Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
The verdant beauty of Berkshire summer is upon us. The hills are spectacular in their new green cloaks. The pollinator garden at CBI is bright and blooming. During “no-mow May” I watched as wildflowers sprung up all over our lawn and butterflies danced from one to the next. Sometimes I feel a little bit sorry for everyone whose synagogue and environs aren’t as beautiful as ours are. We are in a really stunning place. It still sometimes takes my breath away.
And there can be cognitive dissonance between the beauty of the natural world around us, and the news we watch or read or hear on the radio. As I write these words, war continues in Ukraine. Families in Buffalo and Uvalde are still burying their dead. Even close to home the headlines can be grim. Violence touches our country too. Costs are rising, and the pandemic continues even though all of us wish that it were over. Many are struggling.
Judaism offers us tools for navigating that cognitive dissonance. One of them is gratitude practice. Aspiring to say 100 blessings each day is a mindfulness practice that reminds us of how good it is to be alive. Saying modah ani upon waking, and pausing for gratitude with the bedtime shema, help us bookend our days with presence and sweetness. These are small things, but practiced regularly, they really make a difference. I know this because I feel it when I fall out of these habits.
There’s a story about Rabbi Simcha Bunim who kept two slips of paper in his pockets. One read, “For my sake was the world created.” The other said, “I am but dust and ashes.” Judaism calls us to balance those truths. We mustn’t close our eyes to the reality that our lives are finite, and the lives of others are finite… but neither should we close our eyes to the reality that life can be extraordinarily beautiful, and we were placed in this world in order to savor and sanctify its sweetness.
We can’t pretend away what’s broken. (That would be bypassing — using the facade of spiritual life as an excuse to avoid facing what hurts.) Our tradition calls us to always be striving to repair the world. And as I taught at services one morning recently, if we say a blessing and then don’t do the action associated with it, the blessing is considered “nullified” — an empty, even sinful, act. We can’t just pray for a better world; we have to build one, with our own hands and hearts and care.
And Judaism invites us to find reasons to rejoice even as we build. “To life, to life, l’chaim,” as the song from Fiddler on the Roof reminds us. “Life has a way of confusing us, blessing and bruising us” — so we raise our glasses to life, and we dance! I think often about Jews who lived a hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago. The difficult things unfolding didn’t keep them from living and loving, learning and praying. As for them, so for us.
May the start of glorious Berkshire summer bring you sweetness. May you find opportunities to walk our meditation labyrinth, watch the butterflies in our pollinator garden, and marvel at the beauty of this place where we live. And may you be blessed to hold that gratitude alongside readiness to face what needs mending in our world, and to do whatever small thing you can do today to bring repair. As our sages remind us, that task isn’t ours to finish, but neither may we refrain from beginning it.
Blessings to all,
— Rabbi Rachel