On Spiritual and Practical Ecology by Rabbi Raachel Jurovics

This sermon is shared as part of a collection of resources linking the Days of Awe with care for our living planet


My paternal grandfather, Morris Nathan (z”l), worked as a stage manager on Broadway, back in the day. My father, Jess (z”l), spent – or ill-spent, depending on your viewpoint – his childhood watching the heyday of vaudeville from the wings. Thus, I have an honestly inherited appreciation for questionable humor. No surprise, I keep copious humor files, electronic and hardcopy. Much to my disappointment, I have been at a loss to unearth ecological humor that doesn’t make us wince as we chuckle. A few examples of how weak the field is (groaning permitted):

“I have an obsession with wind farms.” “Really?” “Yes. I’m a huge fan.”

The British government is playing down the risk of floods caused by climate change to the UK. Meanwhile, a secret government project is underway on a restricted piece of land. The only things that go in are trucks carrying two of each animal.

The Heavy rocker band Korn has taken a responsible eco-attitude towards touring. They’re going to throw the same TV out of every hotel window.

Belching Cows are said to produce more harmful methane gas than cars. Scientists are now trying to develop a cattle-ytic converter. (Source.)

The best of the lot, from a personal viewpoint, was finding a website selling eco-bumper stickers, including a few proclaiming the driver “the world’s coolest environmental engineer,” which a couple of years ago I would have purchased for Stephen, before he retired from that field to devote himself to writing and speaking out on the religious imperative to engage in planetary tikkun. As I said, slim pickens.

Perhaps the lack of environmental humor without a sting or a groan represents our widening understanding that what we’re facing in our lifetime, in the lives of our children and grandchildren, is no joke. And, Jewish tradition transmits ancient teachings about our responsibilities to creation that have evolved into practical modern ecological principles to which we must respond.

We have inherited a world-view that deeply entangles written and oral Torah with the Torah of the Earth – our physical Torah scroll itself upheld by wooden “trees of life.” We are commanded not to damage fruit-bearing trees when besieging an enemy, for these valuable food sources are not people, who can flee before an invader, rather, they are part of the divinely-established nourishment assured us in Genesis. We are constrained in our use of the natural world by dozens of mitzvot addressing what may be planted and how, the respectful care of livestock, the preservation of species, water pollution, air pollution (both in terms of odor and particulate matter).

To some of our mystics, all of reality expresses the divine source from which we emanate and all of its manifestations by the metaphor of a Great Tree. Our Israelite ancestors may have considered their tree-worshipping neighbors heathens, without realizing how deeply they too were enmeshed in a system of religious practice that held sacred – as in sourced in divinity – every aspect of God’s creation, Big Bang onward.

Our very calendar directs us to live our lives in concert with the movement of sacred time as kept by the great lights, the sun and the moon, which determine our liturgical year. Every day has its place in a cycling and recycling of opportunities to bless and be blessed. Today itself, Yom Kippur, is the divine mechanism by which God effects our at-one-ment: “For through the agency of this day, I will atone for you – before YHVH you will be purified from all your sins.” (Leviticus 16:30)

Every Friday evening, when we welcome the Sabbath with L’cha Dodi, we sing “Let us go forth to greet Shabbat, for she is the endless Source of Blessing/As was ordained from the very beginning, last in creation but first in the plan.” (v. 2.) We are reminded every week that Shabbat exists as part of the natural order, a planetary movement from evening to evening, intentionally imbedded by God into our cycling through quarter-“months,” the most essential holy day. A taste of redemption, of the world to come – not only in the sense of afterlife, also as the potential for redeemed life on our ark of a planet, a redemption entrusted to our hands.

If you joined in our Tashlich observance Rosh haShanah afternoon, you shared in a charming folk ritual of tossing our mistakes into moving water, moving water that preferably has fish in it (another Jewish reason to care about water quality). Talmudic literature links Torah and water: as fish cannot live without water, we cannot live without Torah – without our millennial-long conversation, even struggle, with its infinite potential meanings. As well, the perception that fish’s eyes never close reminds us of God’s constant attentive presence. Even more, according to many kabbalistic works, true tzaddikim, the most righteous people, reincarnate as fish – hence, a necessity to eat fish with especial kavannah and gratitude, lifting up again the sparks of holiness inherent in the tzaddik as fish. What a delicious teaching! (See http://blog.shabbat.com/dvar-torah-on-parashas-metzora-diseases-pigs-and-reincarnation-by-rabbi-elchanan-shoff/)

During the month before the High Holy Days, midrash tells us that “the divine sovereign is in the field,” that is, God is especially close to us, moving about on Earth in the midst of its inhabitants. Chabad Hassidism extrapolates from this that since the essence of the mitzvot is to make God a dwelling place below (in the natural world), it is necessary to fulfill the mitzvot by means of physical nature, in order that the natural world itself be made into a suitable home for the Holy One. (Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Likutey Sichot, via R. David Seidenberg email, 9/5/2014.) From this perspective, we can make no separation between practical ecology and spiritual ecology.

Just how, though, are we to do this? How are we to assure that the planet we inhabit remains a suitable dwelling for the Holy One who manifested it so that divinity may dwell within us? God makes clear this divine intention when giving Moses directions for building the Tabernacle: do this, v’shachanti b’tocham, create sacred space that holds your attention, and I will dwell within you. (Ex. 25:8) To this day, our prayer books offer an array of blessings by which we may express our appreciation and awe for the natural world we share with the Holy One: blessings over foods, over sweet odors, upon seeing beautiful trees, hearing thunder, standing on the shore of the sea, gazing on mountain heights.

This morning’s Torah reading commands us – or, if you prefer the hassidic reading, links us to God by inviting us – to choose life, that we may live, we and our offspring. (Deut. 30:19) What clearer call might there be to accept our tradition’s millennia-long mandate to protect God’s creation? Not only that – as a Jewish mandate – but, mercifully, we have reached a time of religious and spiritual re-awakening to this sacred obligation, to choose life not in the sense of short-term profit, but to choose life for the planet itself. This re-awakening offers us yet another opportunity to apply the unique gifts of each tradition to renewing life for all forms of being on our planet.
For example, permit me to share some examples from a text study created by R. Daniel Swartz of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, pairing excerpts from Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si/Blessed Be, with complementary teachings from Jewish tradition.

His Holiness writes: The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. From Jewish tradition, the prophet Exekiel speaks (34:18-19): Is it not enough for you to graze on choice grazing ground, but you must also trample with your feet what is left from your grazing? And is it not enough for you to drink clear water, but you must also muddy with your feet what is left? And must My flock graze on what your feet have trampled and drink what your feet have muddied?

From Laudato Si: Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, God’s boundless affection for us. Soil, water mountains – everything is, as it were, a caress of God. We hear an echo, in these words, of the Third Letter of Ben Uziel, translated by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: One glorious chain of love, of giving and receiving, unites all creatures; none is by or for itself, but all things exist in continual reciprocal activity – the one for the All, the All for the One.

A midrash on Leviticus 4:5 (Rabbah) describes some people sitting in a ship. One of them takes a drill and begins to bore a hole in the ship where he is sitting. His companions say, “what are you sitting and doing?” He replies, “what has it to do with you? I am boring a hole under my part of the ship. They reply, “but the water is coming in and sinking the ship under us!” Indeed. To the same point, Pope Francis writes, “we require a new and universal solidarity. . . . All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.
Lastly, this inter-textual conversation asks us to recognize climate change as an issue of intergenerational justice. Many of us have heard the Talmudic tale of Honi, who stopped along the way to watch an old man planting a carob tree. Honi asks him, “how many years will it take for this tree to give forth its fruit?” “70 years,” replies the man. “Are you so healthy a person that you expect to live to eat its fruit?” Says the man: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. So, too, will I plant for my children” (BT Ta’anit 23a).

To which our teacher Francis replies, “Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. . . . Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.”

Jewish tradition has long recognized the risks inherent in disrupting the flow of generations, the flow of learning, of sustenance, of care, of love, of opportunity. Most famously, Jewish jurisprudence raises nearly insurmountable barriers against capital punishment, cautioning witnesses in capital cases that if they err, the wrongful destruction of a single soul will count as the destruction of a whole world, of all the generations that would follow from the life lost in a flawed trial. (JT Sanhedrin 4)

As I was reading the first novel in Margaret Atwood’s Madd Adam trilogy, this same insight caught me up short, as one of the characters explained the impossibility of reconstructing our built reality after worldwide environmental collapse: “All it takes is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.” (Oryx and Crake, p. 223.)

Neither Torah, its sages over millennia, Pope Francis, Margaret Atwood, nor I put forward these teachings for the purpose of discouragement. To the contrary, these teachings inspire us to constant hopeful engagement in our partnership with Creation itself. These teachings remind us of the power inherent in our paradoxical inclinations toward unbounded love and self-preserving ambition. If we love our own lives and those of children and grandchildren, biological or metaphorical, we need to work to mitigate climate change. For the sake of a viable worldwide economy, of a sustainable ecology, of adequate food and water, of personal safety and hope for a livable future, of a future in which diverse cultures will be blessed with enough time to figure out how to live peacefully – for all of these self-preserving ambitions, we need to work to mitigate climate change.

We derive our capacity to meet this challenge from our sacred Source, which calls us to nurture, to heal, to protect, to save this beautiful blue ark on which we sail through eternal cosmic seas. This is our mandate, our covenant, our moment to live into the most sacred bond we have with the Holy One: the bond to maximize the potential for life, for the life of our planetary garden.

Pope Francis prays:

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists. . . .
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it, . . .
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light. . . .
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

To which we respond with a prayer voiced in the 19th century by the holy Reb Nachman, who wants us to know nothing more clearly than the reality of ultimate Oneness and of our inter-dependent relationship with all being:

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 transcendent Source.
May I then pour out the words of my heart
before your Presence like water, O God,
and lift up my hands to You in worship,
on my behalf, and that of my children!

Keyn y’hi ratzon, so may this be our will and God’s.

Rabbi Raachel Jurovics is chair of the board of OHALAH: the association of clergy for Jewish Renewal.