Friday, September 27, 2013

Sukkot on the Farm

Four elements. One pair of blue jeans. What has this to do with Judaism, or with Spirit? In this case—everything.

I turned off the Cabrillo Highway some twenty-five miles south of Half Moon Bay onto a very bumpy, dusty road not knowing the power of the experience I was to receive during the next two days. I parked my car and grabbed a few items—a bag of gear and a small tent—from all I had brought to sustain me for this adventure, and walked a few hundred steps to a welcome table where I was gaily greeted and duly registered as a participant in Sukkot on the Farm—sponsored by Wilderness Torah a group whose mission is to “awaken and celebrate the earth-based traditions of Judaism to nourish the connections between self, community, earth, and Spirit.” This was my first event with them and all I can say is that they fulfilled their mission in every way!

Green Oaks Creek Farm, Pescadero, CA

At the registration desk I was assigned my tribe—Snow—one of maybe a dozen such subgroups all named after some form of water. I selected a thin crosscut slice of tree branch from hundreds that had been provided to make nametags, and carefully lettered my name on it with red and yellow markers. I signed up for an early shift helping out in the kitchen—appropriately called the Hearth. Then I was greeted by a regal looking young lady who seemed to be expecting me, although I sense now that her generous spirit probably would make anyone feel immediately welcomed and familiar. She would not let me, as an “elder,” carry my items and insisted that she take them and everything else I had stuffed in the car, put them in a makeshift wheel barrow and personally shlep them up a hill that seemed to get longer as we climbed it, to what she felt was a prime camping site overlooking our temporary village. She was not complete until she had fully assembled the tent I had borrowed for the weekend, a feat I am not sure I would have been able to accomplish on my own. I was beyond grateful and had only just begun to sense the honor of elders that was present throughout this gathering. 

Gimme shelter

The official start of the weekend was still a few hours away. With arrivals and departures staggered throughout the weekend the gathering was more intimate on Thursday than at its maximum on Saturday. I found myself quickly engaged in conversation with others, most of whom, I imagined to be in their twenties and thirties. I headed to the Hearth where I greatly enjoyed dicing vegetables and chatting with others. Several very young women, all Urban Adamah Fellows[i], were taking long shifts in the kitchen in lieu of fees for the weekend. It was easy to slip into the role of Elder in their midst, demonstrating knife skills and telling stories. Taking an active part of the preparation of fresh, organic produce for community consumption, being connected to the Earth’s abundance, to our sustenance, to our interdependencies, was integral to the overall experience. Later when I dined on Thai soup I could taste the ginger I had grated.
How goodly are thy tents....
The program for the weekend was as varied, abundant, and flavorful as was the food—from studying Hebrew harvest songs across the millennia, to weaving willow frames that would later hold rosemary enshrouded rainbow trout over an open fire pit, to a wild edible and medicinal plant walk, and many more arts, crafts, games, and forms of instruction and study. At times there were gatherings of the entire community, such as at Kabbalat Shabbat. There were tribal meetings for small group sharing. There were options for Shabbat morning prayer—musical, traditional, or a walk in nature. Although, as it turned out nature came to all of us in the form of a huge downpour, forcing us to all huddle close to the Torah under a tarp that provided more protection than the open slats of the Sukkah. That seemed either horrible or absurd or both at first, but upon reflection perfectly underscored our connection to the elements and the frailty of our shelter. It naturally drew us closer together physically and spiritually. Shabbat ended with a traditional Havdallah service followed by a reenactment, as much as our imaginations would allow, of a little understood Sukkot water ritual and soiree—Simchat Beit Hashoevah.

Amidst this day of rest and joy was a singular event—a community conversation with Jon Young, an inspirational man from the area who has dedicated himself to connecting people with nature. His descriptions of indigenous tribes in the United States and around the world made it indelibly clear that the work we were doing in community this weekend was not a frivolous New Age game, but taking steps to repair the broken link between ourselves and our ancient roots in the land. It was a tonic for the environment. It made a difference.

Up to this point I had had some interesting experiences and observations, but this conversation positively cemented them. The message was simple, though a deep understanding of it often elusive—connection to nature is essential. Our disconnection is so pervasive we can barely see it. I tap the keys of this computer in the seemingly safe, warm protective cocoon of my suburban home. Even news stories and personal accounts of forest fires, flooding and other natural disasters don’t quite penetrate the false sense of security I live with. Sukkot is designed to remind us of how precarious our existence is, to be grateful for our abundance, and to provide reason to celebrate life all the more. The ecology movement of 1970 began a dialogue about what we are doing to destroy what we have been given, so these thoughts are not new. Nor, sadly, are they universally understood and accepted. I wish everyone could have heard this gentle man speak these simple truths. When asked to add a closing comment to all that Jon had said, Rabbi Burt Jacobson extemporaneously described it as our return to the Garden of Eden that we lost after eating of the Tree of  Knowledge. I almost wept at the concept.

Now back to my initial question—what do four elements and one pair of blue jeans have to with Judaism? After the Shabbat morning deluge, a group of these vibrant young adults celebrated the moment in the central open space in song and dance. One could not help but hear their mirth, see their joy, and feel their exuberance. When they sang and danced an old bar mitzvah party standard, “ Yesh Lanu Tayish” I took particular note because each stanza begins with a repeated shout of my name. I walked in their direction and arrived just as they were finishing the Virgina Reel-like dance. As I stood at the end of their double row of participants, they looked at me and as if in one voice all shouted another round of “Yesh! Yesh! Yesh!” and invited me to dance down the aisle as they had just done. With no hesitation I complied as they continued singing the chorus. I no sooner got to the end of the phalanx when I put on the brakes to make the return dance back whence I started, but the mixture of Earth and Water beneath my feet caused them to slide out from under me and for my entire body to come in sudden contact with the muddy ground.  There was a brief moment of tension and concern as the crowd wondered if I had hurt myself, followed by laughter and cheers as I gathered myself and arose with a smile. This is, after all Ziman Simchateynu—the Season of our Joy, and that was what we were all feeling.
Sunrise by the campfire
Later, as the damp and chill of the day were starting to sink into my bones, I stood by an inviting open pit fire. I hadn’t realized just how cold I had become until I received the comfort of this warmth. One of the lessons we had received in a session the day before was how Shamayim—the Heavens were a combination of two other Hebrew words, aish—fire, and mayim—water. There on my mud-caked jeans we had it all. The Fire heated up the combination of Earth and Water and was turning it to Air as the steamy vapor rose from my pants. There they were—all the elements, and a visceral connection to nature—abundance, frailty, joy, and community—and new insight into our solemn obligation to sustain our precious gifts. 

[i] The Urban Adamah Fellowship is a three-month residential program for adults ages 21-31 that combines urban organic farming, social justice training and progressive Jewish learning and living. Fellows learn and work at the Urban Adamah farm in Berkeley, California, and live together in a shared house nearby.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

God Is Not Impressed!

The following is the text of my remarks to Congregation Beth Jacob of Redwood City CA on Yom Kippur 5774.

Before we talk about this morning’s Haftarah, let’s have a quick show of hands. How many of you are hungry? [A few hands went up.] Okay, for those who didn’t raise your hand, how many figure by the time we get to Ne’ilah and Havdallah at eight o’clock tonight you will be hungry? [Many hands went up.]

Pretty good. Looks like we’re all doing what’s right, doing what we can to get closer to God. [Dramatic pause.] Well, I’ve got bad news for all of you. You may be starving your bodies, but God is not impressed! It's not enough to pray with your stomach. You've gotta pray with your heart!

[I think they were starting to squirm at this point. I asked them not to show their hands for the following questions.] 

How many of you sneaked in a little work since sunset last night, or checked your email, or read the business pages? How many of you cut someone off on the road rushing to shul last night? How many of you have spoken harshly to your spouse or children or parents? Is there anyone here who hasn’t broken at least one of the Ten Commandments? I bet you’ve broken half of them today! You sit here, acting so holy, fasting and beating your chest, but admit it, YOUR FAST IS ABSOLUTELY MEANINGLESS! [This last sentence crescendoed to a shout “with full throat” to the stunned amazement my fellow congregants.]

[Aside] Rabbi, was that too much? [Feigning innocence:] I was just paraphrasing the text of this morning’s Haftarah

Check it out at the top of page 285 of the Machzor. God commands Isaiah, "Cry with full throat, without restraint; raise your voice like a ram’s horn! Declare to my people their transgression, to the House of Jacob, [to Beth Jacob, declare] their sin.”

I wondered how Isaiah must have felt standing before hundreds of people with empty bellies shouting at them that their fast was meaningless, so I decided to give it a shot. [This actually got a laugh. Phew, they were with me!]

For one thing, it takes a lot of chutzpah, but it’s also very humbling. It demanded that I first put myself under the microscope, and what I saw really wasn’t very pretty. It was hard for me to read what’s required on this fast day—and truly every day. God demands much. It’s overwhelming to think of meeting all of God’s demands for freeing the captive, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, just to name a few.

Despite what we do here at CBJ in the Home and Hope shelter network, at the community hot meal program Breaking Bread, and in our personal contributions of time and money to many causes, it seems like it’s never enough. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, and oppression are so great that, despite all of our political and philanthropic actions, it’s beyond any individual or even our community’s capacity to eradicate them. Facing the enormity of need in our world and our limited ability to respond, we could easily get to a point of such despair that we would be tempted to throw in the towel—“why bother!” We could fill ourselves with a sense of futility—that we’ve failed to measure up to the challenges of this day, and we could conclude that ours is not the fast that God desires.

The question I offer is, “How do we acknowledge our falling short of the mark without becoming so discouraged that we become immobilized and fail to move ever closer to what is asked of us?”

The answer comes from a little secret about Haftarah that I recently learned. Did you know that every Haftarah passage ends on an up note? Thank God for that! Even after being castigated by Isaiah we finish on the bright side, especially when you consider all the acts of loving kindness that I just mentioned that we indeed accomplish. Beginning at Verse 10 we read: “[If] offer your compassion to the hungry ... then shall your light shine in darkness... The Lord … will slake your thirst in parched places and give strength to your bones.”

What I draw from this is that though we can never do enough to eradicate the world’s problems, not even on Yom Kippur are we held to an unattainable standard of perfection. Let’s remember the words from Pirke Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.”

God commanded Isaiah to cry out and remind Beth Jacob of their misdeeds. While we consider our failings, let us also recall our good deeds, so that we may build on them, and find the hope and comfort that lies in this passage as well.

Gamar Tov.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Holy Task Force, Batman!

It’s been a long time since I’ve convened a task force meeting, the kind I held for decades back in my “corporate” days. I have to thank the rabbi for “pushing” me into it. He was well aware of my studies in “spiritual eldering” over the last six years. Moreover, I had signaled my interest in conducting my first workshops on the subject at our synagogue in the coming year. The culmination of the Aleph Sage-ing Program in which I am enrolled is to do a practicum of this sort with the guidance of one of the program’s leaders. However, I had not counted on the rabbi asking me to also chair a committee with the mission of providing a spiritual context and resources for our community elders. Nor was I particularly thrilled by the idea of being shouldered with this responsibility on top of the already significant task of designing and delivering a ten or twelve week program. The benefit of doing double duty, as the rabbi saw it, was that a committee of this sort would help inform the content of the workshop, making it more relevant to our community’s needs. It would also provide a cadre of interested, involved people to bolster participation in the workshops. I had to reluctantly agree, knowing that the extra work would probably pay off as the rabbi suggested, but I was still somewhat selfishly concerned about having to expand the curriculum to suit others.

Deciding who would be on this committee was next. At first the rabbi started rattling off a list of names of congregants—some well-known to me, some I had never heard of. When he suggested I select a team from these I demurred. I had no basis for choosing even the people I knew, having little awareness of how they would contribute to this particular work. I had even less ability to discern whether total strangers would be a fit. Therefore the rabbi, who has a keen sense of his congregants’ abilities, went one by one down the list and evaluated who would be most suitable. I sent an email to ten people beginning as follows: “Rabbi Ezray is committed to developing a comprehensive program to address the needs—medical, legal, spiritual, et cetera—of our community elders. …he has asked me to convene a select committee to explore issues related to ‘aging with grace.’” My invitation remarkably resulted in eight enthusiastic acceptances. Even the two who had reasons not to join expressed a great deal of interest in the subject.

After a predictable struggle to find a meeting time for ten people, and close to a month after the first email, yesterday we finally met. Kickoff meetings are important. As the saying goes, “You have only one chance to make a good first impression.” A good first meeting is not sufficient to guarantee a team’s success, but it can really help set the direction, establish relationships, and build the foundation for future activity. I can’t remember the last meeting of this kind that I led. It may have been a staple of my corporate diet at one time, but now I was feeling a bit rusty. I dusted off some of my trusty team handbooks to remind myself of some of the essentials of establishing a task force. The rabbi and I met to clarify our goals so I could effectively build an agenda.

In developing he agenda, I had an intuitive sense that I needed to infuse a certain spirituality into the meeting itself just as I would a workshop on spiritual eldering. I decided to open the meeting with a chant—even before our introductions or goal setting. The way I explained it to the team, some of whom were meeting me and each other or the first time, was that this was more than a task force. I saw it as a sacred mission making this a “Holy Task Force.” Every endeavor offers the potential of being infused with spiritual consciousness. This work, in particular held that potential. There seemed to be agreement. I provided a kavannah (spiritual intention) for the chant: “Hodiyeini Yah kitzi, u’midat yamai ma hi—Oh God, show me my end, and what is the measure of my days?” from Psalm 39:5. I suggested that at the end of the chant they could sit silently, eyes closed for a minute, picturing themselves at an advanced age, and with the wisdom of the years coach themselves in the present about how to make a meaningful contribution to this work. I began pumping the bellows of my shruti (Indian drone instrument) to set a foundational tone for our chant. I demonstrated the chant after which the group joined in. After a few minutes we ended in silence as I had suggested. When we opened our eyes the space and the group had been palpably transformed. If nothing else I felt more present, more prepared to be a vehicle for the content of the meeting which flowed beautifully from that moment forward.   

We proceeded through the agenda with introductions, including the unusual detail of “how many years of life experience” each of us had acquired. The rabbi iterated his goals of harvesting the wisdom of our elders, helping people to start early in a process of anticipating and planning to age with grace, to stay engaged in acts of mitzvot even when one’s capacities had become  diminished. The team brainstormed a long list of perceived needs of elders. We set some intentions for future virtual and real time work together.

Later I expressed my appreciation to the rabbi for getting me into this. Just being up in front of a room, facilitating any team of interested and informed individuals is energizing in itself. This is work I have always enjoyed, and done effectively. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed it. To do it in this holy setting, with this A-list group, on a topic of such extreme importance, was all the more gratifying. I can’t wait to see what develops!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013


One can get spoiled after a week of mingling with a self-selected group of six hundred spiritual seekers.  At the Jewish Renewal Kallah I could strike up a conversation seemingly at any time or place and share deep thoughts. Accordingly, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the Kallah mojo could survive reentry into “civilization.” In the first post-Kallah day I was pleased to see the mojo pass a few initial tests.

Enjoying some free time in Cambridge before my afternoon flight home, I was wondering how I might find my way to a lunch with a certain gravitas. I like to eat at truly indigenous places. (My son has a classic tale about traveling to Alabama for a UCLA women’s basketball game and trying to persuade his fellow band members to eat somewhere other than Applebee’s. I like to think he got that gene from me.) When the woman at the Peabody Museum suggested Panera Bread, I thanked her politely and headed down Mass Ave, but not with any intention of following her advice. This reminded me of a time when I was working the dining hall at a camp in rural New York State. My parents were coming for a visit and were sure to take me out for a grand dinner. One of the kitchen hands suggested I have my folks take me to her favorite place, the A&W on Route 9. That’s when I learned that selecting the right person to ask is important.

As I walked along the sidewalk I carefully evaluated who might be a credible restaurant critic. Seeing a thirty-something man in blue medical scrubs, I figured he might be a good source. I was a bit disappointed when he suggested the Burger Shack around the corner. Burgers weren’t exactly what I had in mind, but he couldn’t think of any excellent Italian places in the area. Moreover, he claimed that the Burger Shack would be an experience. I relented and halfheartedly moved along in the direction he pointed to until I spied a Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burger Cottage.  A young lady stood outside clutching a small stack of menus.

Not sure if I had the right place I carefully inquired, “Will you give me an honest answer to a question?” She assured me she would.

“I was directed to a place called the Burger Shack.”

“This is the Burger Cottage,” she stated factually. That didn’t provide the information I was seeking.

“I was told I would have an experience,” I added.

“You’ve come to the right place,” she assured me. “Mrs. Bartley will be right out to seat you.”

“Mrs. Bartley, herself. Imagine that,” I thought.

A hospitable silver haired woman directed me to a seat at the bar overlooking the grill. It looked hot, noisy, and most of all would put my back to the room which was abuzz with animated patrons. I politely requested a seat that would afford me a better view. She offered a chair in the middle of a string of long rectangular tables placed end to end down the center of the memorabilia covered room. Across from me was an Asian lad, his mom next to him and across from the mom and immediately to my left sat his brother. They were well into their burger "experience" at this point. A friendly buxom waitress came by, handed me a menu, and at my request, made a few suggestions from the lengthy list of burger options. After a quick perusal, I selected the iPhone Burger—seven ounces of ground beef replete with Boursin cheese, grilled mushrooms and onions, sweet potato fries, and a pickle.

As I awaited my meal, a mother and adult daughter sat down to my right. I listened to them deliberate. The mom wanted a taste of onion rings but not a whole order. I couldn’t have agreed more, but decided not to chime in…not just yet at least. When my order arrived, however, before touching a thing on the plate, I initiated conversation with the idea of a “taste-for-taste” as our kids used to say. I could barely get the words out of my mouth when Sadie, the daughter, gratefully accepted the opportunity to sample my sweet potato fries in exchange for some of her forthcoming onion rings. Pretty soon I was sharing fries with my neighbors to the left as well, and the party was on!

We shared a lot of information about who we were where we were going or had come from geographically and metaphorically. Sadie said her dad would have loved the Kallah—just his speed. When I remarked how I had been concerned about how long the spirituality of the week would last outside the confines of Kallah, Sadie’s mom (sorry, her name escapes me by now) averred that it was something we carried within that was always accessible even if others were not aware of it. I had to agree.

The party only got better when two young women from Moscow, and a lad from Korea took the seats that the Asian family had just vacated. Sadie and I insisted that Liz, one of the Muscovites, change her order from medium well to medium rare—we had by then established that kind of relationship—one of trust, interdependency, and chutzpah. When Liz took her first bite of burger she was pleased with our recommendation.

The party would soon be ending, so I handed my phone to our waitress who took a group photo. It came out a little fuzzy, but captures the essence of our experience. I hit share on my phone and the others entered their email addresses so we could all share the memory. I won’t be terribly surprised if I hear from Sadie’s dad before long.  
The party was on at Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burger Cottage (Mrs.Bartley at left.)
This would be a fitting conclusion to my little tale had it ended there, but the vibe continued with others along the way home—on the train to the airport, waiting interminably in the terminal for our flight to SFO (delayed, sadly, due to the tragic Korean airplane crash), and all the way across the Friendly Skies with my two seatmates in Row 25, a precocious eight year old girl by the name of Delaney, and a delightful young woman, Amina, a newly minted U.S. citizen, Egyptian by birth, who uses her business acumen to support non-profit organizations. Delaney, her little brother J.J., and their dad somehow were unable to get seated together. 

Amina and I were dazzled and charmed by the child, but also took the opportunity to get acquainted ourselves when Delaney finally plugged in her iPhone and Bose noise reducing headphones. It was particularly stimulating to share ideas about religion, spirituality and politics with Amina. There we were, a young Egyptian Muslim woman and an old New York Jewish man finding a lot of common ground about the universality of spirit and the importance of maintaining the best of our ancient cultural distinctions. When I spoke with Amina about Spiritual Eldering she was among others this week to remark on the importance of restoring some of the traditional attitudes toward age. She commented on how youngers respecting elders, and elders nurturing youngers were behaviors evaporating in Egyptian society much as they have in the U.S.
Amina gazes at a sleeping Delaney.
 I realize I am flying high, literally and figuratively. Writing this while my flight has a few hours more to go, I know (pray) I will come down to earth in actuality. What remains to be seen is how long I can continue to float in the spiritual sense, or at the very least, hover above the fray a little while longer.