Our lives are marked by recurrences in time and season that nonetheless are not truly a circle, but rather a spiral, in which the return of the familiar sounds more like a harmonious echo than a repetition. Even Torah and holiday cycles regularly repeat and are never the same.
This summer, with its heat waves, wildfires, and flood-causing storms, however, seems like a step out of time—in both the musical and seasonal senses. We’ve lost the rhythms of our days. We’ve become slaves.
We live in a time of great availability. My calls, for example, come to my pocket, my purse, my desk. I can be reached at any time, anywhere. And yet, we are less connected than ever.
Rav Yehuda HaLevi, a medieval Spanish rabbi, poet, physician, and philosopher put this into words in his poem Avdei Zman (Slaves to Time), writing “Slaves to time are slaves to slavery/only those who work for God are free.”
How do we end the slavery we have created; slavery to rapacious, unfettered materialism, slavery to (anti)social media, slavery to our own anxiety and fear? I can only re-turn; to Torah, to myself, to what I know in my heart.
Torah tells me that I must serve and work the land; that I must respect its blessings; that I must tend it. I am no farmer. Plants seem to die in self-defense when they see me coming. But I am nonetheless a devoted vegan, and as of yesterday a re-turning composter. I am doing what little I can to tend my corner, even as I watch the world engulf in flames.
For many, I fear, the current state that our first-world insistence on comfort at the cost of others’ lives and our own species’ survival is proof that there is no God. For me, it is proof that God has kept God’s word. Torah makes clear to us the costs of living out of sync with nature. The paragraphs that commonly follow the Sh’ma make clear that it is our responsibility.
And while they are disparate paragraphs taken from different parts of the Torah, in the rabbinic tradition that the whole is greater than its parts and there is not a before or after in Torah allows me to see that the prayer uses the singular ending, ך, when commanding behavior and the plural, כם, when listing possible rewards and consequences. We are each commanded personally, but our choices accrue to the whole.
This Elul, I choose to re-turn to myself. I turn Torah again, I turn myself toward the life of the Earth again, I turn the tumblers on my composter. How will you re-turn to yourself, I wonder?
Dr. Leah F. Cassorla is the cantor-educator at Melville Jewish Center and a Kol-Bo (dual ordination) student at Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y. She finds her greatest joys in the classroom, on the Bimah, and with her one-eyed wonder-dog, Boobah.
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