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Earth Etude for Elul 13: The Spirituality of Coffee

by Rabbi Steven Rubenstein

Each year I choose a theme for my High Holy Day thoughts for my community, which they receive in written form. They are a continuation of the div’rei Torah that I write each week. An administrative assistant revealed to me that she enjoyed sitting down at her table on Saturday morning with her cup of coffee in hand to read my comments and to reflect upon them. From this admission I decided to devote this year’s theme to the Spirituality of Coffee.

When coffee first became popular in Europe, cafes were visited by intellectuals to discuss the politics of the day. Artisans gathered at night following their performances to unwind before going home to sleep. Today, people gather in coffee stores to meet with friends and family, to have intimate discussions. And students have been known to frequent the same places as though it were a library with fringe benefits, caffeine to keep them awake long enough to finish their papers or their studying. And in my research on coffee, in some cultures coffee breaks at work are a serious endeavor as people gather to eat cake, drink coffee, and converse with colleagues.

I have been known to say on occasion that “life begins with my second cup of coffee” at work, at my desk as I plan out my day or plug away at my administrative activities. I recently wrote a d’var Torah for Bereisheet where I joined the voices from midrash as the sages contemplated what kind of tree was in the center of the Garden of Eden that was singled out as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  While they debated whether it was a grape vine, or a fig tree, or stalks of wheat, or an etrog (citron) ~ each of which contributed something to knowledge in the world.

Another characteristic of the fruit from the tree in the center of the Garden of Eden is related to its aroma. As coffee is roasted, it releases a distinctive fragrance, tantalizing our senses. Is this the bush that God had placed in the middle of the garden to test us, to see if we could handle being “brewed awake”?

For many of us who crave that first cup in the morning, it is as if we are expressing our gratitude each day for “waking up” to the opportunities that God places before us, to notice the beauty of the world in which we live with all of its vivid detail, in the same way that the shofar jars our bodies into an awakened condition. The caffeine does more than just open up our minds to clarity. It reminds us that coffee, along with other forms of vegetation, must be treated with the utmost respect for the way in which it is grown as well as the individuals whose job it is to harvest the beans, to dry them, to roast them, and to grind them before its nectar is served to us.

Even more so is the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee. In this renewed state of mind, what better time for the soul to sit in company with my thoughts as I contemplate the personal events of my life and what I need to do to make life better ~ for me, my family, my residents, my co-workers… The bitter of the coffee with the sweetness of the milk and the sugar help with the contrasting opinions as they come across my mind with each sip, and a restored sense of awareness.

I conclude my Rosh Hashanah Day 1 sermon with this final thought:

“May the sound of the shofar no longer be a “brewed awakening,” but more so the means by which I might “espresso myself” in ways that diminish the daily “grind” that plagues us when we are not living out each day as God created each one of us, as our greatest selves.”

Rabbi Steven J Rubenstein, BCC, is the Director of Spiritual Care at Jewish Senior Life in Rochester, NY.

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