Monday, October 27, 2014

Making Souls... and Nurturing Them / Parshat Lech Lecha 2014/5775

"Avram took Sarai his wife, and his nephew Lot, all their belongings, and all the souls they had made in Haran; they left to go to the land Canaan, and they arrived at Canaan. (Genesis 12:5)

The souls they made in Haran? Robots? Cyborgs? Clones? Midrash tells us that Rabbi Elazar b. Zimra explained: These are the converts that they converted. Then why doesnt Torah say converted rather than made? Only to teach you that all those who bring an idolator close [to God] and convert him, it is as if [the one] created [the convert]. (Bereishit Rabbah 39:14)

The Rabbis regard Abraham as a model for bring people into Judaism. How appropriate, given that Abraham and Sarah, who from the cradle were raised as idolators, are the first converts to Judaism.  No surprise that the Rabbis called Abraham techilah lageirim, the first of the proselytes.[1] (This means, by the way, that we all descended from converts.)

Wishing to impress upon us the importance of patience and kindness and the danger of impatience and arrogance, Talmud tells us the story of a gentile who approached both Hillel and Shammai asking to be converted:

Our Rabbis taught: A gentile once came before Shammai. He said to him: How many Torahs do you have?
[Shammai] said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.
He said to [Shammai]: I believe you about the Written Torah but I do not believe you about the Oral Torah. Convert me on the condition that you teach me [only] the Written Torah.
[Shammai] became angry with him and removed him from the premises with a reprimand.
[This same man] went before Hillel who converted him. On the first day [Hillel] taught him, alef, bet, gimmel, daled [the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet]. The next day [Hillel] reversed [the order of the letters] to him.
[The gentile] said to [Hillel], But yesterday you did not say it to me this way?
[Hillel] said to him: Didn't you depend on me for this [information about the Written Torah]? So for this also [i.e., the Oral Torah] depend on me.
(BT Shabbat 31a)

The story further makes the point that the prospective convert is entirely dependent upon Hillel as his teacher to convey Torah tradition to him. It also reinforces the legitimacy and authority of the Oral Torah. And much more. But for now, it also speaks to conversion.

The issue of how rabbis handle conversion has arisen in the news lately in connection with allegations that an Orthodox rabbi abused his power over converts, refusing to give them a reasonable timetable or even estimate of how long it would take for them to prepare for conversion, requiring them to perform clerical tasks for him, and even worse. One woman reported: When youre going through conversion, you dont know the timeline of when youre going to finish theres so much power being wielded over you, and in the interim youre in limbo. You cant move, you cant switch jobs to another location, because you have to live in the community where youre converting. I felt a great sense of desperation to get the process over as fast as possible.[2]

It is not my intention to deal with the obvious voyeuristic immoralities of this case, but rather the concerns expressed by the woman quoted above. Sadly, hers is not an isolated experience. Note that Hillel converted the pagan immediately, and then proceeded to teach him. While that model may not be appropriate in our time, prospective converts have the right to be told what is entailed in preparing for conversion, how long it will take, and what the timeline looks like if they adhere to the agreed upon schedule of learning and preparation. Judaism promotes openness and honesty; we owe people who would honor us by joining the covenant with nothing less. I know that most of my colleagues do no less. I also understand that sometimes prospective converts lives get busy and they take some time out from their studies to attend to other facets of their lives, affecting the timeline. Nonetheless, building trust is a crucial part of the process, and transparency is essential for trust.

While all rabbis want to give prospect converts as much learning and preparation as we can prior to the mikveh, it also helps to recognize that ideally the learning process continues on after mikveh. Indeed, I hope we all do our best to instill the value of lifelong learning in those we mentor, and provide opportunities for joyous learning after the conversion. Hillel is an extraordinary model for this: he converted the gentile with the understanding that conversion would inaugurate his learning, and because he established a positive relationship with him, it did.

This brings me to another matter articulated recently by Bethany S. Mandel, who was converted by the rabbi so much in the news of late. Bethany published a Bill of Rights for Jewish Converts[3] two weeks ago in the Times of Israel. Do read itits excellent. In points 4 through 10, Bethany discusses how the Jewish community receives Jews-by-choice and treats them. Clearly, there is room for improvement. But I would not hesitate to assure Bethany, who asks for help with matters of Jewish ritual, that this is something most all Jews could benefit from: learning, reinvigorating rituals, and innovative practices should be the continuous on-going agenda of the community. My younger daughter recently started a graduate program and found herself a wonderful new roommate. Her roommate converted to Judaism in the past two years. When the two met to discuss
lifestyles, furniture arrangement, kashrut, how they keep shabbat, and such, the roommate said, almost apologetically, Im still finding my way in Jewish practice. My daughter laughter and responded, Were all finding our way all the time! With that attitude, our practice will always be fresh and fragrant, new and alive, for both born-Jews and Jews-by-choice, which is as it should be. Then the dilemma concerning whether to expend resources in in-reach or outreach will not require debate. The path of conversion should be, and certainly can be, a joyous adventure, as should be the path of Jewish living. Both are possible and each reinforces, reanimates, and invigorates the other. When we fully understand this potential symbiosis, well finally get it right.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Of Pigs, Floods, and Lives / Parshat Noach 2014/5775

We love to hear stories, and many of us like to tell stories, as well. Our brains are evolved to look for patterns and connect the dots of our experience into a coherent narrative. A new book has just been published that recounts a disturbing story. Distinguished law professor, MacArthur Foundation grant recipient, and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Bryan Stevenson has written Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson tells the story of his experiences defending the poor and wrongfully convicted in the South. In particular, he tells the story of Walter McMillan, an African American convicted of murdering a white woman in Alabama. After a trial of only one and a half days, in which prosecutors withheld exculpatory evidence, the judge imposed the death sentence—over the jury’s recommendation for life imprisonment. Behind MacMillan’s story lies another, deeply insidious story. But first, two other stories told, and redeemed.

I have always found “The Three Little Pigs” a deeply troubling story—and my concern has
nothing to do with kashrut. Traditional versions are quite clear in telling us that the first and second little pigs, who build houses of straw sticks and spend their time happily enjoying life, deserve to be gobbled up by the vicious wolf because they were lazy. Only the industrious third brother, a humorless and joyless workaholic, deserves to survive. The story takes what I can best describe as a dim view of human nature—the story it tells reflects a story about people in general. Recognizing that this story is part of the cultural canon in which my children were growing up, but abhorring its Puritanical subtext, I found a version with many commonalities: three little pigs heading out into the world, encountering people who give them materials with which to build houses, and a wolf who supplies the existential threat. In this
version, however, the first little pig runs to the home of the second little pig for refuge, and then they both run to the home of the third little pig, who shelters his brothers from the wolf. In the end, the three brothers live out their lives together—happily.

How a story is told makes all the difference. The version I read to my children, and the way I read it to them, emphasized that the porcine siblings were deeply connected and could relay on one another for food, shelter, and emotional comfort. In the hands of the person who wrote this version it became a very different story, one about sibling loyalty and mutual nurturance, not about judgment and punishment.

The Flood account is an example of how tone, nuance, and perspective make all the difference in the meaning of a story. In the ancient Near East, there were other flood stories, including the Berossos account (dated to ~275 B.C.E. and preserved largely in Greek histories), the Epic of Atra(m)hasis (which survived in fragmentary form), and the Epic of Gilgamesh, found in excavations of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire in the 7th century B.C.E.  All of them, along with the story in the Bible, were most likely preceded by an Ur-text that we do not have, a flood story that inspired many versions, just as the earliest version of “The Three Little Pigs” has spawned many subsequent versions. And just as the way I chose a version of “The Three Little Pigs” for my children, and layered it with my emphasis and interpretation, so too, the way Torah retold the Ur-text flood account and imposed its concerns and values on it, reveals a great deal. The Torah’s flood story seems remarkably similar to the one in the Epic of Gilgamesh, but in reality it’s a very different story.

Here is the story of Gilgamesh, the most complete version of the ancient flood stories, in brief:
Gilgamesh is the king of Uruk and the most powerful king on earth. He is two-thirds god and one-third human. His people complain that he is harsh and abusive, so the creation goddess Aruru creates a wild-man named Enkidu to be Gilgamesh’s friend and soul mate (and, it appears, distraction). Gilgamesh and Enkidu set out on an adventure of truly epic proportions—this is, after all, an epic tale—and in the course of events, Enkidu is killed. Gilgamesh is overcome with grief and slips into an existential crisis. How can he avoid Enkidu’s fate? How can he avoid death? Gilgamesh sets out on a new journey: he seeks immortality. He hears that there is one, and only one, man who has escaped mortality. His name is Utnapishtim and he lives with his wife far away from any society on an island hard to reach. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh the story of the great flood, from which he was saved by building a boat to ferry himself and his wife through the storm. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh not to wish for immortality because it is very lonely. The Epic of Gilgamesh addresses the existential crisis of mortality: Why can’t we be immortal? Why do we have to die? Our Torah addressed that question in last week’s parashah, in the story of the Garden of Eden.

The Flood story in parshat Noach and the deluge account in the Epic of Gilgamesh share a host of common features: Both Utnapishtim and Noah are ordered to build an ark of several stories with one door and many compartments, seal it with pitch, and fill it with animals to repopulate the world following the flood. Each releases birds following the flood. Both arks land on a mountain top. Utnapishtim and Noah both offer sacrifices after emerging from the ark and are blessed in return.

For all their similarities, however, the story of Noah is wholly different from the tale of

Utnapishtim. In the hands of the biblical writer, the story explores an entirely different topic: evil. People have become corrupt. It sounds like a précis of much that is happening in our world today: The earth became corrupt before God: the earth was filled with lawlessness. (Genesis 6:11). God, disappointed and disgusted, seeks to wash away human evil and corruption with a massive flood. Noah and his family build an ark to preserve the seed of life that will repopulate the earth after the flood waters finally recede, more than a year after the first raindrops fall to earth. In the end, however, God brings a rainbow as a sign of the divine promise never again to bring a devastating flood. Why? Not because destroying evil is wrong, but because God’s plan did not work. How do we know? No sooner are the people out of the ark than Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine, gets rip-roaring drunk, and his son Ham commits a terrible sin. There is still sin in the world because sin is not “out there” somewhere; it’s “in here” the potential to do evil lies within each and every human being.

The seemingly small differences in the two stories speak volumes, as well. Gilgamesh comes from a polytheistic society; the gods bring about a flood to destroy humanity because they are annoyed that people have disturbed their sleep with their noise. There is no moral order to the universe here; just the caprice of gods with limited power and patience. The sacrifice Utnapishtim offers after the flood leads to quarreling and recriminations among the gods. Their blessing is for Utnapishtim and his wife, alone; then they are removed from society and must live alone. In contrast, God’s purpose in flooding the earth is to destroy evil and end corruption among human beings. The story pre-supposes a moral order that has been violated. God realizes the plan is a mistake when God comes to understand the nature of human evil: it is inherent in our free will. Noah’s sacrifice therefore leads to God’s promise never to flood the earth again, and to God’s blessing and covenant, which are for all humanity, not just for one man and his wife.

This brings us back to Bryan Stevenson’s telling of the story of Walter McMillan. Just as a gloomy view of humanity lies behind the original version of “The Three Little Pigs,” an insidious story lies behind the account of Walter McMillan’s trial. The Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for prison reform, reported last year (August 2013) that, “Racial minorities are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males.”[1] Shamefully, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. In 1972, our prisons held 300,000 prisoners; today they hold 2.2 million, an increase in excess of 700%. The report warned that one in three black males born today can expect to go to prison during their lifetime. The story behind the story of mass incarceration in America, and particularly the imprisonment of African Americans, and the instruments for these dramatic and alarming statistics include the Three-strikes Law (in 24 states), mandatory sentencing, and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that increased penalties for crack cocaine use, despite the fact that it is consider the same as cocaine in Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act.  The report tells us that, “The United States in effect operates two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and minorities.”[2]

The story behind the story Stevenson tells and the Sentencing Project confirms, goes back to the 1970s “politics of fear” (pumped up in no small measure by conservative politicians and media pundits) and the 1990s myth of the “Super predator” (described by Princeton political scientist John J. DiIulio, Jr. as “a young juvenile criminal who is so impulsive, so remorseless, that he can kill, rape, maim, without giving it a second thought”). Dilulio studied crime statistics and predicted a tidal wave of death and destruction committed by violent teenagers, with crime rates doubling or tripling by the mid-2000s. “We’re talking about a group of kids who are growing up essentially fatherless, godless, and jobless.” Northeastern University criminologist James Fox predicted a “blood bath of teenage violence” by 2005. The rhetoric of the “super predator” ignited extreme fear directed largely at young black males. 

Criminologist Barry Krisberg has pointed out that race became the central issue when DiIulio predicted that half the “super predators” could be young black males. Soon most every state enacted laws to crackdown on juvenile offenders—just as juvenile crime rates began plummeting, though not because of the new laws passed. DiIulio now says his prediction was entirely erroneous, off by a factor of four: “The super predator idea was wrong. Once it was out there, though, it was out there. There was no reeling it in.” As Krisberg has pointed out, DiIulio, Fox, and all those who jumped onto the “super predator” scare-wagon, created a myth—a narrative or story—that became “truth” to a wide swath of America.

Despite the fact that DiIulio and Fox disavowed their dire predictions and signed onto an amicus brief for the Supreme Court in 2000 that would ban mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder, and despite the fact that the Supreme Court decided in favor of the amicus brief, the myth remains potent. We now live in a world in which DWB (“Driving While Black”) has entered our lexicon.

In 1988, Walter MacMillan was convicted of murder and sentenced by a judge to death—despite the fact that the prosecution had a witness who saw the victim alive after the time they claimed she had been murdered (evidence they hid) and despite the fact that at the time of the murder, MacMillan was at a church fish fry  attended by a dozen people prepared to testify to his alibi. Thanks to Bryan Stevenson, MacMillan was exonerated in 1993—after spending five years on Alabama’s death row.

Every time we tell a story—from Torah or from our own lives—we invest it with meaning, both good and bad. An erroneous and dangerous story needs to be redeemed. In 1997, Eugene Trivizas published a gem of a children’s book entitled, “The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig” (wonderfully illustrated by Helen Oxenbury) that brilliantly does to the original “Three Little Pigs” what Noah does to Gilgamesh: turns the story inside out and brings to it a new world of meanings. Gone is the negative assumption about humanity’s nature and potential. Gone is the selfishness condoned by the original “Three Little Pigs.” Do yourself a favor and get hold of a copy; I reread it recently and it has stood the test of time. (And it’s funny, to boot.)

Stories are gifts that keep giving: both good and bad. They have an enormous effect. I hope that Stevenson’s telling of Walter MacMillan’s story, and his tireless efforts to impose genuine justice on our less-than-just judicial system will help correct the false narrative that prevails in America and lead to much-needed change. I hope Just Mercy will help redeem the situation we are in.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Whose Torah is it Anyway? / Parshat Bereishit 2014/5775

When anyone other than a mathematician uses the word true my suspicion is piqued. Only mathematicians, whose claims concern abstract concepts of their own devising based on objects they have defined, can with assurance make a truth claim. Therefore, when I saw the headline in a recent issue of The Forward, “How Gil Steinlauf Chose ‘Personal Torah’ Over One True One,” I could feel a wave of revulsion washing over me. Here we go again. Someone claiming a lock on the meaning of Torah, with an absolute claim to interpret its import for everyone else. Rabbi Avi Shafrans article is a pit bull attack on the decision of a prominent Washington, DC area rabbi and his wife (also a rabbi) to divorce after 20 years of marriage and three children because he recognizes and accepts that he is gay.

Rabbi Shafran zeroed in on Rabbi Steinlaufs words, I have no choice but to live with the reality, or personal Torah, of my life. Kol ha-kavod to Rabbi Steinlauf for the courage and integrity to remind us that Torah is ours, a living and animating path to being in relationship with the One Who breathed the universe into being and Who sewed compassion and righteousness into the fabric of our soulsif only we would take them out and exercise them regularly. Rabbi Shafran pays lip service to compassion, with these words: I hurt for the wife and I hurt for the children. For me, they ring hollow given that Rabbi Safran fully expects that a gay man should remain for the rest of his life with his heterosexual wife, or endure a celibate existence. For Rabbi Shafran, being a gay man is simply a challenge to be met and overcome. That he seems to be giving up on his challenge at this point is, to me, a tragedy, for his wife, for his family and, ultimately, for himself. Really? Seriously? And has he taken even a moment to consider the position Rabbi Steinlaufs wife is in?

For many, Halakhah is a handbook of immutable laws downloaded straight from heaven, requiring no further interpretation than the ancients and medievals provide. I disagree. I believe that Halakhah is not a fixed, rigid set of laws and regulations, but a fluid process of examining life in light of Torah values and modern, changing exigencies to find ways to live a life of Jewish integrity. Halakhah is process and therefore it evolves with time. As science advances, we incorporate its findings into our understanding of the world. As technology and ethics expand, we incorporate the questions they raise into the process. That is why throughout our history, rabbinic authorities have interpreted Torah differently for differently communities and for different individuals situations. I have written before about the Torahs remarkable lack of concern about homosexuality, particularly in light of the obsession evident among later thinkers.[1] In the face of overwhelming scientific and psychological evidence that homosexuality is not a choice any more than heterosexuality is a choice, there are still voices singing the same medieval tune.

Rabbi Steinlauf deftly quotes the Talmud (Yoma 72b) which teaches: Rabbah said: Any scholar whose inside does not match his outside is no scholar…” to explain why he must live who he truly is, as God created him: a gay man. Rabbi Shafran manages to reverse that teaching for his purposes, attributing the novel inversion to his teacher, to say that the outside form or shell of life is what mattersto live as Rabbi Shafran believes God requiresand one must make ones inside conform. This, of course, is absurd. A gay person cannot make himself a heterosexual, yet apparently Rabbi Shafran still, in 2014, holds out such a hope. Heres how he phrased this outrageous assertion: A Jewis to create an outside’—a lived lifethat is consonant with the Torahs laws; and then to work, perhaps over an entire lifetime, to bring his inside into synchrony with that outward, Torah-centered life.

The hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernoble (17301787), commenting on the opening verse of Torah in parshat Bereishit,

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ
In the beginning, as God created the heavens and the earth, earth was formless and void (Genesis 1:1-2)

refers to the famous midrash that tells us that reishit means Torah and teaches that God used Torah as the blueprint for Creation.[2] The Chernobler rebbe comments:

It was through Torah, called ראשית דרכו/the beginning of His way (Proverbs 8:22). All things were created by means of Torah, and the power of the Creator remains within the created. Thus Torahs power is present in each thing, in all the worlds, and within the human being. Of this Scripture says, This is the Torah: a person (Numbers 19:14), as will be explained. Torah and the blessed Holy One are one. Thus the life of God is present in each thing. You give life to them all (Nehemiah 9:6). God reduced Himself to the lowest rung; a portion of divinity above was placed within the darkness of matter. The whole point was that those lowly rungs be uplifted, so that there be a greater light that emerges from darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13)

God is both implicitly and explicitly in everything in the world. Put another way: everything is within God.

Since it is the Torah within all things that gives them life, we should pay attention not to their corporeal form but to their inner selves. The wise man has eyes in his head (Ecclesiastes 2:14). The Zohar (3:187a) asks on this verse: Where then should ones eyes be? The verse rather means that the wise persons eyes are xed on the head. Look at the head of each thing. Where does it come from? Who is its root? This is the meaning of בראשית/with Torahit was through Torah that heaven and earth came to be, they and all within them. Thus our sages taught that the particle את in this verse is there to include all that was to be born of heaven and earth (Bereishit Rabbah 1:14).

The Chernobler rebbe wisely asks us to look beyond the surface, at the essence of things. We are all manifestations of Godwhether male or female, whether heterosexual, homosexual, transgendered, or queerit is how the Torah (the great Wisdom that brought the world into being and guided evolution) designed us. Behind everything is the One. A narrow and bigoted application of Torah that lacks genuine compassion, and holds on for dear life to an antiquated understanding of the fullness and diversity of humanity is not True Torah. Devoid of the Chernobler rebbes profound understanding of the deep structure of the universe and our place in the economy of Creation, it  hardly stands up as Torah at all, but rather as an attempt to buttress a sadly common prejudice.

As a community, we reach consensus on some things, not on others. As time goes on, consensus, practice, and understanding change. It has always been this way. Our goal should be to live a Jewish life of integrity and compassion, embracing the life-giving values that pervade Torah, and championing the Rabbis understanding that Halakhah is a process of study, exploration, and decision-making, not a hard-and-fast rulebook. Each of us is a personal, individual Torah, and the process of learning, assimilating, and explicating Torah cannot be anything but personal.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[2] R. Menachem and R. Yehoshua b. Levi said in the name of R. Levi: A builder requires six things: water, earth, timber, stones, canes, and iron. And even if yon say, He is wealthy and does not need canes, yet he surely requires a measuring rod, as it is written, And a measuring reed in his hand (Ezekiel 40:3). Thus the Torah preceded [the creation of the world] by these six things, viz., kedem ('the first'), mei-az ('of old'), me-olam ('from everlasting'), mei-rosh ('from the beginning '), and mekadmin (' or ever '), which counts as two. (Bereishit Rabbah 1:8)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Sukkah Living

Having raised four kids, I can confidently report that better than all the fancy, electronic toys manufactured these days, the best gift to give a kids is a cardboard box large enough to crawl inside. The all-time, best-ever present is an appliance box. My kids logged in many happy and creative hours with cardboard boxes. For one birthday party, each 4-year-old was given a box to decorate as a dinosaur. Then they sat in them, riding their dinosaurs. For another birthday party, I opened several large boxes and reshaped them into a crude cardboard rocket ship. My son and his 5-year-old friends happily decorated and played in the rocket ship all afternoon and for many months afterward. What children know, and sometimes adults forget, is how to be playful and joyful with very little. Sukkot to the rescue. A sukkah is even better than a refrigerator box. The whole family, along with friends, can share meals in it. You can play and sleep in it. Simplicity is one of the virtues of the festival of Sukkot.

Beginning with the fifteenth day of the seventh month, after you have gathered the crops of the land, celebrate the festival to the Lord for seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day you are to take the produce of hadar trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy and willows of the brook, and rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of the Lord for seven days; you shall observe it in the seventh month a a law for all time, throughout the ages. You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens of Israel shall live in booths, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:39-43)

It is often pointed out that living in the sukkah is an experience of vulnerability, especially to the elements (that is, nature). We live in snug, tight, insulated homes. We travel in cars fully equipped with heating and air-conditioning to workplaces, stores, and entertainment venues similarly climate-controlled. When we are outside in the cold or rain, we don clothing made of modern miracle fabrics that keep out the chill and the wet. Our experience of vulnerability makes us more aware of, and deeply grateful for, the luxuries we enjoy year-round. True enough.

But its not just the experience of vulnerability that makes Sukkot so valuable. It is that the very simplicity of living in a sukkah that allows us to focus joyful attention on the wonder of the outdoors, which we are so often shut off from in our daily life.

And perhaps even greater than the lesson of simplicity, is the fact that living in a sukkah gets us outside. Scores of psychologists, physicians, and experts on well-being have touted the importance of our connection to the natural world. Being outdoors raises our oxytocin levels and helps us feel connected with the world beyond our computer screens and personal concerns. In a paper published in 1984, Roger S. Ulrich investigated the restorative effect of natural views on surgical patients in a hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery. Those who could see trees outside their window recovered more quickly and required less pain medication than those whose windows opened to an urban view of a wall. Ulrich wrote: Views of vegetation, and especially water, appear to sustain interest and attention more effectively than urban views of equivalent information rate. Because most natural views apparently elicit positive feelings, reduce fear in stressed subjects, hold interest, and may block or reduce stressful thoughts, they might also foster restoration from anxiety or stress.[1] It is not surprising, therefore, that hospital gardens not only provide an aesthetic atmosphere but promote medical healing.[2]

The Harvard Health Letter[3] (July 2010) informed readers of five reasons to spend time outdoors: (1) raise vitamin D levels; (2) get more exercise; (3) be happier; (4) improve concentration; and (5) heal faster. An article tellingly entitled, Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning, Florence Williams is summarized: These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, theres no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside. Florence Williams travels to the deep woods of Japan, where researchers are backing up the surprising theory that nature can lower your blood pressure, fight off depression, beat back stressand even prevent cancer.[4] In Your Brain on Nature, authors Eva Selhub and Alan Logan highlight research that links the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (forest bathing, a leisurely visit to a forest in which one breathes in phytoncide, which is wood essential oils) to increased cerebral blood flow, immune defense, and improved mental health. Here are additional articles you might enjoy reading:

The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation endorses forest bathing. They tell us:

Spending time around trees and looking at trees reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves mood. Numerous studies show that both exercising in forests and simply sitting looking at the trees reduce blood pressure as well as the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Looking at pictures of trees has a similar, but less dramatic, effect. Studies examining the same activities in urban, unplanted areas showed no reduction of stress-related effects. Using the Profile of Mood States test, researchers found that forest bathing trips significantly decreased the scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. And because stress inhibits the immune system, the stress-reduction benefits of forests are further magnified.[5]

The psalmist understood this well. Psalm 23, attributed to King David, expresses the sense of peace, satisfaction, and healing one can experience outdoors. This translation of Psalm 23, by Pamela Greenberg, reflects it beautifully:

A psalm of David.
God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
You lay me down in lush meadows.
You guide me toward tranquil waters, reviving my soul.
You lead me down paths of righteousness, for that is your way.
And when i walk through the valley, overshadowed by death,
I will fear no harm, for you are with me.
Your rod and staffthey comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the face of my greatest fears.
You drench my head with oil; my cup overflows the brim.
Surely goodness and kindness will accompany me all the days of my life
and I will dwell in the house of the Holy for the length of my days.[6]

The sukkah draws us outdoors and keeps us there for hours. Celebrating Sukkot is a unique opportunity to combine mindful living (and mindful eating) with a keen appreciation of the world beyond our homes, offices, schools, and especially screens and devices. Living is mindful when we experience novelty, and the sukkah provides that beautifully. Its been a full year since we dwelled in a sukkahit is again new. (Dogs are masters of novelty. If youre away from them for only a few hours, they greet you with enthusiastic love and affection as if its been a year since they saw you. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from them.)

In his wonderful book, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, Dr. Amit Sood, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, offers us guidance on how to mindfully soak in nature and benefit from its stress-relieving and healing properties:

In the yard, attend to the green carpet of grass, the blue sky and floating clouds. Savor the color, the variety of plants, and the squiggly tracks in the grass. Look at the plants and trees as selfless sages standing quietly, emblems of peace, purifying the air, holding the soil together and giving us flowers and fruit while asking nothing in return. Send them your silent gratitude for adorning your environs.

Notice the trees physical formits height, branching pattern and the moss on its bark. Appreciate leaves shape, size and color, and the patterns of their veins. Look at the flowers and the squirrels and the birds finding shelter on its branches.[7]

One of the blessings of Sukkot is that it sends us outdoors into the natural world, a place of healing. At a time of year when many of us are resigned to spending far more time inside as autumn rain and chill move in, and those who live in very hot climates find it is finally cool enough to get outdoors, this is a valuable reminder. Dr. Sood assures us:

With practice, nature will move to the forefront of your life, no longer part of the unattended background. Youll notice more trees, flowers, even insects. Nature will give your mind a flourishing break from [non-constructive and often negative] ruminations.[8]

This year, in addition to the blessings for dwelling in the sukkah and waving the lulav, youd like to add this, the last line of the Hashkiveinu prayer of shabbat maariv, the evening service:

ברוך אתה יי הפורש סכת שלום עלינו ועל כל עמו ישראל ועל ירושלים
Blessed are You, Adonai, Who spreads a shelter of peace over us,
over all Gods people Israel, and over Jerusalem.

Chag sameach may your time in the sukkah be filled with joy and may your senses be awakened and stimulated by the wonder of the outdoors throughout the coming year.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] The following link will download the paper for you:
[6] Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, pp. 43-44.
[7] Amit Sood, The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-Free Living, p. 69.
[8] Ibid., p. 70.