by Rabbi David Seidenberg
As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we are also fast approaching the next Shmita year, when all the land in Israel was supposed to rest, all debts were supposed to be canceled, and all food was to be shared, even with the wild animals. Just like Elul and the High Holidays, the Shmita year itself was a long journey of t’shuvah, during which our sense of business-as-usual would fall away, revealing what it means to truly be in community with each other and with the land. A human world that observed Shmita fully is a world that would never ruin Earth’s climate.
Before the last Shmita year (2014-2015), my friend Nili Simhai asked me to work up some Shmita year liturgy. Shmita means "release" and liberation, and the Shmita year is about liberation between the people and animals and the land, liberation among the people themselves, and release or liberation for the land itself. I wrote a Harachaman blessing that references all three kinds of liberation, and it does that by using three different verbs that have the root letters Shin ש and Bet ב, the same letters that are in t’shuvah.
Before sharing it, let me explain what a Harachaman blessing is. “Harachaman” means “the Merciful One,” a name for God, and it refers to a series of blessings and wishes for ourselves and the world, all of which begin with the word Harachaman, which we say at the end of the blessing after the meals, called in Hebrew Birkat Hamazon. So, for example, we pray “May the Merciful One let us inherit a world that is entirely filled with Shabbat” and “May the Merciful One renew for us a year that is good and sweet” for Shabbat and for Rosh Hashanah respectively.
Here’s the Harachaman that I wrote for Shmita:
May the merciful One turn our hearts toward the land,
so that we may dwell together with her in her sabbath-rest, the whole year of Shmita.
Harachaman hu yashiv libeinu el ha’aretz
l’ma’an neisheiv yachad imah b’shovtah, kol sh’nat hash’mitah!
הָרַחֲמָן הוּא יָשִיב לִבֵּינוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ לְמַעַן נֵשֵב יָחַד עִמָהּ בְּשָׁבְתהּ, כָּל שְׁנַת הַשְׁמִיטָה
What are the three verbs that relate to the three levels of liberation connected to t’shuvah? The first verb is yashiv (“turn our hearts toward the land”), and it comes from the word "turn", lashuv, לשוב, and it refers to our returning to a right relationship, on a heart level, with the Earth. Just as we ask God to turn us toward the divine intention during the High Holidays, here to we ask God to turn our hearts toward the land.
The second verb, neishev (“that we may dwell together”), comes from "to settle" or "dwell", lashevet, לשבת, as in shevet achim gam yachad – “how good it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together,” and it refers to liberation between individuals in the year of release, when debts between people are canceled and food is shared with all, even with the wild animals.
The third verb, b'shovtah (“with her in her sabbath-rest”), comes from lishbot, לשבות, to rest, just like Shabbat, and it refers to the shabbat that the land itself enjoys in the Shmita year, as it says, "the land will enjoy her sabbaths" (Lev 26:43).
It is no accident that these three roots are connected by the same letters, since they are also connected on a soul level with each other. They represent the true nature of tikkun olam. Tikkun, repair and restoration, must happen on all these levels together: turn back, settle down, rest. To fix the world, that must happen for the land, for the animals, for the human beings, and that is what we are called to do in this Shmita year, as in every Shmita year to come.
A world that can learn Shmita might yet save us from the worst and bring us back in t’shuvah toward choosing Life. May the Merciful let our turning come in time to avert the worst of climate disaster and to restore the health of the planet, along with her magnificent species that together make up the web of Life.
You are invited to download the Harachaman, and learn the song from Jonah Adels, z”l, that we sing it to, here: https://www.neohasid.org/resources/shmita-harachaman/
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God's Image in the More-Than-Human World, and the creator of neohasid.org. He has ordination from JTS and Reb Zalman, teaches about ecology, human rights, and animal rights in Judaism, leads astronomy programs, and is an avid dancer and musician.
by Rabbi Steven Rubenstein
Teshuvah is reflected in the power to change
And the waters that cleanse our souls.
Rabbi Steven Rubenstein recently celebrated his 25th anniversary since his ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion. In that time, he served congregations in San Francisco, CA, El Paso, TX, and Beverly, MA. In addition, he has served as Director of Spiritual Care at Shalom Park in Denver, CO and currently is performing a similar role at Jewish Senior Life in Rochester, NY. He is equally as proud to be a member of NAJC, Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains where he received recognition as a Board Certified Chaplain. His hobbies include collecting Israeli Stamps, baseball cards of Jewish ballplayers, and capturing the God moments in his photography that he shares with my residents on a weekly basis.
By Joan Rachlin
It has been just over 17 months since my husband suffered a stroke. It wasn’t just our lives that changed that day, though, as March 11, 2020 was also the day that Boston went into lockdown in an effort to stem the spread of Covid. We therefore found ourselves living in a bubble within a bubble and rehab services were consequently hard to find. All of the outpatient clinics were closed and home care was limited. In this “timing is everything world,” my husband’s rehab was slowed down because the world had turned upside down.
We drove up to our cabin in New Hampshire on a mid-July weekend in hopes of having at least one dance with summer before the cool August breezes began to blow. I felt the tension begin to drain out of my body as soon as we arrived, especially upon seeing our neglected but forgiving garden with its welcome mat of lilys, daisies, and bleeding hearts. The peonies had gone by, but their faded, falling blossoms still evoked delicacy and beauty.
My husband and I were overjoyed to be there and felt as though his rehab journey had been instantly boosted by the healing power of nature. The peacefulness of our surroundings decreased our stress and increased our energy. It was thus easy to make the decision to move to NH for the foreseeable future.
Our NH home is in a planned community that was built by a trio of developers, among them the Society for the Preservation of New Hampshire Forests. The developers’ mission was to “develop the land so that the impact upon the natural environment is minimized and the surrounding landscape is conserved and enhanced.” They knew that preserving this small patch of paradise would take rules, e.g., trees larger than 4 inches in diameter could not be removed without compelling reasons, boats had to be washed and then checked for invasive species before being launched into the lake (where a 10 mph maximum is strictly enforced), trails, streams, and other watersheds are well maintained, wildlife is monitored and protected, Association buildings are LEED certified, there is an active conservation corps, and the list goes on.
Living here full time has given me a new appreciation for the long term commitment to sustainability exhibited by the developers. Their responsible stewardship stands in stark contrast to the developers in my hometown of Hollywood, Florida where money was the only “prize” on which they kept their eyes and where environmental regulations were seen as so much red tape and therefore mostly ignored.
The foresight of the NH planners has planted within me a commitment to do my part to ensure that the woods, trails, lakes, streams, and wildlife will be preserved for future generations, as commanded in Genesis. I’ve been planting trees, shrubs, flowers, and pollinator friendly plants, nourishing the soil with organic supplements in hopes of helping it capture and store carbon, and collecting the abundant rainwater so as not to tax the water supply. Like Choni*, I won’t see the trees or shrubs reach maturity, but I am planting for future generations.
The work of repairing the Earth is holy and I’ve come to think of it in “I-thou,” versus “I-it,” terms. Buber maintained that “I/Thou encounters are possible with the other-than-human,” which means that I/we should give the Earth respect, attention, and time. I don’t want to enjoy and exploit its gifts without infusing mutuality into the relationship. That concept is not new to me, as I’m one of those individuals who get irritated when I hear that only 10% of NPR listeners donate to NPR, i.e., the other 90% are “free riders.” I fear that even a smaller number of nature lovers actively work to repair the damage that we humans have done to the Earth and the creatures who inhabit it.
As the Days of Awe draw near, I am working to nourish nature in a more active manner. Our surroundings in NH have been healing for us, so I am strengthening my kavanah to help “heal the healer.” The Earth recognizes and cares for us, but do we adequately recognize and care for our fragile, burning, flooding, dying planet? We must try. Harder. Now. May it be our will to do God’s work here on earth. Amen.
*”The Talmud tells the story of the sage Choni, who was walking along a road when he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked, "How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?" "Seventy years," the man replied. Choni then asked, "Are you so healthy that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?" The man answered, "I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children." (Avot d'Rebbe Natan 31b)
Joan Rachlin is the Executive Director Emerita of PRIM&R (Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research) an international bioethics organization. In addition to her work with PRIM&R, she practiced law in the areas of women’s health, civil rights, and criminal and civil litigation. Joan was the founder and longtime chair of Temple Israel Boston’s Green Team and now works with other local and national environmental groups.
By Michael Garry
Tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means “repair of the world,” has always been a guiding principle of the Jewish people, one that we teach our children and try to practice in our everyday lives. In the modern era, tikkun olam means that Jews bear responsibility not only for their own moral, spiritual, and material welfare, but also for the welfare of society at large.
It is well-known that the welfare of the planet is now threatened by an environmental crisis called climate change, caused by unchecked emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
While climate change can sound very grim, our Jewish faith can help sustain us and inspire us to action; indeed, caring for the Earth is one of the cornerstones of Judaism, and it’s found throughout the Torah. During this season of teshuvah, it is especially important for Jews to reflect on our obligation to help correct our transgressions against the environment.
The very act of creation in Genesis marks the sacred quality of the Earth, and humankind’s duty to respect, protect and preserve God’s creation. We are God’s caretakers; as it is written in Genesis 2:15, God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden “to work it and conserve it.”
There is also a body of Jewish law called the Law of Neighbors (Hilkhot Shekeinim), which states that there is no presumptive right to cause pollution that damages another’s health, no matter how long we have been doing it.
In Psalms, farmers are asked to be conscious of what they plant, not sowing their fields with mingled seeds. Proverbs stresses the importance of trees – which are a great remedy for climate change since they absorb much carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Indeed, planting trees has been a bedrock of our tradition, and a principal part of the Tu BiShvat holiday. The Torah itself is called “a tree of life.”
For Jews, Shabbat is an opportunity to step back from everyday activities, which helps preserve the environment. The Torah also stipulates a practice called Shmitta (Sabbatical Year) such that every 7th year shall be a Shabbat for the land; farmers shall not plant that year so as to not overuse the fields. People eat whatever grows on its own in the fields. In Israel, Shmitta is practiced in a lesser form to this day.
What else can we do to reverse climate change? I’ve discovered that the climate issue becomes less overwhelming when you work in a group, not just by yourself. That can foster camaraderie and make it a joyful experience, not a grim one. So join with other like-minded people.
When you consider the lessons of the Torah, fighting climate change becomes a religious and moral issue, not a matter of politics. As Jews, we can all agree on the moral underpinning of protecting and preserving the environment for ourselves and our children. And we can spread that message to all people of good will.
As Jews, who have historically had to survive threats to our existence, we are especially suited to helping the world adapt to and overcome the climate crisis. Which takes us back to the bedrock principle: tikkun olam.
Michael Garry is Editor in Chief for shecco, which promotes climate-friendly cooling and heating systems that use natural refrigerants. He is also the author of Game of My Life: New York Mets, published in 2015 and 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing.
by Carol Reiman
Scroll turners, wooden handles, trees of life, our thumbs evolved, rolled down from years to screens;
Leading us through dry sands, streams, times of manna, now of drought;
Fires of the burning bush, now woods flaming by dream homes;
Wanderers yearning for place,
kinship of community, ability to thrive;
Where do we take our strength?
When do we listen to the land, to those who warn us of what comes?
Are we as sturdy as our hopes,
As fragile as our whims,
Intemperate in our senses,
Inconsistent in our care?
Lest our drives consume us,
Let us rest in the shadows,
Break of day or rim of stars,
Calm the breath,
Listen for the source
Of streaming bounty,
Filling the cup
Of thought, body, soul,
Nestling us in gentleness,
Carol Reiman’s spiritual resources include Rabbi Katy’s reminders of calm, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist sources, the arts, cats, and human connections.
by Rabbi Robin Damsky
“It’s All About the Soil.” So reads the headline for a website discussing regenerative agriculture.
I’m torn between fear and possibility. Evidence of climate change worsens every place we breathe. I read several summaries of the most recent UN report on the climate crisis in which Antonio Guterres declares a “code red for humanity.”
I’ve always believed we have the power to heal our planet. I still do. But the window of opportunity is getting smaller and the actions we must take are more substantive.
There are a bunch of terrifying data in the news. Most of what we need to heal seems out of my/our reach unless governments take a radical look forward and make change accordingly. And then I read about methane gas. We’ve known about carbon neutrality, and it is critical. Yet emissions of methane gas are skyrocketing as well. With large-scale plant [read: traditional one crop farming using pesticides and herbicides] and animal production, methane gas is released into the atmosphere at a far higher rate than it can be captured. Methane creates more than 80 times the planet-warming power of carbon dioxide in the short term. Operative words here: short term. Why? Because addressing methane release feels more immediately within my – and our – reach. It’s all about the soil. Regenerating the soil reduces both carbon and methane emissions. And lets us breathe.
I’ve been growing food for years, and I invest in teaching others to do the same. In May I saw Kiss the Ground, a remarkable movie about regenerative agriculture. While it has far-reaching effects for farming around the globe, not all of us have animal farms. But most of us can have a garden. In their short video, Ron Finley and Rosario Dawson teach us about food gardens, known during WWII as Victory Gardens. Today these home gardens have a place in helping us achieve victory over the warming of our planet. They share these five simple steps to heal the soil and thus, slow – and on a large enough scale, even cease – global warming:
What if each of us took a small space in our yard – or if we’re in the city – on our terrace or rooftop, and grew vegetables, fruits, herbs? A small bed produces lots of food. And potted plants produce well, too. I’ve been growing food in containers the last few years and the results are awesome. We can start small and still bring powerful results.
We are earth beings. Genesis teaches us that “adam” is the human being that Havayah – the Divine – brought forth from the “adamah” – the earth; the soil. We are literally earth beings. We are the soil. Let’s make the commitment to engage in regenerating our soil, ourselves and our future.
Rabbi Robin Damsky has recently launched Limitless Judaism, a project of learning, movement, meditation, melody and practice that draws the lines of connection between our physical bodies, our spiritual expression and Gaia, our earth-cosmos. Embracing this connection, we heal and grow ourselves as we heal and grow our planet. She is also the founder of In the Gardens, a nonprofit that works to enhance health and well-being through organic edible garden design and mindfulness practice. Reach her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Rabbi Katy Allen
I've been thinking about it a lot.
Intellectually, I know I can't be perfect. Inside me, in hidden spaces, I feel like I'm not supposed to make mistakes. Which would, of course, mean seeking perfection.
Perfection is supposed to belong only to G!d, though I'm not sure I know what that means. Sometimes, when I'm able embrace my humanness, it's incredibly freeing to acknowledge that I don't have to be perfect. But I also realize there's a balance between not trying to be perfect all the time and not trying to never make mistakes.
I experience different kinds of feelings when I think about striving toward being a better person all the time versus when I consider in a particular moment what I need to do to be as whole as possible in a particular instant and situation. Those ways of thinking are very different. Considering the moment, just this particular moment, feels doable. Thinking that I must constantly seek to improve and always strive to do the right thing becomes overwhelming.
As a climate activist, when I consider climate change, environmental injustice, and the destruction of our environments, I can feel that sense of being overwhelmed. Listening to people confidently profess that we can absolutely turn around the course of climate change also feels like a tremendous burden that I cannot bear.
But when I stop trying to seek perfection regarding the planet and justice, I can also let go and feel a release. When I acknowledge that climate change is already happening and communities are already being devastated, and that this is simply our present reality, not my personal responsibility to fix and to create perfection in the world, I can touch my truer better self. I can let go of the weight upon my shoulders.
Neither of these mean that I stop believing we must act, but they take off the pressure. Letting go of a need to achieve perfection in the global sphere makes it easier to breathe and to think just as it does in my personal life.
Beginning during Elul and climaxing on Yom Kippur, Jewish tradition, articulated in our liturgy, makes it abundantly clear that we humans are very far from perfect. This Elul, may I fully embrace that reality. May I enter into this season of reflection and atonement humbly putting aside the need to always be right.
Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the founder and President pro-tem of the Jewish Climate Action Network-MA. She is a board certified chaplain and a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.
by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein
“Return again. Return again.
Return to the land of our soul.” (1)
The liturgy sings.
I hear it in my head.
This is the season of returning.
It’s quiet here.
A steaming cup of coffee,
Billowing clouds of whipped cream.
We thought it would be different by now.
Stay at home. Wear a mask. Wash your hands.
No guests for Shabbat dinner.
It’s quiet. So very quiet.
Ready to begin my morning,
I choose a book
Ready to read,
I open the back door,
Coffee cup and book in hand.
Ready to sit on the deck.
The music greets me.
It is anything but quiet
While the world was healing,
The birds returned:
Gold finches, cardinals, robins, blue jays,
Canada geese, blue heron, sandhill crane.
A cacophony of color and sound.
They are the guests for New Year.
We can return too.
(1) Neshama Carlebach, http://hebrewsongs.com/?song=returnagain
Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, www.theenergizerrabbi.org, She enjoys watching the birds on her deck overlooking a retaining pond (that is dangerously low with the severe drought in Northern Illinois this year) or at her dentist’s office where she gratefully watches the birds he feeds. She has noticed that the birds are more prevalent providing a noisy din during the pandemic. She hopes that the pandemic has helped the earth itself to heal, and for us to reset our priorities, living a more authentic life. She is a recipient of a Scientists in the Synagogue grant for bringing science and Torah to our families in a program called “Parsha and Planets on the Prairie.”
by Maxine Lyons
Reflecting on my connection to t’shuvah means returning more mindfully to positive words and actions and performing mitzvot - commandments. T’shuvah also includes recognizing our connection to the earth, and for me, learning what my garden has to teach me. In a short book, Don't Throw in the Trowel, the author quips, "a garden is a sublime lesson in the unity of humans and nature.” A good garden to me is one that is well planned and cared for, and I am grateful to the Earth’s wisdom and resilience to provide the basis for plants, shrubs and trees to grow and flourish if given the correct nutrients.
As I tend my gardens, I am also practicing ways to cultivate and grow into those more healthy body, mind and spiritual aspects of wellbeing.
Through concentrated time of t'shuvah, I am focusing on refining the skills to expand my capacity to be forgiving of the broken and vulnerable places within myself and also forgiving those fragile and difficult places in dear family members and friends. Jewish law clearly outlines biblical concerns to protect the earth. I follow closely many of the more contemporary texts, writings and social justice activities that are so vitally important; they assist us in learning how to sustain the earth today that benefits all of us globally.
I am ending with words from Thich Nhat Hahn, a Buddhist monk who teaches about connection that is one of the five mindfulness trainings.
"I will contemplate interbeing and consume in ways that preserve peace, joy and well being and consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth."
And let us say, Amen.
Maxine Lyons enjoys sharing her understanding of the benefits of Jewish and Buddhist meditation practices, engages in racial justice activities, and is a perennial learner as she gardens in any available space around her home in Newton!
By David Krantz
Among our more under-appreciated traits, we Jews are counters. We count for a prayer quorum, we count the omer, we count the days of the months to know when our holidays are. We might know the days of the week by their names – Sunday, Monday — but in Hebrew they are Yom Rishon, the First Day, and Yom Sheni, the second day. And before borrowing their current names from the Babylonian calendar, the Jewish months were numbered. What we now know as Elul was once the Sixth Month, leading to the Seventh Month that we now call Tishrei.
Counting can (ideally) foster planning and patience. It is by counting that we know when to do what needs to be done. It is because we count that we know not to start Rosh Hashanah until the first day of the Seventh Month — or as it is described on first reference in the Talmud (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:3), 30 days after the start of Elul. So every day of Elul is a count toward Rosh Hashanah, a count we punctuate with a daily blowing of the shofar. To everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1), we learn, and Elul reminds us that we do not skip ahead.
A year ago, in Elul 5780 (there we go counting again), a climate denier was in the White House and his biggest climate-denying enablers were in charge of the Senate. We knew it was the season for organizing, for getting out the vote, for pushing for action so that new leadership could step in and take bold, substantial action on climate change. Now, in Elul 5781, we find ourselves still lacking that desperately needed action on climate change.
Perhaps we thought that we could let up our efforts after Election Day, but to everything there is a season, and now remains our season for civic engagement with our elected leadership. Contact them and remind them of the shofar’s call to action. Our sacred Earth is burning from excessive carbon emissions and we must take action.
A year ago was our first Elul of this coronavirus pandemic. This Elul we may feel we are done with the pandemic, yet the pandemic is not quite done with us. Viral infections, hospitalizations and deaths remain too high and vaccinations too low. To everything there is a season, and now remains our season of masking, social distancing and vaccination. (And if you have not yet gotten vaccinated and you have access to the vaccine, then now is your season for inoculation!)
A year ago, we found ourselves in the middle of a crisis of structural racism against ethnic minorities along with nationwide violent acts of hatred. This Elul we unfortunately find that we are still in the season of the fight against these persistent banes.
But this Elul we also finish the count of six years of work before beginning a seventh year of rest, the shmita year. In the shmita year, we will have the opportunity to count a year of rest for the land, rest for our fellow animals, and rest for us humans. Yet we need more than that to truly retire. We need our fossil-fuel burning machines and our addiction to them to rest. We need the virus to rest by not giving it the opportunity to spread further. We need the irrational hatred of racism to rest.
Clearly, we still have much work to do this Elul if we are to be in a better place in Elul 5782. Of course, these tasks are more than any one of us can do alone, however it may not be more than we can do together. On Rosh Hashanah we may fill our thoughts with personal reflection, but we must remember we are all counting on each other.
David Krantz is the president of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism.