Poet Marge Piercy begins her interpretation of the Kaddish with these words:
Look around us, search above us, below, behind
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent….
On Rosh Hashanah we are called to love the life we are lent in numerous ways. We reflect on our actions in the past and our hopes for the future. We listen to the shofar as a reminder to be awake to and aware of how we make use of the gift of life. And we celebrate Rosh Hashanah as yom harat olam, the birthday of the world.
Celebrating creation, the physical world of being, is at the heart of Jewish spirituality. Gratitude for the gift of life, wonder at the natural world, a sense of awe at the intricacies of our bodies and the interdependency of species are an essential part of experiencing the unity of God — the understanding that we are all part of something sacred and larger than ourselves.
Judaism began as an earth based tradition, marking seasons and cycles with rituals rooted in our agricultural past. In this season, the theme of birth and rebirth in the cycle of the year is tied to the profoundly optimistic practice of teshuvah, returning: returning to God by returning to our authentic selves, our own unique part in the great web of being.
Usually we think of teshuvah as a process involving our relationships with other human beings and with God. That is certainly the emphasis in our traditional High Holiday liturgy. But, increasingly, contemporary Jews are considering the importance of Rosh Hashanah, the day on which we celebrate the Creation, as a time to consider teshuvah for our damaged relationship to that creation, the physical world of which we are a part and upon which we so deeply depend.
In recent weeks the news has been full of events related to climate change from fires in the Brazilian rainforest to the student-led Climate Strike and Greta Thunberg’s address to the United Nations. We know our planet, our home in the universe, is in danger but it may seem too overwhelming to even begin to consider what is to be done. This is where our Jewish tradition can help.
Thinking of doing teshuvah for our relationship to the earth, we can use the traditional model which involves four steps: recognition of the damage we’ve done, remorse for our actions, refraining from further harm, and restitution for the injury we’ve inflicted.
During the Days of Awe it is our obligation to wrestle with difficult truths and see ourselves and our world as they really are, not just as we would like them to be. There are times when we must listen to the voice of reproof. Jewish tradition calls this tochechah, the mitzvah of rebuke, based on the commandment in Leviticus 19:18 not to hold on to a grudge against another person but to tell them of your anger and hurt so that they may do teshuvah, working to repair the harm. Last week the call of tochechah came from a 16 year old girl addressing the United Nations. Here is some of what Greta Thunberg said:
This is all wrong….You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. … People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!
For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear….
You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.
How dare you pretend that this [crisis] can be solved with just ‘business as usual’ and some technical solutions? With today’s emissions levels, [our] remaining CO2 budget will be entirely gone within less than 8 1/2 years.
You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, … We will never forgive you.
How can we not recognize the harm and feel remorse? I think we do. But that is not enough. We have to act. The third and fourth steps of teshuvah require changes in behavior: first, to refrain from additional harm and then to make amends. I think for many of us—myself included—this is where we get stuck. Rabbi Ira Stone, a teacher of mussar, Jewish ethical practice, asks,
Why is it so difficult to do what is good [though we already know what that is]?… How can religion fortify an ethical life? In a cultural milieu in which personal satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction are deemed synonymous, can we hope to attain an alternate spirituality that promises to take us beyond ourselves not through intoxication, but through profound concern for the other[s] among whom we live?
In a consumerist culture of fast fashion and faster food, we have been brainwashed into equating happiness with possession and novelty. We take for granted the convenience of overnight delivery and plastic packaging but shield ourselves from their human and environmental cost.
In considering how to be able to see the truth, the world as it really is, I think of the words of Adrienne Rich in her poem, “Transcendental Etude”:
…there come times…
when we have to take ourselves more seriously or die;
when we have to pull back from the incantations,
rhythms we’ve moved to thoughtlessly,
and disenthrall ourselves, bestow
ourselves to silence, or a deeper listening, cleansed
of oratory, formulas, choruses, laments, static
crowding the wires. We cut the wires…
Cutting the wires, removing ourselves from the destructive distractions of a material culture rooted in exploitation, both human and environmental, requires the power of something more meaningful, the “concern for the others among whom we live, ” the power of spiritual life and community.
From a Jewish perspective, this concern, this love of all life, is based on the interconnectedness of a unified creation. Everything on earth shares a sacred origin. Science as well as spirituality teaches us that the interdependence of living things means that our fate is tied up with that of the rest of creation. Thousands of years ago, the rabbis understood that we are literally in the same boat. A midrash relates:
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: [Take] the case of passengers on a ship. One of whom took a drill and began drilling underneath her seat. The other travelers said: “What are you doing?” She responded: “What does it matter to you? I am only drilling under my own seat.” They answered: “But the water will come up and flood the ship for all of us!”
But it is not only self-preservation that should be our motivation. Loving our own lives means loving all life because we can only be ourselves within a web of relationships. For Jews, those relationships extend back thousands of years, to the ancestors whose wisdom still informs our lives. They extend outward throughout the physical world which nourishes us. And they extend forward to the generations yet to come. It is in recognizing the significance of those relationships, allowing ourselves to feel the ferocity of our love for the world and those in it that we are moved to take action.
We are all are ready to be inconvenienced for those we love. Parents who go without sleep to care for children, children who put aside their needs to care for an ailing parent. Sisters, brothers, cousins, family by birth and family by choice—we all know what it means to put someone else’s needs before what might be easier for us.
We also know how important non-human relationships are. As I write this one of my dogs has come up and put her head in my lap – she teaches me what it looks like to ask for what she wants without equivocation. I learn what it means to live in the present every single day, when I pick up her leash and she responds as if the most wonderful moment in her whole life has just occurred. Those of us who live with animals know that family does not mean just other human beings. What wouldn’t we do to protect them from suffering?
Our wonderful capacity for love can include all sorts of life: the fragrance of a rose, the wonder of a double rainbow or the intricacies of an ant colony. The mediaeval philosopher, Maimonides, argued that the more we know of the world the more we would admire its Creator. To me, that admiration means striving to translate my love of life into care for living beings. To remember that no convenience is worth the future of my children and that no object can ever make me as happy as seeing the Milky Way on a summer’s night. The problem is to keep this in mind on a daily basis or, in the familiar words of our tradition, when I am at home and when I am away, when I lie down and when I rise up. This is the definition of a perfect spiritual life. But none of us is perfect so we must work for persistence instead. How can we improve our ability to align our values with our actions, our love with our behavior?
I believe the first step has to be finding a way to consistently strengthen that love for creation which motivates us. One way of doing this comes from an early chasidic leader, Rabbi Nachman. In what has become known as “Reb Nachman’s prayer,” he taught:
Grant me the ability to be alone; may it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grass
– among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom
I belong. May I express there everything in my heart, and may all the foliage of the field – all grasses, trees,
and plants – awake at my coming, to send the powers of their life into the words of my prayer so that my prayer
and speech are made whole through the life and spirit of all growing things, which are made as one by their
Indoors or outdoors, with words or in silence, with music or movement—if we devote a part of each day to reminding ourselves of how precious is the gift of life, of what is so dear to us that we would do anything that it not be destroyed, it will be that much easier to live with greater purpose and clarity, to inconvenience ourselves, to cut the wires, and work to heal the damage. Each of us can take healing action on our own—recycling, using renewable energy sources in our homes, carrying reusable containers to avoid single use plastics, giving tzedakah to organizations committed to sustainability, powering down our electronics and appliances when not in use—but we can do so much more in community. Interconnection is not only the way of life on earth, it is the way of effective movements for change. No one person can transform climate change and it is all too easy to feel overwhelmed by what has to be done. We need one another for many reasons. In community, we can speak out with a louder voice, share information, wrestle together with figuring out priorities, divide responsibilities and pool skills. And in Jewish community specifically we can draw on the richness and strength of our traditions to sustain our vision and our work. I hope you will join me in the coming year to make Temple Emanu-El such a community.
I wish to end as I began, with the words of Marge Piercy:
Look around us, search above us, below, behind.
We stand in a great web of being joined together.
Let us praise, let us love the life we are lent
passing through us in the body of Israel
and our own bodies…
Time flows through us like water.
The past and the dead speak through us.
We breathe out our children’s children, blessing.
Blessed is the earth from which we grow,
Blessed the life we are lent…
blessed is the word that cannot say the glory
that shines through us and remains to shine
flowing past distant suns on the way to forever.
And let us say: amen.
Marge Piercy, “Kaddish,” The Art of Blessing the Day
 Ira Stone, A Resonsible Life: The Spiritual Path of Mussar, Wipf & Stock, Pub.
 Adrienne Rich, Collected Poems 1950-2012, W. W. Norton & Co. I feel the obligation to acknowledge that I am using this poem and its metaphor in a very different context from the one Rich intended but I hope she would have agreed with the connection.
 Vayikra Rabbah 4:6
 Marge Piercy, from “Kaddish,” The Art of Blessing the Day