Jewish Roots By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Jewish Roots

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 This column was written in memory of Hannah Weiss, z”l, whose commitment to a sustainable environment dare us all to live better.

While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

~Taanit 23a

This powerful text prompts us to ask ourselves: What kind of planet do we want to leave for our children? How do our choices today impact our future, long term health and resilience of the planet?  These questions are often debated in the public domain, but one may be surprised to learn of the profound and authentic contributions of Jewish thought to these matters.  Over the centuries, our tradition has eloquently and creatively urged its adherents to be “environmentalists” – to be mindful of consumption and unnecessary waste, to support sustainable agriculture, to provide for the needy, and to exhibit gratitude for for what we have.

Consider another evocative text: Shimon bar Yochai taught: “if you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone says that the Messiah has drawn near, first plant the sapling, and then go and greet the Messiah.” ~Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b

Planting a tree demonstrates our commitment to a healthy planet. Even when our long awaited spiritual redemption is at hand, we don’t forgo our personal responsibility to be partners with God. We are the dreamers, but we are also the planters. The seeds we sew will inevitably become the fruits of the next generation. Spiritual freedom is dependent on our informed choices and responsibility for one other.

Our tradition is keenly aware that our encounters with the natural world stir in us a sense of peace, wonder, and wellbeing – simple gifts bestowed upon those who are willing to accept them. Consider this passage from a mystical tradition:

“Every blade of grass sings poetry to God without ulterior motives or alien thoughts – without consideration of reward. How good and lovely it is, then, when one is able to hear this song of the grasses…” – Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav

Gently calling over a busy, loud, and over-connected society, Jewish thought invites us to do something counter-cultural like take a “tech-break” and stroll outside. We are invited to turn off the constant chatter and ‘tune-in’ to the symphony of the natural world.  Imagine getting so externally and internally quiet, as to actually hear the song of the blade of grass!

There is no better gift to ourselves, to one other, and to future generations then owning our role as the true stewards of the earth that we were created to be. As the Torah states: “The Eternal One placed the human being in the Garden of Eden, to till and to tend it” (Genesis 2:15). By making some small changes to our consumption, consumerism and waste habits, we may just be able to hear that song of the grasses from our abodes!

These are just a few of the many Jewish ideas that speak to the timely subject of “conscious living” on the planet. As we celebrate the “New Year of the Trees” this month on Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat may we be inspired to go back to our Jewish roots to plant a tree, or even an entire orchard, for the benefit of future generations.


*This blog post also appears in the Jan 27th edition of the Jewish Press of Pinellas County


“Your Light is Lifting Me Higher”


“Your Light is Lifting Me Higher”

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

This may come as a surprise, but the art of “page calling” in communal prayer, along with the requisite “please rise”/ “please be seated” is not part of clergy education. Some parishioners tolerate the interruption because it helps them follow along in the service. Others find it to be an odious aspect of ritual.

A congregant of mine overcame his annoyance by reinterpreting the cues: “Please rise” became a spiritual directive, as in – “rise up and elevate your spirit”. “Be seated” became a reminder to contemplate and restore a sense of inner peace.

“Rising in spirit” has direct impact on our Hanukkah observance as well. The Talmud (Babylonian Tractate Shabbat 21b) records a dispute between Hillel and Shammai regarding the proper way to light the Hanukkiya (the Hanukkah candelabra):

The Sages taught in a baraita: The basic mitzva of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for him/herself and their household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights.

The text continues to add several arguments in support of both sides of the debate, concluding that the law is in accordance with Beit Hillel:

The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade. Therefore, if the objective is to have the number of lights correspond to the number of days, there is no alternative to increasing their number with the passing of each day. (Translation: William Davidson Talmud,

Remarkably, as inheritors of Hillel’s rule, we are all mehadrin min hamehadrin, the best of the best, the ones who are “the most meticulous” in their candle lighting practice. That is, most of us add a candle to our Hanukkiya each night.  The challenge is to think about the ways in which we can do more than just add candles to our Hanukkiya.  Light is symbolic in most cultures and it holds true for Judaism as well. As we light our candles this year, I invite you to discover the symbolic meaning of the light in your life. How does the candlelight enrich your spiritual perception? Each night the candles illuminates a little more blessing in the dark of winter, pointing toward the ways in which we can aspire to cultivate deeper self-awareness. What might that expanding light mean for you this season?

One of my favorite aspects of lighting the Hanukkiya at home is seeing my family’s faces glowing in the candlelight.  The light not only makes for great photographs. It draws me into a space of gratitude. Taking time each night for the candles and for each other is a tradition that bind us together from generation to generation. My kids may look back and remember the presents they did or didn’t receive that year (After all, I still remember the “Barbie Dream House” I asked for and never got).  But I hope they will also cherish the light that I see dancing in their eyes.

I am drawn to the idea that the eight distinct flames of the Hanukkiya share a single power source – the shamash or “the helper candle”. The strength of the shamash is that it provides light to each wick without depleting its own resources. We are each a shamash, a leader and helper, capable of sharing our blessings without burning out or giving up.  At the same time, we each also receive from the Source – capable of being “lit up” in the variety of ways in which we find our own inspiration and voice. The increasing light of the Hanukkiya reminds us that we are each a candle of God, sharing knowledge and acts of love – living out the great miracle of our lives with gratitude and pride.

May each of us be blessed, at any age, “to increase in holiness”, to lift ourselves and each other up higher, just like the candles of the Hanukkah ritual. May the light that shines from within us grow throughout the holiday and for years to come.

Putting the Great and the Thank in FULL at Thanksgiving:  A Jewish Perspective

Putting the Great and the Thank in FULL at Thanksgiving:  A Jewish Perspective

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

By nature, Thanksgiving dinner, is a Jewish meal – the food, the talking…the talking about food.  Some have even argued that the Puritans were influenced by the Biblical celebration of Sukkot when they planned to have their first meal.

Thanksgiving is prototypically Jewish. In fact, we don’t really need a special day to give thanks because gratitude is an ongoing, daily spiritual practice.  Psalm 93, which is recited every Friday night opens, “It is good to thank God” Tov Lehodot La’donai.  What a simple and beautiful sentiment. Gratitude can’t be confined to a given time or place. There is no proscribed amount. It is simply good to thank God.

That being said, we end up thanking God quite a bit.  Beginning with the first words uttered in the morning (Modeh Ani), extending to the gratitude prayer recited three times a day in the Amida prayer (Modim Anachnu Lach), to every time a blessing of appreciation (birchot ha’nehenin) is stated. Blessings of gratitude are continuously uttered over a variety of foods and fragrances. We thank God for the good times (she’he’chiyanu).  Even the response to a basic question, “how are you?” is often – “Thank God”.

While giving thanks does not require a special gathering with copious amounts of food, that beloved (and/or dreaded) meal holds a special place mark in the American Jewish experience.

In order to add an even more Jewish flavor to the meal, there is much low hanging fruit (so to speak) to grasp.  For instance, reciting the Ha’motzi (prayer over breaking bread) as part of the pre-meal grace, as well Birkat Ha’mazon, a version of grace after the meal, can serve as satisfying book ends. Observing the laws of Kashrut, or incorporating the seven species from Israel into your recipes can also be a nice touch.

But in conceiving of a Jewish Thanksgiving that speaks to a wider or secular audience, perhaps a more creative menu of thanks is in order. I offer these five ideas (plus 1) to put the “great” and the “thank” in the “full” at your Thanksgiving celebration this year:

  1. Invite God to the table. I don’t mean place an empty chair at the table or anything like that. I mean, invite your guests to name and celebrate the spiritual aspects of their lives -the intangibles. Connect the dots to give voice to the ways in which God operates in your lives. The mere act of recognizing the hand or voice of God is akin to a prayer. Riffing on the liturgy to be “grateful for the gift of our lives and for the miracles that daily attend us” – the Thanksgiving meal is an opportunity to express to those dear to us, the ways in which we have grown, learned, celebrated and have become more whole since the last Thanksgiving meal.
  1. Do good. Prior to the meal or as part of your table conversation, consider engaging your guests in a community service project. There are so many ways to help. Initiate a collection of items or money to be donated. Prepare extra food to share with a shelter, or organize a hands-on experience to work on together over the holiday weekend. Creating a time to help out in the community may be a welcome counterpoint to the consumerist nature of the regularly scheduled Friday morning program. Tikkun Olam, repairing the world, requires the buy-in, not the next buy, of each and every one of us.
  1. Dwell in the past – The Thanksgiving feast is a golden opportunity to hear and share our lived experience. Thanksgiving offers American Jews a unique moment to reflect on our family’s journey to this day.  On whose shoulders do we stand? Who sacrificed for us to be here? Who was left behind?  It could be an interesting time to consider how or if our own immigration stories inform our understanding of immigration policies today.  Surely, no-one wants to have a political digression. But, in the spirit of L’dor Va’dor, from generation to generation, the images, narrative and ethos about where we came from are fodder for genuine reflection to determine where we are headed.
  1. Take Pride in your pride (that is your social unit): In Jewish life, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The Presence of God dwells on a minyan (a quorum of 10), our tradition teaches. As families and extended families, we strive to lift each other up and help each other out.  Take a moment at the meal to focus on the collective experience of the people around your table. What good memories do you share? In what ways are you stronger together? At the same time, the meal is an opportunity to focus  on the gratitude you share for each other’s strengths and blessings.  Consider doing something joyful like placing a note under each guest’s plate with a personalized statement of gratitude.  Or play a fun game in which you create a jar filled with popsicle sticks or folded papers with the name of each guest on it.  Everyone picks a random name from the jar and is asked to share one specific statement of gratitude about the person whose name they chose.  Even if they just met that day, I am sure they will be able to come up with something good to share in the moment.
  1. Focus on the food: Some people clearly don’t need to be reminded of that. But the idea is to take a few (or many) mindful moments at mealtime to “focus in” and pay attention to the journey that our food has taken to the plate. Picture who and what was involved in producing this dinner from seed to fruition, from farm to plate, from grocery store to table. Consider slowing down the “intake” to appreciate the colors, textures, and flavor of each platter, each plate, each forkful, and each bite. Notice the arrangement of the table display and the color scheme that the host has prepared. Often when we eat, we are distracted by our conversations, the football game, our own appearance or pettiness. Thanksgiving is a time to feel overwhelmed by appreciation for the bounty of the season, but that can only happen when we create that space to do so.


Finally, don’t forget to Thank the Chef.  It was probably a lot of work and it would have been a more convenient to just go out to dinner or have pizza.  So, let the chef know – whether you mean it or not – how grateful you are for all of their efforts.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Gratefulness makes the soul great”.  May our Thanksgiving traditions fill our souls with gratitude for the blessings of God, for each other, for the food we share, and for the memories we create.

I am grateful for you.

Happy Thanksgiving!


photo credit: Liz Cohen Park


The God of the Machzor vs. The God of Mother Nature

The God of the Machzor vs. The God of Mother Nature

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

What is our way in to the High Holidays this year? How do we greet “The Father” “The King”, “The Shepherd” “The Judge”? After experiencing the eye of the Hurricane, either behind shuttered windows or in front of a screen, we all experienced the heavy handedness of nature – a force beyond our control.  We confronted our mortality either face to face or vicariously through images of perfect strangers wading through flood waters, waiting on rooftops. The voice of God in Harvey, Irma and Maria was not the still small voice we crane to hear on the holidays.  It was the overpowering voice of the Psalms – Kol Adonai Ba’Koach. – The voice of God in strength, Kol Adonai al ha’mayim, the voice of God in raging waters. Kol Adonai hover arazim, the voice of God shatters the cedar, the oak, the palm.

When we open our Machzor (prayer book) this year, how will we relate to the metaphors for the Divine found within those pages?  To whom will we ascribe our faith? I hope that we will feel shepherded, spared the evil decree, written for a good life in the Book of Life. But we will also have to reflect on those who lost everything. What is a few days of power in comparison. Some will still feel petty that the power didn’t come on soon enough.  I hope we choose to dwell in the space of gratitude, reflecting on the grand coordinated country-wide efforts of power companies who drove a long way to send the message of Florida Strong.

Likely, through this journey of prayer, many thoughts and emotions will rise and fall, come and go. The liturgy may feel comforting on some pages and alienating on others.  We will have to ask ourselves again and again, who was that God in the hurricane? Was God in the feeling of helplessness? Or was God in the caring response after the storm? We will be called upon to feel deeply about what it means to be human in a very unpredictable world.

As we open our prayer books, I know we will all have a lot of questions for The  Majesty and the The Judge. Should we feel unheard, we may choose to direct our attention to the other aspects of the Divine hiding in the text: Our “Rock” and “Our Redeemer” – Tzureinu v’go’aleinu, our “Support” Somech Noflim, “The One Who Hears”, Ha’Shome’a, andThe Architect and Craftsman”, Ki Hinay Ka’Chomer B’yad HaYotzer.

I pray that we will allow ourselves to be present and sit with all that is. When we struggle, may we find reconciliation. When we doubt, may our faith lead us to perceive a new angle.  When we feel isolated in our thoughts, may our family, friends and fellow congregants softly bring us back into the fold.

For all of us, I hope that the experience of frailty can lead into gratitude for the blessings we have and for the good that we allow to unfold. We can choose to focus less on power outages and more on the power helping hands.  Life can go on, without all our stuff, even without electricity (although we hate to admit it). Wherever we find ourselves in the aftermath of the storm, my hope is that the symbols and rituals of the season will awaken us to a sense of renewal, recharge and readiness for whatever the New Year may bring.



How to Tame Your Fear in Elul


How to Tame Your Fear in Elul

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin


An interview with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks as the “2000 Year Old Man”:

Reiner: …What was the means of transportation then?

Brooks: Mostly fear.

Reiner: Fear transported you?

Brooks: Fear, yes. An animal would growl — you would go two miles in a minute. Fear would be the main propulsion.


Today, we have many other modes of transportation, but fear still has a way of propelling us. No matter how far we try to run or hide from it, fear has a way of catching up with us. Only when we recognize its grip can begin to tame it.

Fear has many faces. My six-year-old is morbidly afraid of E.T. Yes, the cute 80’s era Spielberg movie star puppet. She only saw the movie once, many years ago, but the image of E.T. hiding in the closet with stuffed animals has been a problem ever since. It doesn’t help that her older brothers download photos of the adorable alien for her to stumble upon as a practical joke.  Brothers are like that. To be fair, they have their own fears to grapple with. Who doesn’t? I was a horror film enthusiast growing up. To this day, hockey masks make me uneasy.

Current events have provided us with a smorgasbord of widespread fright, stoked by the headlines and social media. Remember Skokie, Illinois? When I was a kid, that event was taught as the hallmark case of free speech in America.  Now can see that history really does repeat itself. The malignant rhetoric in our society has a way of seeping in to the subconscious. I would take reruns of “Freddy” any day over the images of Charlottesville holding me hostage.

So, what do we do to prevent ourselves from getting swept up in panic?  How do we remain level-headed and uphold the values of civil society when the world seems to be toppling around us? There is a beautiful Hassidic term for that: Hishtavut, a reflexive idiom that refers to “equanimity”. I love when Buddhism and Judaism speak the same language. Spiritual truths always find their way into shared religious discourse. Certainly, we need to continue to be aware, vigilant and protective, but it is also incumbent upon us to employ the spiritual tools that are available to us. When we feel out of control, it is critical to regain moral and spiritual centeredness. Easier said than done, but not impossible.

This week in the Jewish calendar, we begin the new month of Elul. Every new month is an opportunity for renewal and resolve – but the power of Elul is distinct.  In Elul, we are directed to awaken ourselves to the spiritual work of self-mastery (another cross-religious ideal). We take an account of our thoughts and deeds (Cheshbon Hanefesh). Elul marks the time when we begin the spiritual groundwork for the New Year, right around the corner. The Zodiac sign for Elul is Virgo, the virgin, connoting a clean slate. The sign for Tishrei, one month later, is Libra, signified by the scales of balance – two vivid visuals to remind us of the purpose of our spiritual work.

Throughout Elul, we employ two powerful tools to help us navigate the process of balancing and self-refinement: 1. the sounding of the Shofar and 2. the recitation of Psalm 27.  Each of these tools holds its own potential for transformation. The Shofar is the more obvious one. The clarion call is prescribed to “wake us up” to the work of repentance, recovery, and return. Many people show up on Rosh Hashanah morning, eager to hear the call and feel the resonance of the Shofar’s vibration. Indeed, there is often a palpable feeling of anticipation and appreciation of the Shofar service, felt even more strongly when standing together as a community.

But did you know that we sound the Shofar every day of Elul? The Shofar reminds us every morning to engage in the hard work of Teshuvah – to make a visceral shift toward claiming our better selves, toward owning greater compassion and forgiveness. The Shofar initiates a psychological and spiritual turning.  Change doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly and incrementally, with each blast, with each space in between the blasts, we are invited into a process of awakening.

The Shofar is the audible tether that binds us to a sense of fearlessness to be who we are in the best sense. In the Bible, the Shofar signaled the community to war. It is also a symbol of the ram that Abraham slaughtered in place of his son. It symbolizes the power of timeless faith and courage.

The daily recitation of Psalm 27 serves a more intellectual function; it is the Scriptural antidote to fear. The opening words:

“L’David – To David, Adonai is my light and my help. Who shall I fear?

Adonai is the stronghold of my life. Whom shall I dread?”

When evil people assail me to devour my flesh,

my enemies and those who besiege me,

it is they who stumble and fall.

Should an armed camp be arrayed against me,

my heart would show no fear. (Psalm 27:1-3)


Through the Spirit’s eye, we need not be afraid. Our enemies have no power over us.  As we read this Psalm, our fears dissolve into faith and fortitude. The Psalm reminds us that strength builds from within. It is developed over time through a steady course of action and thought. Courage emerges from the sense of the constancy that God has our back. A cross reference can be made to the more well-known Psalm 23:4: “…I will fear no evil for You are with me.” The Divine light illumines our path to help us determine our next step.

We read Psalm 27 throughout the month of Elul and beyond through the Fall holidays, as a spiritual practice to help us shift our perspective.  When we read these words, we are reminded that through our own light – expressed through our positive thought, speech, and actions, we experience God’s light. That light within us is stronger than torches in the night. It is stronger than the LED glow of hate speech.

My blessing for us this Elul, is that we take the words of the Psalmist to heart and confront our fears with the light of faith. Unlike the 2000 Year Old Man, we have nowhere to run. So, we might as well do the hard work.  I pray that we experience the Shofar as a wake up call to rise above the fray. Allowing the fear to get the best of us doesn’t help anyone. Instead, let’s confront it with equanimity and spiritual illumination, uniting us, people of all faiths, on the path of healing and transformation.

The Word

The Word

By Rabbi David Weizman

Have you ever been asked a question that left you speechless? That happens to me all the time, just because things take a few seconds to register. People tell me that I am supposed to say the words, “I’m thinking” so that the other person will know that I heard them. I’m working on that. The other day I watched an interview with Joe Kennedy III, and it happened to him too. He said, “I seem to be doing a lot of that lately,” coming up speechless. On the other hand, there are those who don’t miss a beat when asked a question or some event makes a big splash on social media. I wish I could be a little more like them, with the proper filters of course. We have a friend who always comes out with a prayer for the victims of the earthquake five minutes after it happens. I think he’s a prophet.

You know, back in the 70’s, it was more challenging to get your opinion out there, unless you were E.F. Hutton. But nowadays, it’s all about the followers. You can come up with some really kooky stuff or even the most mundane and meaningless YouTube gig, and the next thing you know, you have 50,000 followers. I could never take that kind of pressure, let alone keep up with the posting. My Instagram account has been dormant for about eight months. But lots of other people nowadays are getting the word around. Just in case you don’t want Neo-Nazis in the work force of your company, subscribe to “yesyoureracist” to see the guys on the right side of things in Charlottesville last Saturday. I didn’t see it yet, but there is probably an Instagram account that posts the photos of those counter-demonstrators, just in case you want to identify those bullies. What were they thinking, both sides, that they were going to have a nice little demonstration to express their opinions about some statue? I’m not so sure that you need all those guns and shields and helmets, we get the point with the torches: they’re coming for us. I think it took a lot of courage, actually, to counter the hate speech that our constitution so fully protects and upheld this past June in the Slants case. You can say whatever you want, but you can’t hit people with a flagpole in the head. OK, so maybe the police were not quick enough to step in.

Then there is this guy from Ohio, a Hitler groupie, who uses his car as a lethal weapon, and they are calling him “a domestic terrorist.” Does that mean that he is a separate case, like he came uninvited?

That is the whole point; he was invited. And so was that guy who shot those two Indian engineers, in Olathe, Kansas last February, and the guy who tried to intervene, oops. Because even though you’re allowed to say anything you want in this country, allowing words of hatred to go unanswered, validates the hatred, and that opens the possibilities for violence.

In Jewish law, we don’t have the Fifth Amendment. When the court asks you, did you transgress, you have to answer yes or no. If you say nothing, Shtika K’hoda’ah-Domya, silence means admission. The phrase is used in conversation as, silence means consent. There were a variety of people who stood up to those White Supremacists last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, who stood for their own cause, but they were also standing up for the Jewish people, because we are clearly a priority on the agenda; “The Jews Will Not Replace Us.” And we should stand up for them too, whoever is a target of discrimination and such extreme prejudice.

When we begin our communal prayer in the morning, we stand for the opening of Pesukei D’Zimra, the verses of song that praise God through the Psalms. The opening poem begins like this:

“Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being. Blessed is He.

We are the beings, made in the image of God, who imagine a concept, and assign it a word.

Baruch Omer v’Oseh, Blessed is the One who speaks, and that utterance comes into being.”

This is the power of the word. Let us use it for a blessing and not a curse.

Shema – Hearing the Call in the Wild

Shema – Hearing the Call in the Wild

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin


There are many ways to pray and many ways to affirm the unity of God. While prayer is portable and can be done from just about anywhere, there is something magical about the backdrop of the mountain and the chorus of nature to uplift our spirit. With our ears more attuned in the natural world, our hearts can open to the words that have kept our people together for 3000 years: “Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad/ Listen (hear this, pay attention), God is our God, God is One”.

To fulfill the words of Shema in the outdoors, we sometimes need to become very quiet. Our silence is an invitation to hear the voice of God more clearly, to feel the unity of Spirit, and to rest in the Oneness of it all.

This invitation to stop and listen occurs twice daily in Jewish prayer. The Shema is liturgically proscribed during the morning and evening services, as the biblical verse states: “when you rise up and when you go to sleep” /“u’v’shoch’becha u’v’kumecha” (Deuteronomy 6:7). The prayer has been described as the foundation of Jewish life because it conveys the primary belief that God is One. This was a new belief for our ancestors who dwelled among their ancient Near Eastern neighbors who believed in multiple gods or Animism.

In perusing Rabbi Isaiah Wolgemuth’s book, Guide to Jewish Prayer, I came across a passage that lends itself to the power of Shema, particularly, how the words are experienced in nature.

The author cites the Torah commentator, Avudrahom, who suggests that the word “Shema” itself contains a reference to several fundamental concepts in Judaism:

Shema (shin, mem, ayin) is an acrostic Se’u Marom Eynechem (lift up your eyes), which we should do Shacharit, Mincha and Aravit (morning, afternoon and evening).  The message is that Shadai Melech Elyon (God is the Supreme King). If you do this,  you will accept Ol Malchut Shamayim (acceptance of God’s sovereignty forever.) (P. 94)

I have been spending some time in nature over this summer at Camp Ramah in the North Georgia mountains. Joyful activities, as loud as they can sometimes be, are part of the spirit of Jewish summer camp. There are times, however, in Jewish life, when the human chorus gets quiet. At camp, the quiet is like a “rest note” in a grand symphony, creating a sacred silence that cedes to the crescendo of nature. Jewishly speaking, that “rest note” is sustained through the words of prayer, particularly in the Shema – the prayer that calls us to listen. Shema in the sacred mountain community, turns our full attention, not only to the glory of our surroundings, but also to the One who called it in to being.

This past week, I encountered two profound “Shema Moments” connected to this teaching. The first one occurred during Kabbalat Shabbat, a special service to welcome the Sabbath attended by 700 camp residents.  A phenomenon occurred. As we started to pray in the covered sports pavilion, a torrential rain hammered down on the tin roof above us, insistent and percussive, it drowned out our communal prayer. We tried to meet the power of nature by rising to our feet, clapping our hands, and singing on the top of our lungs. But how could we compete? Kol Adonai BaKoach – “the voice of God roars in might”. Ironically, we had just recited those words in Psalm 29 as part of our worship. On that night, these words meant something new. We realized that our collective voice had the power of one of those raindrops.

The rain continued for over an hour and eventually the whole camp lost electricity. In that moment, God’s voice was heard loud and clear, even awe-inspiring. In a way, it was silencing. With our eyes raised to the heavens, we knew that we couldn’t drown out the rain, but we could use the experience to create sacred memories while trying. By the time we reached the words of the Shema in the evening prayer, the pavilion was getting darker and the rain was getting louder.  By then, however, every voice was lifted in unity and pride.

Sometimes we can’t help but hear the voice of God. Other times, though, it calls to us softly and we have to quiet ourselves to listen. A few days later, I attended a morning service with a smaller group of campers who were gathered by the lake. While we waited for some participants to finish their silent prayer, a counselor prompted the group to close our eyes and listen to our surroundings.  On this clear, cool clear morning, we turned our full attention to what we heard: bird calls, leaves swooshing in a breeze, the babble of the distant creek, fish flopping around in the lake, buzzing insects – on that morning, the voice of God was a whisper in the mountainside.

While the words of the Shema are only proscribed twice a day, the invitation to listen is always available to us. Wherever we find ourselves in the chorus of nature, be it in the crescendo or the rest note, the thunder or the whisper, may our hearts and ears open to let the Voice in. May the serenity and the challenge of nature continue to inspire us and renew our spirits for generations to come.