Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 5: Changing Ourselves

by Thea Iberall, Ph.D.


Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” I think about this statement every time I do climate change activism. We must wean humanity off of fossil fuels before the seas rise too high and before droughts have not just millions of people on the move as they are now, but billions searching for food, water and stable governments. What am I personally doing to change myself to help alleviate the problem? I drive a hybrid car and try to use less and less electricity. How much of a difference will it make? Multiple my actions by a few billion people and it could make a difference.

In 1908, Tolstoy wrote A Letter to a Hindu where he argued that it would be through love that the Indian people could become free from British rule. Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) read this letter and was greatly influenced to adopt a nonviolent peaceful resistance for the Indian Independence movement. A few years after being exposed to these ideas, Gandhi published a list of seven social sins, the results of a correspondence with a friend. He commented on the list, “Naturally, the friend does not want the readers to know these things merely through the intellect but to know them through the heart so as to avoid them.” The sins include things like wealth without work, commerce without morality, worship without sacrifice.


Business institutions serving their own interest instead of serving others are practicing commerce without morality. Religious ones doing the same are worshiping without sacrifice. I ask myself what is worship with sacrifice? Is it enough to go to our religious institutions on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays, pray and then return home? Is it the karbonot of early Judaism, to make animal sacrifices in the Temple? These were made to draw nearer to G-d, to express gratitude, or to atone for a sin. Today, we don’t make animal sacrifices and draw nearer to G-d in other ways.

The Talmud says, “Deeds of loving kindness are superior to charity.”  Chesed, or loving kindness, is a virtue that contributes to tikkun olam or repairing the world. In Judaism, our chesed actions include sustaining children, the sick, strangers, mourners, and communities.

But when we worship, we aren’t required to do these things. No one stops me at the synagogue door and asks me to list my sacrifices.

What selfless acts am I doing for humanity and other living things? If I am to claim I am a spiritual person, my teshuvah must be to worship with sacrifice by knowing what to do through my heart. More than give money to charity, more than helping the sick, more than being friendly to strangers, I must change myself, and in doing so, I change the world.

What are you willing to do?

Thea Iberall is a poet, storyteller, teacher, climate activist and the author of The Swallow and the Nightingale- a fable about a 4,000-year-old secret brought through time by the birds. 



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