River as Teacher

6 Tammuz 5776

by Rabbi Daria

Shalom. This month of Tammuz I'm sharing with you a story I heard from one of my teachers, Rabbi Shefa Gold. I found her experiences to be quite moving, and thought that you might want to read of them yourself. If you're interested in more by Rabbi Shefa, and experiencing a river with her, you can join her:

Lessons from the River
September 5 – 11, 2016

A rafting (and, of course, Hebrew chanting) trip
down the San Juan River in wondrous SE Utah.

Download the Utah River Trip flyer for more information.

Even when we're not on a river trip, may the lessons that a river can provide help us navigate the twists and turns in our lives.

And now, for some river lessons by Rabbi Shefa and the rivers she has followed. A true story:


*The Lessons of the River*

“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”  -  John O’Donohue

My River story starts many years ago. I was a shy 22, making my way across the country. I met up with some folks who invited me to join them for three weeks in the wilderness of Utah. We floated down the Green River and hiked deep into majestic canyons. Far from civilization I found my strength, my wild beauty, my fierce commitment, and a deep unselfconscious joy. The wilderness gave me the seeds of wisdom that germinated slowly over years of effort and grace. The river filled me with a momentum towards a life of adventure and exploration.

Flash forward many years later: I was leading a pilgrimage to The Grand Canyon. We spent just one day floating on the Colorado River.  I leaned back in my boat and heard a voice rising from those cold waters. “I have a message from the Green River,” the voice said, “She wants you to come back.” I was startled, but immediately I said, “Yes.”

When I arrived home there was a message on my answering machine from Eli, who was a river guide and a rabbinical student. “Would you like to lead a journey with me down the Green River in Utah?” I called back and said, “Yes, definitely, yes.”

We put the word out, set the date for the following summer, and called our journey, “A River flows from Eden” (a quote from Genesis). Slowly, people began signing up.

Then towards the end of November, I was awakened in the middle of the night by another voice- the voice identified itself as the Green River. She said, “Here is the curriculum. This is what I will teach you.” I jumped out of bed and wrote down the words.

Flow…  Connection to Source …  Constancy/Change … Purification … Generosity/Receptivity … Buoyancy/Trust … Depth.

The following summer, we set out from Moab, for the deep sun-drenched, mysterious canyons. We stepped into our canoes, and opened to the wisdom of The River. As pilgrims, we knew that the beauty and grandeur of the outer landscape mirrored the vast inner landscape of soul. And as we floated down Labyrinth Canyon, the wisdom of the river began to emerge.

Flow: I learn to pay attention to what obstructs the flow. What gets in the way of the flow of Life? Shame? Self-consciousness? Rigid desperate ambition? Attachment to preferences? My fixation on “the drama” of my story? When I bring my attention to the graceful dance of flow, I see how each moment opens the door to the mystery of “what’s next.” I live my life in a state of surprise. I am swept up in the currents of inspiration. I let go. I am embraced by the current, conveyed into my potential.

Connection to Source: The river shows me that I am connected to the source of all life through my gratefulness, through my receptivity, through my openness. That Source-place is within me, overflowing. The river tells me that I must connect with Source-within, heal the places of disconnection, connect again and again. Then I can be a channel of inspiration, strength, love and wisdom.

Constancy/Change: Everything in my life changes; everyone dies; all I see is flux, and I am flummoxed. The river knows this well, changing constantly ... and yet, it is only the forms that change. There is essence beyond these shifting forms that speaks to me, that whispers its constancy.  There is an enduring spirit that calls to me, and I listen, so that I might gracefully endure the changes that ripple through my fragile life.

Purification: The river calls me to self-awareness. When I discover the obstacle to flow; when I uncover the true nature of my resistance to becoming one with the river … it is possible to make my insight into an offering. I give my awareness to the water’s purifying power. I offer up my self-imposed limitations to the Divine force of flow that it might wash me clean. Towards the end of our week together, we look around the circle and someone says, “We’re all getting dirtier on the outside and cleaner on the inside.”

Generosity/Receptivity: As the river keeps on giving itself, I keep opening to receive its nourishment. The place of fearful stinginess in my heart is cracked wide open to reveal my own true generosity. That generosity is expressed through my simple joyful presence, though my loving attention.

Buoyancy/Trust: The river teaches me to float, to be carried forward. The river shows me how to say “Yes,” to every obstacle, to trust the onward motion of my life. Just for an instant, I stop flailing, and all of Life supports me. In surrender, I am empowered.

Depth: As I paddle my canoe, I am continually searching for the calm
surface that reveals the depths. I am looking for those same depths within me, which will manifest as a calm, radiant and beneficent surface. The person who is “deep” embodies the wisdom of the river:  Flow ... Connection to Source ... Constancy/Change ... Purification ...  Generosity/Receptivity ... Buoyancy/Trust.

Until the Transformation of our Hearts...

1 Sivan 5776

by Rabbi Daria

As we enter this first day of our new month of Sivan, and turn towards our final preparations for Shavuot (and the community learning opportunities Saturday night as well as the chant/hike on Sunday afternoon), this story reminds us of the importance of stopping... and making space to actually listen. 

Whatever we may think and feel about "God," may we actually make space during this holiday of Shavuot for the deep listening that can reveal to us what we each need to most hear for our own "completion"/personal development/transformation of our hearts. Amen.

(This year Shavuot begins Saturday evening and lasts until Sunday evening, or Monday evening if you're celebrating for 2 days).


"Until Our Completion"

Reb Simcha Bunem of Pshischah once entered into the study of his rebbe, Reb Yaakov Yitzchak, the Yid HaKodesh of Pshischah. Before he could say a word Reb Yaakov Yitzchak said to him, "Cite some verse of Torah, and I will reveal its meaning to you."

Without a moment's hesitation, Simcha Bunem said: "And Moshe spoke in the ears of all the people of Israel the words of this poem, until their completion (ad tumam)" (Deut. 31:30).

Instantly the rebbe shouted, "Ad tumam, until their completion!"

Reb Simcha Bunem was overjoyed with this interpretation of his rebbe and shared it with a friend, Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander. 

"But all the rebbe did was repeat the final two words of the text," Reb Chanoch complained. "This is nothing.  What did you hear in this that brings you such joy?"

Simcha Bunem chided his friend, saying, "You are no ignoramus! Figure it out!'"

"All right," Reb Chanoch frowned.  "Let's see. 'And Moshe spoke in the ears of all the people of Israel the words of this poem, until their completion.'  The key is in the grammar.  If Moshe had been referring to the completion of the poem, he would have said, 'until its completion.'  Because he spoke in the plural, he wasn't referring to the poem at all but to the people themselves.  Hmmm.  Ah!  Until their completion!  Until our completion!  Until our perfection!  The words of the poem remind us that our covenant with God will be repeated and repeated in each of our ears until it transforms each of our hearts.  We are never abandoned; God never despairs of us and will teach us continually until we perfectly live the godliness we are called to emody!"

"That's it!" cried Simcha Bunem, and the two men danced in joy.

What is the essential spiritual practice?  Listening.  God is forever whispering truth into your ears, and all you have to do is listen.  It sounds so very easy, and it is; but its very simplicity is what keeps it hidden from us.  Listening requires no mastery of postures or doctrine.  It doesn't require us to affiliate with any group.  It can be done alone and in community.  It needs no special instruction or master instructor.  One just listens.

What listening does require, however, is silence.  You cannot hear another if you are constantly chattering yourself.  You cannot hear God if you are forever distracted by the talk of self.

We avoid silence, though.  It is too uncomfortable. Why? Because we suspect that what we hear will not be to the ego's liking.  And it won't. So the ego erects complex structures of words to blot out God's teaching. Religion is often just such a structure.  Using sacred words, chants, teachings, and the like, religion mesmerizes us with God-talk when it should be inviting us into God-listening.

If you want to hear God, listen.


From Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained. Translation and Annotation by Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004. 

Two Rules

26 Nisan 5776

As we leave Egypt and head through the wilderness towards Mt. Sinai and "revelation" (aspects of our next holiday -- Shavuot), I was struck by this story and teaching.

Here's the story: 

"At the wedding of the son of Reb Avaham Yaakov of Sadigora to the daughter of Reb Zvi HaKohen of Rimanov, the groom's grandfather, Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin, stood up and said to the father of the bride: 'Let me share with you the yichus of our family. My great-grandfather was Reb Dov Ber; my grandfather was his son, Reb Avraham, who was called the Angel; my great-uncles was Reb Nachum of Chernobyl, and my uncle was his son, Reb Mordechai of Chernobyl. So, my dear friend, please share with us your lineage.'

"'My parents died when I was ten years of age,' Reb Zvi said softly. 'I did not know them well enough to tell you anything about them other than that they were righteous and good-hearted people. After their deaths, a relative apprenticed me to a tailor, for whom I worked for five years. It was during that time that I learned two rules by which I have governed my life: Do not spoil anything new, and fix anything old.'

"With that, the groom's grandfather leaped to his feet, shouting joyously: 'This is a marriage of two great lineages. These children are doubly blessed!'"

What is the secret that the groom's grandfather understood to be revealed through these two rules?

Rabbi Rami explains how we might understand these principles in our lives:

"Do not spoil anything new. Many of us spoil the new simply by insisting that it conform to the old. The past is a shield against the future. Life lived in such a manner is imitative. There is no creativity, only conformity. The new is not allowed to be new and must masquerade as the old.

"Fix anything old. The old needs fixing when it no longer functions in the way it was intended. This principle is especially important in the world of conventional religion. It is the nature of religious to fixate on form and forget the principle the form originally embodied. The result is a hollow imitation of deeds without the ethics and joy the deeds once cultivated. How do we fix this? Not by abandoning the deeds but by returning to the principle behind them and reinventing the deed to better embody the idea. Where are you spoiling the new by insisting that it conform to the old? Where are you conforming to the old simply because it is old, and no longer living the principle behind the deed?" (Hasidic Tales, translated and annotated by Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004. Pgs. 154-155).

As we move farther away from Egypt, and from the slavery that Pharoah imposed on us, we will soon enter the new month of Iyyar (which will start Sunday night). With approaching new moon we have the opportunity to take some time to reflect on the break in habits that Passover might have provided:

What of our old patterns need fixing? What relationships (to Judaism, the earth, the Divine, ourselves, loved ones) need attending to? What new opportunities are we facing at this moment, and how do we be sure to not "spoil" them by treating them like something we already know and have experienced? 

May this reflection help us in our journey of stepping into our potential. Amen.

Open-heartedness on Pesach

by Rabbi Josh

11 Nisan 5776

One of the sometimes overlooked themes of Passover/Pesach is that it is also a holyday of open-heartedness, of lovingkindness (chesed). This is rooted in the festival’s nature as the festival of spring (chag ha’aviv), and spring is the time when love is in the air and things are starting to open up and quicken after their winter dormancy. It’s the season when we read from the erotic love poetry of the Song of Songs. (Rabbi Daria will lead a short session on that at our matzah baking this Sunday). Pesach is also connected with chesed/lovingkindness because of the core act it celebrates--the Holy One taking us out of Egypt not because of our merits, but as an expression of Divine kindness and love. Our response to then follow the Divine call into the wilderness, not knowing what was going to happen next, also has something of this “lovestruck” quality--when you’re newly in love you don’t act in rational ways .

The sacred practices of the holyday invite us to enter a more open-hearted, chesed-oriented state of mind through the practice of tzedakah/right giving, which- in the case of Passover- is called “kimcha d’pischa” (Aramaic for “wheat for Pesach”). Years ago, it was the practice to distribute wheat to those who needed it, so that they could make their own matzah to make a seder.  We declare in the seder, “let all who are hungry come and eat.” Jewish tradition recognizes that it may not be possible or practical to invite someone into your home for the seder at the time of that declaration, so we have the practice of giving tzedekah to fulfill our words, thereby enabling those who are hungry to eat.

One effective way we can fulfill this locally is through the Seder Sack program of Jewish family and Children’s Services. If you go to www.jfcs.org/sedersacks, you can donate Passover food to homebound seniors, people with disabilities, and struggling families in our community.

This year, in the context of the Pesach story and tzedakah, I’ve been thinking a lot about the real-time exodus of refugees pouring into Europe. Last year nearly 4,000 children, women and men drowned as they attempted to flee to safety, and just this past week, another 400 have likely died by shipwreck as they tried to find a safer home. One organization I’ve felt great about supporting is HIAS (www.hias.org); Originally, they were the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. But as they expanded their mission to protect and assist refugees of all faiths and ethnicities, their actual name no longer represented the organization. They are now known as HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that does essential work advocating for, protecting and resettling refugees of all backgrounds.

These may feel like small, barely “bandaid” gestures, yet they are essential, and provide a real way to express the open-heartedness and lovingkindness that are such an essential part of the holy time we are about to enter.

We know that at Passover we are supposed to recall our slavery, but the haggadah reminds us that “in every generation” we are to not only recall this story, but are supposed to put ourselves in it and relate to it as if we were the ones who actually came out of the narrow place, Mitzrayim/Egypt. Why? So that our own experiences, as we retell them every Passover, might inspire us, in each and every generation, to action. And so we can indeed act- in large and small ways- as the hands of the Divine today. To that end, one of our traditional practices reminds us to look around and devote some of our material resources to holy work, through tzedakah, at this holyday season (as well as many other times throughout the year).

This Passover/Pesah may we remember our sacred story, and may it inspire us to open our hearts, and our wallets, to help those who so desperately need real, life-giving support at this time of their own, very real, and treacherous exodus. Amen.




A Deeper Take on Matzah


4 Nisan 5776

by Rabbi Josh

My teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, writes:

“I've been experiencing ‘Matzah’ as the essence that we must return to, must re-discover in order to grow in purity and awareness toward our liberation. The ‘hametz’ [the leavened products traditionally removed on Passover/Pesach] is the sourness, often unconscious, the residue from suffering, disappointment. When hametz is left to its own, it causes inflation, which is the process whereby layers of false-self build up to protect the essential core. The trouble is that through this process we also lose access to that essence. Before Pesach the challenge it seems to me is to release those layers of false self and then to discern the sourness that gave rise to that layering, then to re-experience the essence which is the unique spark at your core, beyond all the accumulated knowledge, talent, personality that you usually identify with.”    

I’d like to invite us to print out and retain Rabbi Shefa’s kavannah (intention), and to apply it to when we actually encounter (eat!) matzah on the night of the seder, as well as for all the remaining eight days of the holiday. Pesach is the only time of year in which we daily partake of a sacred food, i.e. matzah. In this way, the holiday gives us the opportunity for an eating meditation on a very deep level, sustained for one full week. How might our lives be transformed if we reminded ourselves of this deep intention every time we ate matzah during this week-long holiday? What if we were to use the reminder of this ultra-simple, sacred food to reconnect to our essence, to take a moment before eating to release any false-self/hametz sourness that might be creeping in?

Even further, what if we really got a head start on this process and took the extra step of clearing out hametz before Pesach starts, i.e. before the night of the first seder on April 22?  In many ways, the most important part of Passover is in the preparation.  There are multiple ways to clear out the ‘hametz’ in our lives. One is the traditional way: to remove all products made with the five prohibited grains (wheat, barley, spelt, oats, and rye), and to thoroughly clean one’s kitchen and indeed the entire house (and one’s cars!). To turn a “spring cleaning” and removal of products like bread, cereal, cookies, etc., into a meaningful spiritual practice we might consider the following additional step: as you remove these products and give your home a thorough cleaning, stop every 10 minutes and say, lichvod Pesach, “in honor of Passover,” to remind yourself of why you are doing this.  As you pause in your physical cleaning, you may want to also set an intention of other types of internal hametz that you’d like to release—habits or defenses you no longer need to cling to, negative mind-states that obstruct your freedom.

This can also be a time to clear out non-food hametz, other types of things that clutter up your life:  piles of old papers, emails clogging your in-box, and general physical mess. The tradition generally looks at hametz at the food and the internal level. Yet today- at a time when so many of us have too much stuff in our lives “puffing us up” and disrupting our ability to access our essence- we might want to expand our understanding of hametz to include the material hametz with which we surround ourselves. At Pesah, then, we are invited to set an intention to simplify our lives and gain greater clarity, and to take on one physical project that will help manifest that intention.

May this be a Pesach that liberates on many levels for all of us!

If you are interested in another Passover teaching by Rabbi Josh, check out his blog post from last year.

(With thanks to Rabbi Toba Spitzer for compiling these texts).