Breathe In, Breathe Out: A Meditation With the Trees*

Tell me, have you walked among the trees recently? I will never forget the quality of the silence in the redwood forest we used to visit when we lived in Northern California. It was similar to the silence of a sanctuary or cathedral. Bone deep, sacred. Just even thinking of walking on the pathway in that forest, I notice that I take a deep breath.

Which is interesting, in and of itself, because the truth is that we literally DO breathe in the energy that trees release in the form of oxygen that we need to live.

And just as amazing is that the trees themselves breathe. They inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale.

The psalmist somehow knew this, and this awesome sentiment is given a place in our morning prayers: Every living thing breathes and praises God: Kol Haneshema t’halal Yah.

In the Hebrew month of Shevat (usually corresponding to February) the rabbis of the Mishnah noticed that the trees begin to bud and the sap begins to flow. They created a holiday called Tu B’Shevat which we celebrate on the 15th day of Shevat. Originally it was a reminder of setting aside tithes for the poor from the corners of the fields. They called this holiday, “The New Year of Trees.”

In the soulful explosion of Jewish mysticism in Safed in the middle ages, Tu B’Shevat took on a more spiritual tone. Tu B’Shevat seders were created, honoring not only trees and fields, but all the gifts of nature that begin to wake up from their winter sleep in early spring.

To those of us who live outside the land of Israel in which this holiday originated, Tu B’Shevat has become an occasion to celebrate our connection with trees and seeds and herbs and all things that grow. On this day, we raise our consciousness about the environmental dangers we face right now.

As Jews, it’s central to our mission that we need to protect the planet. In the Garden of Eden,   “God took Adam around to see the trees of the Garden of Eden, which included the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, and God said to Adam, ‘Behold My work. All this I create for you. Take care you do not destroy it, for if you do, there is no one left to repair  it.’”[1]

Some of the most ardent environmentalists I know are people who have deep personal relationships with trees and nature. People who hike or walk or ski or run amongst the trees fall in love. When we love something, we fight hard to protect it.

The best way to create a relationship is to slow down, notice, and allow the wonder of what is before you to impact you.

A Mindful Way to Celebrate Tu B’Shevat:

Simply take a walk where you live – either by yourself or with a friend or best of all – a child. Quiet your speech so your other senses can awaken. If you can’t get to a forest preserve, walk around your block, or even your own yard. It’s not a walk to get anywhere – it’s a walk with the intention to pay attention. Especially notice the trees. They might be snow covered or devoid of leaves – accept them as they are.

Find one tree that attracts you.

Stand close up and observe the branches. Can you see any buds forming? Are there leaves hanging on from last year’s season, fluttering in the wind? Look closely at the bark on the tree – its color and texture. Look as if it’s the first time you’ve seen it. Notice the shape of the tree’s canopy. Are there any nests? Check out the roots – are they visible? Breaking up a sidewalk? Covering the ground by stretching out wide?

And then – take some deep breaths, conscious of the fact that you and the tree you face are exchanging life. Experience what that feels like.

Now that you have a relationship with this tree, make sure you come back in a few weeks and visit your new friend. Again, notice the branches, the canopy, the bark, the buds or the leaves.

Martin Buber speaks of the shift in our relationship to a tree from an “it” to a “thou.” Surely this is what is needed in order to save the planet. When we love, we enter into an “I-Thou” relationship – we see the connections between us and how we are in fact, one breathing entity. He writes:

I can contemplate a tree. I can accept it as a picture . . . I can feel it as a movement . . . I can assign it to a species and observe it as an instance . . . I can overcome its uniqueness and form so rigorously that I can recognize it only as an expression of law . . . I can dissolve it into a number, into a pure relation between numbers, and externalize it. Throughout all of this the tree, the tree remains my object and has its time span, its kind and condition. But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree, I am drawn into the relation and the tree ceases to be an It.[2]

This Tu B’Shevat, say Happy Birthday to a tree.

[1]As quoted by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, Rabbi, Valley Beth Shalom,

[2] Martin Buber, I and Thou, Martino Publishing; 2010, pp. 57-58

* this blog post was published on the Reform Judaism blog on February 7, 2017:


May We Be Surrounded & Protected

The bedtime Shema includes a beautiful prayer invoking the angels of protection, Michael, Uriel, Gavriel and Raphael. I like to imagine that they hover over the 4 corners of my bed. I will be saying this prayer tonight with the imagery of the angelic presences hovering over our entire country, protecting us with love while we sleep – even our leaders. We all need a really good rest. For more Jewish Mindfulness tips to add moments of peace to your every day, visit:

the call that is answered by presence

It’s the beginning of our liberation. First, there is work to do.

The work begins with a call that is answered with presence.

In this very week’s Torah portion (Shemot – coincidence?) Moses is tending his sheep in the wilderness, and he notices a bush that is on fire but not being consumed.

As he turns, a voice from inside the bush addresses him: Moshe Moshe (Moses Moses)!

It’s God, the Great Mystery, calling to him from within the bush!

His response rings throughout time, until today.

Moses says, Hineni.

In Hebrew, Hineni means:
I am here.
I am present.
I am awake.
I am listening.
I am open to awareness.

The Etz Hayim commentary offers: “Hineni is the spontaneous, unhesitating response to a divine call.”

Upon responding Hineni, Moses is given his life purpose: free the people from oppression.

Even though he feels inadequate (Who me? Mi Anochi?) he listens. He is present. He goes.

Let’s talk about the Divine call.

The very first call we receive as human beings is in the Garden of Eden. Right after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God calls out to to them: “Where are you? Ayecka?”

This is not a question of “location.” Of course, God knows where they are!

No, this is a deep question:
where ARE you?
are you awake?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz brings this question into the present:

“The voice, in the garden is still reverberating throughout the world, and it is still heard, not always openly, or in full consciousness but nevertheless still heard in one way or another, in a person’s soul and [the person] may repeat to himself: Indeed, where am I?”

So we have one call that comes with a life purpose. And we have another voice simply asking us — where are you?

There is no better lesson for leading a mindful life.

Make no mistake: We are all being called. Every moment of every day.

Will we respond with Hineni?

I am present, aware, awake.

My prayer for you (and me) in January of 2017 is: May we all have the ability to listen to the call that is reverberating in our life. May we carve out time each day to be silent and listen. May we have the courage to confront our insecurities so we can fulfill what we were put here to do. May we choose to be with people who help us listen to the call, OUR call. May we figure out what helps us become awake and have the ability to do that. And may we work together to heal what is broken.

Rabbi Jill Zimmerman

January 20, 2017

For more info about Hineni, the Jewish mindfulness community that I lead, check out: or to receive the Jewish Mindfulness email list: join here:

The BEST Potato Latkes Ever (I promise!)

Here’s the deal: I like my latkes thin, crispy and traditional (read: russet potatoes.)  This is my winner recipe that I’ve been using for years. I deem it “excellent” as you can see by my photo. 🙂  

It’s a recipe by Nach Waxman that I found in the The New Basics Cookbook by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso.  

Here are the secrets:
a) You’ve got to use a lot of oil (yes, your house and whatever clothes you are wearing will smell like potato latkes for at least a week. It’s worth it.

b) You’ve got to drain the grated potatoes in order to get the liquid out. Don’t skip that step.

c) My husband Ely feels that grating the potatoes by hand is the best, most authentic way for the latkes to have the right consistency. While I agree with him, I’m kind of attached to my hands and don’t want to end up in the emergency room on Chanukah. So, when he’s doing it, he’ll grate by hand. When I do it, I use my food processor.

You’re welcome.  

Happy Chanukah! Enjoy!


img_40541. Using a hand grater or a food processor, coarsely grate the
(unpeeled) potatoes and place them in a glass or ceramic bowl. Let them sit for 15 – 20 minutes. The potatoes will release liquid and turn red.

2. Grate the onions into another bowl, and set them aside.

3. Transfer the potatoes to a large colander, and let them drain for 10 minutes. Then spray them hard with water for 2 to 3 minutes, working the shreds with your fingers. The reddish starch will wash out and the potatoes will be white again. Squeeze them to remove as much water as possible, and transfer them to a clean mixing bowl.

4. Using a fork, stir the onions into the potatoes. Then add the eggs, flour, baking powder, and pepper, and mix thoroughly.

5. Heat 1/8 inch of corn oil (and chicken fat) in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Using a slotted spoon, drop level spoonfuls of the potato mixture into the hot oil. Saute them until golden brown on both sides, pressing them lightly with the spatula when you turn them, 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per side. As they are cooked, drain the pancakes on brown paper bags and keep them warm in a 200° oven. Add more oil to the skillet as needed for additional batches. Serve the latkes immediately, piping hot with applesauce and sour cream (of course.)

If you want a twist on the traditional recipe, try Hilah’s Tex-Mex Latkes:

Spiritual Friendship

This time calls for our best – and some days we may have a hard time remembering what that looks or feels like. Good friends help us remember who we are. I’m not sure who said this, but I love it:


Friends help hold us up when we feel like crashing, they make us laugh, and they essentially say, “hey, let me help you carry this burden.”

Frienship is the gift we can give each other when times are painful. When we despair, a good friend is both compassionate and accepting, and can help us with perspective.

Kavannah (Intention) For Those Not Ready To Forgive

Some hurts take time to heal. And some of us (mostly women) apologize too much and too fast – to our own detriment. This is for you.


Kavannah (Intention) For Those Not Ready To Forgive

The weight of this season compels us to forgive,

and to open our hearts.

There are many among us who have endured deep hurts,

this year,

and some from many years ago

Some of us are not sure of the path forward

amidst the prayers and pleadings of Yom Kippur to wipe the slate clean and start anew.

For the woman who was violated

and for the man beaten down,

And for anyone with a broken heart or a crushed soul

who might not be quite ready to forgive.

It’s ok.

Take your time,

Sometimes the timetable of the High Holy Days

doesn’t match the rhythm of your heart.

Sometimes our devoted prayers get intermingled with inner voices not quite resolved:

such as,

“maybe it wasn’t all that bad”

“just let go”

“let bygones be bygones”

“be the bigger person” or

“maybe I’m being too sensitive.”

This year,

love yourself enough

to trust

your own timing.

Be patient enough to

stay in the place of

“not yet.”

You commit to the work of resolution,

not being attached to an outcome or timetable.

Trust that you will find your way forward,

that you WILL come to a time

where holding on

hurts more than letting go.

Forgive yourself for not being yet ready.

From that place of total acceptance,

May you have faith that the path will open up.

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, October 2016

Begin to Dust Off Your Soul: High Holidays 2016

The month of Elul in which we do the spiritual preparation necessary for the upcoming High Holidays begins SUNDAY September 3.

There are so many ways to begin “dusting off” our souls.  When we do, we join with people all over the world who are entering the river of reflection.

I published this article on Medium that begins with a Rebbe Nachman teaching about judging others with generosity — and ALSO judging OURSELVES with kindness. Here’s how it begins — and please do click over to Medium to read the article (it’s a 3 minute read 🙂  AND – at the end of the article, there’s a link to get my FREE High Holiday Preparation List & Video!

Judge with Generosity: Become a Melody

Photo credit: Nick Kenrick. via / CC BY-NC-SA

Photo credit: Nick Kenrick. via / CC BY-NC-SA

“You have to judge each person generously…Even one who is completely bad, you need to seek out and to find within that person some small bit of good, that bit where she is not bad. By this means, when you find that bit of good, and judge her generously, you actually raise her up to the level of merit…” Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav*

Rabbi Nachman (1772–1810) makes the bold claim that by being generous in our evaluations of others, we can help raise people up, and restore their souls. Whether or not you believe that we have that kind of power, it is certain that searching for the good in each other is healing for our own souls.



Mindfulness Practice & Tisha B’av

Although this piece takes off about a particular commemoration in the Jewish calendar, I am certain that the lessons are universal. This article was orstones-1372677_640-1iginally published in a collection honoring the retirement of my meditation teacher, Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg. (FYI — Tisha B’av is what’s considered a minor holiday, and a day of mourning.) YET — because it’s about breakdown & restoration and brokenness and renewal, the learnings can be applied to many situations in our lives, no matter what your spiritual practice. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

It usually happens in August. We are still in high summer mode, yet on the periphery of our consciousness, we are aware that summer is waning. The light is changing, the days are getting shorter. And then, like an intrusion comes Tisha B’av.

This “holiday” commemorates the utter destruction of the 1st and 2nd temples in Jerusalem so many years ago. In the riotous bloom that is summer, we are called to remember destruction and breakdown.

We gather with other Jews and chant a soulful melody from the book of Lamentations written by the prophet Jeremiah. He begins: Eichah? How has this happened? It’s an echo that reverberates back to the Garden of End, when God calls out to Adam and Eve, Ayecka (Where are you?)

We are being called to wake up.  TO READ THE REST, CLICK HERE

*** ALSO – I’m offering Coming Home: Spiritual Preparation for the High Holy Days – a 4 session webinar that begins September 8. For more information, click here. The early bird price ends soon so please check it out now: Spiritual Preparation for the High Holy Days 2016

Three Mindfulness Lessons From The Wilderness

It’s usually high summer when we enter the wilderness in the Jewish calendar – by that I mean the book of B’midbar (also known as the Book of Numbers) in the Torah. It’s filled with fascinating juicy stories of rebellions and challenges. It’s like the adolescence of the Israelite people as we wander for 40 years. Here’s an intro to thewilderness piece I published on Medium about lessons from the wilderness:

There is the real physical wilderness which some of us visit from time to time.

And then there is the spiritual wilderness that visits us from time to time — sometimes longer than we would like.

Times of illness or transition or loss of any kind can put us into an existential desert where there is no map and no set path forward.

The only way out is through.

The lessons we learn from spending time in unknown territory are profound and life-changing.

In fact, there is wisdom that can ONLY be gleaned in the wilderness.



What Teaching Are You Living?

What do you know to be true?

What have you learned about how to be a human being in this world?

What has life taught you that you’d want to pass on to those you love?

Taken all together, these truths are your “torah.”  (Torah, in Hebrew, means “teaching.”)

Every person writes a Torah with their life.  It’s a personal collection of wisdom gathered from our experiences and stories.

The great Hasidic master Sfat Emet says it like this:

Every person has his or her own piece of Torah. The complete Torah was given to the Jewish people as a whole. However, each person has a personal teaching, his or her own Torah, inside them. This is hidden within the soul. There is a piece of Torah that can be learned from every person. Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter

As we get ready to celebrate the giving and receiving of our collective Torah on Shavuot, I’m reminded to revisit what I believe to be true. 

I have found it instructive to think about HOW I came to these truths as well. 

My torah is not simply made up of platitudes found in a book.

No, these truths are hard-won, often the result of difficult experiences, trial and error.seedling

Yet – those are the best kind of lessons because gaining wisdom from pain is “wrestling a blessing” like our ancestor Jacob did when he struggled with that man ( the ish.) After that night of wrestling, he gets a new name – he is forever changed.

Here are a few bits of wisdom from my own life. What are yours?

  • In order to grow a beautiful garden, I need to build the soil. And this takes time. I need to assess the state of the soil so that the roots can grow. The invisible is as important as the visible: the microbes and earthworms and minerals need to be tended so that the showy flowers and vegetables put into the soil will be solidly rooted.
    • And how did I come to this piece of wisdom that I have not only applied to gardens, but to relationships and groups  and raising children…?  By failing at my first garden attempt. And then, seeking out books, classes, and experts to learn how to do it right.
  • When I feel unhappy or lonely, reaching out to help someone else really helps me! When I extend my hand to others who are in pain, I’m lifted to a new consciousness. I can’t stay stuck when I am being present for another human being.
    • This insight came to me when I was a freshman in college, going through a spate of depression. I remember distinctly the moment when one of my dorm mates was going through an even harder time. I sat with her, listened and when I got up from that conversation, I felt my own depression fade. And I remember saying to myself: remember this: when I’m in a bad place, reach out to help someone else.
  • Pay attention to how I feel inside when I’m in a friendship. If I find myself judging my words and actions, or feel “less than”, or worry about my value when I’m with another person, I need to re-assess the relationship. Real friends lift us up. Real friends like us just as we ARE and help us remember who we are.
    • I learned this after several friendships in which I did NOT feel good about myself. I stayed too long in some of them. This was such a huge learning for me that I taught my kids when they were little to make sure they checked in with their own hearts when they were in a friendship: did they feel good about who they were when they were with a particular friend? did they feel put down or devalued in any way? If so, that person was not worth their energy.

When I officiate a funeral, I always meet with the family of the person who has died. Essentially, I want to know what that person’s torah was. And so I ask: What did you learn from him or her? What did she stand for? What were his deepest-held beliefs? What legacy did they leave for you?

Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching. Some seem to know their Torahs very early in life and speak and sing them in a myriad of ways. Others spend their whole lives stammering, shaping, and rehearsing them. Some are long, some short. Some are intricate and poetic, others are only a few words, and still others can only be spoken through gesture and example. But every soul has a Torah. To hear another say Torah is a precious gift. For each soul, by the time of his or her final hour, the Torah is complete, the teaching done. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, God Was in This Place and I, I Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality and Ultimate Meaning. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993, 177

And because I can’t help myself – I have to add a few lyrics from the Broadway musical, Hamilton. From Alexander Hamilton as he lay dying: “Legacy. “What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see…” and his question to Aaron Burr: “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” (lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Please share from your own torah:

What do you stand for?

What are your deepest held beliefs?

When I really got this, it also made me appreciate the torah of others and to hold their stories with reverence.

This Shavuot – find a place to study our collective Torah, and to be in community where our individual torahs are shared.

(Wisdom and Revelation is what we are focusing on this month in Hineni: The Mindful Heart Community. To find out how to join us from anywhere, click here: )

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman

June 8, 2016