago, and you can read more about the URJ initiative, 'Just Table, Green Table' here.  That initiative is less specific than the Magen Tzedek seal - it does not lay out one specific path to conscious and ethical eating, but does call upon all Jews to actively engage and think about how they eat as an aspect of what it means to walk a Jewish path through life, guided by the wisdom and ethical values that are grounded in our own tradition.

Jay points out that, in the USA, many of those who choose to purchase kosher food are not Jewish.  They make this choice because of an assumption that a religious seal on food means that the food is healthier - perhaps it conforms to higher ethical standards too.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case, as was evident in the travesty of ethical and criminal breaches that took place at the Postville meat processing plant in Iowa, owned by the Rubashkin company, primarily with regard to the treatment of employees.

But Jay asks: 'Imagine if Jews were known in America to be the super-ethical people instead of the super-ritual ones. We’re the people who won’t eat a hamburger unless the workers at the restaurant are paid a fair wage. We’re the ones who consider environmentalism to be a matter of religious concern. Because doing the right thing matters to God.'  

As Jay points out, this is a Judaism that can thrive and survive not because of endogamy, but because Judaism offers meaningful ethics, values and practices that appeal to a wide range of people.  And that's a Judaism that I want to be contributing my part to.  How about you?
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

... And it is good for your health too!

While in the midst of my current blog series on meditation from within the Jewish tradition, the findings of a nine year long medical trial have just been released, suggesting that patients with heart disease are significantly less likely to have a heart attack or a stroke if they have a daily meditation practice.
The BBC reports on the findings here.

While the research used transcendental meditation as the specific form of practice in the study, the basic foundation of mindful breathing meditation is universal to all approaches and traditions.  The use of meditation practice as a tool in stress reduction and pain management has been developed and taught most effectively by Jon Kabat-Zinn and you can learn more about his Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society here.

It makes sense that a daily meditation practice would be good for your health.  It is a calming and relaxing practice, and it has been shown to lower blood pressure.  Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program includes a meditative activity called 'the Body Scan' (which is described in some detail in his book 'Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness'.  It involves moving the mind through the different regions of the body, bringing attention to the feelings, and letting the breath flow through each and every part.  You are both helping to relax areas of tension, but also breathing in energy that can revitalize the physical self.  Kabat-Zinn has found that this technique has helped people with chronic pain.

What was also interesting about the medical study that has just been published is that one of the factors possibly involved in the improved health of the cohort who practiced meditation is not only the positive impact of the meditation itself, but the fact that almost everyone in that cohort was still practicing 20 minutes of daily meditation after 9 years.  The cohort in the study whose treatment had involved bringing attention to diet were far less likely to have kept to a healthier regime - it was much more difficult to maintain discipline and change eating habits than to maintain a daily meditation practice.

So, while I will continue to share some of the spiritual insights of meditation practice from a Jewish perspective, its good to know that, whether it be for body or soul, meditation is good for you!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz 

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Charter for Compassion

Today, 'freelance monotheist', Karen Armstrong, launched the 'Charter for Compassion'.  Listen to her presentation at the TED Conference last year, sharing the centrality of compassion at the heart of every major faith tradition.  The Charter affirms this, and seeks to refocus the message of faith around the world to the principles of the 'Golden Rule'.  It is, of course, not just about words, but deeds.  Idealist?  Perhaps.  But if we do not see it as our mission to teach and emphasize this message of faith, then who can we turn to for hope and transformation in this world?

You can read more about the Charter for Compassion here.  Take a look, and affirm your desire to fulfill the ideal of living your faith through the lens of compassion.  And then, try to bring awareness to acts of compassion that you experience and you share in each and every day.  This is spiritual practice at its most transformative potential.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Playing in the Symphony. Jewish Meditation, part 4

Kol haneshama t’hallel Yah, Hallelu Yah (Psalm 150:6)
Let every neshama praise God.  Hallelu Yah.
This is the last line of the last psalm in the Book of Psalms – it is the culmination of so many words of poetry, prayer, contemplation and praise.  The psalm is part of every Jewish morning service, and it is equally a part of many Christian worship services.  And, to add to its universality, many synagogue communities today have become familiar with a melody that just chants this last line over and over again, and that melody was an adaptation of a Pakistani Sufi chant (the mystical, and most universal form of Islam) written by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Six words.  On face value, just a simple declaration of praise.  Six words that are a gateway to an awesome experience (awesome, as in ‘wow!’ and awesome as in ‘Oh boy, that’s overwhelming, I don’t know if I can handle that’).

It begins with that Hebrew word that I didn’t translate – neshama.  Biblically, it means something like ‘living thing’.  So sometimes you’ll see a translation that says ‘Let every living thing praise God’, or ‘Let everything that lives praise God’.  But the rabbis of ancient times took a look at the creation story in Genesis and found in the second description of how God created human beings the line, ‘And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life (nishmat chayyim), and the man became a living thing (nefesh chayyah) (Gen. 2:7).  They understood this to mean not only the ability to breathe, by which we are alive, but that the aspect of our selves that ‘enlivens’ us – the God-given part – is what we call our soul.  And so, for the rabbis, neshama also means soul.  In fact, in an ancient midrash (expounding on the Torah), they describe 5 different names that were given to the spirit by which we live (Midrash rabbah 14:9), enabling them to describe and explore different aspects or attributes of the soul, of which the neshama is just one.

The final element of this teaching that we need to put it together with a mantra meditation practice on this verse of Psalm 150 requires us to know that, in the Hebrew language, all words are formed around a ‘root’ of three consonant letters.  Changing the vowel sound, or the grammar, can change how we would translate the word into English, but the common root in Hebrew teaches us that the words are conceptually and experientially linked.  And so, if you look again at the verse from Genesis, you’ll see the word nishmat chayyim – the breath of life.  N’shimah means ‘breath’.  And so, in the ancient teaching of the midrash, we find that Rabbi Levi says in the name of Rabbi Hanina,: “at each and every breath (neshima) which you breathe, you must praise the Creator” What is the meaning of this? “Kol ha neshama tehallel Ya, Let everything that has breath praise God (Psalm 150, 6).

Jewish mystics turned the phrase one more time, and this becomes the foundation for our meditation practice - let each and every breath be a praise to God.

It is through the act of breathing that we can bring awareness to the Divine spirit that gives life to everything.  With this awareness comes gratitude, an opening of the heart, and from this comes praise.  When we meditate on the breath with this awareness, it takes us beyond ‘my breath’ and connects us to everything that breathes.  We become but one musician in an orchestra; we are responsible for how we play our instrument and the contribution we make with each and every note we play, but we are able to do and be so much more than is possible within our own limitations, when we recognize that we are part of the symphony.

This meditation, connecting us to life itself, and to the Source of all life, cannot be grasped with the mind, but it can be experienced, at least in brief moments.  And it not only transforms our awareness of the power of the breath, it also transforms the meaning of what it is to ‘Praise God.’  That will have to wait for another day’s blog.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The breath of all life: Jewish meditation part 3

Continuing contemplations on the spiritual wisdom emerging from the breath, today I share teachings that I have gleaned from some of my teachers, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Jeff Roth, Rabbi David Cooper and Shoshana Cooper.  Opportunities to study and practice with these teachers directly can be found at The Awakened Heart Project and at Rabbi Cooper's website.

We know from science that the air that we breathe in is air that the trees and plants have breathed out, and the air that we breath out is the air that the trees and plants breath in.  But to know these things intellectually is quite different from knowing experientially.  Contemplative meditation on the breath can open us to the experience of our interconnectedness with all life in a profound way.  Jewish wisdom guides us to understand this experience as a God experience.  Sometimes our inability to see it that way is more about our choice to claim that label for what we know, instinctively, to be a deeply spiritual awakening and realization.  But the Torah points us toward the truth of this realization when Moses asks God how he should explain to the enslaved Hebrews who it is that has sent him.  God responds:

Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh  (Exodus 3:14)

The hebrew letters in the first and third word revolve around the verb that means 'to be'.  Biblical hebrew has two basic grammatical forms - the 'perfect' (something that has happened/has been completed) and the 'imperfect' (something that is in process/ongoing).  And so, encapsulated in this label is the teaching that God is constantly in the process of being; some would understand this to point to God as Existence itself.  And, in our world of experience, our ability to exist in this moment, and the next moment, begins with the breath.  

Many Jewish translations of the Torah do not translate this phrase, because to do so using the English language would limit something that is pointing us to the Infinite.  It is not dissimilar from this teaching from another wisdom tradition:

The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
This appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.
(Lao Tsu)

And, drawing from early Jewish philosophical teachings:
And God said, "At first say unto them, 'I am that I am, ' that, when they have learnt that there is a difference between Him that is and him that is not, they may be further taught that there is no name whatever that can properly be assigned to Me, who am the only being to whom existence belongs. --Philo, from Plaut, p 408 (both this and the preceding quote are found at

There is much to contemplate here, and the next posting will offer some paths from the practice of Jewish chant - mantra meditation - that can deepen our understanding of these teachings.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Just Breathe: Jewish meditation, part 2.

Why do so many meditation practices, found in so many spiritual traditions, begin with the breath?  Something so simple as breathing in and breathing out?  Breathing is something we do every moment of our existence in this world.  So simple, and yet it teaches us so, so much.  In meditation practice we wish to bring our attention to this moment - to sense what it really is to exist in the present.  So simple?  Where else would we be?  Well, try it.  Close your eyes and just gently bring your attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.  Notice how the air comes in and, at a certain point, the air goes out again.  If you notice your mind wander, or you start to think of other things, as soon as you notice that that is what you are doing, gently bring your attention back to noticing your breathing - the air going in and going out.

Chances are, if you are like most of us, you'll notice certain things.  One of them might be, as you begin, 'am I doing this right?'  To that question, I answer with another question - 'what were you doing the moment before you closed your eyes and brought your attention to your breath?'  I'm guessing that you were probably breathing.  Were you worried then about whether you were doing it right?  So notice how quickly we move to judgment, even on something as basic as breathing.  Being present to this moment means just noticing what is arising right now.  As soon as we make a judgment about it - its nice, ugly, distracting, good, bad... that is something additional, and it removes us from just being fully present to what is.  Its completely natural and human, and so don't get annoyed with yourself when you notice judgment arising - that's another judgment!  Just notice, and let it pass by.

You'll also notice, if you are watching the breath, that there is a certain moment when the in-breath ceases and out-breath begins.  Don't try to control it - just notice as it comes in and out.  There is constant change in our universe - nothing stays the same, and most of it just happens, irrespective of our agency.  Fear of not being in control is something that many of us experience.  Extended meditation practice with this awareness can help us to find peace and acceptance with what is, and this is an ingredient of a profoundly spiritual, joyful life, even in the midst of great challenges and painful experiences.

Finally, for today's posting, when we meditate on our breath, most of us notice that it doesn't take more than a few breaths before our mind gets crowded with lots of other thoughts.  That doesn't mean we 'failed' meditation 101 (remember - no judgments!).  Each time we notice that our mind is busy and bring our attention back to this breath and this moment, we are doing precisely what we are meant to be doing in a moment of meditation. And when we begin to notice where our minds went right before we brought our attention back to the breath, we notice that we spend much of our time in either the past or the future, but very little of it being in the present.

So much spiritual wisdom in just one breath.  And this is just the beginning.  More blog postings will offer further reflection and teaching, particularly for those interested in learning about meditation, and some of the spiritual wisdom of Judaism on mindful meditation.  Please do feel free to offer your insights, experiences and questions via our 'comments' section (which you can do anonymously if you prefer).
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

J Street & Lech L'cha

Rabbi Jim Prosnit, Senior Rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel, offered the following thoughts on J Street in the light of his experience at the conference at Shabbat services last week. We share his reflections here. This coming Shabbat the blog moves away from our J Street reflections and back to thoughts on Jewish mindfulness and meditation, introduced last week.

It may come as a surprise to some of you to hear that I had a big problem with President Obama’s speech at Cairo University last June. Now, I did not have a problem that he spoke there, or that he spoke there before he spoke and visited Israel. I think it was important, vital for him to engage the Islamic world the way that he did. The problem that I had was the way he categorized the founding of the state of Israel.

Listen to what he said: “America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. It is based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust… Denying that fact is baseless, ignorant, and hateful. Threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

What’s wrong with that? On one hand nothing. It was good to see him use that forum to take on Holocaust deniers and those who invoke vile stereotypes of Jews. But my problem was that the president explained the existence of the State of Israel and the import and love that Jews have for the land of Israel in the context of a homeland emanating from a tragic history.

Now admittedly many Jews do that too. We even have programs that send our kids from the gas chambers of Europe to the streets of Tel Aviv – conveying to them that Israel’s existence is centered on the Shoah, the Holocaust.

And what’s the danger. First, we come to see Israel only in terms of being a haven for distressed Jews displaced after World War II and in so doing we justify the Palestinian view that they too are victims of the Shoah; In other words Europeans sought atonement for their treatment of the Jews by establishing a Jewish state in Palestine, thus displacing the Arab population and making them the ultimate victims of the Holocaust.

For the essence of a Jewish state, Zionism needs to go well beyond a homeland for suffering Jews and needs to take us back to the beginnings of Judaism – to this week’s Torah portion in fact. God’s call to Abraham is wrapped up and tied to the sacredness of land. Abraham is to leave home not because he and his people are persecuted, and not because enemies threaten to destroy him, but because God has another vision for him and his descendants. Their very identity and sense of peoplehood, their spirituality and faith is tied up in a sense of place. And it has been that way ever since. It did not begin with Herzl in the 1890’s nor with the end of the war in1945. The yearning has been a constant of not just 2 millennia, but closer to 4.

Of course the unfolding story in the Bible and throughout Jewish history are accounts of the glory, challenges and pitfalls of living in the land and what will happen to us if we squander God’s gift. And that leads me to one final point in these brief words this evening.

I believe that the concept of land and the reality of a Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel is crucial to the Jewish experience and the Jewish people and to fulfilling the Divine promise. But I also believe that a precise definition of what that land is to look like, how its dimensions and borders are determined has and needs to be drawn by contemporary political realities. Settlement of all the land the Bible describes at varying points, to me has never been the spiritual mandate.

With that in mind, as some of you are aware Rabbi Gurevitz and seven or eight other members of the congregation participated in the first JStreet conference earlier this week.

An organization that has received a fair amount of criticism, much of it unwarranted I feel, because it seeks to promote a Jewish and democratic Israel and sees a two state solution as the best path to that end. It refuses to believe that credentials for loving Israel belong only to those on the right and to those who imply that the more right wing you are the more pro Israel you are.

With that said, I also feel that JStreet is at a crossroads very early on in its young existence. It was pretty impressive that 1500 people attended a conference run by an organization a year and a half old. It obviously touched a nerve among pro Israel pro peace folks that brought many from across the country together in Washington. But while I believe that most of those who attended share the perspective of the JStreet leaders there were definitely attendees who were peace activists first and only marginally lovers of Israel. If the tent of JStreet is stretched so wide as to allow non- Zionists in, then it will not be the voice that I and I believe many others are looking for in the debate within the American Jewish community and within in Israel.

As the land is varied and rich so is the debate. Loving the land, supporting the people is a constant; determining what that means in the real politick is a subject for pluralistic voices both in Israel and in the debate here at home. No doubt there will be opportunities to speak and to engage you in the conversation.