Friday, September 30, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 28: Our Repentance, Prayer, and Deeds of Righteous Action Will Stop Climate Change

by Dr. Mirele B. Goldsmith

This year, as the sun sets on Yom Kippur, our prayers will reach a pinnacle of intensity as we recite the UnetanehTokef prayer:  “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.  How many shall leave this world, and how many shall be born; who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before; who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by a wild beast; who by famine and who by thirst…   But repentance, prayer, and deeds of righteous action, can remove the severity of the decree.”

The Unetaneh Tokef was written ages ago, perhaps as early as the first century, but it is eerily contemporary in the way in which it describes the life and death consequences of climate change.  Although climate change is a new cause of death, the ways in which human beings are vulnerable, suffer, and die, are timeless.  Death comes by water when floods result from devastating storms and rising seas.  Death comes by wildfire when drought is worsened by climate change.  Death comes by famine when rising temperatures turn farmland into desert.

The solution is in our hands.  “Repentance, prayer, and deeds of kindness can remove the severity of the decree.”  The Gates of Mercy are never closed.  It is up to us as human beings to exercise our free will to change the course of history.  The call to repentance, prayer, and deeds of righteous action, is a personal challenge to every Jew.

Dr. Mirele B. Goldsmith is an environmental psychologist, educator, and activist.  Mirele created the Tikkun Mayim, a ceremony of repair for our relationship with water, and founded Jews Against Hydrofracking.  She directed the Jewish Greening Fellowship, a network of 55 organizations committed to sustainability.  She attended the UN Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen and was a leader in the Jewish mobilization for the People’s Climate March in New York City.   Mirele’s writings on Judaism and sustainability have been published in the Jerusalem Report, Jewish Week, Forward, Shma, and Huffington Post.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 27: Teshuvah in the Garden

by Maxine Lyons

My perennial love relationship with the earth is expressed most explicitly in tending my flower gardens. For me it is spiritual work, a way to respect the earth while feeling more mindful of how growth and change is an ongoing  process and mirrors the major themes of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The spiritual work of Teshuvah on the Yamim Norayim for me often centers on facing challenges, reviewing the aspects of my life that need changing and seeking new ways that I can re-commit myself to positive actions to bring about those changes. The natural world starts me on this path.  For example, the row of pine trees that form a wide spreading canopy over  my front garden presents a challenge as the shedding of needles change the acidic quality of the dirt; the large and hard roots threaten some new plants and choke others out. In response, I move plants around and encourage new growth and change in more fertile and inviting places. Another gardening challenge is spacing---learning  to place flowers in further proximity to each other and taking better accounting for the spread of  day lilies and others that stunt the growth of the colorful and more dainty astilbes.

Likewise, human growth depends on our own spacing--- how do we create the openness to pursue our activities and relationships that lead to positive  choices for the growth that we seek? Are some relationships choking our growth,  or can some of our old habits retard our ability to change? Are there other influences  to surround ourselves with- the  people who reflect sunshine and who most enrich us?

I see how each plant flourishes differently or perishes on the stem. Through regular watering, dead heading of flowers and moving around those  plants that need shade and others more sun, growth happens. Likewise, people need regular on-going practices to ensure growth and change. I have found that in this years’ approach to Elul- doing regular mindful living practices help me recognize ways  to change my negative reactivity patterns. I am also assessing my responses in times of adversity and challenge so that I can better contribute to the growth potential within me. Teshuvah is my effort to become my higher self, feeling a greater calm enriched by a weekly meditation sangha meeting and home practice that reflect those qualities that I want to cultivate. In Buddhist terms, planting and watering the seeds of compassion show me how to  deal with my own prejudices, flaws, and weaknesses. In specific Jewish terms, learning where I have missed the mark and how to aim more effectively in the right direction.

Teshuvah is a life-long pursuit, just as gardening requires attention and modifications during the planting season, so as I am working for substantial internal change I can also see the earth's capacity to cultivate growth. This metaphor works for me. Even though Rosh Hashanah demands a deeper focus on this awareness toward new change, I believe that adopting practices that nourish my feelings and behavior ensure that I keep on a spiritual track. With hope and resolve, I believe I can acquire more positive turning a little more each year.

Maxine Lyons is an active participant in an interfaith social justice organization, and assists several Jewish inmates who teach her a lot about the challenges of incarceration. She also does spiritual accompaniment with homeless individuals. In all of these pursuits, she is  humbled by and deeply saddened at the disparity between living a privileged life and knowing that many others cannot grow and change to their true potential without meaningful and constant support and positive opportunities for Teshuvah.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 26: You Were Wrong

by Ben Weilerstein


You were wrong about environmentalism, man, no that’s not what I think no, I’m not really an environmentalist because if I say I am you’ll say in your head I’m saying things you don’t think need to be said, out loud, at all so, no, I’m not an environmentalist and I don’t feel a rush of flight, of my heels lifting up off the ground when I recycle a plastic bottle not like I do when I recite over and over again until it doesn’t leave my head for years,  “stop! the! pipeline!”

or something like that, y’know my voice woven into hundreds and thousands of others because dammit this isn’t about me

this isn’t about me, maybe you can tell I’m tired because wouldn’t it be nice if I could just lie down and rest in a bed of moss like I liked to imagine when I was younger and

I wouldn’t have to keep telling you and them and everybody else that I’m not really into the environment and what even is the environment and I could stand on top of a wind-whipped rainswept mountain up north and let my heels lift higher than I thought they could and god please could I now

maybe I can’t tell you I’m tired because you’re tired of other tired people telling you what to do all day and shit, man, that’s tiring, too


maybe I didn’t listen enough

maybe I didn’t ask you to listen to me enough, not to my words, no, to me, because if I did I thought you wouldn’t want to and then I didn’t know how you would know you were listened to and heard and then I don’t know what you would do

maybe it’s hard to care and nobody cared to teach us how and no matter how high my feet fly it still won’t heal me


I’m writing this on a train after work.

After seeing a replica of my hometown where the football field was the same and the old train station and the new train station were the same and grass clippings still fresh and drying smelled exactly the same and if you just squinted the right way in the right corners the sunset could take your breath away, but those fields and lawns and the bodies among them were deep in a different nightmare where everything was poison,

where the streets were filled with poison and the shortcuts kids took to get to school, or even better, out of it, were covered in puddles of poison as colorful as the graffiti lining our shortcut but so much better at killing,

where many days many years ago a father came home from work at the chemical dye plant sweating in color, his body releasing the poison it absorbed that day,

where everybody knows somebody who died, preventably, of cancer.

I’m writing this on a train after work.

Two people were fighting and then hugging, and crying and hugging. They ran off the train together.


I love you, I think.

I love you as much as any friend anyway

and for the sake of my heels I hope that’s a hell of a lot.

Ben Weilerstein is Toxics Action Center’s Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island Organizer. Originally from the suburbs of Philadelphia, the Greater Boston area became home for Ben when he studied at Tufts University. There, he spent some of his time completing a BS in Chemistry and most of his time organizing around fossil fuel divestment and other climate justice issues. His organizing experience also includes completion of a Climate Summer internship, during which he helped organize communities in Western Massachusetts to stop a fracked gas pipeline. Ben is currently a JOIN for Justice Fellow. Ben is based in the Boston and Providence offices, where he helps communities organize to protect their health and the environment.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 25: Bees, Fireflies, and Stars

by Ruah Swennerfelt

The bee was busy, humming around me and traveling from flower to flower, while I was sitting and weeding. I stopped my work to take a closer look and was amazed to see that, as the bee dove deep and touched a certain spot in the flower, the flower reached its stamen up to the bee’s butt and deposited some pollen. This interaction occurred again and again. I saw so clearly how the bee and the flower miraculously co-evolved for them each to survive. I stopped my weeding task and sat still, contemplating this complex planet of ours and the wonders of how all of life is interconnected.

I’m aware of how easy it is to be disconnected from the natural world since we are so busy in the human-built world. If we don’t stop from our busyness and step out into all the abundance that surrounds us, we forget that we are only here by the grace of Mother Earth. That experience of watching the bee helped me turn back to Earth and to give over my life to protect and embrace her. Although I was already an environmental activist and my paid work was for a Quaker environmental organization, the experience deepened my connection to Earth and grounded me.

Another experience that also shaped my life’s commitment to Earth happened on a June night before the moon rose. I noticed that stars were so bright and abundant as I was driving along my little road that I felt the urgent need to get out of the car, lights off, and look up to the sky. But my eyes were drawn to the fireflies that were also abundant in the field. As I slowly walked away from the car, I was surround by the fireflies and I couldn’t tell where the stars ended and fireflies began. I was floating in the universe and understood that, although I was just a speck in the whole, I was also an important speck, one that was connected to everything, one that had always been part of it, one that would always be.

These two extraordinary experiences remind me to regularly get out of the built environment, learn from nature, take an accounting of my mistakes, and take actions—both small and large—to protect all that is suffering on our beautiful planet Earth.

Ruah Swennerfelt is author of Rising to the Challenge: The Transition Movement and People of Faith. She is a Quaker and homesteads in Vermont. She is President of the Transition Town Charlotte board, serves on the board of Vermont Interfaith Power & Light, and is active with the New England Resilience & Transition Network and Transition US.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 24: What Is Remembering?

by Steph Zabel

What is remembering?

As I’ve ponder this question over the past several days, the following thoughts have come to me…

Remembering is a return to wholeness and truth: a wholeness of self, of spirit, of place in the world. When we remember who we are, why we are here, and how we relate to the world around us, these remembrances — these truths — infuse our lives with richness and radiate outwards to all the lives around us.

I think that remembering must also paradoxically involve forgetting… For instance:

When we remember that all human beings, of all backgrounds and beliefs, deserve love, dignity and compassion, we forget why we would ever close our hearts to another, especially others in need.

When we remember that we are dependent upon all the resources given to us by the earth for our survival, we forget that we could ever do harm to the natural world.

When we remember that we are Beloved, we forget any sense of loneliness, unworthiness or fear.

How can we remember?

Our own personal remembrances must be felt and embodied for them to become true for us as an individual.

For me, remembering comes by being in nature. Remembering comes by being surrounded by beauty. It comes when I express my heart and when I open my heart to another’s expressions. Remembering comes in moments of stillness.

And with remembering comes the forgetting, where we can forget our old selves, old patterns and old beliefs that simply fall away. Remembering is a balm to the spirit that helps us find the way to our true selves, and our place of wholeness within the world.

I remember so that I can forget that which is untrue… and I forget so that I can remember that which is true.

Steph Zabel is an herbalist and botanical educator. Through her work she offers practical herbal classes and holistic wellness sessions. As the founder of Herbstalk, a community based herbal event, she helps create accessible educational opportunities for all plant enthusiasts in the Boston area, at

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 23: Tandem

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

Biking home on Orchard Street
With the wind behind me, and Jamaica Pond
Wrinkled and clear beyond the houses,
A peregrine falcon winged down
A feathered grace, gliding on my right.

For a breath, two, we flew side by side.

My grief, of late, has become more precise.
There are worlds
Beyond worlds, the eons will stretch
Over bedrock and magma, blue and green.
There is life and Life and God unending
No matter what we do, where we are.
So I cry for us, for here, for what we know and love
And for the winged, hooved, scaled, wriggling, tender and fierce
Creatures who love it too, and live it.

In tandem with the falcon
Another neighbor
Traveling this beloved and troubled home.

Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman is the Assistant Rabbi for Engagement at Temple Sinai of Brookline. She is a leader in the interfaith climate justice movement. For more information visit and

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 22: Earth Rituals

 by Molly Bajgot

This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don't have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn't have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.  ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

Elizabeth came into my life by way of the T.V. screen this past week. Her words remind me of my own spiritual practice, both looking to Judaism to provide a structure for my spiritual practices, and rounding out my own ritual needs by design Earth based ceremony.

This time of year, our Jewish tradition has ritual that takes us through an incredible process of taking stock of ourselves over the past year in order to bring ourselves fully to G!d. I feel thankful for this time and space because - as Elizabeth’s puts it - we need this ritual so we don't carry these feelings around forever. It’s difficult, to drop our emotions off, our misgivings and wrong doings, and leave them. I tend to let them shrink around in the corner of my shadow long after I’ve told them goodbye. I tend to treat them like they have permission to follow me. 

How can we truly forgive, others and ourselves, when healing may take more than a High Holiday season? A practice I’ve picked up in the last few years is one that gives my feelings away to the Earth. The Earth, her perfect systems, cyclical in nature and always regenerating, is a master of receiving and rebirth. Two years ago, I lead my Jewish Justice Fellowship through an exercise of trying this: sitting on the ground, hands planted in the Earth, and asking her to ritually safeguard our heavy things. To take these worries off our mind - the ones that float around and aren't moving right now. Carry them, and I will take them back, once you’ve done some of your cyclical magic; once they’ve had some space to breath, decomposed some. 

 We do this with reverence for Earth, her majesty; for the creator; for the amazing ability to rely on Earth with all our might. Not with a teenage attitude, dropping our backpack off at the door once we’ve come home. No, with respect for the Earth’s ability to hold and process so much of our human-ness. She can hold them. This trusting ritual helps me to round out the practice of teshuvah, turning and repentance, rounding out our time-tested ritual. I offer this practice to all who meditate, walk, and enjoy connecting with the Earth. May she be included in this practice - because we all have so much to carry. 

Molly Bajgot was born and raised in Sudbury, MA. She is a singer, songwriter, and has a big love to the out-of-doors and vocal harmony. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 21: The Food We Eat

by Leora Mallach

The severe drought affecting the northeast this growing season is causing farmers to apply for federal disaster relief (they must prove at least 30% crop loss to qualify). According to USDA data, Massachusetts topsoils were 25% drier in July 2016 than the 10 year mean, and there are mandatory water restrictions in many towns.

The National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), established at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1995, tells us:

Drought is an insidious hazard of nature. It is often referred to as a "creeping phenomenon" and its impacts vary from region to region. In the most general sense, drought originates from a deficiency of precipitation over an extended period of time--usually a season or more--resulting in a water shortage for some activity, group, or environmental sector. Its impacts result from the interplay between the natural event (less precipitation than expected) and the demand people place on water supply, and human activities can exacerbate the impacts of drought. Because drought cannot be viewed solely as a physical phenomenon, it is usually defined both conceptually and operationally.

The interplay between natural events and demands of people is heightened in times of scarcity and stress. It is easy to buy and support local when it’s convenient or cost effective, but we must acknowledge the impact of our actions and maintain such principles even when times are tough and dry.

Our local sustainable agriculture farms are supported by diversification of their revenue stream, and many rely on a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model. In this, shareholders buy into the farm at the beginning of the season, providing off-season revenue and a market regardless of crop variety, size, or quantity. They are in relationship with the farm and assume the risk of a tough growing season, such as the one we have had this year. For those shareholders in eastern MA, or most of the Northeast US, that has meant smaller produce, smaller shares of vegetables or weeks with none.

As Jews, much of our religious practice is rooted in the rhythm of the seasons and agricultural practices. Many of our holiday celebrations are based on them. From Sukkot to Passover, as the grains are developing in the semi-arid grasslands of our biblical heritage, we insert daily prayers for rain into our practice. We recognize our reliance on rain water, and on the forces of nature to nourish our crops and our community. There is language to describe the early rain (Yoreh), heavy rains (Geshem), and later season rains (Malkosh). We have a heritage rich with reverence for cause and effect that recognizes the interplay between human activities and natural cycles.

At each meal we have the opportunity to make choices that affect the community around us. May we make food choices that support our local community- the workers and the infrastructure, such that it may nourish us for many years to come.  

Leora Mallach is the co-founder and director of Ganei Beantown: Beantown Jewish Gardens, building community through experiential food and agriculture education rooted in Jewish text, tradition and culture in the greater Boston area.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 20: An Old Problem

by Rabbi Jacob Siegel

I like to think of climate change as an old problem.

True, human-made climate change and the potential it has to wreak disaster on our earth’s ecosystem are new and unprecedented. Every year extreme temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more common. These are challenges we have never faced.

On the other hand, this is an old problem. We as the Jewish people know what it means to face a crisis of existence after a cataclysmic destructive act − the destruction of the Temple – which itself was destroyed because of a moral failure of society, sinat chinam, or baseless hatred. We also have a deep wisdom of thousands of years of debate on issues of moral and societal responsibility – an entire heilek (section) of the Shulchan Aruch, a formative code of Jewish law, is devoted to them, as is an entire seder (section) of gemara, the Oral Torah from 1500 years ago containing the words of the rabbis.

In fact, one whole chapter of one book in the gemara, Bava Basra, focuses on the responsibilities of property owners to their neighbors and to common space. Mishnah (paragraph) Five outlines how far away one must keep a dovecote from a town in order that the doves not eat the seedlings in the gardens, and Mishnah Seven notes how far away one must plant a tree in order to protect the appearance of the city.

It is an interesting question how to frame climate change from a halakhic, or Jewish legal perspective. There is a halakhic category of deeds, performed in my own domain, that cause damage after a delay of time. Does climate change fit into this category? But the Talmud considers such deeds permissible – I am doing them in my own property and not immediately damaging others.

Or, is climate change more of a special case, a societal imbalance demanding intervention, like when fish sellers in Eastern Europe were raising their prices before Shabbat to exorbitant amounts? The Mishneh Brurah, written in 19th-century Eastern Europe, argues that in such a case, the town should impose a decree and have no one purchase fish for several weeks until prices declined again (242:2).

Or, is climate change a personal moral problem? Of a sort that even if we can’t find a technical prohibition against emitting too much carbon, it might be “hayav be’dinei shamayim” – liable in the heavenly courts?

I often feel tempted to see climate change as something new and unprecedented. This can contribute to a sense of fear and desperation, a panic that can sometimes lead us to reckless choices in forming our long-term strategies. I remember once hearing a quoting of the Talmud, though I regretfully don’t remember the citation: “life is very short, so we must move very slowly.” Let’s work together to delve into our rich mesorah (tradition) of experiences and texts, so we can approach climate change with the full wisdom of our Jewish experience.

Rabbi Jacob Siegel is a passionate and dynamic Jewish educator on environmental issues. He received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, an open and modern Orthodox rabbinical school based in New York. He is a certified shochet (kosher butcher), having first trained in Jerusalem and received additional certification with Yeshiva University. He offers demonstrations and workshops at Hillels and congregations across the country on issues of kosher and sustainable meat. Jacob has directed the wilderness program at Eden Village Camp, directed a community Hebrew School in Westchester County, and served as student rabbinic fellow at Hazon, the country's largest Jewish sustainability organization. He received his undergraduate degree at Washington University in St. Louis. He currently lives in Eugene, Oregon.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 19: Canopy to Heaven

by Judith Felsen, Ph.D.

There is a canopy of trees that open to the worlds above
so those who come to rest beneath their arbor
can transcend both worlds.
Their trunks are pillars reaching heights
we dream to touch and do not dare to try,
and yet we come to rest and seek reprieve
from weariness of life within their shelter.
Can you see this canopy within yourself,
its crown and all its glory yielding to still greater heights?
This resting place was made for you
and offers you its peace and wisdom
in release from worldly thoughts and cares.
Will you not let yourself now journey to that grove
and give yourself respite from all your ills?
Be glad in what awaits you there
and all that you will gain upon your visit.
Be grateful for the forest of this canopy
and happy for the weariness that leaves upon your entrance.
In cloud specked daylight and in nights of starry skies
the window of this canopy or crown shines down upon you
blessing you with peace, with life and light. Enjoy and stay a while.

 Copyright 2016  Judith Felsen, Ph.D.

Judith Felsen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, certificates in hypnotherapy, NLP, Eriksonian Hypnosis, and Sacred Plant Medicine. She is a dancer of sacred circle dance, an AMC kitchen crew, trail information volunteer, trail adopter, and daily student of Torah and Judaism. She is enrolled in Rabbinical Seminary International. She has studied Buddhism, A Course in Miracles, and other mystical traditions. She is a hiker, walker, runner, and lives in the White Mountains with her husband and two large dogs. Her life centers around her Jewish studies and daily application.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 18: Help the Honeybees

by Susie Davidson

I always enjoy perusing the Jewish holiday-themed emails from Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center

Earlier this year, Rabbi Waskow pointed out that Earth Day ended just as Passover began. "As the traditional Haggadah says," he quoted, "In every generation we face destruction -- and so in every generation all of us -- every human being --  must seek freedom, justice, and healing anew." Waskow suggested passing around an inflatable Globe at the end of the Seder, and singing a song that began:

We have the whole world in our hands.
We have the frogs and the forests in our hands,
We have the wind and the honeybees in our hands....

Honeybees, of course, are integral to our much-loved New Year ritual of apples and honey.

Two years ago, I wrote about a "Sweet New Year Beekeeping & Havdalah" event at Temple Beth Shalom of Peabody. Anita Deeley, a biologist and Massachusetts State Bee Inspector who maintains 30-50 treatment-free hives at Beverly Bees, showed children an actual hive, taught them how to identify honeybees and spot the queen, and discussed their role as pollinators of both flowers and agriculture -- including the fruits, nuts and veggies, even the coffee -- we love.

For this article, I also researched the Natural Resources Defense Council document "Vanishing Bees" about the Colony Collapse Disorder. First noticed in 2006, it describes a phenomenon where bees don't return to hives. I then found a disturbing 2014 National Geographic report by Sasha Ingber which stated that "the number of U.S. honeybee colonies has been halved over the past ten years, to everybody's detriment."

Last month, a Jewish Advocate editorial linked Colony Collapse Disorder to the use of neonicotinoids, pesticides that disorient bees so that they either fail to return, or carry the neonic pesticide into hives, thereby disorienting the whole colony.

The editorial spelled out some hope. State Rep. Carolyn Dykema (D - Holliston) has introduced a bill, HD2336, An Act Protecting Massachusetts Pollinators, to limit neonics. Moreover, the Israeli company BioBee is breeding predatory insects to take care of agricultural pests naturally. And gardening suppliers, including Home Depot and Lowe's, are beginning to phase out neonicotinoids. But change comes slowly; an EPA study on the pesticide may not be completed until 2018.

I have decided to take action to help HD2336 move through the legislature. Hopefully, something substantial will come out of this effort by Rosh Hashanah, so that I can feel more personally invested in my slice of honeyed apple.

Susie Davidson, a freelance journalist, contributes to the Huffington Post, the Forward, the Brookline Tab, the Jewish Advocate and other national and international publications including The Jerusalem Post and Ha'aretz. She coordinates the Boston chapter of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL).

Monday, September 19, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 17: Ode To Water

by Rabbi Laurie Gold

Walt Whitman’s beautiful poem, “The Voice of the Rain”, has always moved me. I hope you appreciate it, too.

And who are thou? said I to the soft-falling shower,
Which, strange to tell, gave me an answer, as here translated:
I am the Poem of Earth, said the voice of the rain,
Eternal I rise impalpable out of the land and the bottomless sea,
Upward to heaven, whence, vaguely form’d,
altogether changed and yet the same,
I descend to have the drouths, atomies, dust-layers of the globe,
And all that in them without me were seeds only, latent, unborn;
And forever, by day and night, I give back life to my own origin,
and make pure and beautify it;
(For song, issuing from its birth-place, after fulfillment, wandering,
Reck’d or unreck’d, duly with love returns.)

Throughout our long history, rain has been important to the Jewish people. We have recognized that we need water to live. We also know that animals, plants and trees need water to survive. There has been, in most parts of the world, a shortage of usable water. Therefore, it is not surprising that we created prayers for both rain and dew. Sadly, water scarcity has increased over time, due to the effects of global warming and man-made pollution.

Merlin Hearn writes that most of us take water for granted. Most of us don’t know, or we choose to not remember, that there is a shortage of water. Because of this, we don’t do enough to lessen the problem.

It is actually pretty easy to do our part in solving the problem of water pollution. I recall that I learned one trick from Rabbi Katy Allen many years ago. She wrote that when we brush our teeth, there is no need to keep the faucet running the entire time. I had never thought about that before. I can’t imagine how many gallons of water I have saved by following Rabbi Allen’s simple advice.

Merlin Hearn offers some additional advice:
  1. We can urge our elected officials to enforce existing clean water acts and create additional laws.
  2. We can stop using pesticides, which infiltrate and harm nearby waterways.
  3. We can drive our cars less often. This can be accomplished by using public transportation, consolidating trips to stores, carpooling, walking and bike-riding.
  4. We can start to use green personal care and household products.   
  5. We can stop littering and start using fewer plastic products.

It is not always easy to change our behavior, even when we know that it is in the best interest of our community and planet. Yet, this shouldn’t be an excuse for us not to at least try to do our share to reduce or eliminate water pollution. Let us join hands and do our best.

Rabbi Laurie Gold resides in Queens, New York. When she is not working, Laurie enjoys spending time with her relatives and friends, and swimming, bicycling, running, reading, and going to the theater.      

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 16: Choosing Again What is Good

 by Joelle Novey

I had the opportunity to sit with good folks of many faiths over the last year as we studied the words of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si.

Also this year, I had many moments of feeling overwhelmed by the bad things in our world that seem so much bigger than any one of us: the irrevocable and global suffering already being caused by our damaged climate; the harm being done to black bodies and spirits by the pernicious persistence of racism; the unrelenting meanness of this year’s presidential campaign rhetoric.

What gives me hope as we enter a season of reflection?

I’m turning to Pope Francis, and to the paragraph (#205) of his encyclical which never fails to give me a jolt of hope:
“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom.
“No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us."
Where does the Pope find some hope for all of us?

He finds it right in the place where the shofar finds us, where that still, small voice is heard — he finds it in our hearts; he finds it in our own individual capacity to know what is good and to make choices.

The world is full of terrible things much larger than any of us, but we do have the freedom to make choices — and in that freedom lies the possibility of our redemption. We can choose, and so: we can change. And so can everyone else. And so can our world.

We can choose how we get our energy, how we invest our money, what we will buy, what food we will eat. We can choose to examine our own role in the fossil fueled economy, the part we play in the evil of systemic racism, and, come November, we can choose what kinds of leadership to exalt with our votes.

I’m letting Pope Francis set my kavannah for this season of repentance. He reminds me that all is not lost, because we can still decide to choose what is good.

The dignity to engage in tikkun this Elul is ours. It is our liberation and our highest hope in these times. And no one can take it from us.

Joelle Novey directs Interfaith Power & Light (DC, MD, No. VA), which engages hundreds of congregations of all faiths from across the DC area and Maryland in saving energy, going green, and responding to climate change: She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and davens at Tikkun Leil Shabbat and Minyan Segulah.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 15: Waters of Elul

by Carol Reiman

The month of Elul comes round again, time to prepare for what comes next.  Yom Kippur melodies rise, twist, turn in on themselves.  Time to look in on my self, to find the familiar in a new way, to find my marker in the year.

Drawn to water for clarity of mind, sitting by brook or sea returns me to calming rhythm. Rushing thoughts ebb and flow through my meditation. As the currents go their ways, all settles into place.

In the water space, my boundaries blur; I am a dot in something big, feeling a depth within. Mixing old and new, waters swirl. Gushing forth, hope lifts me up above the surface, setting me once more upon the shore.

For those who are parched--the tree, the ground, the bird, the soul--I wish the fading of thirst, the finding of life, love and joy. What Tashlich may I take on to scatter, rid, erase ignorance and fear? 

How could we have stumbled so, bruising on the stones? Did we not see the edge, not reach out to save another? How much farther must we go, before we make mirage oasis?

Clear the fog; see, here, the ripple of the stone, the hand to grasp, the bridge from me to you and out beyond.  The ancient words, the group as one, the will to try.  Another go, another year, and so we build them all.

Carol Reiman thinks a lot about water intake for her mother, her cat, and herself in the Somerville/Arlington area.  She also works on making academic resources accessible in Dorchester.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 14: Paradox

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

An individual's ability to accurately perceive changes in the rate of violence in the world over human history is near to impossible. Truly understanding global fluctuations in violence requires knowledge of events over such a vast breadth of space and time that it is essentially beyond a human's ability to comprehend. Which of course doesn't stop us from trying. Steven Pinker has tackled the concept, and he reports us that violence in the world has been going down steadily over the millennia, the centuries, and the decades. Pinker has his detractors, of course, and they claim that his reporting and understanding of the statistics are deeply flawed.

For most of us, lacking the ability to knowledgably explore extensive global and historical statistical data, our perceptions of the level of violence in the world are heavily influenced by recent events. Violent events such as 9/11, shootings in Newtown or Orlando, or any recent terrorist attack or other terrifying event influences us greatly. We hear about these events again and again through the media and social media, and in response, we perceive high levels of violence permeating our world. This happens, in part, because we remember best what just happened, especially if it is dramatic, and from that we generalize. But our inferences may not match reality.

Understanding, grasping, and comprehending climate change is also next to impossible. Climate change is also a global phenomenon, and by its very definition, climate is what is experienced over large sweeps of time, beyond an individual's observations.

As with violence, our perception of the climate is also influenced by what is happening in our own neighborhood, by the weather we personally experience. When the weather is "normal" it can feel like the climate is also "normal." The bigger picture is beyond our sensory experience.

And so, we are confronted by a bit of a paradox. Is the world really getting less violent? If Pinker's research is accurate, the answer is yes, yet our perceptions tell us no. Our brains, with the help of instantaneous and constant reportage, are ready and willing to grasp the negative perception. The possibility of positive change being real may feel good, but we don't easily hold onto that perception. We see and hear too much "evidence" to the contrary.

Is the climate really changing? Scientists tell us yes, yet our local perceptions may be telling us no. Here, in contrast to our beliefs of violence, our personal perceptions of sun and wind and rain and snow may be saying that nothing bad is happening to the climate and everything will be just fine. Grasping even a taste of the frightening reality of climate change is so difficult that we tend to live in denial (even many of us who realize it is happening).

I once had a teacher, Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Keiner, who spoke about paradox and said that the closer we get to paradox, the closer we get to God.

The closer we get to paradox, the closer we get to God.

As we journey through Elul and into the heart of our efforts for personal change, may the paradox of our observations, our perceptions, and realilty bring us closer to the Mystery of the Universe.

Rabbi Katy Allen is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit. She is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long. She is the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network, and a hospice chaplain at CareGroup Parmenter Hospice. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 13: A Tall Order

by Hattie Nestel

Creating the earth and all within was the gift of G-d. 

Opening our eyes to see the situation the world is in, and in particular the destruction of all G-d gave us, is the work of the people.  

How shall we begin the job of righting the wrongs done not only to the environment but to people dependent on the environment going through catastrophic changes. Daily we hear of forest fires burning thousands of acres and untold numbers of trees and wildlife. It takes thousands of firefighters to stop such fires. How can we imagine consequences of those lost trees and heat escaping into the atmosphere. We have droughts and floods of unprecedented strength, record-breaking heat waves, violent storms, failing crops, starving and thirsting people, refugees, species going extinct. All can result in a whirlwind of confusion and despair about human ability to alter even the smallest of the problems. 

Where to turn? How to effect even a modicum of change?

Abraham Heschel explores the prophets. Can we learn something here? “The Prophet is an individual who said No to society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism,” Heschel says.

The prophet’s fundamental objective is to reconcile man and G-d. About Jeremiah, Heschel says, “It was not his vested interest, honor, or prestige that the prophet was fighting for. He was fighting for the physical survival of his people.” 

Isaiah describes the type of person who will survive the ordeals of history as one “ . . . who walks righteously and speaks uprightly: who despises the gain of oppressions . . . “ And beyond the hope that a remnant will survive lies the ultimate hope that the whole world will be transformed. 

What a tall order! Still, when we look down at a riverbed, we see the smooth round stones the result of years of being gently washed by water. When I look at a flower, I sometimes see the tiniest hummingbird eating the nectar. How does that hummingbird know where the nectar for its sustenance resides?  How many times do we see a rainbow beyond breathtaking spanning the sky over horizons far and wide, and suddenly beauty overcomes us and faith is restored. And what about the wonder of a baby? A miracle and a blessing for sure!

We face spiritual and physical emergency. What is our vision for the future? Where do we start? What is each of us personally called to do? Has a lightbulb come on in our heads to direct us to a course of right action?

When I asked the question of what to do to the late Philip Berrigan, he replied, simply, “Scrutinize your life."

My heart sank. It was the hardest thing he might have said to me. 

Over the years, as I proceed down that path of self-scrutiny, I see myself weeding my personal garden. I find I no longer have time to do things I now categorize as trivial. My emerging life is busy doing things I feel are meaningful. The values I believe in to save our beloved planet become more accessible. I began meeting more people  trying in a multitude of meaningful ways to create earth more hospitable.

This is my message as we again scrutinize our lives and enter the New Year with determination to have eyes that see, ears that hear, and resolve to make the world a better place.  

Longtime civil resister, peace walker, and organic gardener Hattie Nestel works to save the world by defying war, weapons, and environmental outrages. She currently focuses on stopping pipelines that carry fracked gas. She lives in Athol, MA.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 12: In the Shadow of the Rabbi's Tree

by Hody Nemes

I spend my days entombed in a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. I am writing these words in an eight-story apartment building.

As the world urbanizes, and as the urban sprawls further afield, we spend our lives increasingly surrounded by the human-made – brilliant engineering, beautiful cityscapes, wonderful in their own way, yet sometimes painfully lacking.  A wonderful other sort of beauty, the emergent beauty of ecosystems -- of field, forest, coral reef -- is increasingly harder to find.

Thanks to climate change and other massive societal failings, we are in the midst of the sixth major extinction to afflict our earth. In the lifetime of a child born today, as many as half of all animal and plant species will go extinct thanks to climate change.

Numbed by urban life, overwhelmed by imminent destruction, how are we to retain our wonder, and our gratitude for that which still grows beside us today?


Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) made an infamous declaration
“Someone who is walking along studying [Torah]...and interrupts to say ‘How beautiful is that tree,” or “that plowed field!’, Scripture regards him as though he has forfeited his soul.” (Pirkei Avot 3:7)
Many readers struggle to accept the plain reading of the verse – that it is a sin to pause Torah study to praise G-d’s creations. It can’t be!

Some reinterpret the meaning; they see Rashbi rejecting the view that expressing wonder as an interruption from studying Torah – perhaps praising a beautiful tree is itself Torah!

Yet the plain reading fits. Rashbi is most famous for fleeing to a cave under threat of death from the Romans for teaching Torah. He spends years in the cave (nourished – ironically – by a miraculous carob tree), then vaporizes everything in sight when he briefly exits it. A Jew’s time should be spent studying, and praising a tree or field is an unholy distraction. This is an undeniable thread of our tradition.
I knew a man who inherited Rashbi’s devotion to Torah. The rabbi of my childhood in Missouri, Rabbi Abraham Magence z”l, was a graduate of Grodno Yeshiva, who studied with one of the great Talmudic scholars of the twentieth century, Rabbi Shimon Shkop z”l. So dedicated was he to Torah study that Magence continued teaching even in the darkness of Stalinist Russia during WWII, in defiance of a Soviet ban. His bravery landed him in a torture chamber and nearly led to his murder by the KGB.

I knew the stories about Rabbi Magence, and I revered this loving man who danced around the edges of my early life. Once was I given a glimpse of his greatness up close, a greatness that set him apart from the zealous sage of old – one cloudy Shabbat, as my brother and I accompanied him down the sidewalk. 

Without warning, he stopped walking. “Mein Gott!”  he cried, in his thick Polish accent. “Such a beautiful tree!” He remained immobile, reverence on his face. A large, unremarkable bush stood beside us – one I would have paid no mind. But as I looked more closely, I saw that it shimmered with raindrops. Perhaps it did possess a latent beauty. Years of Torah study, punctuated by suffering, had not dimmed his eyes nor lessened his capacity for wonder.

Rabbi Magence was walking in the shoes of another teacher: Moshe. Upon seeing a strange bush, he, too, stopped in his tracks. “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight!” he said, with the determination of a proto-scientist and the wonder of a prophet (Exodus 3:3).

Yom Kippur is approaching. The Day of Atonement is an indoor holiday, a holiday of buildings – when we gather inside synagogues at the hour that Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies.

Yet it is precisely at this hour when we must go outside, to explore the inner chambers of our heart in a different sort of way than we do indoors, to find our own burning bush in the backyard.

On Yom Kippur afternoon – shortly before we read about Jonah, and the kikayon plant that provided him blessed shade – I step outside to seek my burning bush, my kikayon.  I have a custom of lying down beneath a particularly massive tree – the same one each year -- and reaching out to G-d to review the year past.

As I do so, I marvel at the way the tree’s leaves rustle in the wind, its branches sway, but its trunk remains straight and unbowed -- and wished that I had the tree’s resilience during the gales of the coming year, already brewing. Sitting in the tree’s gentle shade, I marvel, and I daven; I reflect on my shortcomings, and I enjoy the quiet shade and sparkling of the leaves.

I’m not the only one. Two thousand years ago, Rashbi, too, rejoiced in the quiet shade of trees. Jeremy Benstein unearthed a passage in the Zohar that has overturned my shallow understanding of Rashbi’s worldview:
Rabbi Shimon [and his colleagues] were sitting under the trees in the valley of the Sea of Ginnosar (Kinneret). R. Shimon said, "How pleasant is the shade spread over us by these trees! We must crown them with words of Torah" (Zohar, 2:127a).
Rashbi had the Moses and the Magence in him too. If a man as divorced from the world as he contained such wonder and such contradiction, surely we do too.

This Yom Kippur, try lying down beneath the tree, particularly if you are struggling to feel strong emotions during the service…and recite the words of Moses, Rabbi Magence, and Rashbi.

Begin with wonder. Start with a tree.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 11: The Emergence of Aliveness

by Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D.

On Rosh HaShana we say “hayom harat olam” – today is the birth of the world.  But it isn’t just a birthday that happened in the past. The daily morning blessings remind us that God creates the world anew every day.  So this High Holiday season is a time to celebrate a process of on-going creation.

It brings up the question: what do we even mean today when we talk about God’s creation of the world? I certainly don’t mean a fundamentalist idea that God is a Being in the sky who spoke 5,777 years ago and created the world. By creation I mean that there is wisdom, beauty, value and holiness that are embedded in every atom and molecule, every particle and wave that makes up the cosmos. “Kulam B’chokhmah asitah” “You made all with wisdom.” And, this value, wisdom, holiness wasn’t just planted in creation sometime in the past.  I also mean that there is something about this creating that is dynamic: that keeps on emerging to create even more complex forms of beauty, value and holiness.

When I say “emerging” I mean it technically: There is a new science of Emergence has come along mostly in the last 30 years or so with Chaos theory and Complex System thinking to re-evaluate the way that we think about the world.  Emergence basically says something new can emerge when parts come together to form a whole and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, for example, a long, long time ago there were atomic elements floating around. Two hydrogen atoms got connected to an oxygen atom to form H2O, or water.  Neither hydrogen nor oxygen had the properties of water such as wetness, the ability to dissolve many things or the ability to put out fires. But together hydrogen and oxygen form something that is greater than the sum of its parts. 

Molecules kept on mixing and forming more complex patterns. At some point in that distant past, the molecules reached a point when they crossed an amazing threshold – out of those molecules of matter, those separate parts, an entity emerged that was alive.  The wisdom embedded in creation had brought forth something so new it was a world apart from its component parts. And we still find it amazing that this quality we call life emerges from mere matter.

The crazy, creative, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, process continues. A being evolved that can use symbolic language: the ability to create our own worlds of culture; our own environment of society that seems to surround us like a bubble with assumptions, concepts, manners and customs. This being creates not only tools but technologies that can literally change the face of the earth, change the climate; even change our own bodies.

The Torah tells us that we are created in the Image of God – and it is true – we can be as gods, to create or destroy.  The Talmud follows up on this idea and says that each human being is a world – and we have the ability to create or destroy that world we call a human being.

But we also have the ability to destroy our physical world here on earth.  With our amazing brains we have evolved the ability to take apart, to analyze, break down and separate all the miraculous aliveness that has taken eons to emerge.  We have raised ourselves up so high in our godliness that we imagine that we are separate from the aliveness of the world.  We even imagine that the world is not essentially alive, but rather is to be likened to one of our creations: a machine. If the world is a machine we can stand above it, control and predict everything about it. We have believed that we truly are gods of the world. 

But, the wisdom embedded in the world won’t let this falsehood endure.  We are finding that it doesn’t always work to stand above and break things down.  We are starting to realize, hopefully not too late, that aliveness only emerges in the connections and patterns that hold us together. We truly are partners with God in creation – but only when we have the humility and wisdom to realize that we are a part of creation – not apart from it.  We can continue to join in, even sometimes lead, the dance of emergence. We can create and witness creation of new patterns, a kinder, more just and more beautiful world. The choice is ours: to destroy ourselves and the earth in our arrogance, or to join in the dance of creation with humility, creativity and joy.      

Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D., was raised in Honolulu, Hawaii. He received rabbinic ordination at The Jerusalem Seminary in 1990 and earned a Ph.D. in Talmud from U.C. Berkeley in 2001.  He has taught at Bard College, the Reconstuctionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. Natan is Rabbi of The Greater Washington Coalition for Jewish Life, in Connecticut and Visiting Rabbi at Congregation Adas Yoshuron in Rockland, Maine.  He is Founder and President of Organic Torah Institute, a non-profit organization which fosters holistic thinking about Judaism, environment and society ( He lives in Newton, MA, with his wife Ilana and their two sons.