This is Our Cue to be Thankful

January 202o Newsletter

Sefer Assiyah
The Book of Making

In late November, Hebrew Seminary and Congregation Bene Shalom partnered to host an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service. It was a heartwarming afternoon in affirmation of life and unity and gratitude. Attendees donated small toiletries that combined together made 150 Dignity Kits for refugee support in partnership with HIAS/ Immigration & Citizenship.

Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison Brown shared the following moments of gratefulness:

If I could teach only one thing to a child it would be to give thanks, to experience and express gratitude … Oh wait I can! We just had a new grandchild. For five years my widowed son did not date. But within 3 months of meeting Meghan they were married and now have a new baby to keep their 8-year-old company!

The baby is 5 weeks-old. When he cries and I can’t figure out what he wants, I walk, holding him in my arms while he squirms all over the place.

I hold onto him gently and tightly, wondering how long I can continue to keep hold of him. I want to sit down, but he is restless so I keep walking, kissing him on his cheeks each time his soft face comes around again towards me.

This is my cue to be thankful.

I am thankful for the milestones. I am thankful for the everyday.

In the Jewish tradition we begin a blessing by saying Baruch Ata, blessed are You. We ask You to bring down divine abundance. In the Jewish tradition we are asked to express gratitude to God 100 times a day for His abundance.

In our tradition, all blessing is about being mindful of what we are sensing, doing, thinking and saying. The purpose of a blessing is awareness, experiencing and honoring the present abundance, Her abundance. 

I am thankful and aware of the hallowed space in time each morning when I read, meditate and pause to watch the world through a stately, thin evergreen, two stories high, foreground to an oak tree, limbs outstretched continuing to hold dappled tawny leaves that wave summer goodbye.

This is my cue to be thankful.

In many forms of mysticism, creation’s true state is non-existence. The only way a created being can exist is if there is something continually creating it, to counter its natural state of non-existence. Baal Shem Tov, an 18th century Jewish mystic and healer from Poland, cites the verse, “Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands in the heavens.” The Baal Shem Tov explains that, unlike human speech – which once spoken is gone – Godly ‘speech’ is everlasting. This means that the Ten Utterances used to create the world continue to stand, constantly re-creating the world.

A modern metaphor for this is to turn on a lamp. This creates a circuit, causing electrons to flow back and forth through the circuit, and the light to go on. But merely flipping the switch is only half the story. In order for the light to stay lit, there must be a constant renewal of energy, for the moment the energy runs out – poof – out goes the light.

An unsettled baby, a morning where many little things go “wrong,” the sickness of a loved one, or your college-seniors taking the first three days of their Thanksgiving break at an Anime convention in Wisconsin as their parents and their dog wait in Illinois, won’t always make sense.

To quote Netflix, “We neurotypicals are the only species that put an extra layer of meaning on top of what’s actually there so it makes more sense to us.”

Life squirms. To get their needs met, kids try to escape what they perceive to hold them back to find some kind of order and homeostasis. This has survival value and at some point we learn to surrender, to be with WHAT IS. Lift yourself out of the story; life is waves or particles, as quantum mechanics explains. A wave has a crest, a peak and a valley. The definition of light is light and dark and vice versa. The definition of good is good and bad and vice versa. Be present to it all.

See God in everything and you will truly be thankful.

At some point a baby learns to crawl, and when well rested, well fed and dry, crawls to investigate with the intention to see, to experience something they see. At some point an adult going through life’s changes and challenges learns to practice, and with intention, to Be. We learn to accept our mind’s propensity to value, to good and bad every little thing and with intention we let go to see what is actually there. Eventually we take our self out of the story and actually see each other and the world around us. And we thank You God for constantly recreating the universe, you, me, our loved ones and the stranger.

God is the reference point, not me.

God is within me constantly renewing me and supporting my intentions.

“God is the simple feeling of Being itself,” writes Zen Buddhist Alan Watts echoing the mystical traditions, including Judaism and Kabbalah.

Our new baby at four weeks old was laid on a mat for his first “tummy time.”

He quickly knew to push himself up on his hands and arms, to look around. It took effort to will himself into the world. He pushed, turned his torso to the right and the left until he tired and collapsed onto his tummy, one push-up closer to growing his consciousness of the just-as-it-is beauty of the world.

To reconnect with the feeling of Being itself try this brief meditation:

Close your eyes. Breathe in and out three times.

Feel your feet on the ground.

Feel your hands on the chair and your self seated in the chair.

Say to yourself, “I am here.”

Say to yourself, feeling yourself right here, right now, “I belong here.”

May you find the intention, to push yourself up, to look around and simply experience the world’s ever changing beauty.

This is our cue to be thankful.

Hebrew Seminary’s post-denominational program is grounded in traditional and Kabbalistic Judaism. We believe in one God that is both transcendent, He from whom abundance flows, and imminent, living within us, She whom empowers us with divine energies. Please visit us to learn how you can access this abundance and energy for personal growth and in service of family, community and humankind.

Toldot & Thanksgiving

by Alison C. Brown, Executive Director

Fear not, while it currently feels as though some of our world leaders have purposefully severed our ancestral roots, I suspect every generation feels that way.

Parashah Toldot is a Jewish narrative about our ancestral roots and serves as another installment in the guide to being fully human. Together with the many Jewish texts redacted and commented upon over the millennia, there is no misconstruing the values that bind us.

Our ancestors live within us. We connect with and build upon the consciousness of previous generations. To borrow an image from science, we need only connect to the stardust of which we are all made. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught a general principle that wherever we go, we go to our roots. Pull the camera out to include contemporary times: we may move or change jobs, but our roots accompany us. To access our roots for decision making we need b’hirut hasaichel, clarity of reason. Through prayer, meditation and mindfully being in the present moment we experience an unchanging awareness and clarity of reason that is divine. We can practice and learn to experience rehovot, spaciousness. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that, “The well of our ancestors becomes a fountain connecting the dark depths of our human story with the wide skies of awareness.”

Not to get off topic, but the Buddhists are right, life is suffering. The human story includes dark depths. Some of them stem from severed roots. We find our way back through the breath and faith. In Psalms 150, verse 6, our ancestors teach, “Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah.” Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer adds, “The action of breathing in and breathing out indicates the continuous Presence of God in our life.” In the Jewish narrative darkness is balanced by the light. Hallelujah!

In the ancestral narrative of Toldot, “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of living water.” The well symbolizes, Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests, “the great well of personality and being that beckons us to access what we might learn from its depths.” My well of being is sometimes muddy. I feel weighed down by tons of earth. I have so many things I want to do and need to do. When I move the stone to access the living waters I am distracted by thoughts of list-making and judgement. To escape this suffering of my own making, I must begin my day practicing rehovot, spaciousness. A well of clear living waters can later reveal b’hirut hasaichel if we make time to intentionally be in the present. In the flowing, the breath and the stardust we coexist with our ancestors and the divine.

Our ancestral roots offer fundamental beliefs to guide our behavior. Judaism also invites us to question these beliefs. “Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt”, wrote renowned therapist Dr. Rollo May. “To every thesis there is an antithesis, and to this there is a synthesis. Truth is thus a never-dying process.” When we live or legislate with severed roots, truth dies. James Joyce wrote, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In my interpretation, consciousness is forever evolving within each of us and the smithy of my soul coexists with my ancestors and the Divine. Welcome, O life!

In 2017, we encounter the ancestors of Toldot just before Thanksgiving. This American holiday makes me think of the Amidah. During the Amidah, we bow before and after Avot, the blessing of the Patriarchs, and before and after the berachah of Hoda’ah, a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Rav Kook wrote that bowing our head, “signals an attitude of deference and humility.” In bowing, as in breathing, we acknowledge and give thanks to God and our ancestors.

And let us together pray privately:

Talmud Berakhot 17a

By Lawrence Kushner (translator)

May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet
to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition
and your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
and your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
and your fulfillment be in righteousness
even as you ever yearn to hear the words
of the Holy Ancient One of Old.