The Kol Aleph Blog
Working with Fear
By Rabbi Shefa Gold
The general consensus and our deep conditioning tell us that it is our fear that will keep us safe. … that if we know all the horrible things that might happen, we’ll be better able to deal with them … that our fear will keep us vigilant against danger… that expecting the worst will help us guard against disaster.
What if this consensus is totally wrong? What if the truth is that all fear is ultimately toxic, and that it prevents us from truly accessing the deepest wisdom and the greatest love? Fear (that is sustained and not just a momentary startle) raises the level of stress hormones, lowers immunity, sends us to our reptile brain, shuts down our connection to the higher brain functions like empathy, understanding, intuition and love. Fear separates us and blinds us to the miracle of our interconnectivity. Fear shuts down the heart, keeping it from receiving the blessings of this precious moment. Fear is …
I like this acronym because it reminds me that fear is happening in the mind. If I can create just a bit of distance and perspective about my fearful thoughts, I can notice when they emerge, and release them with compassion. In a moment of fearlessness, I can choose wisdom, assessing the risk before me with clear-eyed deliberation, and act in alignment with the force of the Great Love.
Yes, fear happens in the mind. I get startled and that sense of alarm activates a cascade of fearful imaginings. “What will happen to this fragile world, to my health, my finances, to all my loved ones?!” These questions inevitably lead me towards anxiety and despair.
What the real and useful questions can be are, “How shall I live the gift of my each and every moment? Will this moment be fueled by that fear? How can I release the illusion of control, and surrender to the Divine Will that dwells within me? Will my worries cloud the possibilities of joy, right here, right now? How can I rise to the extraordinary challenge that this moment holds, with all my faculties at the ready?”
I believe that anything we do from fear is tainted or somehow distorted and might do as much harm as good. Doing that same action, sourced in love, can by its very essence, transform the doer. If anything might keep me safe, it will be my clear-headed, open-hearted presence… my ability to respond wisely to the gifts and challenges of this moment.
What an amazing opportunity for practice! Every time we have the presence of mind to release fear as it is arising, we strengthen that spiritual “muscle,” and we build the capacity for unconditional joy, infusing every moment with an inner buoyancy and steady calm, no matter the weight of outer catastrophe or the disturbance of unexpected turbulence.
As I investigate each moment of fear or anxiety as it arises, I suspect that all these thoughts have their root in the Fear of Death. That root-fear holds me captive in its chains of limitation. When I am held hostage by that Fear of Death, I can’t know the truth of my infinite Soul. And it is in knowing, really knowing myself as a Soul, that I am liberated.
As a Soul I experience Life, and Death, as a great adventure. I am open to learning from everything and everyone. I welcome joy and sorrow in equal measure. As a Soul I dive into this amazing story of loss and redemption, and yet I remember that forms and identities come and go. The small “I,“ (mochin d’katnut) will be swept away while the large “I,”(mochin d’gadlut) will know itself more deeply and thoroughly because of this journey.
When I know myself as a Soul, my root-fear of Death fades and recedes and no longer fuels a life that is driven by fear. Those thoughts still happen, but they no longer compel.
This time of pandemic holds an extraordinary opportunity for facing our fears, turning towards love, awakening to the truth of our interconnectivity and knowing ourselves as radiant Souls that shine God’s light. This is the light that heals and makes whole a world that feels so broken.
©2020 Shefa Gold (For more teachings, visit www.rabbishefagold.com.)
COVID-19 (coronavirus) has been spreading rapidly across the globe. Safety is always our highest priority, and we know that there have been some concerns about the upcoming in-person ALEPH programming, including the ALEPH Kallah.
Our staff is staying up-to-date on all news and developments surrounding COVID-19. We are following updates from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO), and will act according to their recommendations.
All virtual programming (including ALEPH Ordination Program classes and Tikshoret classes) are not expected to be impacted.
As of Monday, March 9, the ALEPH Kallah and AOP Smicha Week are still scheduled to take place this summer at Colorado State University. We are in active communication with CSU and will share safety protocols as necessary. Please click here to read CSU’s message about COVID-19. Naturally we are all concerned and reiterate our commitment to making decisions based on the best available information.
• In the World of Assiyah, we will implement every possible precaution to maximize safety, including cancelling/postponing should that extreme step become necessary.
• In the World of Yetzirah, we acknowledge and share our fears. The impact on our social lives, including how we meet and greet each other, is very challenging. Some of us are in high risk places, or have underlying health issues that are risk factors too. This is new and frightening. We care about one another and want each of us to be healthy and well.
• In the World of Briyah, we remember that all of life is inter-connected and part of the One Source. We have intelligence, insight, intuition and knowledge. As humans, we are more than our fears, and are not paralyzed but activated to engage creatively and discover solutions.
• In the World of Atzilut, we look to those practices which support and nurture our most God-connected selves. We are sparks of Divine Light living human lives. We can hold ourselves, the world, all people and creatures, and our beautiful planet in the gentle, loving light of compassion and healing.
Our friends over at Repair the World and Amplifier Giving partnered together to create this resource, which can help you think about how you might respond and care for those who have been impacted by the virus.
If you have any concerns about COVID-19 and ALEPH programming, please reach out to us directly at email@example.com. We will continue to monitor the situation and will report with any updates or changes. Please take all appropriate precautions. Stay safe during this time.
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Faryn Borella *
During most of Jewish history, Passover has been seen as a tale of Jewish oppression and Jewish liberation. Since the Freedom Seder in 1969, many Jews have treated Passover as an opportunity to face social injustice and liberation more broadly, in other contexts: racism, oppression of immigrants, or workers, or women or GLBTQIA communities, or unjust wars.
From that perspective, the Ten Plagues and their disturbance of the rhythms of Earth as well as of society have rarely been the focus of the Passover story – though they were the focus of the biblical story of the Exodus. But in our generation, haunted by the fear and the reality of deep disturbances in planetary climate and local weather patterns, the Plagues may claim new attention.
What caused the Ten Plagues of Exodus? How might we think about them in the light of our own generation’s ecological disasters, and how might we think and act about our “climate crisis” in the light of the Exodus plagues?
There are two quite different theologies for explaining the Plagues: two quite different ways of “Naming God.” For what the biblical tradition called a “Name of God” was really an all-embracing world-view. And sometimes, when the world is in the midst of transformation, we need to choose a new Name, a new worldview, to bring about the change that serves the needs of life and love. We may need to set aside, with respectful clarity, an old Name – as the Voice called Moses to do in a crucial moment early in the Freedom Journey, when the Voice said that “El Shaddai, the God of Nurture,” no longer was sufficient.
For two thousand years we have mostly understood the world as a set of hierarchies, capped by a kind of Super-pharaoh in the sky. In that way of thinking, Super-pharaoh brought on the Plagues in order to demonstrate His superior power — to the human Pharaoh on the throne of Egypt, and to the Egyptian and Israelite peoples – all in order to coerce Pharaoh into letting the Israelites leave slavery and Egypt.
This way of understanding is easier to accept if the community of experience and memory uses symbols built on Hierarchy: a God who is Adonai and Melekh, Lord and King, triumphs over a Pharaoh, who is beneath Him on the scale of lordship and kingship.
But now the community of experience and memory more and more often sees with an ecological worldview in which human interactions with Earth bring on changes in great patterns because all life is interwoven, and these changes then bring change in the human community. No species is “in charge.” We interchange each other, all of us.
In this worldview, Pharaoh addicts himself to his own power and cruelty so that what begins as his hardening his own heart ends by God – that is, Reality – hardening Pharaoh’s heart as his addiction rigidifies. The Plagues are ecological disasters brought on by Pharaoh’s own addiction to subjugating humans, which results in his attempts to subjugate all Earth. Earth responds in agony, with the Plagues.
This way of understanding becomes easier to think and feel if in the symbols that we use, YHWH is not “Adonai/ Lord” or “Melekh/ King” but YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh and Ruakh: the interbreathing of all life.
If all life is interwoven, then actions aimed at one sphere of life will have consequences in another sphere. Attempts to pile up enormous wealth and power by insisting on the hyper-lucrative use of coal and oil and unnatural gas will have consequences on global temperatures – heating and burning – and thus on forests, fires, melting ice, torrential floods, koalas burned alive, the spread of “tropical” diseases, etc.
From this perspective, there is no such thing as a “natural disaster” – a plague brought on by “Nature.” If there was one thing we learned from Hurricane Katrina, it was this: The natural world is capable of tremendous feats, but what makes them disastrous has everything to do with humanity. Where we live. The infrastructure we have in place. The tools we have at our disposal to respond. Repair. Heal. And all of these things are determined by sociological factors–race and class, nationalism and imperialism. What often renders the natural disastrous is the systems we humans put in place to create hierarchies and stratification.
But we, as humans, not only turn great upheavals into great disasters. In our own generation, we also now have great impact in the first place on what is natural. It is becoming increasingly clear that human action is taking what are natural occurrences and intensifying them to the point of calamity. There is nothing inherently wrong with an earthquake. A hurricane. A wildfire. This is Earth’s method of self-regulation from long before humanity was even a thought in its imagination.
But what happens when a component of that very Earth–the human race–usurps such power as to dysregulate the entire earth’s balance–inverts Earth’s entire operating system, weaponizing its own tools for healing against its self? We end up with superstorms. Mass species extinction. Crop Failure. Mass disease. Undrinkable water. Mass death. In short, planetary versions of the Plagues of the biblical Exodus.
Earth–whether it be the Creator’s creation or the InterBreathing One Themself–will probably find a means to re-regulate, but this re-regulation may not include us. The human race. Only we have the power to ensure a future with us in it. And this requires first that we take notice.
One way that the Plagues are described in the Book of Exodus is as “signs and wonders.” The intention of the Plagues is to indicate that business as usual is no longer an option. They offer a disruption to daily life. They force us to take notice of what is already happening but what we have, thus far, been able to choose to ignore. They are both the direct consequence of corrupt abuse of power and the tool of resistance against it. They serve as a point of rupture out of which a new world order can be born.
The Plagues appear as natural disasters. But we know nothing about them is “natural.” They are by humans. To remind us of our collective power to make change. For humans. To awaken us to change our behavior. Through humans. So that we know our potential to serve as conduits for divine power.
Thus the natural disasters of our times serve too as plagues. They place us panim-el-panim, face-to-face with ourselves, forced to stare at ourselves in the mirror and confront what it is that we have done to ourselves. That we have done to Earth. And yet they also serve as a point of rupture out of which a new world of loving order can be born. They are both calamity and possibility. End and Beginning.
The biblical plagues needed to occur in order that Exodus be possible. So too it might be our unfortunate truth that these natural disasters must occur in order that a sustainable future be born. For when we as humans put the systems into place that are now destroying Earth, “we” did not do so with that intention in mind. It was an unforeseen consequence of what could only be understood at the time as progress toward the greater good.
It is only in retrospect that we now more and more fully understand the consequences of these actions. And these consequences create openings–openings through which we can envision new ways of being. What do these calamities allow us to see that we might not have been able to see before? Once we realize the consequences, once we realize that some powerful corporations and governments keep upholding their habitual behavior despite knowing their disastrous consequences, how do we respond? How might these “plagues” offer not only the problem but also the solution?
Therefore, we invite you in the Ten Days leading up to Passover to contemplate the Plagues of our times–both their destructive properties and the opening they give us to envision something better. To be with the pain of being confronted in order that the liberating possibility be laid bare before you. And to begin to dance with that liberating possibility, ever so slowly at first. More swiftly as we learn to understand. More swiftly still as we learn how swiftly the consequences come.
The devastation of the plagues was not linear or progressive – a small one followed by a big one. What could be “bigger” than the first biblical plague– all the water of a society becoming undrinkable? They were cumulative. Each was devastating individually; cumulatively, they were earth-shattering. So too are our plagues. Cumulatively, they are Collapse.
We have assigned each biblical plague its own contemporary analogue. We intend to capture both the specificity and the linearity of the Exodus narrative. We must attend to the double impact of each Plague — to damage us and to awaken us, to horrify us and to liberate us. We grapple with the astounding parallels between the biblical story and our travail today. (Not so astounding if we realize that the biblical story of Exodus is a superlatively accurate tale of Power-Run-Amok, applicable in every generation and in any society.)
The non-linearity of the biblical plagues and their different numbering and ordering in different parts of the Tanakh demonstrate that this order is arbitrary. Therefore, we ask you to enter the days leading up to Pesach as a meditation upon the plagues of our time, and to engage with their non-linearity.
Perhaps the first way to do this is to treat the meaning of the Plagues, ancient and contemporary, as a spur for deep Torah-study. Then we can turn to activist plans for organizing against the plague-makers.
Choose a plague. Or plagues. Explore how it aligns with its liberatory possibility. Choose to engage where you can. For you cannot address Collapse. But you can address one of the pillars that seem to make Collapse inevitable. Break one or more of these pillars, and you – we – make Collapse far less likely.
All the ancient Plagues were brought on by Pharaoh’s cruelty and stubbornness, by his addiction to his own power, and by his insistence on being treated as a god. Today the plagues are brought upon us by the addiction of major corporations and governments to their own power and by the public acceptance that their wealth is a marker of “the way things are and must be” – a quasi-Divine approval of the social system they dominate — the social system built on domination.
In the ancient Exodus, the power of the Interbreathing Spirit of all life undermined public acceptance of the Pharaoh’s authority. Today, a new paradigm – an ecological, not hierarchical worldview – must gain strength to undermine our modern pharaohs.
Today, the Jewish people and all communities of Spirit face first of all whether we can transform our own worldviews from “Hierarchy” to “Ecology.” Whether we can renew our understanding of ourselves as “Godwrestlers,” challenging “reality” that changes as we act, rather than bowing down to some ever-vanishing “reality” that for a moment seems immutable.
The ancient enslaved Godwrestlers needed to end their deep attachment to the God of Nurture, El Shaddai, in order to connect with a new way of thinking about the world if they were to embark on their Freedom Journey. Just so must we move from the God of Kingly Lordship to the God of Eco-Interbreathing if we are to join a living, a loving Earth. Only if we do this can we also turn to action, to “Exodus” not geographic but social, from Tight and Narrow Space (“Mitzrayim = Egypt”) to the Beloved Community, the Earth of Promise: an Exodus that transforms society and makes all Earth a conscious, loving, changing eco-system.
To end the power of modern pharaohs to subjugate our communities and all Earth, we must reframe spiritual, religious, and ethical understanding to celebrate the Interbreathing Spirit, not domineering King or Lord.
Through that spiritual transformation, in its very midst, can we turn to action? Perhaps in the week before Pesach -– could Jewish communities or multireligious alliances confront Members of Congress or major banks that invest in Carbon Pharaoh corporations or those corporations themselves, demanding action to end the plagues of Climate Crisis? On the evening of April 9 (the 2d night of Pesach), or perhaps on Sunday evening April 12 (the 5th night of Pesach) can communities or families create Pesach Seders that point toward and embody the Beloved Community and the Earth of Promise?
“Which is greater, study or action?” said Rabbi Akiba, in hiding from the pharaonic tyranny of the Roman Empire. “Study if it leads to action,” he responded. This coming Pesach, we could take his wisdom as a guide: We could study the Plagues of ancient story and the plagues of our own lives, so as to empower action to free Earth and ourselves from mortal danger.
*Waskow is the author pf the original Freedom Seder and Seasons of Our Joy, and the founder (1983) and director of The Shalom Center; Borella is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and is the Ira Silverman Memorial Intern at The Shalom Center. We welcome comments; please write Awaskow@theshalomcenter.org and <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Photo Credit: Janice Rubin
“When you rise to meet your smicha, you are rising to meet the challenge; you are rising in commitment to stay radically present to new possibilities; you are rising to walk courageously – to use the gifts, the capacities, the talents, the abilities, and the inner light inside of you, in the service of Godliness.” These are words the Reb Marcia Prager, AOP’s Dean and Director said during her invocation as part of the Smicha/Ordination ceremony on January 12, 2020.
On January 12, 2020, the ALEPH Ordination Program (AOP) welcomed nine new rabbis and two new cantors into the lineage of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l. The ordination ceremony blended the ancient tradition of awarding smicha/ordination through the “laying on of hands” with the ritual creativity of the students. On Saturday, the evening before, AOP’s Hashpa’ah: Training Program for Jewish Spiritual Directors graduated 15 new spiritual directors, marking the completion of their three-year training as the program’s fifth cohort. These celebrations took place near Boulder, Colorado, where Jewish Renewal spiritual leaders from around the world gathered for the annual conference of the clergy association, OHALAH: Association of Rabbis and Cantors for Jewish Renewal.
AOP’s innovative and rigorous curriculum has attracted students from varied geographical locations and professional backgrounds. This year’s graduates are based in cities across the US, as well as in Canada and Brazil. Rabbi Elca Rubinstein, a retired World Bank economist from São Paulo, sees becoming a rabbi as part of her “third act – embracing her eldering process.” Hazzan Evlyn Gould, Professor Emerita of French at the University of Oregon in Eugene, says “the choice to be a cantor was clear – I love the exquisite discipline that releases the voice and heart into beauty and prayer.” The Class of 2020, with ages ranging from 30s to 70s, also includes an engineer, a physical therapist for children, a former Assistant Attorney General active in interfaith peacemaking, a lawyer at the House of Commons of Canada and advocate for LGBTQ rights, as well as several beloved spiritual leaders of their communities.
Also represented is the diversity in background and denominational affiliation that characterizes AOP’s student body. One co-founded the first Reconstructionist synagogue in Milwaukee, another serves as
Music Director for a Reform temple in Florida. The Renewal movement and Renewal-inspired practices – grounded in both Judaism’s rich spiritual traditions and the new opportunities of contemporary life – are
inspiring Jews and congregations across the spectrum of Jewish engagement. AOP graduates reflect that “trans-denominational” appeal, with many having found a rekindling of their Jewish spirituality and
commitment through Renewal. Rabbi Pauline Tamari, newly ordained, puts it this way: “I found a Judaism that reflected both the delicious spirit I first tasted at the knees of my grandparents, as well as a language and
theology that resonated with me and the world we’re living in now.”