Neuroscience and Happiness

Perhaps you have had an MRI to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of a serious medical issue? Through the miracle of this technology, neuroscientists have been able to analyze the patterns in our brain in order to understand what makes us happy.1 Looking to increase the happiness quotient in your life in 5780?

Here’s what neuroscience tells us: 1. The Most Important Question To Ask When You Feel Down – As Jews, there is no surprise here. “. . .guilt and shame activate the brain’s reward center.”2 Is that why participating in Yom Kippur services is so important to so many of us? Apparently, worrying about our problems feels like we are doing something about them, and it feels good! Yet, “guilt, shame and worry are horrible long-term solutions.”

Instead, we should be asking the fundamental Jewish question- “What am I grateful for?” I love that quote from Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, “What could I be grateful for now if I was grateful for something?” What is really amazing, is that, scientifically, you don’t even have to come up with an answer. Apparently our brains respond positively to simply seeking an answer.

2. Label Negative Feelings – In the story of creation, Adam is tasked with the responsibility of naming every creature. Knowing, naming, what we are dealing with, is deeply empowering. I hope that you have never had to wait for a medical diagnosis, yet, if you have, you might have had that experience of a sense of relief in knowing what you are contending with. Knowledge is power. On Yom Kippur, we recite the Viddui, naming all of the ways we have gone astray, and we gather for Yizkor, acknowledging and sharing the pain of loss. Neuroscientific research validates that “consciously recognizing emotions reduced their impact.”

3. Make That Decision – When the Jewish people fled from Egypt, Moses stood at the Red Sea and pleaded with God for help. God’s response was that there is a time for prayer and a time for action, and this was the time to move forward. It was, famously, Nachshon ben Amminadav who courageously plunged into the water and led the people to safety. Turns out that a “good enough” decision can be more than enough! “Neuroscience researcher Alex Korb sums it up nicely: “We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.”

4. Touch People – We are all rightfully cautious of being respectful of people’s boundaries. We are sensitive about unwanted touch. It is a good practice to ask, “Can I give you a hug?”, rather than assuming that everyone is longing to be enveloped in our embrace. Yet, physical touch is so powerful that it can actually reduce pain. “Research shows getting five hugs a day for four weeks increases happiness big time.”

Join us at services for Yom Kippur. If you ask, I am confident that you will leave with enough oxytocin in your brain for a sustaining level of happiness. Ask – What Am I Grateful For? Label Negative Emotions Decide Hug, Hug, Hug You are on your way to a happier new year!

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

[1]Barker, Eric, “New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy,”, May 19, 2017

[2] You can read the article itself for all the scientific references to “the dosomedial prefrontal cortext, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens.”

The High Holidays and Mayonnaise

I’ve been thinking about mayonnaise. We tried one of those meal in a box services that have become so popular, and the ingredients included a tiny little container with two tablespoons of mayonnaise. I guess it’s too much trouble to drive to the store and buy your own mayonnaise and measure out two tablespoons? It has to be mailed to our home in a disposable container, already prepared and measured. Now, perhaps you are a regular subscriber to a meal delivery service? This is not meant to make you feel guilty for a convenience that allows you to eat real food in your own home prepared by your own hands. What I’m thinking about is the blessed lives we live and how much we take for granted. Life is hard and it feels exponentially harder this year. It is easy to become depressed and discouraged when we look at all that is problematic in contemporary life. Yet, for all its challenges, we live in the best of times. Reflecting back on that mayonnaise. If our ancestors wanted mayonnaise, they had to procure eggs. They had to harvest and cure and press olives to extract a tiny bit of oil. Then add some source of acid. And, of course, there was no refrigerator to store it, so if they wanted more two days later, they had to repeat the process. Mayonnaise has become my new symbol for the life-enhancing, and, indeed, life-saving blessings that we take for granted. Last month I suffered a serious cat bite. My hand blew up to the size of a tennis ball. I shudder to think what would have happened without the blessing of antibiotics. On a more mundane level, I stand under the shower and have access to as much clean hot and cold water as I desire. In previous generations, kings and queens did not enjoy this luxury. We have legitimate concerns about science and technology and how it impacts our lives. During this holiest season, perhaps we might let go of the worries about contemporary life, and, instead, use this time to focus on the fact that we live lives of comfort and ease that would have been unimaginable in centuries past. The Jewish spiritual path is one of gratitude; it’s time to count our blessings. Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Jonah and the Cactus: Evanescence

The book of Jonah, which we read on Yom Kippur, ends on an absurd note. Jonah storms out of the city to sulk. He had been sent to call the people to repent, and they did. God had compassion on them and, seeing their will to do better, decided not to destroy them.

Jonah was exasperated. He just KNEW that God was gracious and compassionate and that the people of Nineveh would be forgiven. He probably felt embarrassed that the message of destruction he had proclaimed did not come to pass.

Thinking his efforts had been in vain, Jonah wishes that he was dead. God forms a castor oil plan to shade the sulking prophet, and Jonah is was very happy about the plant.

To add insult to injury, God then causes the plant to disappear overnight. The sun beats down on his head. God asks, “Are you really upset about the plant?” Jonah replies, “I’m so upset I wish I was dead.”

“You’re so upset about this plant,” God reminds Jonah, “that you neither created nor destroyed. Imagine how I feel,” God says, “about a whole city of people (not to mention their animals?”

The lesson is one of repentance and compassion- important values, especially at this High Holiday season.

Yet I always wondered about that plant? It just added to the whole absurdity of the story- a plant that comes and goes in one day.

And then- this flower appeared on a cactus outside my patio this morning. This beautiful flower lasts for only one day- just like Jonah’s plant.

Life is like that- full of moments of evanescent joy.

I thought of Jonah, I thought of the flower, and I reminded myself to appreciate every moment of beauty, large and small- they may be fleeting.

The Rabbi’s Struggle With Faith

           This is probably an odd confession for a rabbi- I struggle with a sense of faith. As someone who is too often in the human tragedy business, I just can’t reconcile so much suffering as “God’s will.” I am not comforted by a thought that “Everything happens for a reason,” and I cringe when I hear, “God doesn’t give you more to bear than you can handle.”

         The protagonists in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, similarly struggle with their sense of faith. You know the story: Balak, the King of Moab, hires a very reluctant non-Jewish prophet named Bilaam to curse the Israelite people. God tries to discourage Bilaam, but Balak is persistent and promises great financial compensation. In one of the great ironic moments of the Torah, a magical talking donkey even appears to block Bilaam’s path. Bilaam initially beats the poor animal, and then, according to the text, God opens his eyes and the donkey is revealed to be a divine messenger, an angel.

          Our own Debra Gettleman suggested that we too often react like Bilaam when we experience obstacles in our own lives- metaphorically beating them and cursing and not imagining that we might need to open our eyes and understand setbacks as, perhaps, divine messages. She writes, “The parsha is rife with characters that struggle against the will of G-d. Over and over we see the uselessness of such a struggle. So often in life we believe that we know the proper directions our life is to take. Yet time and again we are frustrated by unanticipated obstacles that block our way.” She suggests that “. . . we (can) trust that G-d is leading the way and the obstacles we encounter might be G-d’s angels sent down to continue to guide us on our paths.” Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it like this, “Just as a small fire is extinguished by a storm whereas a large fire is enhanced by it- likewise a weak faith is weakened by a predicament and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.”

         I guess I have a weak faith. I can only imagine the comfort of believing that everything that happens is God’s will. Actually, I can’t even imagine it. The freedom from worry and anxiety, the “tranquility of soul,” as Bachya ibn Pakuda puts it. Sometimes, in despair, I wonder if I should just resign from my position as a rabbi? A rabbi who struggles with faith? Who rebels against God’s will? According to the Chofetz Chayim, “For the believer, there are no questions. For the unbeliever, there are no answers.” That seems to me to be a pretty absolute, maybe harsh standard. Aren’t we, as a faith community, very much about asking questions? Wasn’t Abraham’s very first reaction after connecting with God to then question God’s justice and wisdom? Aren’t we the people of Israel, Yisrael, the one’s who struggle with God?

          The thing that saves me is the Mussar definition of faith. Mussar literature reminds us that faith is a process, a path, a journey. It is a goal, not a certainty. “The main feature of faith,” writes Alan Morinis, “is seeking it.” It is greatly comforting and encouraging to me to understand faith not as a “blind faith,” but as an ongoing discovery. Mussar suggests that the important thing is not what we believe about God, but where we look for God. If we can, indeed, like Bilaam- “open our eyes” to God’s presence, we can find strength and comfort in the myriad of blessings that surround us, and, perhaps, a faith that can sustain us in times of struggle and doubt, challenge and difficulty. I’ll conclude with this poem from Yehuda haLevi-

Where, Lord, will I find You: Your place is high and obscured. And where Won’t I find You: Your glory fills the world…. I sought Your nearness: with all my heart I called You. And in my going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me.

B’Har and Social Responsibility

         Parshat B’har speaks of fundamental issues of justice and equality.  “And you shall proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land, to all who dwell upon her,” the verse which adorns the Liberty Bell, has its source in this chapter.  The text is concerned with distribution of resources, stressing the fundamental equality of each individual. The Torah expresses this value through the institution of the sabbatical and jubilee years, as means to guard against the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and to protect the poor from lives of indentured servitude.   This text establishes a connection between the way we treat the land and the way we treat each other. 

On a physical level, we learn that the land ultimately belongs to no single individual, rather, the earth belongs to God.     We may use it for a time, but it is ours only temporarily.  The Torah teaches us this lesson through the establishment of a Shabbat, a year of rest for the land, paralleling the weekly Shabbat in our own lives.  This is known as the year of Shemitta.  During this year we are not to work in the fields or the vineyards, but are given as food only that which grows wild.   If the land truly belongs to no one person, then we are all its custodians.

From a spiritual perspective, Rabbi Elias Lieberman notes that, “In God’s scheme for this material universe we inhabit, amassing has its limitations.  We are not what we own, for, in fact, we do not “own” anything.  We better define ourselves by what we accomplish, with what we “own,” by how effectively we use the resources that we acquire and with which we are blessed to do God’s work in the world.” 

The fiftieth year is the Jubilee year- all land resorts to its original ownership. Provision is made for the redemption of land belonging to a person who does not have the purchase price. Every fifty years the land is re-distributed, ensuring that at least once per generation, each person has the opportunity to begin anew.

Arthur Waskow describes the Jubilee year as speaking “about a cycle of change.  It does not imagine that the land can be shared and justice achieved once and for all, and it does not imagine that a little change, year after year, can make for real justice.  The Jubilee says that in every year the poor must be allowed to glean in the corners of the field; that in every seventh year loans must be forgiven and the poor lifted from the desperation of debt, but that once every generation there must be a great transformation- and that each generation must know it will have to be done again, in the next generation.”

Today, the treatment of our fragile ecology as well continues to be of concern.  We learn from this parsha that we cannot separate our ethical responsibilities in any one sphere of life.  Men, women, and the earth herself are all part of one, fragile creation.  Each part of this creation must be treated with respect and caring, or the integrity of the whole is threatened.

Although there is no evidence that shemita was ever widely observed, the problem it addresses is a perennial one.  As we read this parsha, we must face the issues of poverty, injustice and disenfranchisement which continue to plague us in the contemporary world.  B’har offers us a vision of the world as it should be, and emphasizes our role in translating that vision into reality, by working towards a true equality between women and men, by alleviating poverty and caring for our fragile environment, and by consciously treating each other with dignity and respect.  The work of tikkun olam, repair of the world, is part of our covenant with God.  In parshat B’har we discover a vision of ultimate equality.  It is our task to translate that vision into action.

KonMari Your Passover

         Spring cleaning has always been a Jewish thing.  Except we call it Passover cleaning.  It’s a good thing, at least occasionally, to take the cushions off the couch and vacuum up the crumbs, wipe off the shelves in the pantry, and empty out our pockets.  As is the case with so much of Jewish observance, a good idea can become an obsession.  I will never forget one year when the mikveh lady told me in January that she was busy with her Passover cleaning!  I don’t care if the holidays are early or late, Passover is NEVER even close to January!

         With Passover just 3 weeks away, it is definitely NOT too soon to be thinking about how we want to think about the holiday.  As we plan seders and buy matzah, we might reflect on a deeper message of all of this shopping and cooking and cleaning.  Is all of this preparation really necessary, or could we do something much more radically simple?

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi used to tell this story of an encounter he had with Brother Rufus, a Native American medicine man.  Reb Zalman and Brother Rufus were attending a conference of psychologists and mystics; the psychologists were studying the mystics.  As Reb Zalman was explaining the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which occurs at the fall equinox, and the holiday of Passover, which comes at the spring equinox, Brother Rufus lit up!  “Oh,” he said, “in the fall you teach your children the shelter survival and in the spring you teach them the food survival.”

        What a fascinating perspective!  Passover as the time when we simplify our diets down to the most basic foods- unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  What is it that we need in order to survive?  So I ask myself- why kosher for Passover potato chips?  I think Brother Rufus was on to something- Passover essentially is supposed to teach us how to live with less, how to identify our most basic needs.  It’s not supposed to be about obsessing about food and dishes and how we can replicate our lifestyle of the other 51 weeks a year during the one week of the holiday.  We’ve made it SO much more complicated than it needs to be!  To quote Rabbi Mari Chernow- “We can all learn something from the simple child.”

         This year, especially, I’m thinking about the cultural phenomenon of Marie Kondo.  Marie Kondo’s writing, and now a tv show, on the theme of “Tidying Up,” has had a massive influence.  People are decluttering their homes to such an extent that Goodwill stores in many places have had to halt donations- they are overwhelmed!  The cult of Kondo has turned “kondo” into a verb, as in, “This weekend I am kondo-ing my sock drawer.”

         Obsession with simplifying is not healthy.  Yet, Kondo has clearly struck a nerve.  Too much of a good thing is too much, and we are so blessed with abundance that we no longer own our possessions, they own us.  We spend our early years accumulating stuff, and our later years trying to figure out how to foist that stuff on others.  For my generation, it has been a rude awakening that nobody wants our treasures.  There is a lot of wisdom among millennials who are choosing simpler lifestyles and spending their time and money on experiences, not things. 

         Passover comes with a message of “Dayenu”- what is enough?  How can we shift our focus from excessive consumption to greater simplicity?  In Everyday Holiness Alan Morinis quotes the Vilna Gaon, who identified 3 levels of simplicity.  The first is simply acquiring less.  Next is to be happy with what we have. The highest level is to truly feel that we have everything we need.[1] Perhaps not everything that we might want, but everything that we truly need.  Perhaps we can use this holiday of Passover as a time to consider how we might simplify our lives and prioritize what is most important to us, shifting our focus from the acquisition of more and more stuff.

John Lennon said, “All you need is love.”  I’m not sure that’s true, but, as we approach the holiday of Passover, I invite you to consider that perhaps, “All you need is less.”

[1] Morinis, Alan, Everyday Holiness, MA:  Trumpeter Books, 2007, pp. 119-122

Purim and Anti-Semitism

This year at Purim, one verse of the Megillah especially resonated with me. In Chapter Three, Verse 8, Haman seeks permission from Achashverosh to destroy the Jewish people, denouncing us with these words, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all of the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws are different from those of all other peoples and they do not follow the king’s laws, and it is not in your interest to tolerate them.” Jewish difference, according to Haman, cannot be tolerated.

In the post-Holocaust era, it was all too easy to assume that antisemitism was a thing of the past. Jane Eisner, writing in The Forward (March 12, 2019), suggests that it is precisely because of our focus on the Holocaust that we have “overlooked centuries of anti-Semitism on our own shores.” It was easy to believe, she writes, that it “would only continue to diminish.” Sadly, as we now approach Pesach, the words of the Haggadah still ring true- “In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us.” Anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout the world, and the massacre at Tree of Life Or L’Simcha Congregation was a terrifying reminder that there is no place on earth that is 100% safe. We take some comfort in the outpouring of support which ensued. “But I am beginning to think,” Eisner concludes, “that my experiences and those of my children may have been an aberration, an unusually quiet moment in a thrumming history in which genuine hatred is concealed just beneath the surface. Maybe America isn’t all we thought it was. African-Americans surely know this. Maybe I am just coming late and reluctantly to that realization.” It scandalizes me to even read these words out loud.

Conversations about anti-Semitism dominate the news. Just last week, (March 13, 2019), Robert Robb wrote in the Arizona Republic, “Anti-Semitism is real. It has been, and remains, a powerfully malevolent force in the world. It should be called out.” So here I am, calling it out, though, frankly, a rabbi denouncing anti-Semitism is hardly news. So we ask ourselves the perennial question- why the Jews? In yet another article published on the same date in the Wall Street Journal, the author quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks- “Jew-hatred is usually justified by appeals to a culture’s highest authority. During the Middle Ages, that was religion- so the Jews were charged with killing Jesus. During the Enlightenment it was science, so Jews were deemed an inferior race. Today’s highest source of authority is human rights- so Israel is portrayed as the worst violator.”

It is important to note that it is entirely possible to disagree with policies of the government of Israel and NOT be anti-Semitic. Yet, way too often, anti-Semitism masquerades as anti-Zionism. I believe that this is the reason that the conversation about anti-Semitism has become so prevalent in recent weeks.

Why The Jews happens to also be the title of a recent film that Ron and I saw at the Jewish Film Festival. Filmmaker John Curtin sets out to answer a different question. Not, why have the Jews been so reviled throughout history, but, rather, why have Jews been so successful? At less than 0.2% of the population, Jews have, for example, been 22% of Nobel prizewinners, 33% of Oscar-winning directors and 40% of chess champions. He notes that Jews are over-represented in the upper echelons of virtually every profession. In the film, he proposes a number of reasons- a high value on learning and especially learning through questioning. Education and risk-taking are credited as factors in Jewish achievement, as is the influence of Jewish mothers. Psychologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer is quoted in the film, saying: “Out of necessity we have had to think differently to survive. My family died in the concentration camps and I grew up feeling I had an obligation to make something out of myself.”

Despite all of his research, Curtin concludes that Alan Dershowitz is correct- “Don’t expect to find the entire answer, it’s just elusive. Dershowitz helps us connect the dots- “Jewish accomplishment is the other side of the coin, of why so many people have historically hated the Jews”. The resurgence of anti-Semitism in our own day is incredibly disturbing. We can take some comfort in the many righteous and supportive individuals of all faiths who stand with us. And we can be proud of the way we have enriched every country that has given us opportunity. As we celebrate Purim and as we look forward to Passover, the best we can do is be the best we can be, and continue to work for the diminution of fear and hatred in our culture and in the world.

Tetzaveh and Interrupting

         Is it kosher to interrupt someone?  According to an article by Kira Bindrim, “There are times when it’s okay to interrupt someone.  If they have food on their face?  If their dress is tucked into their tights.  If a tsunami is coming up behind them.  And there are times when it really isn’t okay, like during a business meeting, or when conversing with a colleague.  I know,” she concludes, “because I’ve learned about those ‘not okay’ cases the hard way.”[1]

         I can relate.  Growing up in Brooklyn, NY, interrupting was the only way to get a word in edgewise.  I thought that this was natural and normal.  Boy was I in for a rude surprise when I moved to Arizona.  People thought that I was rude!  Imagine that!  Somehow they didn’t understand my ebullient and enthusiastic conversational style as my way of demonstrating engagement in the conversation.  They just thought I wasn’t listening and wasn’t respectful, and they certainly didn’t appreciate the interruption.  People thought I was rude!

         So which is it?  Is interrupting a sign of a conversational boor, or and excited participant?  Turns out that the answer is not so simple.  Recent headlines suggest that what linguist Deborah Tannen calls, “high involvement cooperative overlapping” is actually a characteristic of Jewish conversational style.  It actually is, she says, “a way of showing interest and appreciation.”[2] This pattern of conversation is found, “among many Jews from New York and its environs, especially those of Eastern European origin, (and it) differs in significant ways from that of most non-Jewish Americans from the South, Midwest and West.”[3] 

Other patterns Tannen detects are, “a fast rate of speech, the avoidance of inter-turn pauses and faster turn taking among speakers, [4] “pitch shifts, changes in loudness, exaggerated voice quality, and accent,”[5] as well as a preference for personal topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.[6]

         To those who are not accustomed to, dare I say “our” way of speaking, we come across as rude and disinterested and dominating the conversation.  Among ourselves, we find simultaneous talking unremarkable and a sign of rapport and interest.  The question, Tannen concludes, is, are we “simply speaking at the same time or actually failing to listen. . . (and) stealing the conversation back.”[7]

         In this week’s Torah portion, we read vivid descriptions of the beautiful garments worn by the high priest.  There is a breastpiece adorned with 12 gems, one of each tribe, reminding the priest to keep the people close to his heart.  The priest is anointed on the thumb, the ear, and the big toe- he is to do for the Israelites, he is to be with them, and, most relevant to our discussion, he is to listen to them. 

         The Talmud raises the question- what if the priest’s body was inside the Tabernacle but his head was outside?  May he perform his priestly duties?  The rabbis answer that he may not.  His head needs to be in the game.[8]  If your head is elsewhere, you are not considered to be a full participant.  I believe that what is true for the presiding priest is true for us in conversation.  It is important to be fully present, and we express that attention by listening without interruption.

         A hostage negotiator for the Israel Defense Forces commented that in his line of work “listening can mean life or death.”[9]  The Wall Street journal quotes Glenn Cohen, “In a volatile situation where someone’s life is on the line, there can be no shortcuts.  You must listen. . . “[10]  Fortunately for most of us our conversations are not matters of life and death!

         An article in “Unorthodox” last year concludes that “. . . it’s not quite right to value interrupting as inherently bad.  Context is everything.”[11]  So-called “high intensity” speakers will understand our interrupting as evidence of conversational engagement.

Yet, I personally felt chastened by Elizabeth Gilbert’s comment[12]

“Yes, I like talking, but perhaps I don’t have to curse so much, and perhaps I don’t always have to go for the cheap laugh, and maybe I don’t need to talk about myself quite so constantly.  Or here’s a radical concept- maybe I can stop interrupting others when they are speaking.  Because no matter how creatively I try to look at my habit of interrupting, I can’t find another way to see it than this:  “I believe that what I am saying is more important than what you are saying.”  And I can’t find another way to see that than:  “I believe that I am more important than you.”  And that must end.”

         So, I’m coming down on the anti-interrupting side.  You can take the girl out of NY, but you can’t take the NY out of the girl.  Yet, perhaps, you can convince her to try to interrupt less and listen more.

[1] learn- to love-it instead/ 


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] cit

[6] J.weekly, op.cit.

[7], op. cit.

[8] BT Zev. 26a

[9] Cohen, Glenn, quoted in Siegel, Masada, “A Hostage Negotiator’s Lesson in Listening,”  Wall Street Journal, Jan. 2, 2019

[10] ibid.


[12] In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, p. 193

Vayechi and the Meaning of Life

We come to the final parsha in the book of Genesis- Vayechi- And he lived, referring to the patriarch Jacob. It is ironic that there are two Torah portions that have the word “chai”- meaning life- in their names.  The other one is Chayai Sarah, The life of Sarah.  Chayai Sarah tells us about Sarah’s death, and the week we read about Jacob’s final days and his death and burial.  So what do we learn from this?

I don’t think that the Torah is suggesting that we be over-occupied with death.   I do think that we need to focus on what is most important in life, what are we living for and how do we hope to be remembered?  What will be our legacy at the end of OUR lives?  Will it be said of us as it was of Jacob, that we truly lived?   That we made each day count?  I sometimes joke that I like to get a day and a half out of each day, and my family knows that I want my headstone to read, “You can’t do it all but you can die trying.”

Not that I am recommending living life in a frenzy of non-stop activity.  I treasure Shabbat as the weekly antidote to a very full schedule.  Shabbat is a vital part of my spiritual practice, a day to restore a sense of balance and focus.  A day to reflect on how we make our lives meaningful.  I believe that the goal of life is to continually elevate our souls and to cultivate the qualities of kindness, generosity, compassion that touch every one of our interactions.  If we can truly see each person we encounter as an image of God, the world will be a better place for our having lived in it.  Rambam suggests that we imagine the world as suspended between good and evil, and we have the ability to shift that balance through the actions we choose.  Some of us may have an impact in our own family and community circles, others may impact major social changes.  It is up to each of us to make meaning wherever we find ourselves, to bloom where we are planted.

Is it curious that in Jewish tradition we remember our deceased loved ones not on their birthdays, but on their yahrtzeits?  The rabbis offer the analogy of a ship leaving on a perilous journey.  Well-wishers stand on the shore to bid farewell.  Yet, the rabbis suggest, it is only when the ship returns safely to the harbor that we should truly rejoice.  Thus it is, they conclude, with our lives.  It is only at the end of our days that we truly know what a person’s life was about, who they were in the essence of their being and how they made a difference. Then we can say, as was said of Jacob, “Vayechi,” “he truly lived.”


What is the meaning of life?  The meaning of life is that it ends.   How are we spending the most precious gift of all, the gift of time?  As the book of Genesis draws to a close, as the year 2018 draws to a close, it is worth asking ourselves if we are truly living a life that expresses the values we hold most dear, and, if not, what can we do to make the changes that are in our hearts?

Praying for Rain

Rain is a blessing.  Our tradition suggests that when we give thanks for rain, we appreciate each and every drop as a blessing.  What a beautiful reminder of the importance of appreciating even the littlest things- every blessing, large and small.  What is an underappreciated blessing in your life right now?  Our ancestors lived in the desert, as do we. We deeply understand rejoicing over the rain.  I don’t know about your house, but in my house rain is an event.  If at all possible, everything else comes to a halt so that we can enjoy the rare spectacle of rainfall.  Rain in Arizona is so rare, that my granddaughter Helena was around 2 years old when she became conscious of rain for the first time.  She had no idea what was happening.  I remember her pointing to the sky, inquisitively, “Sprinklers?”

The Talmud teaches us that (Taanit 8b), “The day when rain falls is as great as the day on which heaven and earth were created.” Today is the day when we began to add prayers for rain to our Amidah.  Rain is welcome in Phoenix any time, yet, it also makes sense to not actively pray for it until after Sukkot, thereby enhancing the potential enjoyment of our Sukkah.  But now, the holidays are ending and we invite the rain- mashiv ha-ruach- God makes the wind blow, u’moreed ha-gashem, and brings down the rain.  May it be so.

Sarah Chandler, who is the Director of Earth Based Spiritual Practice at Hazon’s Adamah Farm, finds it curious that we have prayers for rain and not for sunshine. And, that there are no prayers for NO rain.  In fact, she notes, that, “our tradition has a prayer that pre-emptively annuls any prayers against rain. In the Yom Kippur Avodah service, (which most communities no longer include), the following prayer of the high priest is recited: ‘When the world is in need of rain, do not permit the prayers of the travelers with regard to rain to gain entrance before You’.”[1]  My mom is coming to visit tomorrow.  You know that SHE is certainly praying for no rain in Phoenix.

Chandler suggest that, knowing in advance that our prayers for no rain will be ignored, we can let go and find ways to enjoy the rain as a blessing and not a curse. And, of course, the rain is a metaphor for our own lives.  Rabbi Steven Leder puts it this way, “Serving God and humanity guarantees meaning and purpose, not the lack of sorrow.  No matter how good we are, sooner or later rain comes to our sukkah.”[2]

As we join in prayers for rain at this holy season, we pray that the rain that comes to us both physically and spiritually will be, “For blessing and not for curse. Let’s read together Alden Solovy’s beautiful prayer “For Rain.”



For Rain by Alden Solovy

Source of life and blessings,

The rains come in their season

To feed the land, the crops, the gardens.

The earth abundant, food plentiful, gardens lush.

Sweet, clean water, feeding rivers, filling the sea.

Sometimes too much,

Sometimes too little,

Sometimes not at all.

Fountain of blessing,

Remember us with life,

With beauty,

With prosperity and bounty.

Remember us with the gift of rain,

The gifts of earth and sky,

Blessings upon the land,

Each in its time,

Each in its season,

Each in its proper measure.

[1] Chandler, Sarah, “Shemini Atzeret: Geshem Be’ito,” Good Noticing, Zena Schulman, editor, Institute for Jewish Spirituality, 2014, p. 141

[2] Leder, Rabbi Steven, The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, NY:  Behrman House, 1999, p. 52

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