Dear Temple Micah,
As the rabbinic intern at Micah this summer, I have been made privy to the many incredibly unique traditions that have shaped the congregational life and legacy that makes Temple Micah so dear. One such tradition, the Elul Project, has become not only an experience that has shaped my summer with this wonderful kahal, but also one that has personally sustained me through the harder times of this moment that we are sharing right now, one that we will continue to bind us together even when this moment becomes history forgotten in the legacies that will shape our future.
Traditionally, each year Temple Micah’s Elul Project revolves around one of three themes: Malchuyot (sovereignty), Zichronot (remembrance), and Shofarot (the shofar blasts). This year, however, it seemed as though the period we are experiencing demanded a theme that honored the particularity of this moment. This year’s theme for the Elul Project is Olam Echad, One World.
It is our hope that this Elul Project will highlight the ways in which this time of uncertainty emphasizes a salient truth often forgotten when we encounter the geographic, cultural and religious boundaries that separate us from other communities around the world. That despite the many differences that create the unique and diverse tapestry of our world’s cultures, we are still united with even the furthest communities around the globe by the singular commonality: our shared humanity.
As we enter this month of Elul, we invite you to ruminate over what One World means to you. Perhaps, like many aspects of our lives, the concept of Olam Echad has changed for you more so in these past few months than ever before. It certainly has for me, as I have developed a newfound appreciation for every moment as blessing. That appreciation is sometimes accompanied by a distinct fear in the realization that those fixed and stagnant aspects in our lives have migrated to the ephemeral and fleeting. However, I hope that even as we experience the pain and difficulty of adjusting to this different new world, Olam Echad reminds us that we are not alone. After all, what a rarity it is to behold an experience that every single person in the world may also share with you. If that’s not human connection, I don’t know what is.
In anticipation for a sweet new year,
“Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forest… My feet sink down into the dead leaves, a fragile twig crackles, the giant rauli trees rise in all their bristling height, a bird from the cold jungle passes over, flaps its wings, and stops in the sunless branches. And then, from its hideaway, it sings like an oboe… The wild scent of the laurel, the dark scent of the boldo herb, enter my nostrils and flood my whole being… The cypress of the Guaitecas blocks my way… This is a vertical world: a nation of birds, a plenitude of leaves… I stumble over a rock, dig up the uncovered hollow, an enormous spider covered with red hair stares up at me, motionless, as huge as a crab… A golden carabus beetle blows its mephitic breath at me, as its brilliant rainbow disappears like lightning… Going on, I pass through a forest of ferns much taller than I am: from their cold green eyes sixty tears splash down on my face and, behind me, their fans go on quivering for a long time… A decaying tree trunk: what a treasure!… Black and blue mushrooms have given it ears, red parasite plants have covered it with rubies, other lazy plants have let it borrow their beards, and a snake springs out of the rotted body like a sudden breath, as if the spirit of the dead trunk were slipping away from it… Farther along, each tree stands away from its fellows… They soar up over the carpet of the secretive forest, and the foliage of each has its own style, linear, bristling, ramulose, lanceolate, as if cut by shears moving in infinite ways… A gorge; below, the crystal water slides over granite and jasper… A butterfly goes past, bright as a lemon, dancing between the water and the sunlight… Close by, innumerable calceolarias nod their little yellow heads in greeting… High up, red copihues (Lapageria rosea) dangle like drops from the magic forest’s arteries… A fox cuts through the silence like a flash, sending a shiver through the leaves, but silence is the law of the plant kingdom… The barely audible cry of some bewildered animal far off… The piercing interruption of a hidden bird… The vegetable world keeps up its low rustle until a storm chums up all the music of the earth.
Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet.
I have come out of that landscape, that mud, that silence, to roam, to go singing through the world.”
– Pablo Neruda, “A Love Letter to Trees”
Question: If you could write a love letter to the earth, what would it say?
ברכי נפשי את־יהוה יהוה אלהי גדלת מאד הוד והדר לבשת
עטה־אור כשלמה נוטה שמים כיריעה
המקרה במים עליותיו השם־עבים רכובו המהלך על־כנפי־רוח
עשה מלאכיו רוחות משרתיו אש להט
יסד־ארץ על־מכוניה בל־תמוט עולם ועד
תהום כלבוש כסיתו על־הרים יעמדו־מים
מן־גערתך ינוסון מן־קול רעמך יחפזון
יעלו הרים ירדו בקעות אל־מקום זה יסדת להם
Bless ADONAI, O my soul; ADONAI, my God, You are very great; You are clothed in glory and majesty,
wrapped in a robe of light; You spread the heavens like a tent cloth.
God sets the rafters of God’s lofts in the waters, makes the clouds a chariot, moves on the wings of the wind.
God makes the winds God’s messengers, fiery flames ADONAI’s servants.
God established the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never totter.
You made the deep cover it as a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
They fled at Your blast, rushed away at the sound of Your thunder,
—mountains rising, valleys sinking— to the place You established for them.
Question: Verse nine of this psalm speaks to God making a space for God’s creations in the world. Where is your place in this world? Where is the place that God has established for you? Where do you make space for others?[/fusion_text]
“I am a little Jew of Vitebsk. All that I paint, all that I do, all that I am, is just the little Jew of Vitebsk.”
“If I were not a Jew, I would not have been an artist”
– Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall was born in Vitebsk, Russia, in 1887. “For his first thirteen years his was the tradition-bound upbringing of Orthodox eastern European Jewry, marked by…a modest, entirely religious education…” This education “infused him with a love of the Bible.” After becoming a bar mitzvah, he attended secular school, where he became interested in drawing, and subsequently asked his mother if he could study art as a profession. His mother immediately replied in the negative, but after much persistence, he convinced her to allow him to take an art class. This became the first step of many that would lead to his contribution to the growing genre of modern Jewish art.
Question: Where is your Jewish home? How does your Jewish home affect the way you interact with the world?
“It is only that my illusion is more real to me than reality. And so do we often build our world on an error, and cry out that the universe is falling to pieces, if any one but lift a finger to replace the error by truth.”
– Mary Antin, The Promised Land
Question: What does “truth” mean to you? How has the concept of truth — or your personal truth — changed this year?
“I feel that a man may be happy in this world. And I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”
– William Blake
Question: Consider the following quote, “Some see nature all ridicule and deformity, and by these I shall not regulate my proportions; and some scarce see nature at all.” Can you isolate a moment this year when the way you view the world underwent a similar change in perspective? What was that experience like? What did you learn after experiencing your perspective undergoing an evolution?
“One discovers the light in the darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith. This is why one must say Yes to life and embrace it whenever it is found — and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is.
For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.
The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.”
– James Baldwin, essay titled “On Life”
Question: Identify moments of your year where you have discovered the “light in the darkness.” How did you bear that light?
“When I confront a human being as my Thou and speak the basic word I-Thou to him, then he is no thing among things nor does he consist of things. He is no longer He or She, a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. Neighborless and seamless, he is Thou and fills the firmament. Not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light.”
― Martin Buber, I and Thou
Question: Has your image of who may be the “Thou” expanded this past year?
“As children, we are born to a world of breath and pure sound. At first everyone responds to our breathing, and then to the noises we make, but as time goes on, and little by little, these sounds acquire form and become words and concepts. No one pays attention to the sounds we make anymore. We become so infatuated with, so attached to language, concept, and form that we forget all about the world of breath, sound, and gesture they emerged from.”
First, an exercise: Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position. If able, take three deep breaths, inhaling for a count of three, and exhaling for a count of three. While keeping your eyes closed, sit still for about ten seconds, and listen to the noises around you.
Question: Is there anything surprising or new you noticed from this reading and its accompanying exercise? In what ways do you think breath and presence can communicate to others for you?
ADONAI looks down from heaven; God sees all mankind.
From God’s dwelling-place God gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth –
God who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings.
Question: What does it mean to consider all human hearts as creations fashioned by God? If you were to live in a world in which you paused before each human encounter, to remember that the human before you had a heart fashioned by God, what would you imagine your interaction to be like?
Swans For Relief is a charity fund created for dancers who join many around the world struggling financially as a result of social distancing and quarantine during the COVID-19 Pandemic. On May 5, 2020, thirty-two premier ballerinas from over twenty dance companies around the world performed “Le Cygne (The Swan) variation sequentially, with music by Camille Saint-Saëns, performed by cellist Wade Davis,” in support of this charity’s mission to alleviate the financial burden carried by dancers who could no longer depend on their performance revenue to make a living.
This video is approximately six minutes long. View as much of the video as you wish.
Question: Speak of one way that you feel connected to these people, their surroundings, their movements or this music. Did this connection surprise you? Do you feel connected to these people in an unexpected way?
“Express compassion when you encounter the impoverished, the poor, and the diseased; with people people are outside the mainstream of society, who do not know how to improve their lot, who do not know how to conduct themselves, who are imprisoned by enemies, who have lost great fortunes, who regret having transgressed, and who week for the consequences of their sins.”
– Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, Duties of the Heart
“There is ‘compassion in the form of compassion,’ when our feeling along with the other leads us to act kindly, softly and gently. The second type of compassion comes as ‘compassion in the form of judgement.’” In this case, our shared feelings with the other call for action that is firm, hard even harsh.”
– Rabbi Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness p. 85
Exercise: Reflect upon moments when you have received compassion from others. What exactly did it mean to receive compassion in those moments? Describe how that felt in a few words.
With those feelings in hand, take a moment to consider them as gifts. For instance, if one wrote the word, “relief,” take ten seconds to consider what “relief” would mean if we framed the emotion and feeling as a “gift” we may give to others.
Question and challenge: In what parts of your life do you yearn to receive compassion from God? In what ways can you more readily give compassion to others? How has the concept of compassion evolved for you?
If you are lucky
In this life
A window will appear
On a battlefield between
And when the soldiers
Look into the window
They don’t see their
They see themselves
And they stop fighting
And go home and
Go to sleep.
When they wake up,
The land is well
– Cameron Penny, “If You Are Lucky in This Life” written at age 9
“We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
– Joan Didion
Question: Visit the person you were last year, and think about who that person used to be. What can you say about that person? What does it mean when you see that person reflected in others?
Thus said ADONAI, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of ADONAI, the Temple of ADONAI, the Temple of ADONAI are these [buildings].” No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods, to your own hurt— then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time.
Question: In what ways do you execute justice to your fellow human being? In what ways does the fellow human being execute justice towards you? When you “execute justice” to another person, do you accompany that act with a sense of Jewish values and intention? Do you believe that matters?
“Ben Sira said: God caused herbs to spring forth from the earth: with them the physician heals the wound and the apothecary compounds his preparations. R. Shimon said: There is not a single herb but has a mazal [constellation] in the heavens which strikes it and says, “Grow!”
– Bereshit Rabbah 10.6
In his book, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, Rabbi Alan Lew offers the following as a slightly more colloquial translation of the verse: “Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers ‘Grow, grow’.”
Question: Identify the last time you were a “whispering angel” to a “blade of grass.” What did that experience teach you?
“The fact is that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive. We are wrong.”
– Philip Roth
“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”
– Gloria Steinem
Question: How have you come to be alive through being wrong? What must you unlearn? What do we think we as Jews or Americans we must unlearn as a community?
“Nell Painter spoke to the heart of the matter. “It’s all about the questions we ask,” she said. “The questions have changed. I mean, the questions always change. That’s why we keep writing history.”
― Eddie S. Glaude Jr., Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own
Exercise: Write the world history that you would like to share with the future one day.
Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth
There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
There’s battle lines being drawn
Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side
It’s time we stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away
We better stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, hey, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, now, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down
Songwriters: Stephen Stills
For What It’s Worth lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Royalty Network, Warner Chappell Music Inc
Question: What does the sound of the shofar sound like to you this year? What is it calling you to hear more of?
The arc of evening
The sun’s blue shadows
The gate still open
As three stars wait
To pierce the sky —
In the corridor
Bares its maze
To begin again.
– Marcia Falk, “Open Gate”
Question: What are the gates being opened to you this year? Which gates will you close? Has God opened or closed these gates for you? Or, have you done so yourself?
“You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be, and you do choose how you want to think.”
– Grace Lee Boggs, American Revolutionary
Question: Who do you want to be this year? What choices will lead to that?
Of David. ADONAI is my light and my help; whom should I fear? ADONAI is the stronghold of my life, whom should I dread? When evil men assail me to devour my flesh— it is they, my foes and my enemies, who stumble and fall. Should an army besiege me, my heart would have no fear; should war beset me, still would I be confident. One thing I ask of ADONAI, only that do I seek: to live in the house of ADONAI all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of ADONAI, to frequent God’s temple. God will shelter me in God’s pavilion on an evil day, grant me the protection of God’s tent, raise me high upon a rock. Now is my head high over my enemies roundabout; I sacrifice in God’s tent with shouts of joy, singing and chanting a hymn to ADONAI. Hear, ADONAI, when I cry aloud; have mercy on me, answer me. On Your behalf my heart says: “Seek My face!” ADONAI, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help. Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer. Though my father and mother abandon me, ADONAI will take me in. Show me Your way, ADONAI, and lead me on a level path because of my watchful foes. Do not subject me to the will of my foes, for false witnesses and unjust accusers have appeared against me. Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of ADONAI in the land of the living… Look to ADONAI; be strong and of good courage! O look to ADONAI!
Question: What does it mean to “face” God?
I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you back to your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes.
And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh;
and I will put My spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe My rules.
Then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and you shall be My people and I will be your God.
And when I have delivered you from all your uncleanness, I will summon the grain and make it abundant, and I will not bring famine upon you.
I will make the fruit of your trees and the crops of your fields abundant, so that you shall never again be humiliated before the nations because of famine.
Question: What is the famine in your life that you hope to hope to remedy? What is the mikveh that you will enter in this moment? What will the sprinkling of clean waters wash away for you?
“Part of the San Andreas fault runs along the Mojave Desert. We see and feel the fault, it has always been a part of Mojave stories and geography. We have always existed with it – in rift – part land. We are land’s action, maybe. I am always wondering and wandering around what it means to be part of this condition, in shift. What it means to embrace discontinuity, to need it and even to need to cause it in order to be – depression but also moving energy. The necessary fracturing of what is broken. The idea of being made anything or nothing in this country – “to be ruined before becoming” – the idea that this country tried to give us no space to exist, yet we made that space, and make it still – in stress, in friction, glide and flow, slip and heave. We are tectonic, and ready.”
– Natalie Diaz, Post Colonial Love Poems
Question: What surfaces for you when you ruminate over Diaz’s metaphor of the San Andreas fault? What are the faults you wish to address this upcoming year in yourself, in society and in the world? What may it mean to fill the gaps between them? Is that necessary?
“…The crime of murder is tangible and punishable by law. The sin of insult is imponderable, invisible. When blood is shed, human eyes see red; when a heart is crushed, it is only God who shares the pain.
In the Hebrew language one word denotes both crimes. “Bloodshed,” in Hebrew, is the word that denotes both murder and humiliation. The law demands: one should rather be killed than commit murder. Piety demands: one should rather commit suicide than offend a person publicly. It is better, the Talmud insists, to throw oneself alive into a burning furnace than to humiliate a human being publicly.
He who commits a major sin may repent and be forgiven. But he who offends a person publicly will have no share in the life to come.
It is not within the power of God to forgive the sins committed toward men. We must first ask for forgiveness of those whom our society has wronged before asking for the forgiveness of God.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his speech “Religion and Race,” at the Conference Religion and Race, assembled in Chicago, Illinois in 1963, where he first met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Question: For what sins will you ask humans for forgiveness this year? For what sins will you ask forgiveness from God?
Saul Bellow once wrote, “Open discussion of many major public questions has for some time now been taboo. We can’t open our mouths without being denounced as racists, misogynists, supremacists, imperialists or fascists.”
– “Bellow in his own words” published April 6, 2005 in www.theguardian.com
Question: Is there a time when this was ever a fear of yours? What are the discussions you were afraid to have this past year? How may you be able to have them in the future? How would these discussions make your Jewish community stronger? How would they make YOU stronger?
“The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in this long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep.”
– Marc Chagall
“As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not the will to believe, but a will to wonder.”
– Abraham Joshua Heschel
Question: What is an image or experience that renews your sense of wonder, that as Heschel implies, may make life “worth living”? You may describe this in your own words or respond with the image of a painting, a photograph, a poem or other artform to express your answer.
“Gratitude is not about stuff. Gratitude is the emotional response to the surprise of our very existence, to sensing that inner light and realizing the astonishing sacred, social, and scientific events that brought each one of us into being. We cry out like the psalmist, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made!” (Ps. 139:14).”
― Diana Butler Bass, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks
Question: In what ways are you fearfully and wonderfully made? What have you made that is both fearful and wonderful?
All The Hemispheres
Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcomed season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills
Open up to the Roof.
Make a new water-mark on your excitement
Like a blooming night flower,
Bestow your vital fragrance of happiness
Upon your intimate assembly.
Change rooms in your mind for a day.
All the hemisphere in existence
Lie beside an equator in your heart.
In your thousand other forms
As you mount the hidden tide and travel
All the hemispheres in heaven
Are sitting around a fire
While stitching themselves together
Into the Great Circle inside of
– Hafiz, Sufi poet
Question: What does it mean to “leave the familiar for a while” while also “traveling home”? What are the hemispheres that exist in your heart? What are those you would like to create?