“The joy was more palpable than any other prayer service I have ever experienced…PROFOUND. Thank you.”

— Lay Retreat participant Winter 2012

April 2018 Newsletter

Lisa GoldsteinThen Comes a Gift

Rabbi Lisa Goldstein

Several years ago the New Yorker featured a cover that showed a woman sitting in the lotus position, ostensibly meditating.  You can tell she is so wound up that she is about to jump out of her skin.  If you look carefully in the direction of her baleful glare, there is a little fly, innocently tooling around.

One of the reasons I find this image so funny is that I have been there myself so many times.  I sit down to meditate or to pray with great zeal and focus – and then, something interrupts my plan.  The drive I feel to engage in practice ends up eclipsing the practice itself; my focus shifts to how my plan was derailed and that I couldn’t meditate or pray as I (or my ego) wanted.

New Yorker magazine, December 8, 2003.

There is a seeming paradox between zeal and contemplation.  Zeal is about acting now with a great sense of passion and confidence.  Zeal is impatient, directed, quick.  Contemplation, on the other hand, usually evokes “sitting with the issue” for a while.  It is slow, receptive, internally oriented.  How, then, can zerizut (zeal, alacrity) be a contemplative practice?

One answer might be one of my favorite teachings from Sholom Noach Berezovsky, also known by the title of his book, Netivot Shalom.  “First comes effort,” he taught in multiple places.  “Then comes a gift.”

When it comes to spiritual practice, it is important to draw upon our zeal.  Zeal enhances our motivation, helps us overcome our inertia, commit to the effort.  Spiritual practice is similar to going to the gym.  It’s not enough to know about the benefits; you have to actually go to the gym before any transformation can take place.  Zeal helps us make the effort and return to it again and again.

And then comes a gift.  It’s not “the” gift; it’s “a” gift.  We don’t actually know what will happen when we engage in practice.  Sometimes we get distracted and annoyed.  Sometimes it seems like nothing happens at all.  And occasionally something very sweet and still and connecting opens within us.  But whatever happens, whatever the experience is, is a gift.

So first the effort, and then a gift.  When we stay focused on the effort, we can get so stressed by a small “failure” that we can forget why we are engaging in practice.  But if we can lighten our grasp on the expectation created by our zeal and look up and see what is true in this moment, we can find our experience – whatever it is – to be rich and filled with grace.  Or as the Irish poet, Galway Kinnell wrote:

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.


Mindfulness Practices for Zerizut

Rabbi Marc Margolius

At one of the most critical junctures in the Exodus narrative, the Israelites stand between the proverbial rock and hard place, the impassible Red Sea before them and the pursuing Egyptian army approaching. In that portentous moment, God says to Moses, “Why are you crying out to Me? Speak to the Israelites and instruct them to go forward; and you, raise your staff, stretch out your hand, and split the Sea.”

Moses awakens to awareness that this moment calls not for passivity, but for proactivity: the Israelites must move forward and he must elevate his staff and arm. He perceives that these actions are necessary right now, to activate the forces by which a redemptive path can emerge from the fog of fear. He realizes as well that there is not a moment to lose. Hesitation will lead to disaster.

The famous midrash on this passage describes how, presumably when Moses instructed them to go forward into the turbulent sea, the tribes quarreled about who would go first. In that moment, Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Judah kafatz (literally, “jumped”) into the Sea, walking deeper and deeper into the waters until, according to some, they reached his nostrils and he reached the point of drowning. Only then did the Sea part so the people could pass through to safety (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 37a).

Nachshon’s actions represent the middahof zerizut, which we might translate as “energetic responsiveness.” The Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 4a) employs the expression zerizin makdimin lamitzvot, “the zealous are early [to perform] religious duties.” The classic medieval Torah commentator Rashi equates the word “command” (tzav)” with “expeditious, energetic action” (ziruz).This offers a mindfulness-friendly translation of mitzvah (commandment) itself: wise action, appropriate for the moment, the sacred energy for which arises from our very soul. We practice zerizut when, in a moment of moral choice, we (1) see clearly the action the moment calls for and (2) respond immediately and enthusiastically, channeling the chiyut, the sacred life energy coursing through us.

In that moment, we are “all in,” “jumping into the water,” propelled fearlessly forward, marching in the footsteps of Nachshon ben Aminadav and all those whose passionate, courageous actions have opened new paths to freedom and justice in our lives and in the world.

There are moments in life when we miss critical opportunities through inattentiveness or hesitance. Our mindfulness practice, we hope, keeps us alert to those opportunities when they arise, and helps us discern whether to meet any given moment with cautious exploration, or by plunging in fully and with alacrity. May we be watchful for the moments which call for bold, transformative action; may we be mindful of the unseen and infinite resources within and around us waiting to be directed towards holy ends; may we have wisdom to discern when to proceed cautiously or boldly; and may we be blessed to channel this sacred energy to heal and repair ourselves and our world.

Further Mindfulness/Middot Practices for Zerizut:

  • Once again we call to mind a sage teaching of Yogi Berra, of blessed memory: “When you see a fork in the road, take it.” This is a good week to pay special attention the nekudot bechirah, moments when we become more aware of options available to us. It may be that the most effective clue are those moments when, like the Israelites, we feel “trapped” in our jobs, in our behavioral patterns, in our relationships. See if you notice moments this week when fear arises because there is an inner narrative telling you that “there’s no solution” or “no way out.” In those moments, pause for a breath, name that fear, and see what arises.
  • This week, notice any patterns of procrastination in your life. See if there are any items on your “to do” list which you are deferring out of anxiety and fear, and share with your chevruta partner an intention to take some action, even if small.
  • Choose or compose a focus phrase for practicing the middah of zerizut: examples might be “If not now, when?” or “right here, right now,” or (if it’s not too clichéd) “just do it!” Post your phrase on your computer, medicine cabinet, or over the kitchen sink. Make it your screen saver for the week.
  • Are you slow to get going in the morning? Try this teaching from the Ba’al Shem Tov as a kavvanah (intention) for waking in the morning (Tzava’at HaRIVa”Sh, #20): “You should hold fast to the quality of effort (zerizut): wake with energy from sleep, for you have been renewed and become a new person. You are now fit to produce new things, like the blessed Holy One Who births new worlds. Similarly, everything you do, you should do with purposeful effort (zerizut), because you are able to serve God through all things.”
  • Have a passionate day!
  • Listen to “Im Ein Ani Li,” Debbie Friedman’s (z’l) interpretation of Hillel’s famous adage, “If I am not for myself, what am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:14) – or watch/listen to “Seize the Day,” from the musical “Newsies,” the lyrics of which begin:

Now is the time to seize the day
Stare down the odds and seize the day
Minute by minute that’s how you win it
We will find a way
But let us seize the day
Courage cannot erase our fear
Courage is when we face our fear
Tell those with power safe in their tower
We will not obey!


Paradox in Spiritual Practice

Rabbi Jonathan Slater

Healthy spiritual practice is often paradoxical. We work to know the ways of the ego, softening its persistent and often pernicious demands, so that we can rest secure in the moment. Yet, gaining perspective on our ego also permits us to see clearly who we are, to assert our capabilities and to claim rightful place at life’s table. We make effort in our practice to deepen our skills and gain wisdom; yet, we let go of expectations, open to whatever might emerge. We set out on a spiritual path, and eventually realize that there is nowhere to go.

Many are familiar with R. Simcha Bunem’s framing of this sort of spiritual paradox: each of us should have a saying in each pocket. One would say (with mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) “for my sake was the world created”; the other (with Abraham, Gen. 18:27), “for I am but dust and ashes”. R. Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl frames it slightly differently (Me’or Eynayim, Likkutim):

Isaiah quotes God, saying “My thoughts are not your thoughts, your ways are not my ways” (Is. 55:8). Read this instead to mean “when you don’t recognize that my thought is contracted and present within you, then your ways cannot be my ways.” God constricted the divine mind so that it might be accessible to human beings. When our efforts are not turned toward recognizing God’s presence in us, and in connecting our thoughts of God to God raise them to connect with their source, God’s thoughts remain stuck here, in the mundane realm. Therefore, it is essential that we bind faith to alacrity in deed, without letting up, if we are to sense the pleasantness of spiritual practice.

What I appreciate is the binding of faith to alacrity in deed. Faith: that God – our vitality, our aliveness, the force that runs through all creation – is in us, part of us. We are not separate from it; it does not exist in others but not in us. That God is present in us could make us complacent: we’ve got God, what more do we need? Therefore, we must bind it to action, raising awareness of the divine, finding it everywhere.

When we turn to acting in the world, to confronting injustice or aiding those who suffer we need the same qualities. We must have faith that God wishes to be part of our lives, to dwell in and among us. We are not alone in our struggles. And, it is therefore in our power to act, to make things whole, to bring peace. Faith and alacrity – paradoxical, but necessary.

Focus Chant for Zerizut

Cantor Richard Cohn, introduction by Rabbi Jonathan Slater

Performing any mitzvah can be a mindfulness practice if we bring our full attention to it. When we do so, we become fully engaged, body, heart, mind and soul. To help bring this about, our tradition added words in preparation, to orient us and ground us to move forward with intention. Such kavvanot (“intentions”) often begin with the words “Here I am, present, prepared and ready to perform X mitzvah“. Reciting such a kavvanah can help us to perform any deed with zerizut, attention and dedication. Cantor Richard Cohn composed this chant to more deeply bring body, heart, mind and soul together in preparation for action.


Hin’nee (8x)
Hin’nee muchan u’mzuman, u’mzuman hin’nee


Niggun: Embodied Practice for Zeal

Rabbi Nancy Flam

Some years ago, a wonderful student told me that the middah (soul quality) he most needed to cultivate in his life was simkha, joy. Among other resources, I pointed him to James Baraz’s book, Awakening Joy. James teaches about recognizing joy in many forms and intensities, from simple contentment to bursting delight. (We understand the Hebrew word simkha in just the same way: from “Moses was satisfied – samakh – with his portion” to “Serve God with joy – b’simkha!”) He also teaches a wide range of practices to begin “awakening joy.” Among them is the practice of singing, even a few minutes every day. My husband took up this practice on his way to work, so now every morning he sings (the Beatles) and it gladdens his heart. My singing teacher, Justina Golden, once told me that it is hard to sing and not feel some kind of uplift, as more breath cycles through the entire body and the heart expresses itself.

Music can help us cultivate other middot, as well. I love chanting the words to Psalm 16:8, “Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid; I place God before me always” to a slow, simple, four-note tune. The very chanting itself focuses and calms me so that I relax into a less reactive state – more equanimous. Singing a traditional Jewish niggun (tune) of longing for God (niggun ga’a’gua) opens my heart in trust and vulnerability, so that I might grow in humility (anavah) and love (ahavah). I wonder what tune might help me – and you – cultivate the middah of zerizut? Does something come to mind? What if you sang it when you needed to inspire energy and dedication?

Singing a niggun is a deeply embodied practice, and one that has the potential to truly open our heart and wake us up. Please consider joining Rabbi Sam Feinsmith and Aviva Chernick as they lead a month-long, online, Prayer Project module this June in a deep exploration of niggun as prayer. All are welcome. Click here for more information and/or to register.