Jewish Leaders & Teachers Jewish Practice Mussar Rabbi David Ingber Rav Kook Tzaddikim Uncategorized Yiscah Smith

Keeping Your Cool

These days we are in unknown territory. How will we educate our children while working from home? How will we take care of their need to socialize in order to learn? What about our fledgling adult-“ish” children, who after barely taking flight, now find their wings clipped? With universities shut down, they have had to return to the nest and take refuge. What will the consequences of this aborted maturation be? What about our aging parents? We have relied on skilled nursing facilities, but now wonder if we are putting our elders in the path of danger, knowing the virus has run rampant through senior care centers.

We can’t worship like we used to. We can’t party like we used to. We can’t celebrate the milestones, nor mourn the dead as we used to.

It’s enough to send you one over the edge.

Yet Jewish tradition asks of us to maintain a state of equanimity — menuchat ha’nefesh — calmness of the soul.

It would seem you might have to either be comatose, or a bodhisattva to achieve this state of equilibrium in the current environment. Or maybe turn to numbing yourself with drugs, food, Netflix, sex.

How can we feel the feelings that our global crisis has given birth to, stay present with them, and not be completely engulfed in sadness, rage, grief, helplessness, hopelessness?

We have just come through a period of intense intentional mourning which culminated in Tisha B’Av — the 9th of Av. We read from Eicha, the book of Lamentations, with the most painful of images painting a picture of our utter estrangement from and excruciating rejection by the Divine.

Av haRachamim, the Father of Compassion, is instead described in this book as:

דֹּ֣ב אֹרֵ֥ב הוּא֙ לִ֔י אריה [אֲרִ֖י] בְּמִסְתָּרִֽים

“…a lurking bear, a lion in hiding.”

Breathe in, (hineni \— here am I), breathe out, (I am betzelem elohim — made in the Divine Image), breathe in, (I am loved with ahavah rabah, an unending love), breathe out (Sh’ma Yisrael YHVH eloheinu YHVH echad — Here, oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.)

In the middle of our struggles, we are often “narrating” our struggles. Meaning, they are happening and we are talking to ourselves about them happening.

We are saying, “This sucks. Why me? This isn’t fair! When will it end? How will I cope? It’s too much, I can’t take it.”

We are in resistance to, fighting against, what is. That which we cannot change. The facts of our reality.

These running commentaries product chemical reactions in the body; adrenalin causing a continuous fight-or-flight state; stress, weakening the immune system; disturbed sleep which then lessens our coping ability during the day.

Breathe in (The Lord is my shepherd), Breathe out (I shall not want); Breathe in (S/He leads me beside still waters), Breathe out (S/He restores my Soul).

Click to listen to Rabbi David Ingber’s Hasidic Masters class from 7/30/2020

In a class this week, Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu shared with us the tachbulot — guidance or tools — we can use to control damaging, unskillful thoughts. As per R’ Tzadok Ha’Kohen, there are three:

Case study #1: The thought is about to happen and you see it coming, you raise your mental shield, and deflect it. You remind yourself, “NO, ain’t got time for that thought.” And POOF! The thought disappears!

Case study #2: (And apologies to Reb David for lifting his words, but they are so accurate!) If the thought has taken up residence in your mind and is living “rent free,” you must take a more aggressive approach, and hightail it to the Beit Midrash. In other words, you must get off the couch, put down your phone, and change your environment to one of supportive, immersive learning and sacredness — a yoga class, Torah study, a walk in the woods, a long bike ride — whatever it is that will interrupt the unskillful thought patterns that have taken overtaken your Soul.

Case study #3: Nothing is working! You feel like Lamentations 2:11, “Your eyes are spent with tears!” Then you must call out with the faith that is the cornerstone of our tradition:

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד

“Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one.”

This might sound overly simplistic, and even downright offensive to those who are in the midst of unbearable loss. How will this fix the death of a loved one, a terminal illness, or the pain of having witnessed or been the victim of unspeakable acts of evil?

The answer is, “It won’t.” It will only eliminate and override the extra level of suffering WE ENACT ON OURSELVES by ruminating on our pain.

The ability to implement these tools — to even be able to think to use them when the moment arises, requires faithful and dedicated practice. And it must begin — if possible — in the moments of calm, of respite, of peace.

Would you expect to ride a the pipeline in Oahu if you’ve never mounted a surf board? Would you expect to sing the Hallelujah Chorus if you never studied music? Could you successfully navigate the Indy 500 if you’ve never turned the key in the ignition? Of course not.

In the same vein, we cannot expect to keep our equanimity in times of great trial if we do not take the time EVERY DAY to cultivate our menuchat ha-nefesh — calmness of the soul.

Breathe in שאיפה the strength to release שיחרור. Breathe out, נשיפה now experience release — שחרור. Breathe in Presence — נוכחות. Breathe out and relax into the Presence. Breathe in connection — התקשרות, Breathe out and relax into the connectedness of all that IS.

Click above to join Yiscah Smith in the initial breathing meditation and watch her amazing Sparks of Rav Kook class.

Special thanks to the spiritual guides who are out there on the front lines helping us “keep our cool.”

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Building a Palace in Time

These days it seems we have nothing but time. Before the pandemic, we filled our lives with concerts and theater, movies and visits to the library, gatherings at restaurants and in the homes of friends. We lived lives of privilege, yet we didn’t see it as such.

Now with corona, we have this opportunity to be human beings, rather than human doings. In our tradition, this is normally relegated to a period between sundown on Friday and sundown on Saturday. If we do it at all.

But now it seems almost superfluous. Why take a day to slow down, when the whole world has slowed down. What’s more, we are in a period of observed mourning — the month of Av — when we are asked to “diminish joy.” How can we intentionally diminish joy, when so many of the things that brought us joy have been taken from us?

As we watch imagery out of Portland, horrified by the national response to the protests, we are mourning the death of our democracy.

As we hear of detainees in ICE facilities and the incarcerated suffering from rampant cases of the virus, we mourn the responsibility and guilt we feel, knowing it is our government failing to protect black and brown lives.

As we see the numbers of COVID cases surge nationwide and our leader refuse even to wear a mask in public, we mourn that we are in crisis and there is no one to save us.

And yet, we are to heap more sadness upon our spirits, remembering the destruction of our Temple, the place where the presence of the Holy One dwelled among us. We are to keep in our consciousness the tragedy of the Holocaust and the exile of Jews from Spain.

And we are to do it alone, as gathering to mourn together is unsafe and our only alternative is to “gather” on zoom. It’s all too much.

And yet, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And maybe movies and concerts and theater are frivolous in this time of universal suffering. And maybe this is akin to wartime, when our focus needs to be on addressing the threat at hand. And what is that threat?

Let’s name them:

  • the threat to our health
  • the threat to our democracy
  • the threat to indiginous, Black and Brown, queer, female, Jewish, Muslim, and differently-abled lives
  • the threat to the homeless, the aged, the poor, and the vulnerable
  • the threat to our Mother — this planet Earth

Maybe our focus should extend beyond the critique of who is or isn’t wearing a mask. And maybe the time we are not spending entertaining ourselves can instead be applied toward considering solutions that will bring about justice, change, healing, repair — true tikkun olam.

What about reparations? What about low-income housing — yes, even in your neighborhood? What about defunding the police? What about opening our borders to those whose lives of poverty are mostly the result of US government meddling and manipulation and the raping of their resources by their Northern neighbors?

These solutions may bring about some sense of justice and an attempt to right wrongs and even the scale. But are these long-term solutions to the problem? How many more must die as we wait for policies to be implemented?

Greta’s tweet speeks to the basic fact that we cannot wait for our governments to implement the changes necessary to insure our survival. It is up to us.

An alternative to a top-down approach to social justice is the establishment of an ecovillage. It is a way to decentralize power, create independence, efficiency and sustainability, and empower communities. Global Ecovillage Network provides a framework for the approach of building an ecovillage.

An ecovillage seeks to create social, cultural, economic, and ecological sustainability.

Tierra Baturi could be a place to build a “palace in time” as referred to by Abraham Joshua Heschel in The Sabbath.

Our week is divided by the days of work, and the days of rest. But this land is a place where food is so bountiful, almost no work is required. My husband, Daniel Tuchmann, whose family has stewarded this land for the last 60 years, tells a joke about once being asked by a native of Mexico City: “Why are the people from Baja California Sur so lazy?” His response: “Because we can be.” The trees drip with mangoes, avocados, oranges, nuts, and pomegranates, the seas overflow with fish, and year-round sunshine and warmth nurture bounty and abundance all around.

With some collaboration, planting of trees, installation of infrastructure, we could get a taste of the world to come — a Sabbath that lasts all week — in Tierra Baturi, land of “Sweet Water.”

“In that time there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust. The entire occupation of the world will be only to know G‑d.” So do the prophets and sages of Israel describe the Age of Redemption.

This is not a dream; it is already a reality in hundreds of ecovillages worldwide.

Will you join me? Can you support this effort? I understand if this solution may not be right for you, for your family, for this moment in your life. But if you think it could offer hope by being a “proof of concept,” please consider donating.

We are in need of the following items:

With your help, we could create shelter to protect us from the sun and heat in these difficult summer months using local, sustainable materials .
  • A palapa roof shelter to protect us from the sun and heat ($2,000)
  • Drone photos and video to show to potential investors and community members ($500 usd)
  • Topographical Survey required for the Community Design: ($1,800)
  • Water and soil testing: ($300 usd)
  • Establishment of a legal entity like a co-op or a non-profit: ($1,000 usd)

If you would like to make a donation, please send via Paypal ( or Venmo (@mimihope), knowing that you will always have a home in Tierra Baturi — nuestra casa es su casa.

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The “Three Weeks”

To start this blog out on a positive note (rim shot!), I would like to talk about this experience of making our way through what are known as the “three weeks” or Bein ha-Metzarim (Hebrew: בין המצרים, “Between the Straits”) .

Francesco Hayez (1791-1882)

This period of time marks three weeks starting with the 17th of Tammuz ending with the 9th of Av — commemorating some of the biggest calamities visited upon the Jewish people including: the destruction of the Temple — not once, but twice, the expulsion of Jews from Spain, the breaking of the tablets by Moses, and the burning of the Sefer Torah, among others.

During these days, it is traditional to refrain from listening to music, dancing, marrying, cutting one’s hair or shaving, and the period is bracketed by fasting at its start and finish — all the outward markings of a people in mourning.

These weeks are considered “unlucky” — as if any bad thing that could possibly happen to you, is likely to happen during this time.

On a personal note, I lost my stepmother one week ago; my father’s partner of 28 years. I couldn’t attend the funeral, and could only honor her life privately from a distance, watching the memorial service after the fact. This inability to “properly” celebrate the life of a loved one who has passed on is characteristic of this time of pandemic. My experience is not at all unique.

As California rolls back the decision to open up the economy, and as new records are set daily identifying the number of Covid cases, to be in mourning seems an appropriate expression of our collective psyche in this time.

In fact, in a pandemic, one could reasonably ask,”What in fact do we have to be happy about? How could we do anything but mourn?”

From “I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America”

When I was a child, my Aunt Barbara, a photography teacher, took me to visit an exhibit of beautiful black-and-white portraits of African American women whose lives made an impact and changed the world for the better. Their efforts to write, to sing, to dance, to march, to change policy, all contributed to the collective good. Their noble faces have always been an inspiration to me. The title of the exhibition was “I Dream a World.”

To borrow a quote from the photographer’s website:

“These women,” says writer Maya Angelou in an introduction to the book, “have descended from grandmothers and great grandmothers who knew the lash firsthand, and to whom protection was a phantom known of, but seldom experienced…But they are whole women. Their hands have brought children through blood to life, nursed the sick, and folded the winding cloths. Their wombs have held the promise of a race which has proven to each challenging century that despite threat and mayhem it has come to stay. Their feet have trod the shifting swampland of insecurity, yet they have tried to step neatly into the footprints of mothers who went before. They are not apparitions; they are not superwomen. They are not larger than life.”

According to The Washington Post, “The rate at which black Americans are killed by police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans.”

Though white America has only lately awakened from its reverie to a world in which Black and Brown bodies are under seige, these women, who were always in it, did not wait for permission to forge a path to freedom, liberation, exalted personal expression, and justice. They moved forward without the approval of the dominant culture. They moved forward, though they were most assuredly in mourning. They didn’t wait until they felt better, or felt strong enough.

Their example can shine a beacon today for us all. We may be in mourning. We may be beaten down by images of suffering and injustice all around. We may feel helpless and hopeless. But to stay in that place of powerlessness while madly posting on Facebook and Twitter is not a solution, nor a path forward.

As I imagine Tierra Baturi, I dream a world that is built on compassion. That is built on the knowledge that we are all interconnected and that the suffering of one is a festering sore on the whole. I dream a world of abundant food, adequate shelter for all, of social collaboration, of shared resources, of respect and honor for our mother earth, of an intentional community holding as its primary goal to live in such a way that future generations will be able to flourish.

While we make space for the collective pain that this moment brings, and mourn the historical oppression of the Jewish people, let the tears we shed prepare the way in our hearts to dream a world of justice for all G-d’s children.