When I was 9 years old, I had the most magnificent marker set, with slender markers in a metal tray in two rows, with an insert with careful indentations in which to nestle each marker in its place, and a lid that fit on perfectly, snuggling around the tray’s corners. One evening, I spent what was probably hours arranging the markers in perfect rainbow order in the tray. It took so much trial and error to get the rainbow order just right and to put each marker with the embossed gold lettering on the side of each pen up. It was so beautiful and perfect. So, when I was done, I fit the lid onto the tray and carefully lifted the box to go put it away in the drawer. And—I tripped. The lid burst off. The markers went everywhere. The rainbow pens were all over the room, across the floor, under the bed and under the bookshelf and under the dresser.
It had been just right—and it was gone, just like that.
I kept a journal at the time, and I wrote in it, “G-d put my pens back the same way please” [sic].
God did not put my pens back. Oh! What a loss of innocence!
Just a couple of months ago, so many of us were at a point of feeling like things were finally in order in our world, after all those months of finally setting things right. With so many of us vaccinated and COVID numbers down here in Massachusetts, we were moving forward as if everything would be OK.
But, of course, it’s not just that the Delta variant hit, re-endangering us all and scattering our plans across the floor. It’s also everything else, reminding us that things are not in order.
We have been clobbered over and over by what is happening in our world. For some of the natural and humanitarian disasters that have been filling our news feeds again and again and again, it may feel easy to know where to place the blame. But we also know that all of the disasters that are hitting our society and our planet are part of systems and patterns that are much bigger than any one individual person. No single one of us could be causing these things alone. And no single one of us can fix these things alone.
Systemic racism, vaccination denial, the dispossession of women’s right to take care of our own bodies, housing inequity, food injustice, violence against the vulnerable, the abandonment of allies, the neglect of those addicted to opioids and of those in need of mental health support and of those who seek refuge at our borders—they are all part of patterns that have been at play for decades, for centuries, all leading to this moment, now, when the news teems daily with stories, any one of which should bring us, tripping, to our knees.
It’s not that things have ever been in some perfect state that we were supposed to get back to, but at least there have been moments when we thought we could see it—what it was supposed to be like, in rainbow order with the embossed lettering clearly up and just so.
We say of Rosh Hashanah in our tradition that ha-yom harat ha-olam, today is the day that the earth was conceived.
In the beginning, there was unformed swirl. Galaxies formed out of the chaos of vapors, dark materials, stardust—erupting out from the all-encompassing, tiny mass of everything that drew in on itself in a magnificent tzimtzum and allowed the universe to be. Star-stuff shooting through space: the heavens in all their array. And our earth, this beautiful mass, with its spirit of Holiness sweeping over the waters: it came to be, with light and darkness dividing in a sacred orchestration of great and small.
What we translate now as “creation” in the first chapters of Genesis, really, in Torah was about arranging, nestling the colors and elements into their designated places, so that the boundaries of seas, the movement of the continents, the formation of sun, moon and stars, and the distinction between creepy-crawly things and sea creatures and birds and mammals—were all part of a transcendent plan.
And, as Torah tells it, key to that plan was God’s final act of creation before inventing Shabbat and rest, and that was the creation of humans on the sixth day—whatever a day might have meant—to till the earth and tend it, and to be its guards and guardians, every person b’tzelem Elohim: equally, brilliantly holy and precious in the image of God, equally here to be caretakers of the arrangement that allowed the all-beautiful order of our world to shine through.
The Torah’s original vision of order came with this mission for all who dwell on this intricately crafted ground: that humans, all humans, are entrusted with the sacred task of taking care of this earth and of taking care of each other as our brothers and sisters, keepers on it.
It is such a simple, and elegant, plan. Exquisitely in order, with the engraved words on tablets and inked on parchment, arranged just so to remind us of how clear it all can be. And it bursts apart so quickly. People trip so easily—on the floor, and on our egos. It may even be that God trips easily, since we are in the image of God—and God may well be in the image of us.
Our forests and towns are burning. Our cities are dark—and drowning. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. Polar icecaps are melting. The permafrost is thawing. Bird and fish populations are plummeting. Families care for homes, only to have them swept away.
COVID has shown us how deeply interrelated we all are. But the climate is what truly connects us in a butterfly effect, where the wingbeat of carbon released into the atmosphere here can cause a hurricane there. And, though my driving a Nissan Leaf, using a reusable water bottle and recycling extra printouts of my Rosh Hashanah sermon drafts certainly all add up—especially if you are doing similar things too—we know that doing these little things is like using a teaspoon to try to dig away at a mountain.
It is easy to feel helpless. It is easy to think that all is lost and that we might as well stop caring.
I don’t have the answers as to how to fix it. Rabbis are usually better at questions than at answers. But I do know that Judaism offers lessons for us that can inform us all, comfort us all and, I hope, spur us all on to the societal changes that are needed to bring us back to our sacred task of caretaking for this earth.
In her essay “Jewish Gifts to Interfaith Climate Work,” Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, a rabbinic ambassador for Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, names three major contributions of Judaism that can support us on our path and serve as signposts along the way:
- Judaism’s understanding of the deep connection between the environment and human actions
- Judaism’s cycles of time, including of rest and renewal
- Jewish experience with paradigm shifts
And, to those, I’ll add a fourth:
4. Jewish responses to despair
First: Judaism’s understanding of the deep connection between the environment and human actions.
Most Reform congregations don’t read the second paragraph of Sh’ma-V’ahavta out loud, and that is true of us here at Temple Shir Tikva, but it is here in our machzor prayer book, from Deuteronomy 11:
וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מִצְוֺתַ֔י…
If, indeed, you obey My commandments, which I instruct you this day… I will grant rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late…. But be careful not to be lured away to serve other gods, bowing down to them, for then…there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its crops; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Eternal One has given you (Deuteronomy 11:13-17).
Our Reform forebears did not like that this passage describes God in such anthropomorphic, cause-and-effect terms. It was obvious to them—and I imagine to us—that things are not so simple as that obedience to Jewish law leads to reward and that disobedience leads to punishment—so they ignored this passage and others like it, editing them out of our liturgy.
But in our time, we see all too clearly that, though the language Deuteronomy uses is not that of the 21st century of the common era, the truths this passage names are now upon us. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi retranslated this same passage:
When you really listen and hear my directions…Your earthly needs will be met at the right time, appropriate to the season. You will reap what you planted for your delight and health. Also your animals will have ample feed. All of you will eat and be content.
But be careful! Watch out! Don’t let your cravings delude you; don’t let your cravings become your gods. Don’t debase yourself to them, because the God-sense within you will become distorted…. Earth will not yield her produce, Your rushing will destroy you! And Earth will not be able to recover her good balance in which God’s gifts manifest.
Therefore, may these values of mine reside in your hearts and souls, so that you will be more aware, and you and your children will live heavenly days right here on earth.
Our ancient texts understand that when “we are in right relationship to our natural world, spiritually as well as materially, our weather will support our needs. If we are out of balance, it has drastic consequences, for us, for our children,” and for other animals as well. The impacted weather that the Torah speaks of has now expanded to the world, and it has never been so clear how much our actions make the whole earth vulnerable.
As Jews, we have taught our children from our earliest days that our actions have meaning and impact. We see it manifest now. Which is a reminder to us too that our actions for the good are also not in vain. Even our smallest positive actions can have significant consequences. Judaism’s understanding of the deep connection between the environment and human actions is a call for us to turn our deeds both large and small toward our task of taking care.
Second: Judaism’s cycles of time, including of rest and renewal.
As Torah tells it, the key to the conception of this earth was not only the creation of humankind on the sixth day but also the final act of creation: the invention of Shabbat and rest as the sun set that evening.
Judaism’s vision is that from the earliest ordering and arrangement of this world, people, animals and the land itself have needed cycles of work and rest, exertion and recovery.
Not only does the Torah give us the model of a week of six days of action and one of renewal, it also provides instructions for a sh’mitah (sabbatical) year. After six years of people working the land, in the seventh, the land is meant to rest and lie fallow, recovering its fertility, resettling itself back to its original state and reminding us as humans that the earth has much to offer if we just let things be from time to time.
We have been counting sh’mitah years since Torah times, and the next sabbatical year starts tonight, this Rosh Hashanah.
The Torah’s laws of sh’mitah remind us that with rest, letting things lie intentionally fallow and taking a step back from purposeful production, order can be restored, and that, with stepping back from constant acting upon the earth, the God’s-eye-view vision of the world can be seen again. One thing we learned from our terrible experience of having to halt on a dime to try to slow COVID’s spread a year-and-a-half ago is that we are far more able to stop than we ever thought possible. If we can stop for COVID, we can stop, too, to renew our earth. And we can do it purposefully, and better. Judaism’s wisdom about the importance of cycles of rest must guide us all as we help our planet to reset and resettle into something that can be sustained.
Third: The Jewish people’s experience with paradigm shifts.
When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the entire way of life and self-understanding of the Jewish people up until that point was upended. And yet the Jewish people built new centers of learning, prayer and community—and rabbinic Judaism rose from the Temple’s ashes. And, of course, the destruction of the Second Temple hasn’t been the only time that the Jewish people have had to redefine ourselves and rekindle ourselves in the wake of cataclysmic change, terrible or profound: “the expulsion from Spain, the emancipation of Jews in modernity…, the tragedy of the Holocaust…, the founding of the state of Israel.” Rabbi Friedman reminds us that “Jews have had to reinvent how we live over and over, while maintaining integrity with who we are.” We have had to ask ourselves again and again: “What does it look like to rethink how we live? How we relate to community? How we relate to land, material resources, [and] people not in our group.” As Jews we are “experts in continuity through crisis”—the lessons of which we have the opportunity to offer to the world now.
Finally, fourth: Jewish responses to despair.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav famously said that “in Judaism is it forbidden to despair, but, of course, turning off an emotion isn’t so easy, and burying our sense of hopelessness, or helplessness, will not make those feelings go away.”
Rabbi Nachman, who himself suffered from grave depression, did not deny that we may “stand beaten and battered,” even as we long to “overcome despair, seek, pursue, and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point…, and so discover true joy.”
But it is the High Holy Days themselves that offer us the greatest antidote to despair: t’shuvah, our process for return and repentance. T’shuvah, Rabbi Rachel Adler writes, “presupposes the possibility of transformation. It is a fundamentally hopeful process.”
What we have done in our world we cannot take back, but we can redirect our path toward goodness. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks wrote:
Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate…. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.
We may feel despair at the enormity of the tasks before us, but our story is one of taking damage and making it into repair. Taking harm, and making healing.
As Jews, we know that the fact that the world is a certain way now does not mean that it is the way the world must be. Judaism’s gift right now is the reminder of tikvah, of hope, that change can be.
Even as we strive to put the markers of this world back into their tray—we know that we are doing so without the naïve views of the past, far more recent than that of the Torah’s wisdom that said that the world is here for our triumph and taking. We can no longer think that what damage we do to this world, God will restore as if we never tripped. And yet, through our Jewish wisdom, knowing that healing and repair are possible, through work and through rest, and through acknowledging and honoring that which is bigger than ourselves—we can, and must, still work toward the world of rainbow order, with the embossed gold lettering just so. That is the promise of Torah and of this new sh’mitah year: our Shir Tikva, our song of hope.
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