Writings

Mitzrayim “The Narrow Place”

•In the Jewish Lunar Calendar, we welcome the month of NISSAN. It falls around the same time as Passover which is the end of the month and lasts till early April. We start counting spiritually, this month but what does this mean? It means we’re given an intention to take space and carve out time for our “spiritual self.” To shed what is no longer serving us and in some ways, we’re able to break the chains of what is confining us and/or holding us back.

•Today, I attended a Rosh Chodesh gathering through The Tasman Center where we did a ritual that I felt drawn to. I’ve done it before but this was different. During this “spiritual workshop” we were invited to write down things that are no longer serving us (our own “spiritual pharaohs” per se). We were inspired to either observe our own virtual burning or actual light a fire and do this cleansing ritual. I knew I needed to take this time and space. I went outside in the WOODS. Truly, i feel most alive when I’m in nature and with everything going on (moving from CO to MI). This is what I needed. As soon as I stepped outside, gathered the pieces of paper with my words on them...I felt something. I was ready to let go...light a FIRE....to shed the past, to burn what is no longer serving me and make space for what is.

•The time of COVID and Winter was quite a dark place, it was lonely and uncertain. At times, I wasn’t sure where I was going but I know right now that this feels right. Taking time to heal, to process and SLOW down is where I need to be. I am done letting the confines of my own “mitzrayim” my fears, my insecurities, the past, my old life. I welcome and make space for my confidence, my power and this new life, new beginning.

•After every word or collectively I recite, Dibarti “have spoken.” In the circle, those in the circle recite back, Shemati “I have heard.” I encourage you to do the same either by yourself or with others. To make that list and watch it burn, to bring anew breath of all the possibilities. What are your inner spiritual pharaohs? What do you need to break free from? What do you need to make space for?

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In the narrative of the Creation, the moon is indicated, without any special name, as one of the two great luminaries. Relatively to the sun, it is "the lesser light to rule the night"; and it is to serve together with the sun for signs, seasons, days, and years (Gen. i. 14, 16).

In the midrash there is speculation that G-d repented and madeT-shuva for stating the moon is the “lesser light.”

Jew’s have and continue to use the moon as the marking passage of time. We celebrate each new month on the Jewish Calendar on the holiday called Rosh Chodesh, marked by the day the new moon starts to enter the dark night sky.

Growing up on the Gregorian calendar, my life was not in sync with the moon. I saw the moon as a foreign entity in the universe, and would only acknowledge its presence when it was full because I felt slightly more awake at night.

As I began to grow in faith, I have created the symbol of the sun being a loving fatherly figure,protecting and embracing me with warmth and giving me strength. I only acknowledged the “brighter light” in the sky, until I faced my darkest times and noticed the moon in the sky felt it’s nurturing energy.

In 2019, I was living through a long and dark winter in Beijing, China. My intuition told me that I was ready to return to the states after two and a half years of living abroad and building a Jewish community home but I felt trapped and scared. I knew my relationship with my partner, whom I was living with at the time, had come to an end. Although I had this inner knowing, my external world did not seem to comply with my yearning to leave. I felt trapped in my responsibilities to continue running and funding a community home, to please my partner and continue trying to make the relationship work, to stay loyal to my jobs…

In this place of darkness, I struggled to have faith that things would turn out ok. I was living in the darkness and wallowing in my misery until I looked out my window and saw a big beautiful full moon. I began to pray to her, something I had never done before, believing that she was listening. It felt good to ask for what my heart wanted and felt like my prayers were being heard.

I soon learned they were, when I came back to the states on January 20th. I was returning for my graduate school intensive in San Francisco and convinced myself that I would go back to my toxic situation in China, because I had to. Then the coronavirus news became public, and I began to see the signs that I didn’t have to go back. That I could stay in the states.

During my intensive for my graduate school program in expressive arts therapy, we did a drama therapy practice about a story called: The Story of the Stolen Moon.

The story goes: There was a beautiful harmonious village surrounded by black murky bogs where darkness lies. At night, these villagers were protected by the light of the moon to guide them at night. On the nights when the moon did not come out, the struggling travelers would drown. The moon heard about these nights and came down to the earth with a black cape to disguise her. While on earth, she slipped on a vine and became trapped. In her absence, more and more villagers became lost in the night and a group decided to go on a search to find the moon. They used their torches to guide them and protect them, and eventually saw the little bit of light she had trapped under the rock and saw: “eyes filled with the love of humanity”. The villagers removed the boulder she was trapped under and escaped from her prison and escalated the dark staircase up to the sky with her radiant light everywhere.

When performing this drama, I chose to play the torch and began to realize that I have to ignite my own faith in order to find the light. I began to connect deeply to the moon, and felt its protection and love in the dark night, and knew that I had to use my prayers to light the torch and find it’s guidance.

The moon can be a symbol of our faith: waxing and waning. Living in the darkness, filled with fear and doubt, trusting that there is light in the darkness brings us faith and hope. For me, my faith in a power greater than me is not a constant. I have to continue to remind myself to believe that there is a protecting and loving energy force in the universe, and I am reminded of this when I live in sync with the moon.

The new moon is a time of darkness. Where infinite possibilities can emerge. With this concept, I have learned to set an intention for the upcoming month to remind myself of something I want to develop and grow in my life. As the moon is waxing, I can see the shadows or the obstacles that are getting in my way of my intention manifesting. When the full moon comes, I can witness my intention whole in the sky staring at my face and in my body. When the moon begins to wane, I can begin to let go of striving for this intention and let it live within me naturally.

For this upcoming month, starting this Friday, February 12th, 2021 my intention is to live moment by moment. I will create an art card to remind me of my intention, and keep it at my altar where I do my morning and night rituals. I believe this practice is transforming me, and the transformation practice always reminds me of becoming a butterfly. We as humans have the ability to transform, but it helps to have an anchor in time - which for me is the beautiful moon.

It’s my turn to remember, remember that the moon is an equal light in the universe. It is not less than the sun, and can be a symbol of our continuous struggle between dark and light, between faith and fear, between growing and letting go. We are lucky that it is here, so let's continue to prayer and honor her!

Stephanie Landes is an Expressive Arts Therapist (in training). She is a blogger at wuweiletgoandlive.com

Check out her Artspiration coloring pages and prints on Etsy, link below! etsy.me/38QctkA

As the new moon arrives this month, the Hebrew month of Adar heralds in a season of Joy. The Talmud (the rabbinic compendium of legal discourse) teaches that "when the month of Adar comes in, joy increases". This refrain has a song that goes with it (learn it here). I always find this a peculiar teaching. How does joy automatically increase just because we've entered the month of Adar? Especially during difficult times, how do we find joy? Sages taught that the month of Adar signals the beginning of the time when we start preparing for the spring holidays, Purim and Passover, both of which are considered very joyous holidays in different ways. But I think that's only part of it. How do we find joy personally, especially this year, as we enter into the second year of the pandemic when many of us are reminded of where we were a year ago just as the lock down began.

I see this verse as an invitation and a challenge -- and all the more so during this year as we are still in the midst of the pandemic. The invitation is to find the joy, make room for it, see what it feels like. The challenge is to let it increase, nourish it, and help it to grow.

I find the most joy in connecting with others through the modalities of spirituality and creative expression. Which is why I am so excited for our event on February 21, 2021 called the Art of Mezuzah. Lizzie Sivitz, Jewish scribal artist has created a special dedication card for us for this event upon which you can write your intentions for the values that your mezuzah represents and you can either place it to be visible in the mezuzah holder or hang it near the mezuzah.

Additionally my joy increases as I am preparing to teach a 6 week class on Cycles and Seasons of the Jewish Year Cycle starting March 3, as part of Hebrew College's Open Circle Jewish Learning. This is a course in experiential spirituality and will include mindfulness practices and spiritual exercises that participants will be able to use in their own lives. Class sessions will incorporate guided meditation, partner and group discussions, spiritual writing, art, and creative rituals utilizing materials from nature or that you have at home. It would bring me even more joy for you to join us! Register now.

I'd love to hear how you make room for joy, how you find it, how you increase it.

Looking forward to seeing you soon and wishing you Chodesh Adar Tov (happy new moon and month of Adar) and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sarah

As we move into 2021, we also have another new year right around the corner. We welcome the new moon and month of Shevat In the Jewish calendar and the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat is Tu B'Shevat or the New Year of the Trees. Though we are in the midst of winter, Tu B'Shevat marks the time when the first almond trees begin to blossom in Israel. Though I am not a fan of making "new years resolutions", I find that setting intentions at the start of each season is meaningful practice. If you're looking for a visioning exercise for Tu B'Shevat to help you set some intentions and goals for this season, check out my Tree of Vision exercise.

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Just as each tender seed and sapling needs soil, sunlight, water, and nutrients to grow up strong, so do each of us in our own ways. Deuteronomy 20: 19-20 says, “for every person is like a tree of the field.” We each need our own kind of fertile ground, warmth, and energy of the sun, life-giving force of mayyim hayyim (living waters) and the nourishing support of parents, mentors, friends, lovers, and collaborators in order to grow. Our roots go back further than we can see or know but influence us in undeniable ways.

In her book Kabbalah Month by Month, Melinda Ribner teaches “that the month of Shevat is a time of conceiving new projects, planting new seeds, and beginning anew.” A beautiful mystical teaching says that the seeds that are planted in the month of Shevat (winter) bloom in the month of Nissan (spring time). We must do what we can to till the soil, water and nourish those seeds so that they truly can blossom forth!

Visioning Exercise Creating Your Own Tree of Vision for Shevat

Take some time to reflect on following parts of the tree and how they relate to each element of your vision. Then, using any medium you choose, paint/sketch/collage/sculpt your Tree of Vision.

1. Roots or the seed are the kernel or source of your vision, dream, hope or goal. Think forward to springtime, and identify one intention or a goal you want to bring to fruition. That’s the root of your vision.

2. The trunk is the support you already have in your life to realize the intention or goal you’ve set. Identify your skills, passions, and resources. These will provide the strength and energy you need to grow.

3. The branches are the connections, help, and collaborators you can reach out to. Identify those people in your life by name. What kind of help will you need to grow your vision?

4. The flowers, leaves, and fruits are the fruits of your labor – what you will achieve? Identify the joy, sustenance, sweetness, and nourishment that will come forth. What will bloom when you’ve achieved your goal?

Dear Friends,

I hope you and your families are staying safe and healthy. The past few months have been an intense time of transition for me - and I am sure for many of you as well. We welcomed a baby back in September just before Rosh Hashanah and Griffin is now 4 months old. I can hardly believe it. I am back from maternity leave and navigating all of the joys and challenges of being a full time new parent, a spouse, rabbi, coach, mentor and business owner. At every stage of life, we all juggle different roles and responsibilities. What matters is how we approach these changes - acknowledging the joys and challenges, asking for help when we need it, and being kinder to ourselves. If you're navigating a change or transition, and looking for more support and guidance or want to mark this time in a meaningful way, please be in touch with me about working together. I have openings for new private clients now and would love to work with you.

At our annual New Year's Day Art & Visioning Workshop this year, I shared about my intentions for mindfully transitioning into 2021. For all of the relief and excitement that 2020 is over, those feelings are tempered with the knowledge that we are still in the midst of a pandemic, political divides, racial injustice and antisemitism. 2020 brought all of these things bubbling up to the surface, and many are still feeling the trauma and exhaustion of what we've been through in the past year. I live in the Washington, DC area, and many of these things seem to permeate the air we breathe. Last week, the insurrection at the Capitol brought things to a new level I hadn't seen in my lifetime. And yet, while these things are very much present, this past year brought with it an unprecedented amount of creativity and resilience from colleagues pivoting to offer opportunities online and reimagining what community building looks like. I'm grateful the Tasman Center has been nimble enough to adapt easily and swiftly and for the support of our team, especially Valerie Brown, our Community Educator, while I was on maternity the last few months.

In the spirit of creativity and inspiration we have some amazing programs coming up this season. Join us on Sunday February 21, 2-3:30pm for a special program on the Art of the Mezuzah with guest artist and soferet (scribe) Lizzie Sivitz of Nireh Or for a program we're hosting with MyZuzah. As our houses and apartments have become our defacto work spaces and prayer spaces this year we'll have a chance to add some beauty and sacred ritual to blessing our homes in this program.

I will also be teaching an upcoming course for Hebrew College Open Circle Jewish Learning called Cycles and Seasons of the Jewish Year. The course meets Tuesdays 1-2:30pm on March 2, 9, 16, 23, 30, April 6, 2021. This class will combine ritual, experiential spirituality, seasonal wisdom and mindfulness practices.

Can't wait to learn with you this Winter!

Warmly,

Rabbi Sarah

Dear Friends,

In my grad school program this week we've been celebrating Hanukkah a little early with a Mystery Maccabee gift exchange. In a busy week, it has felt so sweet to receive a small gift each day and bring a little joy to someone else.

Obviously, Mystery Maccabee has been coopted from Secret Santa. I always believed that Hanukkah had been conflated with Christmas in the modern era, but it turns out that the dichotomy of Christmas and Hanukkah goes back about 2,000 years. We'll be learning more about this and how it might frame our celebration of Hanukkah together this Sunday during our Align: Tevet event. Register to join us here!

Rabbi Sarah will be leading a gathering on Zoom on the last night of Hanukkah - Thursday, December 17th - to share some light and community. The event is free, but let us know you're coming by registering here! Looking forward to seeing you.

Happy Hanukkah - hope you find so much to celebrate,

Valerie Brown

Community Educator

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Dear Friends,

The new month of Kislev feels like it's coming at the perfect time. As the days get colder and shorter, I'm realizing why we have the impulse bring warmth and light into our homes with holidays like Thanksgiving and Hanukkah. Like everything this year, our ability to pivot and make meaning on a smaller scale will be essential to our enjoyment of the holiday season.

Kislev is also a good time to think about miracles. Oil lasting for eight days might not seem like a miracle, but I actually think the real miracle is the person who noticed the oil hadn't run out. Imagine the surprise of finding the lamp still lit, and then the hope that would build over the course of the week. Each day, looking to the lamp, maybe expecting it to have gone out, and being surprised that it had lasted. And then finally - the realization that it would last long enough for more oil to be retrieved.

We'll be continuing the conversation about warmth during winter days and noticing miracles during our Align: Kislev session this Sunday, November 22nd at 2pm Eastern. You are invited to join us!

Chodesh tov - best wishes for a good month,

Valerie Brown

Community Educator

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Dear Friends,

On Sunday evening, you'll see a new moon rising in the sky, bringing with it the Jewish month of Cheshvan.

I always feel exhausted after the month of Tishrei, with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah all in quick succession. And, it coincides with a burst of end of summer/beginning of the school year activities. Naturally, these bring a myriad of expectations: how I'll be a better student, a better friend, a better partner. Whether we used the High Holidays as a reflective opportunity or not, we all have ideas of how we're going to improve, promises to ourselves of who we're going to be.

Cheshvan, the only Jewish month without any holidays, is the time when those promises have to be put into action. Instead of long, relaxed days of sunshine, we settle in to school and work as the days get shorter and brisker. If we don't take time to pause and set routines to accomplish our goals, our Yom Kippur promises will fall by the wayside.

Judaism has a lot to teach us about the structure of our day and week. This month's Align session, on Sunday, October 18th, will be about just that: how we can build intentional space to accomplish our goals. Establishing routine and rituals is especially important to give structure and meaning to our time as we're working or learning from home. I hope you'll join us to think and learn more!

Chodesh tov - best wishes for a good month,

Valerie Brown

Community Educator

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Dear Friends,

I just started a new school year, pursuing of my Masters in Jewish Education, and I'm already feeling overwhelmed with all the things I want to get done this year: personally, academically, and professionally. And of course, all my human habits that get in the way of being the productive robot person who can do it all.

Then, a teacher of mine shared this quote from chapter six of Rabbi Alan Lew's This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared:

"To forgive ourselves, we must be willing to give up our ideas about how we might be better. We need to give up one of our most cherished beliefs--that there is something wrong with us, that we are bad, inadequate, somehow defective and lacking in goodness. Disciplining ourselves, beating ourselves, leads us further away from this goodness, not closer to it."

It reminded me about this teaching from Rabbi Sarah: the Hebrew word for year, shanah, is connected to the verb l'shanot, which means to change, but also to repeat or renew (Hebrew is a great language that way). Rather than focusing on all the things I want to change, here are some things I'm hoping to continue this year:

  1. Being open to new experiences - a new school year, being in lockdown, taking on new leadership roles
  2. Taking breaks when I need them
  3. Embracing mistakes not just as learning opportunities but as a way to connect more deeply with others
  4. Channeling the creative energy I've found during lockdown toward new projects

I hope that you find some time in the coming days to reflect and embrace habits you want to maintain in the new year. If you identify things that you might adjust this year, I hope that alongside setting goals you also remember to show yourself kindness.

Shana Tova u'metuka - best wishes for a good and sweet new year,

Valerie Brown

Community Educator

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Everyone says it, but time really has moved differently for me since the pandemic started. This summer has been especially strange - I was supposed to be in California, working as the Jewish Educator at a summer camp. Instead, I've been in Jerusalem, with a patchwork of babysitting and odd jobs, studying Hebrew, working on some creative projects. Without a regular schedule it kind of feels like I'm working or thinking about work all the time, and the week is constantly slipping away from me. Especially on Fridays, as I'm getting ready for Shabbat, I look back at my week and think - there's so much that didn't get done!

The month of Elul starts this week, and it brings with it a heightened sense of the approach of the High Holidays. Elul is kind of like a Friday afternoon, but times ten. And rather than reflecting on our to-do list, it's about something much bigger. I think Elul pushes us to ask ourselves - Do I feel connected to something larger than myself? Does my day-to-day reflect my values? Am I the person I want to be?

And wow, as I read back those questions, I feel anxiety growing right above my stomach. Where do I even start, especially this year? I've been so focused on getting through the day, getting through the week, counting my blessings that my friends and family are healthy.

So, while I can't offer any easy answers to these questions (wish that I could!), I'm glad to be able to offer a space for us to consider them together. On September 6th, I hope you'll join me for Illuminating the Jewish New Year: a special Elul/Pre-High Holiday virtual retreat. I've prepared some intriguing texts and creative prompts that I hope will help us approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with a sense of perspective and purpose.

Hoping this month brings you time to pause and take stock.

Chodesh tov - Happy New Moon and month of Elul!

Valerie Brown

Community Educator, The Tasman Center