We can no longer ignore or deny it: the climate crisis is at our doorstep. Global warming and its consequences present an existential challenge with which we all must contend.
In the Jewish calendar, we are currently in the period of closing and renewing cycles: on Sukkot we complete the cycle of the harvest year; on Simchat Torah we complete the cycle of reading the Torah; the changing weather reminds us of the cycle of seasons; and in Parashat “Vezot Haberakhah,” we read about the death of Moses and are reminded of the cycle of life. There is no better time of year to start breaking our vicious cycle of climate change.
In Israel, we are at the beginning of our rainy season, when we pray for a blessed season – not too much rain, not too little, but just enough and at the right time. In the Mishna, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, it is said that we are “judged concerning water (on Sukkot);” in synagogue we begin to say “the One who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall;” (משיב הרוח ומוריד הגשם) and in the Second Temple period, people celebrated “Simchat Beit Hashoeva” (the “Celebration of the Water Libation.” Rain has always been a matter of life and death, certainly in our time, when we are witness to extraordinary climatological phenomena like flooding, wildfires and crop extinctions.
In the Mishna, in Tractate Yoma, we are taught that Yom Kippur atones for sins against “Hamakom” (בין אדם למקום – bein adam lamakom). HaMakom is usually translated as God or The Omnipresent One, but literally means “the place”,
This year, I choose to read the word hamakom literally, as place, and use this time to focus on the transgressions that we – as individuals and collectively – commit in our shameful treatment of our “Place”, our planet, the environment, mother earth. This year, we must ask for forgiveness and atone for those sins. Not in the religious-halakhic sense, but in the sense of returning to our ideals of respect and compassion towards our earth.
If Yom Kippur creates awareness, Sukkot moves us to action. We step out of our comfort zones to the outdoors and begin a process of changing our habits, especially as they relate to nature. This year I invite us to change some of our deep-seated habits relating to the natural world: to consume less and recycle more, to eat fewer animal products and more plant products, to fly less and pedal more. To cut back and conserve, be more modest and live simply, be aware and raise awareness, be active and an activist: join campaigns and climate demonstrations, watch Greta Thunberg or listen to Al Gore, buy an electric car or a composter, install solar panels and grey water systems – let’s do whatever we can do except for burying our head in the sand and shirking our responsibility.
And to all those skeptical readers who say “What difference can I make? It won’t help anyway,” our sages said that even one action can tip the balance: “One should always see oneself as if one’s merits and one’s sins are equally balanced [on a scale]’, so that if one fulfills a single mitzva one can tip the scale to the positive side; but if one commits a single sin, the scale will tip to the side of sin.” (Babylonian Talmud, Kidushin 40b.)
I do not claim that there is a magical formula, and I am also not deluding myself that little changes are what will save our planet. But I do believe that even small actions can generate large forces – the power to inspire others, the power to raise awareness and create forces of positive change – in our communities, countries, economies, in civil society – to take responsibility, to place climate change at the top of the list of our national and global priorities.
I also believe that it’s the right thing to do: as a human being, a citizen and a Jew. This week, we finish reading the Torah and immediately, like at the end of an especially gripping and exciting book, we turn to the beginning and start it over again. And in the first Torah Portion of Genesis (Beresheet), we are commanded “to till and to tend the earth” (i.e to work the land and to protect it) (Genesis 2:15); that is our job as human beings on this planet.
According to tradition, the absolute righteous are written in the book of life and plenty on Rosh Hashanah. The absolute evil ones are allotted a bitter fate also on Rosh Hashanah. But everyone else – all the normal folks like us, those who are not absolutely righteous nor absolutely evil – we have a window of opportunity until the end of Shmini Atzeret to alter our fate. If a problem arose because of our behavior as individuals and as a society, it can only be solved by our behavior as individuals and as a society. We must repent and go through a process of introspection, to make changes and mend our ways.
This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vezot Haberakhah, the last in the book of Deuteronomy, ends with the death of Moses: “And the LORD said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying “I will assign it to your offspring.” I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there.’” (Deuteronomy 34:4). Moses is forced to make do with only a distant glance at the Land of Israel, from the peak of Mount Nebo, never to set foot in the promised land. We can only imagine the depths of his feelings of disappointment and despair. Torah and life intersect. We read about Moses’ death and are reminded of the transitory nature of life. We build a Sukkah and are reminded of the transitory nature of home.
Each year, we invest effort and resources in building a Sukkah – hammering nails, hanging decorations, stringing lights and dragging chairs – all for a temporary structure that we will take down in a week. So isn’t it high time we start to invest just a bit more in our “permanent home”? Our planet, that is here to stay? Or will we also pass from this earth with a deep feeling of disappointment and despair?