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Rabbi Dan Ornstein

  • The rushing sound of Kinderhook Creek along the Rensselaer Plateau sings a gracious love song about how God put beauty into the world. My wife and I have hiked the creek several times over the past few years, stopping intermittently to listen to its fugal melodies formed by the movement of water, the leaves rustling in the wind, and the birds chanting chorales from their nests.
  • My ancient ancestors believed that we experience a kind of mini death when we go to sleep. Though they were astute observers of dreams and of the body’s many functions, they had no understanding of how sleep works. In their imaginations, sleep and dreams fall upon us when our souls leave us to travel to the highest heavens and to the deepest places below the earth and the sea. When we wake up, our souls return to us refreshed, affording us new strength as if we had just been created.
  • Though it grows mostly in the southeastern United States, the sweetgum strikes me as an All-American tree. It is, as it were, nature’s version of good old American ingenuity: a supremely versatile resource in the nation’s arboretum that has, over the generations, yielded easily to inventive people who transformed its botanical riches.
  • Decades ago, my father-in-law, of blessed memory, decided to spend the night with me and my wife in our small Manhattan apartment after he finished some business meetings. Looking to impress dear old dad with our maturity and independence, we cleaned and shined our two-bedroom obsessively for a week. The big night, which happened to be Halloween, arrived, and we were nervous. Who doesn’t want to prove to their parents that your adult life is up to their expectations?
  • Near the banks of the majestic Virgin River that cuts through the canyon of Utah’s Zion National Park, you can hike up a short, steep trail that brings you to Weeping Rock. It is one of several Hanging Gardens that recall the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as described in ancient sources. Dangling pendulously from the sheer, rain drenched cliffs are rare and beautiful plant species. These hardy florae belong to a group of about forty kinds of vegetation that grow only on the Colorado Plateau, where Zion is located.
  • Each year, my synagogue joins with another congregation to light the Hanukkah menorah on one night of the holiday. Jews have lit Hanukkah lights together for two thousand years in places as mundane as private homes and as hellish as concentration camp barracks. Our annual celebration takes place outdoors at the entrance to Albany’s Buckingham Pond. Under dim streetlights and distant starlight, the flames of our communal Hanukkah menorah illuminate -howbeit faintly – the sky darkened early in the evening around the time of the winter solstice. According to Jewish law, our outdoor observance is the ideal way to celebrate Hanukkah: in a place where anyone passing by can be a witness to the miracle of the lights in the ancient Jerusalem Temple.
  • One of the first things that I do when I’m in an airport is check for a prayer room or chapel in which I can worship quietly. Set apart from the coffee bars, intercoms, security guards, and noisy travelers, airport chapels are places where I, a regular worshipper, and a somewhat nervous flyer, can connect with God in privacy before continuing my travels. Judging by the numerous entries in each room’s sign-in book, I’m not alone in my appreciation for this small sacred space that helps me prepare mentally and spiritually for my flight.
  • One early evening on a recent retreat in the Colorado Rockies, as the acrid smoke of our campfire rose in our nostrils, a friend urged me to sniff the bark of the nearby Ponderosa pine tree. “It smells like butterscotch,” he informed me with quiet excitement. I walked over to one large tree, its skin a creamy yellow-brown patchwork of scaly puzzle pieces. It exuded a slight but heady aroma of butterscotch candy.
  • I finally reached adulthood this summer, as we prepared to celebrate my parents’ 65th wedding anniversary. It became clear to me that, for all these years, my parents have been living a double life: their own, one that has nothing to do with me or my siblings, that preexisted us and that they have carried on shamelessly under our noses. With their anniversary approaching and my dad turning ninety, my brother, sister and I talked about making them one of those huge “This Is Your Life” parties. But my mom protested that she wanted nothing this elaborate. So, we whittled the big idea down to an intimate brunch on an early August Sunday with immediate family, followed by a Zoom celebration to which we could invite people from different parts of their life.
  • As I stood in solitude one quiet morning on Paradox Lake in the Adirondacks, wisps of mountain fog glided toward me like gentle ghosts. Each fog swirl appeared to beckon to me to join it; the mist spirits approached me from all sides as if searching for a sure footing with me in this world before disappearing into the air.