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the literary journal of temple sinai

Kol Ha-Neshama Voice of the Spirit

Nature’s Terrible Beauty Ben Wecht

the literary journal


of temple sinai

A Tree of Life: Greenwood Cemetery Eden Fisher


Zachor Elaine Blevins


True Believer Cindy Skrzycki


On My Way Home Susan Singer


A Tranquil Spot in Israel Lynn Naman


Desert Spring Natalie Shribman


Denali Bruce Antonoff


The Role of Nature in Jewish Spirituality Barbara K. Shuman



Dawn Bruce Antonoff


Untitled Ed Korenman


Do We Really Know Clouds at All? Louise Mayo


Creative Person’s Prayer Harry Levine


Close-Up Bunny on Heriatge Traail Dan Harris


I Wonder Why Harold Marcus


Sun, Shadow, Rhythm Rick Landesberg


Cover photograph by Eden Fisher

Kol Ha-Neshama Voice of the Spirit The

Spirit in Nature april 2010 niSsan 5770

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editor’s note

Nature’s Terrible Beauty Ben Wecht

It wasn’t long after we’d decided to take the role of nature in Jewish spirituality as the theme for this, the inaugural issue of Kol Ha Neshama, the Neshama Center’s literary journal, when an almost unimaginable challenge arose. Word reached me on the eve of my summer vacation that a local girl of 14, whose name and face and other vital statistics we now know all too well, had been killed when nature, in the form of a 51-foot-long, 4-foot-wide poplar limb somehow fractured and fell onto the tent where she and several other Jewish campers were living for the summer. Beyond the shock and horror at the freakish physical reality of this occurrence, beyond the instant reminder of how easily and randomly a human life can be extinguished, lay a question that, to me, seemed quite profound … If nature is God’s handiwork, I wondered, how can it be a force for anything but good? Or to put the question another way, if God is in nature — as I’ve long supposed He must be, if He is anywhere — how can nature ever fail us? Of course, nature fails us all the time. Landslides bury villages, and villagers. Droughts desiccate farmland, robbing farmers of their livelihood. Hurricanes flood entire cities, drowning hundreds while cutting off others from necessary medical care. Is God behind these phenomena, or simply too busy to prevent them? If He’s behind them, what is His message? And if He’s too busy, what sort of God is He? Is that the kind of God we even need in our lives?

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Far greater and more learned theological minds than mine have pondered these sorts of questions for millennia, and it is certainly not my intent here to address the existence of God. Rather, I would like to briefly address the theme of this publication by relating a story that has helped inform my own perspective on the paradoxical beauty and terror of nature. When I was 16 years old, not much older than the camper I referred to earlier, I traveled to Israel as part of a ZOA-sponsored teen tour. Not only was it my first trip abroad without a family member at my side, but at the start of the 6-week excursion, I knew none of the other campers. As much as I was gaining from the experience intellectually and as a Jew, I often found myself lonely and homesick. One day, our trip took us to Ein Gedi, a verdant nature reserve nestled into the hills on the eastern border of the Judean Desert, just west of the Dead Sea. After hiking up a rocky canyon trail for hours in the blistering sun, we came upon a natural pool fed by a waterfall above which hawks circled. Following lunch, as most of the group began the hike back down to the bus, several of us, supervised by a counselor, stripped down to our shorts and swimsuits and dove into the clear, clean mountain water. Even to this day, I remember how invigorating it felt, how enlivening. We swam and splashed about for a while, and when it came time to go we climbed out of the pool and over to a rocky ledge around the corner where we’d left our things. As we dressed, it soon became clear that among our clothing and accessories were an extra t-shirt, pair of sneakers and socks, mesh baseball cap, camera, and set of sunglasses. And it didn’t take long for us to recognize them as belonging to a member of our group, a quiet, Sephardic-looking boy from New Jersey named Steve. We looked all around for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. We called to him but received only our echoes in reply. The possibilities began to torment us. Had he prepared for a swim only to decide to explore the cliffs on foot? Had he been kidnapped by terrorists or

some Bedouin tribe? Ridiculously, we even contemplated that he’d joined the group that returned to the bus, forgetfully leaving his things behind. And then we accepted the most likely scenario — that he, too, had gotten in the water, and was still there. At our counselor’s direction, we reentered the pool, linked arms in a chain and began bobbing up and down in a circle, at once hoping for and dreading the moment when our feet would touch upon him. For good or bad, they didn’t, and it would take a few more days before a team of Israeli Navy frogmen finally located Steve’s body beneath a submerged boulder. It was speculated that he’d changed his mind about returning to the bus, belatedly come to join our group, and dived headlong into this unseen obstruction while the rest of us were around the bend and out of visual range. I won’t make more of this than it meant to me at the time. My acquaintance with Steve was only a few weeks old, and when the tour resumed after a couple days’ hiatus at a nearby kibbutz, and especially after my return to Pittsburgh and the comfort of family and friends, my teenage life went on. But in the ensuing decades, I’ve thought a lot about what happened that day and, if the word is even applicable, why it happened. I’ve wondered about the apparent ran­ dom­ness of young lives cut short, whether by accident or violence or disease. And I’ve wondered whether any possible good can come of such events. Down in West Virginia, where last summer’s tragedy occurred, I learned from news accounts that, like my tour, camp soon continued. Furthermore, despite the relative proximity of many campers’ homes, very few went home, preferring instead the comfort of their summer community. “I know they wouldn’t want to leave,” the mother of two campers was quoted as saying. “They are there with their ­support system — their friends, their peers, counselors they have known and loved for years.” What’s more, I strongly suspect that when a new camp session begins a few months from now, most of them will be back — diving into the lake, maybe even undertaking

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ropes courses high in healthier trees, learning new skills by taking risks. And although both the offerings of the camp and the community they’ve found there will account for much of this, I can’t help but consider that the place itself, the natural setting, isn’t at least part of what they’re seeking. Several summers after my ZOA tour, I had the opportunity to return to Israel, to Ein Gedi, and to the pool where Steve died. I remember finding it no less beautiful, no more frightening than before. The hike was just as grueling, the water just as bracing, the hawks high overhead just as majestic. What had changed was the way I viewed this scene. Whereas my 16-year-old eyes saw only the before-and-after contradiction of a deathly oasis, even as a young adult I was beginning to realize that such is the puzzling nature of God’s creation. Whether or not the Lord Him / Her / Itself “giveth” and “taketh away,” nature certainly can, and does, both. In his provocatively titled book, Who Needs God, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes of the fear he experiences, that all of us experience, when compelled to drive in a snow or rainstorm; but once safely inside, looking out upon the same storm, his feelings about it are very different. “For reasons my rational mind can’t fully comprehend,” he writes, “it feels good to feel small and overwhelmed …” And here he quotes Psalm 29, believed to have been written in response to a thunderstorm, pointing out the paradox of a God who “shatters the cedars of Lebanon … while in His Temple, all say ‘Glory!’ ” In the wake of an event that robs parents of their children, ­siblings of their siblings, friends of their companions, I can only imagine how difficult it might be to continue declaring the “glory” of God’s creations. But here we all stand, small and fragile beings in a world of shattering trees and submerged boulders, saying “Glory!” in awed recognition of the reality that there is something far greater in our lives than that over which we exert control.

A Tree of Life­: Greenwood Cemetery July 2009 Greenwood Cemetery is on my walking path in O’Hara Township. Close to my home, it ties me to names from the history of the area.

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Eden Fisher

kol ha-neshama


True Believer

Elaine Blevins

Cindy Skrzycki

breaking a sweat walking back to temple — stop. this is the day of steps in half time and the roses are not looking at their watches, tapping their feet and sighing. the fish will see you, whenever they do, and the sunlight will not zip away into nothingness. inhale. sit down. unburden yourself of the library books, and the jacket. watch the dragonfly and the reflection of the pond forming light-waves against the bricks of the windowframe. there is a lion’s face there you never noticed, and purple flower petals someone deliberately placed, or not, in the crevice of the stone. remember, and watch to see why.

She has caught a glimpse of Jacob She is one with Abraham She is imagining the face of Israel. This is faith that scares me. She silently showed us the scars of generations that are seared into a young spirit That caught the words Of Torah. Of faith.

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On My Way Home Susan Singer

I’m going back to my desert life. Here it’s green, the air still misty although the drenching rain has stopped. It’s evening, how the woods are verdant. Clearly, God is here; the dripping and the leftover rain sound like cicadas or are alive. Here where we live and work and have our being, the earth is copper and sere and I’m not a visitor here. It never rains from April to November; we need water and we THINK about how to get enough for the people to use and drink.

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I was temporary in the wet, leafy woods but here I am at home of course, again, I’ll roam. God is near where my people made the desert green the change is readily seen. I see divine order Established in all my affairs. Jerusalem the golden I’m getting there on a wing and, as they say on a prayer.

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Desert Spring Natalie Shribman

Shiny, silky waterfalls Land in brick cookie holes Loose water splashing over the trees. Large confetti on arid floors Prickly stems on the cacti’s skin. Each one waiting for the irreplaceable Crushing of someone sitting on them. The arid bar of soap Lies next to smooth paved roads Rattlesnakes slither to Their prickly homes.

A Tranquil Spot in Israel Lynn Naman

Waterless creeks rise towards the sunny heavens. birds spread their wings in flightless joy worms in their beaks as a mate is found. A breeze of spring rolls in the grass. Flies chase after it leaving mountains of wings behind.

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The Role of Nature in Jewish Spirituality Barbara K. Shuman

Denali Riding the train from Fairbanks to Anchorage is a journey through the wilderness. You ride for hours with not a single sign of human life: no roads, no vehicles, no houses, not even a campfire. The sky is also clear, with no airplanes or clouds. At last, off to the right is a bank of clouds, pure white. Then, suddenly, just for a moment, the clouds part, and Mount Denali appears, its top also pure white. The comparison with the Exodus is inescapable: Is this what our ancestors saw when God’s presence descended in a pillar of cloud and covered Mount Sinai?

My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, speaks of God as “the divine web of connection.” In this mystical Jewish theology God is both within and surrounding all things; it is all God! I am most often aware of this Holy (Wholly!) Oneness in nature. The beauty, order and complexity of creation point to a sacred mystery; in the natural world I am mindful of that which is much greater than myself. I experience a sense of wonder in the face of that indescribable vastness. My small self falls away and I am in awe of the grandeur of mountains, and of great humpback whales, of plants that appear beautiful to the eye, and also have healing powers, of fires that burn so that forests can regenerate, and of life-sustaining waters. It is through God’s creation that we glimpse divinity, in the vast multitude of species and the complexity of living organisms. We sense the ultimate unity of natural things, and are amazed at the many ways that animals and plants are interconnected, each relying on the other. To quote John Muir, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” In our Torah, God creates the natural world. God’s first encounter with humankind is in a garden; Moses notices a burning bush and there hears a divine voice. The Jewish people first experience

Bruce Antonoff

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God in the wilderness, at the foot of a mountain. The prophets hear God on mountaintops and in desert caves. Even today the wilderness remains a place of great spiritual potential. We often feel profound joy in the outdoors, a natural delight as each of our senses is stimulated. We experience a wild divine love in nature — in the warmth of the sun and in cooling breezes, in the moon and stars that light our way at night, and in the spectacle of autumn colors. We are entertained by birdsongs and soothed by the perfume of flowers. The psalmist knew that “The heavens declare the glory of God. …” (Psalm 19). Observation of nature inspires us to express our gratitude in songs of praise like Psalm 8: “When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have set in place … Oh Adonai, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!” On seeing creatures that are beautiful or exceptionally well-formed or goodly trees, we are taught to say, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Master of the universe who has such as these in God’s world.” If one goes out into the fields or gardens during the month of Nisan [i.e., the spring] and sees the trees budding and the flowers in bloom, he says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Master of the universe, who has made Your world lacking in nothing and created therein beautiful creatures and goodly trees for the benefit of mankind” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Berakhot 10:13). Among the many blessings that we are enjoined to recite as an expression of our gratitude is one for the works of creation. We praise God upon seeing lightening, a shooting star or comet, or when seeing a mountain, a river, or other natural wonder: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, oseh ma’aseh vereishit (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Master of the universe, who makes the works of ­creation). An ocean represents God’s power; when we first see an ocean or great lake the following blessing is said: Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, she’asah et-hayam hagadol (Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Master of the universe, who made the great sea). Moreover,

the very sign of God’s relationship with the Jewish people is observed in nature. Upon seeing a rainbow we say, “Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam, zokher haberit vene’eman bivrito v’kayam bema’amaro” (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Master of the universe, who remembers the covenant and is faithful to His covenant and who keeps His word). The natural world is a manifestation of the Holy One of all Being, a wondrous reminder that everything participates in this “divine web of connection.” If God is the ground of all being, the fullness of the world, then my experience of God’s Presence depends on my attentive­ ness to that divine reality. When we awaken to the world around us, we are blessed.

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Dawn Bruce Antonoff

The sun is not yet visible, yet its work begins. The clouds turn from dark smudges against the not-so-dark sky to deep reds, to pastel pinks, then finally to mundane grays. The double miracle has returned: the interaction of light and atmospheric prism to create the display, and the ability implanted in us by God to stand amazed before it.

Untitled Ed Korenman

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When we were children a favorite game for many of us was to look up at the clouds and imagine what each one represented. Perhaps one was a sheep, another a pillow or, in the words of the song, “rows and floes of angel hair” or “ice cream castles in the air.” Even “feather canyons everywhere.” But when we examine the clouds, do we also see God? Clouds are often used as metaphors in sacred texts and in litera­ ture, so their use in Judaism is not surprising. Wordsworth famously “wandered lonely as a cloud.” But clouds are rarely lonely — they ­usually travel in groups. Islam declares that Allah was in the state of a cloud before his manifestation. The Sanskrit poet Kalidasa asks a cloud to take a message home to his wife because he is “separated from her by the anger of the Lord of Wealth.” “A promise is a cloud; fulfillment is rain,” according to an Arab proverb. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell notes, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions which move with him like flies on a summer day.” Sun Wu-Kung, the Monkey King who brought scriptures from Buddha back to China, got there by “cloud

dancing,” allowing him to cover great distances leaping from cloud to cloud. In 1274 the Mongols were thwarted in their efforts to invade Japan when Raiden, the Japanese god of thunder and lightening, sat on a cloud, showering lightening arrows on their feet. Clouds are symbols of very different things in each of these examples. Cloud passages are extremely common in Jewish sources. In Numbers Rabba 1:2, Rabbi Hoshaia states that there were seven clouds of glory. What can they be? Clouds are ubiquitous in Torah and other biblical references. In Exodus 13: 21–22 God “went before them daily in a columnar cloud to ease the way and at night in a cloud of fire to illumine for them daily and at night. God did not withdraw the columnar cloud daily, nor the fiery cloud from in front of the people at night.” Later, in Exodus 14, the angel of God brings a pillar of a cloud between the Egyptian camp and the fleeing Israelites “and it was a cloud of darkness to them, but it gave light to these; so that one came not near the other all the night.” Still further on in Exodus, when Aaron speaks to the people of Israel, they look toward the wilder­ ness and ”behold, the glory of God appeared in the cloud.” Finally, in Exodus 34:5, God speaks to Moses: “The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord.” When the tabernacle is erected (Numbers 9:15–23), it is always ­covered by cloud, and, when it is moved, the cloud moves as well. A very different cloud image is presented in Genesis 12:13–15. The angry, vengeful God who has destroyed the earth in the flood repents by hanging up his archer’s bow in the sky. “I set my bow in the cloud and it shall be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud … and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.” It has been said that a rainbow is God’s light shining through God’s tears. Other passages have a different cloud image. For example, Isaiah 44:22 says, “I have blotted out as a thick cloud, your transgressions, and as a cloud, your sins: return to me; for I have redeemed you.”

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Do We Really Know Clouds At All? A Meditation on Metaphor, Torah, and Other Sources Louise Mayo

Most of the quotes and many of the insights in this article are derived from a course I took with Rabbi Goldie Milgrim.

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(This is also a prayer offered on Motz’ei Shabbat.) Job laments, “My welfare has passed away as a cloud.” Lamentations 3:44 regrets, “You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through.” So, when we look at clouds, do we see God within them or do we see impenetrable obstacles to the sun beyond them? Perhaps we can conclude with the words of that noted philosopher, Joni Mitchell: I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now From up and down and still somehow It’s cloud illusions I recall I really don’t know clouds at all.

Creative Person’s Prayer Harry Levine

Live-it … be-it … see-it! Be artistic and constructive … receptive to dreams, fantasies, symbols, lyrics, meditation, prayers … the love shared by … you! Look backwards and forwards in time … and bring about …  what’s feasible, with the current and coming social, economic, cultural, … spiritual climate, Deliver beneficial creations … that reflect the highest values, promote sublime experience, and embrace personal and societal aspirations, Be a dynamic, ever-loving, energetic, practical visionary …  attend to family, client, and community … and create the best that can be, at this place and time! Live it … be it … see it!

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I Wonder Why Harold Marcus

I wonder why the grass is green and why the sky is blue, I wonder why I’m who I am and wonder why you’re you. I wonder if G-d’s image is the one that we’re made in, Why some people hate you for the color of your skin. I wonder why the sun shines bright, and why the moon at night Showers down upon the earth all its heavenly light. I wonder why G-d’s blessings so often go unseen, Why some people judge you without knowing where you’ve been. I wonder why some people live as G-d expects us to, While some others live their lives and just don’t have a clue How to treat each other as they go from day to day, And I wonder why it really has to be this way. Close-up Bunny on Heritage Trail There is spirit in nature and all living things. Whether or not this reflects anything Jewish, that is to be determined. I’m not sure about reincarnation, but the spirit of animals, religion and humans go hand in hand.

I wonder why religion sometimes drives us all apart When religion is the one thing that puts G-d inside my heart. I wonder why my wondering can sometimes make me cry, No matter what the answers are, I’ll always wonder why.

Dan Harris

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Sun, Shadow, Rhythm This photograph was taken in the early morning while walking near Woodstock, Vermont. For me, it’s not about capturing an image, but about that moment; a way of witnessing a place. Rick Landesberg

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Copyright Š2010 Temple Sinai Neshama Center for Jewish Spirituality Published by Temple Sinai’s Neshama Center, Kol Ha-Neshama is an arts and literary journal created to showcase the talents and ideas of the Temple Sinai community. Writers, poets, photographers, and graphic designers with an interest in Jewish spirituality are encouraged to submit their work for consideration to the editor at Comments about this issue are also welcome. Ben Wecht Editor Rick Landesberg Design Kreider Printing Printing Typeset in Arnhem and Hebrew Graphic One E Printed on Rolland Opaque 30% post-consumer recycled fiber

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Kol HaNeshama, Volume 1  

Temple Sinai is a Reform Jewish congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism....

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