by Rabbi Joshua Breindel
In our journey through the month of Elul, the ancient Rabbis call to us across the years. They encourage us to engage in teshuvah – to turn from destructive behaviors and mend our ways. This practice has a special urgency today, following one of the hottest summers on record. We know that humanity has great power over our environment and the climate. The Rabbis shared this same perspective. While this midrash (Rabbinic story) was written 1,500 years ago, it’s just as relevant in our own day. When the Holy One created Adam, God took him before all the trees of the Garden of Eden, saying to him, “See how good and how fine are my works! Everything that I have made, I created for you. Reflect upon this and do not spoil or lay waste to my world. If you spoil it, there will be none to repair it after you.” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13) The midrash concludes without a reaction from Adam. This invites us to ask how Adam might have replied to God’s words. And, by extension, we’re challenged to form our own response to this powerful truth.
Dare we imagine that Adam promised to care for the earth, committing himself and his descendants to tend to it with willing hands, open ears and loving heart?
No matter Adam’s response, we cannot afford to imagine any other answer to God’s warning for ourselves. We do not have the luxury of ignoring this charge with the assumption that the next generation will clean up after us.
This month of Elul is a critical moment for us to consider how the call to teshuvah challenges us to engage meaningfully in the face of climate change. While the reality of human agency in this issue is beyond scientific question, we are blessed by having practical and constructive ways to respond (see the resources for some helpful ideas).
The Rabbis tell us that we must not spoil the earth. Our scientists tell us that our actions are leading to ruin. The holy path of teshuvah, of honestly assessing the impacts of our actions, is the only path that will lead us to blessing. We must recommit ourselves to being good stewards of the earth, lest there be none to repair our world after us.
As the High Holidays draw close, let’s share this story of God and Adam far and wide. Let’s be guided by its wisdom to craft a world in which we – and future generations – will long endure, embracing the wonders of Creation with awe and in joy!
Rabbi Josh Breindel has served at Congregational Beth El (Sudbury) since 2018. Previously, he served nine years as rabbi of Temple Anshe Amunim (TAA) in Pittsfield, Mass. He earned a B.A. in philosophy with a minor in classics and a concentration in legal studies from Brandeis University. He was ordained at Hebrew College, where he also received master’s degrees in Jewish studies and Jewish education. He and his family love to walk the cool green hills of Boston's MetroWest.
by Asher Hillel Burstein
Blood-red light on a golden chain
Hangs low and onto me, overflows
Like a waterfall, I drown in its million
Lambent drops formed at the other end
Of the Earth, I am but a speckle but
The fiery stone holds the world entire in
Her field where God, though too immense
For the heavens may abide with comfort
In her breast where my eyes are led as
Iron to a magnet, moths to a candle
That consumes me and drains the life
From my veins, a myriad of sprites
Take flight and leave me wilted.
I die in her flames.
Asher Hillel Burstein is a teacher, poet, singer-songwriter, and cantor. Besides his education in various yeshivot, a bachelor's degree in Hebrew, an MFA in Fiction Writing, and a master's in Jewish Studies, he is working on a third master's degree in Secondary English Education while finishing up his doctorate in Creative Writing.
by Louise Quigley
(Written in a year when Rosh Hashanah, the Autumn equinox, and the first killing frost in the garden all came together)
Now frost-blighted fuchsias start to rot,
crumpled tomatoes sag against their poles,
and sap's ebb spreads across the leaves like gold;
dark outlasts day again, and it gets cold.
And this is the world's birthday, this the day
we call the head and start of another year.
For now all nature turns to its decay:
dun yard trash molders into fertile loam;
Earth turns towards winter's still, which turns towards spring;
We turn again on our twisting journey home.
Louise Quigley a gardener, writer, family person and activist.
by Nina Beth Cardin
For seventy years this earth has cared for me. It has sustained my body with gifts from its own; given me firm places to take a stand and soft places to lay my head; it has thrilled me and comforted me, delighted me and frightened me. It has cradled my children and helped them grow. And it has done all this asking only one thing in return: “Tend well to me so that I may tend well to others after you.”
For the last fifteen years I have tried to live up to this request. I have worked in the environmental arena to strengthen places, people and laws that protect the earth. I have done what I could to plant fruit trees, champion environmental rights, promote environmental justice, cheer community gardens and celebrate urban forest patches. And I compost.
But I know I have also fallen short. I came late to the game; my house consumes more energy than it should; my diet can be more earth-friendly than it is. The balance sheet between me and earth does not even out. I will try fix that in the years left to me. And when my time is done, I hope to offer a final gesture of teshuvah, an expression of return and gratitude –- and be placed in the earth plain and simple.
I am one of several folks here in Baltimore working to create a natural, green cemetery for the Jewish community where our bodies can be returned to the earth without liners, concrete vaults or other obstacle delaying what will eventually be reclaimed anyway.
It seems the least we can do for all the good the earth has done for us, a humble way to offer thanks. And a way to offer a gesture of hope - and teshuvah – to future generations, that their journey on earth be healthier, wiser and more balanced than ours.
Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is an environmental activist whose latest initiative is working to create a green cemetery for the Jewish community of Baltimore.
by Rabbi Judy Kummer
Change doesn’t come easy for most of us. Many know the joke about the Buddhist monk who says to a hot dog vendor: "Make me one with everything." Chuckling, the vendor assembles the hot dog, gives it to the monk and says "that will be $4, please." The monk hands over a $20 bill, which the vendor pockets. After a moment, the monk asks for his change, at which point the vendor taps his chest and responds, “Change? Ah, change must come from within.”
I grew up in a family not known for a love of change. My late grandfather was in fact so set in his ways that for some 50 years, he used a particular hair oil — in the days when men wore hair oil— and it turned out he hated this brand. So why continue using it? “I’ve used it all these years,” he said — “why should I change now?”
Why change, indeed? Well, there are things we might do better, or might do at all, if only we were to try to change…
Our Jewish tradition actually encourages us to change! When we wish each other a shannah tovah, a happy New Year, we can remember that the word shannah comes from the verb l’shanot, to change – so in fact we are wishing each other “a good change.”
* * * *
I’m a distance swimmer. Lately, I have faced a somewhat distressing situation: in the middle of blissful summertime lake swims — with blue skies overhead, green trees all around and sunshine spangling the silky water through which I glide, my body exulting with good health and my soul feeling full to overflowing— it’s been distressing that I have run aground, not once this summer but several times. It seems this year that my kick is off; one stroke has me swimming in less than straight lines. As I come ashore unwittingly, my hand will suddenly graze an underwater rock, my foot will touch the muck at the bottom of the pond. Limbs that had expected to feel nothing but the steady glide through water are now coming into contact with objects —and I will admit that I find the muck especially yucky. It feels slimy and rotten; while it’s been lying there placidly, it makes me wonder about any small creatures whose homes I had just disturbed who, creepily, might be swimming up to join me.
But this is my new reality: until I get my stroke straightened out, I may be swimming ashore, whether I’ve aimed there or not. It seems like encountering this newness, this muck at the bottom of the pond, may be an experience I will need to learn to accept.
And then, if I can accept this, who knows what other newness I might be open to, might even embrace?
As we approach the High Holidays, we are asked to do a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual stock-taking, identifying patterns of behavior that might not have served us well in the past and experimenting with changing them. Perhaps we don’t have to go wading gleefully into the muck we might find, but putting a toe or even a foot down onto unfamiliar terrain can lead to a realization that it’s not so bad, that there’s been no harm, that newness could even possibly lead to good things – and it might result in our broaching some things we might have shied away from trying until that point.
Our Jewish tradition holds hope that a new future might unfold for us, sparkling in the sunlight, if only we will be willing to try to change.
Shannah tovah, a good change!
Rabbi Judy Kummer is a board-certified chaplain in private practice, offering skilled spiritual care visits, eldercare programing and warm lifecycle events. She has served as Executive Director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of MA and other nonprofits, and has served congregations in DC, NY and NJ. She is happiest outdoors hiking in the woods, swimming in a lake at sunset or tending to her Boston organic garden. She can be reached at rabbikummer.com.
by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
The term ‘climate change’ can feel overly vague in part because of the ambiguity of the word ‘change.’ Change can come quickly or slowly. Change can feel welcome or catastrophic. Change can be the result of concerted, value-based effort--teshuvah—or carry the blunt force of surprise.
June of this year was the first time I breathed in the smoke of distant wildfires. I knew it was a mix of luck and privilege that had shielded me up til then. I knew the smoke was coming, but the lived experience was still a surprise and the change still an invitation I never wanted to receive.
Two months earlier, after I turned forty but before I breathed in the smoke from wildfires, springtime held the heartbreak of disasters that were still distant. From that place, I prayed that change come gently. I continue holding this prayer for myself, my dear ones and communities, and for you, as the seasons change once again.
Woman at Forty
[after Donald Justice]
Forty, and the ophthalmologist’s technician
suggests my vision is blurry.
No, I say, it’s just soft.
I don’t see anything
wrong with tree tips a little hard to make out,
spring creeping up the branches
pulling a prayer: may all changes
be as gentle as this one.
After days of hard night rains
the white and pink petals of the cherry
and the stinkpear are scattered,
some glued to the sidewalk,
some breathed by the wind.
Walking the dog, my right knee grumbles,
pokes my brain to predict our future:
fewer steps, maybe one day a replacement.
The dog jaunts pain-free, or at least without caring
to give it voice. We’re both scanning for
chicken bones, a game for her:
can she swallow before I open her jaw wide
enough to pull out death.
I focus on what’s in front of me:
a new flush of petals are hole-punched
paper. Same pink, same white,
same sidewalk though. There’s always kids
around here, bicycles and toys dropped and spinning,
running down to pet the dog. It’s a small choice
I make, to pause with time
for their hands, their questions, to pause
and look harder: poetry comes from looking
but so does heartbreak, and right now I can’t
see the difference.
Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner (she) is a climate change chaplain and founder of Exploring Apocalypse. Originally from Toronto, she now lives in New Haven.
by Susan Elkodsi
When I was in junior high, I was in the Environment Club, and one of our activities was a monthly recycling drive for newspapers and magazines. People would save them, bring them to the school, and we’d load up the truck. Then, the advisor would drive it to a place that would pay the club. The guys loved it, especially when someone included back issues of Playboy in with the rest of the papers. Then the girls were doing all the work.
It's 50 years later, and where are we? We’re now recycling all kinds of things, and people and companies are figuring out ways to make new materials out of recycled ones. Our waterways are cleaner; for better or worse, the increased number of shark sightings in Long Island waters is testimony to that. That said, we’ve had weeks of unseasonably hot and humid temps, poor air quality from Canadian wildfires, and devastating rains and floods. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate.
According to our ancient sages, The Holy One created humans on Rosh Hashanah, and our midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13) teaches, “The Holy One of Blessing planted a garden, and put ha-adam, the human in it, l’ovdah u-l’shomrah, “to work it and guard it.” Because after all, “if you destroy it, there will be no one after you to repair it.”
As we move towards Rosh Hashanah, with a focus on teshuva–turning back, repenting, making a commitment to do better, may we be blessed with the ability to learn how each of us can work to improve the condition of the earth; to help mitigate climate change and leave a better world for future generations.
As Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:16) said, " It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it."
Rabbi Susan Elkodsi is the spiritual leader of the Malverne Jewish Center on Long Island. She is committed to helping Baby boomers and older Jewish adults create meaning and purpose in their lives in a Jewish context, and to fighting ageism. She can be found at www.babyboomerrabbi.com.
by Michael Shire
I wonder if you have ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how big it is…how far it stretches…..how immense the universe is……?
Or how there are thousands upon thousands of suns, stars, planets and moons, thousands of solar systems and galaxies?
And I wonder how you feel when you look up into the vast space and how see how very big it is?
I wonder what you feel when you realize that you are part of it…and also that it is part of you?
And God saw all there was in the universe and said ‘It is good.’
In that vast space there is one very small planet and it is our earth. When seen from space, earth looks like one great swirling mass of blue because a large part of it is made up of water.
And God saw all the water and said ‘It is very good.’
As you get closer to earth, you see great masses of colorful lands. Some are so big they contain many countries.
And God Said, ‘I will fill the land with every kind, creatures that fly in the air and creatures that swim in the waters and creatures that walk on the land.'
Then God said, ‘Let us make people in the image of God, male and female’. God rested and gave us the gift of rest.
The angels asked, ’Is the world finished?’ And God said, ‘Go ask the people’. And God said to the people, ‘See my world, how beautiful it is. Do not do anything to hurt or destroy it because there will be no one to fix it after you.’
The people began to build cities with houses large and small. They cut down trees from the forests and filled up the open spaces. Some animals lost their homes and the lack of trees caused flooding in the land.
The people made roads and train tracks so that they could travel by car and train and plane. But the fumes from the cities and the cars sent smoke into the air. It made a heavy blanket heating up the earth causing the icecaps to melt and the seas to rise. People had trouble breathing the air in the big cities.
People threw trash and spilled oil into the seas and some creatures that swim in the waters couldn’t live there anymore.
Now the water and the land, the green and growing things and the creatures in the air and seas and on the land and the people were in trouble.
And God looked at the world and said….
I wonder what you think God said?
I wonder which part of the story you liked best?
I wonder which part of the story is the most important?
I wonder what might happen next?
I wonder what we might do to make the world beautiful again?
Michael Shire is the Rabbi of Central Reform Temple, Boston and Professor at Hebrew College Boston.
by Andy Oram
Can you really have an impact on climate change by switching to veggie burgers or lowering the heat in Winter? How about making a change at work that shaves some of the carbon footprint off of your product? Do these really matter when the world continues to pump tons more carbon into the atmosphere each year?
The Jewish tradition offers a useful perspective on this question in the afternoon Yom Kippur service, where we recreate the atonement ceremonies of the Temple's High Priest. Atonement is divided by this tradition into three parts that must be observed in strict order: first the High Priest's family, then the house of Aaron, and finally the whole people. Leviticus 16:17 hints briefly at this three-part ceremony preceding the release of the scapegoat, but the ceremony does not appear in the meticulously detailed Talmud tractate about Yom Kippur, and seems to have been imagined by much later generations.
Let's use these stages of atonement as analogies for our own psychological, spiritual, and moral evolution. Perhaps lowering the thermostat or instituting recycling doesn't make a difference in itself, but provides a jumping-off point for education and activism.
Consider the first atonement, involving your family. You are modeling for your children and neighbors by changing your behavior to be more environmentally friendly. You achieve a bit of spiritual purification by purifying your trip to work of fossil fuels, or purifying your food consumption of polluting animal products. You also spur on activism, because you think, "If I can make this change without suffering, I can persuade others to do things with a much bigger impact."
And taking "family" in a broad sense (not just the nuclear family that is familiar from the past couple hundred years), you can bring climate action into your local community.
The second stage in atonement is in the workplace, symbolized by the Levites carrying out Temple worship. Now you have moved from individual statements to demanding a commitment from your workplace that it will reduce, reuse, and recycle instead of dumping all its carbon production on the world. Such activism is nothing less than a redefinition of the role of work and corporations in society.
Finally, one gets to the third stage, involving global action. You have modeled environmentally conscious behavior, demanded reciprocal actions from your community and workplace, and make the climate a central concern for everyone with whom you have come in contact.
Collective action is more than just the accumulation of individual actions. but collective action is not something you can jump into all at once. The Yom Kippur atonement service shows how to think of upping your activity in a matter of grave concern to the whole of Creation.
Andy Oram is a writer and editor in the computer field. Andy also writes often on health IT, on policy issues related to the Internet, and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. He has lived in the Boston, Massachusetts area for more than 30 years. He self-published a memoir, "Backtraces: Three Decades of Computing, Communities, and Critiques" and his poems have been published in many journals.
Earth Etude for Elul 4 - The Climate Emergency is a Cancer on the Earth, But It Can Be Successfully Treated
by Deb Nam-Krane
In 2022, after a decade of worsening symptoms that included erratic energy as well as digestive issues – and plenty of gaslighting – I was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was serious enough that even after every visible trace had been removed I needed to undergo chemotherapy treatments. Just as I should have gotten the attention I needed earlier, climate scientists should have been heeded when we were at "crisis", not "emergency". But once we identify the causes and agree on the treatments, improvements can be seen immediately.
Just as we could excise malignant cells from my body, we can stop the activities that are causing so much damage to our atmosphere, and we could do it immediately. There will still be leftover damage, just as cancer can leave scars or metastasis even after it's been removed. However, as someone who focuses on agricultural solutions, I continue to be amazed by how quickly many of those scars can be healed once we start to, literally, put the carbon back where it belongs. Carbon drawn down from the atmosphere enriches our soils and strengthens the microbial networks which make our plants – and trees, and everything that lives off of them – stronger in turn.
Just as millions like me can recover from a cancer that could have killed us a decade ago, the Earth can recover from centuries of pollution and hubris – and like me and other survivors, it can come back stronger than ever. I have experienced my t'shuvah, my return to myself, and I still see opportunities for the Earth – and everyone on it – to experience the same.
Deb Nam-Krane is a mother, wife, writer, environmentalist, and gardener in Boston.