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.
by Rabbi Marisa Elana James
In the park near my house is a large tree that fell last winter, the trunk slowly falling into decay thanks to four seasons of sun and rain and snow and wind transitioning it back to the soil. When I pass it on walks, I always stop to see what’s new on the slowly-rotting trunk, because I’ve learned that it’s just as beautiful as the living, flowering trees that surround it.
Mushrooms can grow incredibly fast, seemingly appearing from one day to the next, helping break down dead wood while taking nourishment from it. And they don’t need to be exotic to be fascinating. My current favorite mushroom is the turkey tail: a wildly-common mushroom that can be found almost anywhere, in every season, growing in layered rows on dead wood.
The big trunk in the park often has rows of turkey tails popping up, usually dark brown with lighter rings, sometimes tinged lavender to almost purple. And the landscape of the trunk changes regularly, especially after rain.
Every year, as we enter Elul and approach the new Jewish year, I notice what I’ve lost over the previous year, but it’s often harder to see where I’ve grown. Like mushrooms after a night of rain, our growth often starts invisibly, and the evidence of our growth may seem to appear out of nowhere, unexpectedly.
Renewal often depends on decay. The fall of the tree was dramatic, but the growth of the networks of turkey tails has been a slow blossoming, and for me, an unexpected blessing. We may think of teshuvah as only a returning to who and what we have been before, but we are more like trees than typewriters. We don’t reset to an original place; we grow into being fully ourselves in this season, in this year. We become who we are more deeply as we grow in new directions.
This Elul, I’m taking my cue from the turkey tails, looking inside to see what small, beautiful things are growing and being nourished by the things I’m leaving behind. This Elul, I’m going to try to visit the tree daily, to remind myself that the dead wood in my soul can nourish the new growth. And this Elul, I bless us all with the ability to appreciate small miracles that emerge to delight us after a storm.
Rabbi Marisa Elana James is Director of Social Justice Programming at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she was previously a college English teacher, competitive ballroom dancer, insurance broker, student pilot, bookstore manager, and professional Torah reader. Marisa and her wife, contrabassoonist and translator Barbara Ann Schmutzler, live in New York City.
by Rabbi Shira Shazeer
Many months after the world changed
After worry, adjustment, connections lost and found
Relearning how to live
How to work
How to family
How to community
After holding on
I took to the open road
Family in tow
To see the land and the wonder it holds
To reach out
Who am I
Wherever I am
In this world
I am no Thoreau
Not Diana of the Dunes
Alone with the world
In quiet contemplation
Rugged self sufficiency
I sought the beauty and peace of the world
With a soundtrack of the sounds of children
Filled with wonder, with hunger, with blisters
With games, with worries, with joy
With singing, with arguing, with whistling
And nature teemed with humanity
With so many people
All searching for peace and awe
All in need of relief
All seeking something
Beyond home, mask, screen
One cool afternoon
From a parking lot, slowly emptying
We crossed the road and descended
Sometimes it is necessary to descend
Before we can rise.
From the rim of an ancient volcano
Into the crater
Trees hanging on
To the steep incline of rock and soil
To the lake
The water clear
Humanity had come here
To love, and nurture
To feel the power
Of this pristine place
We arrived late
The throngs gone for the day
Or leaving as we came
At the top of a mountain
In the crater of a volcano
In the deepest, clearest, bluest lake
I immersed body
The cold and wet
Spreading through my tired limbs
and spiritual hiding places
Soothing the pain and tension
that build up there
when I am too busy to notice
The world spins on
I am ready to return
Rabbi Shira Shazeer spent this summer traveling and blogging on Shlepn Nakhes, the Great American Pandemic Road Trip with her husband and three children. She studied in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, received rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in 2010, and looks forward to completing an additional masters in Jewish Education, with a focus on special education, in the coming year. After many years serving as school rabbi of a small Jewish day school, Rabbi Shazeer is looking forward to new professional adventures teaching in the learning center at Gann Academy starting this fall.
by Mirele B. Goldsmith
This Rosh HaShanah is also the start of the Shmita, the Sabbatical Year. The Torah’s Shmita focuses on land as the nexus of our relationship to Earth and demands that we let it rest from the damage caused by agriculture. To ensure that everyone can participate, all debts are released. During the Shmita year the produce of the land is shared so that everyone has what they need to survive. Today, Earth is threatened by the exploitation of fossil fuels that is causing damage that was unimaginable to our ancestors. But Shmita gives me hope. The underlying assumption of the commandment to observe Shmita is that transformation is possible. Not only can we change ourselves individually through teshuva, but we can change as a society. We can change the most fundamental rules by which we live to put our world on a sustainable path.
Listen to The Seven Year Switch
For six long years we’ve muddled along, this year we can right the wrong
Why not try a change of pace, take a break from the rat race
Listen to my Shmita pitch, get ready for the seven year switch
Fertile fields are getting worn, we can’t keep planting so much corn
Leave the chemicals at the store, fertilize just with manure
Time to climb out of that ditch, get ready for the seven year switch
Drilling for coal and oil and gas, ruining the land for short term cash
Heating up the atmosphere, let’s stop it for the Shmita year
We can’t afford even one more glitch, get ready for the seven year switch
Mortgage, student, medical debt, the Torah says forgive and forget
Release it so we’ll all be free, reduce the inequality
The one percent are way too rich, get ready for the seven year switch
The rules of the Sabbatical may sound very radical
But if we are adaptable, we can make it practical
Now’s the time to scratch that itch, let’s go ahead and make the switch!
Mirele B. Goldsmith is co-chairperson of Jewish Earth Alliance, a national, grassroots network empowering Jewish communities to raise a moral voice for climate action to the US Congress.
Words and music to The Seven Year Switch, copyright Mirele B. Goldsmith 2014