Thursday, August 31, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 15 - Embracing Change, or the Muck at the Bottom of the Pond

by Rabbi Judy Kummer

Change doesn’t come easy for most of us. Many know the joke about the Buddhist monk who says to a hot dog vendor: "Make me one with everything." Chuckling, the vendor assembles the hot dog, gives it to the monk and says "that will be $4, please." The monk hands over a $20 bill, which the vendor pockets. After a moment, the monk asks for his change, at which point the vendor taps his chest and responds, “Change? Ah, change must come from within.”

I grew up in a family not known for a love of change. My late grandfather was in fact so set in his ways that for some 50 years, he used a particular hair oil — in the days when men wore hair oil— and it turned out he hated this brand. So why continue using it? “I’ve used it all these years,” he said — “why should I change now?”

Why change, indeed? Well, there are things we might do better, or might do at all, if only we were to try to change…

Our Jewish tradition actually encourages us to change! When we wish each other a shannah tovah, a happy New Year, we can remember that the word shannah comes from the verb l’shanot, to change – so in fact we are wishing each other “a good change.”

* * * *

I’m a distance swimmer. Lately, I have faced a somewhat distressing situation: in the middle of blissful summertime lake swims — with blue skies overhead, green trees all around and sunshine spangling the silky water through which I glide, my body exulting with good health and my soul feeling full to overflowing— it’s been distressing that I have run aground, not once this summer but several times. It seems this year that my kick is off; one stroke has me swimming in less than straight lines. As I come ashore unwittingly, my hand will suddenly graze an underwater rock, my foot will touch the muck at the bottom of the pond. Limbs that had expected to feel nothing but the steady glide through water are now coming into contact with objects —and I will admit that I find the muck especially yucky. It feels slimy and rotten; while it’s been lying there placidly, it makes me wonder about any small creatures whose homes I had just disturbed who, creepily, might be swimming up to join me.

But this is my new reality: until I get my stroke straightened out, I may be swimming ashore, whether I’ve aimed there or not. It seems like encountering this newness, this muck at the bottom of the pond, may be an experience I will need to learn to accept.

And then, if I can accept this, who knows what other newness I might be open to, might even embrace?

As we approach the High Holidays, we are asked to do a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual stock-taking, identifying patterns of behavior that might not have served us well in the past and experimenting with changing them. Perhaps we don’t have to go wading gleefully into the muck we might find, but putting a toe or even a foot down onto unfamiliar terrain can lead to a realization that it’s not so bad, that there’s been no harm, that newness could even possibly lead to good things – and it might result in our broaching some things we might have shied away from trying until that point.

Our Jewish tradition holds hope that a new future might unfold for us, sparkling in the sunlight, if only we will be willing to try to change.

Shannah tovah, a good change!

Rabbi Judy Kummer is a board-certified chaplain in private practice, offering skilled spiritual care visits, eldercare programing and warm lifecycle events. She has served as Executive Director of the Jewish Chaplaincy Council of MA and other nonprofits, and has served congregations in DC, NY and NJ. She is happiest outdoors hiking in the woods, swimming in a lake at sunset or tending to her Boston organic garden. She can be reached at

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 14 - For Gentle Change

by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
The term ‘climate change’ can feel overly vague in part because of the ambiguity of the word ‘change.’ Change can come quickly or slowly. Change can feel welcome or catastrophic. Change can be the result of concerted, value-based effort—teshuvah—or carry the blunt force of surprise.

June of this year was the first time I breathed in the smoke of distant wildfires. I knew it was a mix of luck and privilege that had shielded me up til then. I knew the smoke was coming, but the lived experience was still a surprise and the change still an invitation I never wanted to receive.

Two months earlier, after I turned forty but before I breathed in the smoke from wildfires, springtime held the heartbreak of disasters that were still distant. From that place, I prayed that change come gently. I continue holding this prayer for myself, my dear ones and communities, and for you, as the seasons change once again.

Woman at Forty
[after Donald Justice]

Forty, and the ophthalmologist’s technician
suggests my vision is blurry.
No, I say, it’s just soft.
I don’t see anything
wrong with tree tips a little hard to make out,
spring creeping up the branches
pulling a prayer: may all changes
be as gentle as this one.

After days of hard night rains
the white and pink petals of the cherry
and the stinkpear are scattered,
some glued to the sidewalk,
some breathed by the wind.
Walking the dog, my right knee grumbles,
pokes my brain to predict our future:

fewer steps, maybe one day a replacement.
The dog jaunts pain-free, or at least without caring
to give it voice. We’re both scanning for
chicken bones, a game for her:
can she swallow before I open her jaw wide
enough to pull out death.

I focus on what’s in front of me:
a new flush of petals are hole-punched
paper. Same pink, same white,
same sidewalk though. There’s always kids
around here, bicycles and toys dropped and spinning,
running down to pet the dog. It’s a small choice

I make, to pause with time
for their hands, their questions, to pause
and look harder: poetry comes from looking
but so does heartbreak, and right now I can’t
see the difference.

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner (she) is a climate change chaplain and founder of Exploring Apocalypse. Originally from Toronto, she now lives in New Haven.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 13 - Midrash Skit, July 2022: Can Humans Be a Blessing?

 by Bill Witherspoon





Historical note: The Green Team at Congregation Bet Haverim, Atlanta created a lay-led service on July 15, 2022, called “Blessings on the Climate.” Our guest d’var presenter was meteorologist and JCAN-GA advisor Mark Papier. To balance Mark’s serious (also hopeful) message, we did this silly skit with two of our funniest members as mimes.  Because of a technical glitch, only the tail end of the skit was preserved on YouTube, so you will not hear Bill Witherspoon (pictured), the writer and narrator, bray from the bimah; but all of Mark’s d’var can be heard. The unicorn went home with Mark as a gift to his young daughter. The event inspired last year’s Etude, ”Unfinished Blessing.”

Bill Witherspoon is a geologist-educator and for 21 years a Jew by choice. At Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta, he sings in its remarkable chorus and occasionally leads services. He is a native of East Tennessee where he was blessed with many visits to its huge national park throughout his formative years. Bill encourages fellow humans to check out Citizens Climate Lobby

Monday, August 28, 2023

Earth Etudes for Elul 12 - Growth and Re-Growth

by Rabbi Shahar Colt

I used to work in a building next to what appeared to be an abandoned parking lot. Mostly it was a sheet of broken up concrete. The lines separating parking spaces were barely visible, and a huge tree stood somewhere near the center. Over the course of the spring and summer, weeds would grow, pushing through the spaces between the concrete, breaking it further with the slow persistence of plants. By late summer, the goldenrod was blooming and I sneezed as I biked by. From the street, the space was so full of weeds you couldn’t see the concrete anymore, the greenery had fully overtaken the lot, a mix of indigenous and invasive species vying for dirt and sunlight, creating the illusion of a meadow.

At some point each year, someone came and mowed down the weeds, revealing the parking lot all over again. It was always disappointing, all that life cut down. I missed the greenery.

But I was always more struck by the re-growth. Year after year, the plants took over the parking lot. I marveled at the capacity of all those plants to grow around pavement, despite it. My uncle’s words would repeat in my head, “A weed is only a plant that YOU don’t like.” Perhaps the plants growing in the parking lot were weeds to the lot’s owner, perhaps even the city had rules to prevent pests from moving in…but collectively they made something beautiful, a natural environment softening the landscape of an otherwise urban area. 

Each year I found comfort in the transformation from parking lot to “meadow” and back to parking lot.  Humans may try to cover over the rich earth, we might try to cut down the plants, but the life force of the natural world pushes through. On a larger scale, while our own behaviors threaten the livability of earth for humans, the life force present in the diversity of plants and creatures will continue to push evolution in a changing environment. Natural beauty prevails.  May that same life force continue to push me along the path of my own growth, through my own choices and mis-steps, as long as I live, and may it be a source of growth and re-growth for you, too. 

Rabbi Shahar Colt serves as the executive director for the Community Hevra Kaddisha of Greater Boston, and spiritual leader for Congregation Ahavas Achim in Westfield, MA. She lives in Watertown, MA with her spouse and children.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 11 - Fifty years Later, The Work Continues

by Rabbi Susan Elkodsi  

When I was in junior high, I was in the Environment Club, and one of our activities was a monthly recycling drive for newspapers and magazines. People would save them, bring them to the school, and we’d load up the truck. Then, the advisor would drive it to a place that would pay the club. The guys loved it, especially when someone included back issues of Playboy in with the rest of the papers. Then the girls were doing all the work.

It's 50 years later, and where are we? We’re now recycling all kinds of things, and people and companies are figuring out ways to make new materials out of recycled ones, but so much is ending up in our ocean; the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas! On the positive side, laws such as the Clean Water Act have helped to improve our waterways over the past 50 years. For example, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio no longer catches on fire–but we still have a long way to go. This summer has seen weeks of unseasonably hot and humid temps, poor air quality from Canadian wildfires, and devastating rains and floods. Our planet is warming at an alarming rate.

According to our ancient sages, The Holy One created humans on Rosh Hashanah, and our midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13) teaches, “The Holy One of Blessing planted a garden, and put ha-adam, the human in it, l’ovdah u-l’shomrah, “to work it and guard it.” Because after all, “if you destroy it, there will be no one after you to repair it.”

As we move towards Rosh Hashanah, with a focus on teshuvah–turning back, repenting, making a commitment to do better, may we be blessed with the ability to learn how each of us can work to improve the condition of the earth; to help mitigate climate change and leave a better world for future generations.

As Rabbi Tarfon (Pirkei Avot 2:16) said, " It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it."

Rabbi Susan Elkodsi is the spiritual leader of the Malverne Jewish Center on Long Island. She is committed to helping Baby boomers and older Jewish adults create meaning and purpose in their lives in a Jewish context, and to fighting ageism. She can be found at

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 10 - Objects As Storytellers: CoEvolving with Thomas Berry

by Cara Judea Alhadeff, Ph.D.

Notes related to the video can be found on the YouTube page.

Dr. Cara Judea Alhadeff has published dozens of books and essays on interreligious eco-justice, philosophy, ethnic studies and gender. Her photographs (in collections including MoMASalzburg and San Francisco MoMA) have been defended internationally by freedom-of-speech organizations. Former professor at UC Santa Cruz, Alhadeff teaches, performs, and parents a creative-zero-waste life:

Friday, August 25, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 9 - Living in a Fragile World: A Torah Godly Play Story

by Rabbi Michael Shire

I wonder if you have ever looked up at the night sky and wondered how big it is…how far it stretches… immense the universe is……? 

Or how there are thousands upon thousands of suns, stars, planets and moons, thousands of solar systems and galaxies? 

And I wonder how you feel when you look up into the vast space and how see how very big it is? 

I wonder what you feel when you realize that you are part of it…and also that it is part of you? 

And God saw all there was in the universe and said ‘It is good’ 

In that vast space there is one very small planet and it is our earth. When seen from space, earth looks like one great swirling mass of blue because a large part of it is made up of water. 

And God saw all the water and said ‘It is very good.’ 

As you get closer to earth, you see great masses of colorful lands. Some are so big they contain many countries. 

And God Said, ‘I will fill the land with every kind, creatures that fly in the air and creatures that swim in the waters and creatures that walk on the land. 

Then God said, ‘Let us make people in the image of God, male and female’. God rested and gave us the gift of rest. 

The angels asked, ’Is the world finished?’ And God said, ‘Go ask the people’. And God said to the people, ‘See my world, how beautiful it is. Do not do anything to hurt or destroy it because there will be no one to fix it after you.’ 

The people began to build cities with houses large and small. They cut down trees from the forests and filled up the open spaces. Some animals lost their homes and the lack of trees caused flooding in the land. 

The people made roads and train tracks so that they could travel by car and train and plane. But the fumes from the cities and the cars sent smoke into the air. It made a heavy blanket heating up the earth causing the icecaps to melt and the seas to rise. People had trouble breathing the air in the big cities. 

People threw trash and spilled oil into the seas and some creatures that swim in the waters couldn’t live there anymore. 

Now the water and the land, the green and growing things and the creatures in the air and seas and on the land and the people were in trouble.

And God looked at the world and said…. 

Wondering Questions: 

I wonder what you think God said? 

I wonder which part of the story you liked best? 

I wonder which part of the story is the most important? 

I wonder what might happen next? 

I wonder what we might do to make the world beautiful again? 

Rabbi Michael Shire is the rabbi of Central Reform Temple, Boston, and Professor at Hebrew College, Boston.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 8 - "Canadian Wilderness"

 by Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein

I am a lifelong Girl Scout. My love of the out-of-doors comes from many years camping, hiking, canoeing at Girl Scout camps throughout the Midwest, New England and yes Canada. All summer I have been haunted by an old camp song, known as “Canadian Wilderness” or “The Life of a Voyager”.

One verse sings:

“Call of the lonely loon

coyotes howling at the moon
wind rustling through the trees
that’s a Canadian breeze
smoke rising from the fire
up through the trees in a stately spire
breathe a sigh in the evening glow
sun goes down, those north winds blow”

It paints a picture of canoeing from town to town and the beauty of the wilderness. 

This has been the summer of smoke. Smoke from Canada. Smoke from wildfires. Beautiful sunsets. But those sunsets belie the fact that the smoke is dangerous.  Air quality alert days. Hard to breathe. Apocalyptic looking photos. Must stay inside. 

This is not a new problem. Years ago, Canada was not happy with the United States for sending acid rain to Canada. Now we hear some Americans unhappy with Canada for the smoke. The American government has sent aid. Still, it is not enough. Those fires, multiple fires may not even be fully out until after the first snowfall. 

It is not Canada’s fault alone. Climate change is real. It is hard to deny it, although some do, in this the hottest summer ever recorded. Ocean water temperatures in Florida of over 100 degrees. More than 15 days of scorching heat in the desert southwest of more than 115 degrees. Athens at 111 degrees—and Greece has fires too. Drought in Illinois leading to early fall leaves falling off trees in June. Tornados and floods and other storms. This is a global problem. It demands a global solution. Not years from now. Right now. 

It also demands spiritual discipline. One of the first steps in teshuvah, returning, repentance is confessing our sins.  

Part of the Yom Kippur liturgy is reciting Al Chet, “ For the sin which we have sinned...” Here are few new verses for this emergency: 

 For the sin which we have sinned by not taking care of the earth. 

And for the sin which we have sinned with our haughtiness. 

For the sin which we have sinned by not listening to and believing scientists 

And for the sin which we have sinned by denying what is happening. 

For the sin which we have sinned by not realizing how interconnected we are. 

And for the sin which we have sinned by not recognizing that our individual actions impact others, 

For the sin which we have sinned by our reliance on fossil fuels. 

And for the sin which we have sinned by not developing and using alternative energy sources.  
For the sin which we have sinned by not protecting our waterways. 
And for the sin which we have sinned by not providing drinkable water. 

For the sin which we have sinned by continuing to purchasing to excess 
And for the sin which we have sinned by using too much packaging. 

For the sin which we have sinned by wanting food at any time from anywhere. 
And for the sin which we have sinned by not supporting local farms and buying food “in season.” 

For the sin which we have sinned by refusing to act.  
And for the sin which we have sinned by refusing to protect our inheritance for the next generations. 

For all of these sins, O G-d of Creation, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement 
For all of these sins, Ruler of the whole Universe, inspire us, strengthen us and give us the courage to repair Your world.  

Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL, where she enjoys hiking and running. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, and has two books published. (Climbing Towards Yom Kippur, and Enduring Spirit) She serves on a number of non-profit boards including the Association of Rabbis and Cantors, the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders, the Community Leadership Board of St. Jospeh Hospital and volunteers as an Elgin Police Chaplain..  



Rabbi Margaret Frisch Klein is the rabbi of Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, IL, where she enjoys hiking and running. She blogs as the Energizer Rabbi, and has two books published. (Climbing Towards Yom Kippur, and Enduring Spirit) She serves on a number of non-profit boards including the Association of Rabbis and Cantors, the Coalition of Elgin Religious Leaders, the Community Leadership Board of St. Jospeh Hospital and volunteers as an Elgin Police Chaplain.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 7 - Creatress of Night and Day

 by Rabbi  Louis Polisson

Blessed is She

Who causes day to pass and brings the night (1)

May She raise up perfect healing to all who are struck (2)

Whether they are silent, plant, a living animal, a speaking being (3)

Light from darkness, darkness from light (1)

May She bring us out from the demonic fire (4)


The harmful impulse

May She cause us to cleave to the good impulse and acts of repair (5)

Deeds of healing

In wisdom She opens the gates of righteousness (1, 6)

And in understanding she diversifies created beings (1, 7)

At the end of the year

Facing the head of the year

We have come to sanctify the darkness (8)

To repair the world through the sovereign presence of the Mighty One (9)

To distinguish and to unite and to become one

Between day and night (1)

Living and enduring Spirit (10)

May You always guide us, forever and ever

Blessed is She

Creatress of the mixtures of evenings (1)

בוראת לילה ויום

ברוכה היא

מעבירה יום ומביאה לילה

הַעֲלִי רפואה שלמה לכל מכותינו

בין שהוא דומם, צומח, חיה, מדברת

אור מחשך וחשך מאור

הוֹצִיאִינו מאור שדי


יצר הרע

ודבקי אותנו ביצר הטוב ומעשי תיקון

מעשי רפואה

בחכמה פותחת שערי צדק

ובתבונה מְשַׁנָּה את הבריות

בסוף השנה

פני ראש השנה

באנו חשך לקדש

לתקן עולם במלכות שדי

להבדיל ולאחד אלהאחד 

בין יום ובין לילה

רוח חי וקים

תמיד תִּמְלְכִי עלינו לעולָם ועד

ברוכה היא

המעריבה ערבים

Louis Polisson is a musician, poet, and rabbi, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2018, where he also earned an MA in Jewish Thought focusing on Kabbalah and Ḥasidut. He currently serves as the Associate Rabbi and Music Director at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, New Jersey. He previously served for five years as the solo clergy of Congregation Or Atid in Wayland, Massachusetts. Louis and his wife Gabriella Feingold released an album of original Jewish and nature-based spiritual folk music in November 2018 - listen at

Sources cited and/or paraphrased:

  1. The Ma’ariv Aravim Blessing:

  2. The Healing Blessing from the Weekday Amidah: 

  3. Likkutei Moharan 4:8: 

  4. Nehemiah 9:7, also in the daily morning liturgy near the end of Pesukei De-Zimra: and 

  5. From Birkhot Ha-Shaḥar/the Morning Blessings: 

  6. Psalm 118:19, well-known from Hallel: 

  7. Blessing for seeing diverse beings:  

  8. Banu Ḥoshekh Le-Kaddeish by Rabbi Jill Hammer (adapted from Banu Ḥoshekh Le-Gareish by Sara Levi-Tanai):

  9. Aleinu: 

  10. Modeh/Modah Ani: 

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 6 - Blessed

by Judith Felsen, Ph.D.

Blessed are we who have strayed and returned

called back by Your mercy,

awakened from selfishness to holiness,

from cruelty to kindness.

Unseeing we concealed, justified, perfected,

means to reach our ends, claim desires,

perhaps ignorant of damage done,

unaware of straying far from You.

Detours often deadly to our peace,

balance and well- being are brought to halt,

corrected paths of our atonement filled,

with deep regret, our shame and sadness,

healthy guilt a guide of our return to holiness.

Returned we recognize the place from which we came.

Blessed we are to live in 13 Attributes divine,

enriched with lessons, errors, sins corrected,

trails cleared with soul emancipated,

debris of our myopia no longer in the way.

Blessed we are to have another chance,

Elul a context for amends, atonement is our action.

We walk in humbleness with flaws exposed,

a time to for gratitude and grace that we are seen,

rebuked, and redirected.

The path we follow to Your palace takes us home.

With You and worthiness which we have earned in Elul’s regimen,

we now feel ready.

Reconnected, we are one.


Baruch Hashem


Judith Felsen, Ph.D.  is a 2nd generation Holocaust survivor, Baal teshuvah aspirant, more of a poetess, hiker, walker, mystic, dancer and naturalist than a psychologist. Judith, wife of Jack and dog mother of Emmy (aging Newfy) is a resident of Bartlett, New Hampshire and a member of the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation where she offers the dvar Torah  for Kabbalat Shabbat services from October through June. Judith has been blessed to continue to experience rabbi Katy as a muse currently and for several decades.



Monday, August 21, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 5 - Priestly Atonement and Cleansing the Environment

By Andy Oram

Can you really have an impact on climate change by switching to veggie burgers or lowering the heat in Winter? How about making a change at work that shaves some of the carbon footprint off of your product? Do these really matter when the world continues to pump tons more carbon into the atmosphere each year?

The Jewish tradition offers a useful perspective on this question in the afternoon Yom Kippur service, where we recreate the atonement ceremonies of the Temple's High Priest. Atonement is divided by this tradition into three parts that must be observed in strict order: first the High Priest's family, then the house of Aaron, and finally the whole people. Leviticus 16:17 hints briefly at this three-part ceremony preceding the release of the scapegoat, but the ceremony does not appear in the meticulously detailed Talmud tractate about Yom Kippur, and seems to have been imagined by much later generations.

Let's use these stages of atonement as analogies for our own psychological, spiritual, and moral evolution. Perhaps lowering the thermostat or instituting recycling doesn't make a difference in itself, but provides a jumping-off point for education and activism.

Consider the first atonement, involving your family. You are modeling for your children and neighbors by changing your behavior to be more environmentally friendly. You achieve a bit of spiritual purification by purifying your trip to work of fossil fuels, or purifying your food consumption of polluting animal products. You also spur on activism, because you think, "If I can make this change without suffering, I can persuade others to do things with a much bigger impact."

And taking "family" in a broad sense (not just the nuclear family that is familiar from the past couple hundred years), you can bring climate action into your local community.

The second stage in atonement is in the workplace, symbolized by the Levites carrying out Temple worship. Now you have moved from individual statements to demanding a commitment from your workplace that it will reduce, reuse, and recycle instead of dumping all its carbon production on the world. Such activism is nothing less than a redefinition of the role of work and corporations in society.

Finally, one gets to the third stage, involving global action. You have modeled environmentally conscious behavior, demanded reciprocal actions from your community and workplace, and make the climate a central concern for everyone with whom you have come in contact.

Collective action is more than just the accumulation of individual actions. but collective action is not something you can jump into all at once. The Yom Kippur atonement service shows how to think of upping your activity in a matter of grave concern to the whole of Creation.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor in the computer field. Andy also writes often on health IT, on policy issues related to the Internet, and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. He has lived in the Boston, Massachusetts area for more than 30 years. He self-published a memoir, "Backtraces: Three Decades of Computing, Communities, and Critiques" and his poems have been published in many journals.


Sunday, August 20, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 4 - The Climate Emergency is a Cancer on the Earth, but It Can Be Successfully Treated

by Deb Nam-Krane

In 2022, after a decade of worsening symptoms that included erratic energy as well as digestive issues – and plenty of gaslighting – I was diagnosed with colon cancer. It was serious enough that even after every visible trace had been removed I needed to undergo chemotherapy treatments. Just as I should have gotten the attention I needed earlier, climate scientists should have been heeded when we were at "crisis", not "emergency". But once we identify the causes and agree on the treatments, improvements can be seen immediately. 

Just as we could excise malignant cells from my body, we can stop the activities that are causing so much damage to our atmosphere, and we could do it immediately. There will still be leftover damage, just as cancer can leave scars or metastasis even after it's been removed. However, as someone who focuses on agricultural solutions, I continue to be amazed by how quickly many of those scars can be healed once we start to, literally, put the carbon back where it belongs. Carbon drawn down from the atmosphere enriches our soils and strengthens the microbial networks which make our plants – and trees, and everything that lives off of them – stronger in turn. 

Just as millions like me can recover from a cancer that could have killed us a decade ago, the Earth can recover from centuries of pollution and hubris – and like me and other survivors, it can come back stronger than ever. I have experienced my t'shuvah, my return to myself, and I still see opportunities for the Earth – and everyone on it – to experience the same.

Deb Nam-Krane is a mother, wife, writer, environmentalist, and gardener in Boston.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 3 - Turn it and Turn it Again

by Leah Cassorla, Ph.D.

Our lives are marked by recurrences in time and season that nonetheless are not truly a circle, but rather a spiral, in which the return of the familiar sounds more like a harmonious echo than a repetition. Even Torah and holiday cycles regularly repeat and are never the same.

This summer, with its heat waves, wildfires, and flood-causing storms, however, seems like a step out of time—in both the musical and seasonal senses. We’ve lost the rhythms of our days. We’ve become slaves.

We live in a time of great availability. My calls, for example, come to my pocket, my purse, my desk. I can be reached at any time, anywhere. And yet, we are less connected than ever.

Rav Yehuda HaLevi, a medieval Spanish rabbi, poet, physician, and philosopher put this into words in his poem Avdei Zman (Slaves to Time), writing “Slaves to time are slaves to slavery / only those who work for God are free.”

How do we end the slavery we have created; slavery to rapacious, unfettered materialism, slavery to (anti)social media, slavery to our own anxiety and fear? I can only re-turn; to Torah, to myself, to what I know in my heart.

Torah tells me that I must serve and work the land; that I must respect its blessings; that I must tend it. I am no farmer. Plants seem to die in self-defense when they see me coming. But I am nonetheless a devoted vegan, and as of yesterday a re-turning composter. I am doing what little I can to tend my corner, even as I watch the world engulf in flames.

For many, I fear, the current state that our first-world insistence on comfort at the cost of others’ lives and our own species’ survival is proof that there is no God. For me, it is proof that God has kept God’s word. Torah makes clear to us the costs of living out of sync with nature. The paragraphs that commonly follow the Sh’ma make clear that it is our responsibility.

And while they are disparate paragraphs taken from different parts of the Torah, in the rabbinic tradition that the whole is greater than its parts and there is not a before or after in Torah allows me to see that the prayer uses the singular ending, ך, when commanding behavior and the plural, כם, when listing possible rewards and consequences. We are each commanded personally, but our choices accrue to the whole.

This Elul, I choose to re-turn to myself. I turn Torah again, I turn myself toward the life of the Earth again, I turn the tumblers on my composter. How will you re-turn to yourself, I wonder?

Dr. Leah F. Cassorla is the Cantor - Educator at Melville Jewish Center and a Kol-Bo (dual ordination) student at Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY. She finds her greatest joys in the classroom, on the Bimah, and with her one-eyed wonder-dog, Boobah.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 2 - A "Monument"al Vacation

by Rabbi Steven J Rubenstein

During the late spring, my wife and I joined her son and daughter-in-law on a trip to Vancouver Island off the western coast of Canada, bordering Seattle, Washington. So many things reminded me of previous events in my journeys that are so life-affirming. First and foremost were the majestic mountains of the Canadian Rockies, holding on to the last vestiges of snow in late May at their peaks. They reminded me of my seven years in Denver and my view of the American Rockies on my way to work as I prayed the words:

Mah rabu ma’asekha, Adonai...
How wonderful are your works, Adonai;
You fashioned them all...”

Contrast that with the trees climbing up the slope of the mountain creating a skirt of green ~ with patches of brown where deforestation has begun eroding the landscape. My heart sank at the sight, as if I were looking at an open wound upon the earth, wondering what type of band-aid might be effective in covering the pain at looking upon the barrenness. How can I offer teshuvah for the damage that has been done? A short walk into the old-growth forests introduced me to some trees dating to the time when Marco Polo began his explorations in the 1200s. Looking up at the tall cedars towering over the canopy of trees made me dizzy. 

Rivers of melting snow provided us with another reason to stop and admire the torrents as they forced their way through a passage of rocks. I tried to compare them to my experience at Niagara Falls and all of its grandeur. My heart pounded with the fierceness of the water while I stood on a ledge with my camera, pretending I was not in the most vulnerable position of falling.

I took many photographs of the water spraying from the impact of hitting the rocks below me in the late afternoon sun. However, none of those photographs compare to the beauty in the stillness of some pools of water left behind on the rock face, where I captured the reflections of the trees in the “still waters.” Above the water on a telephone pole by the side of the road was a sign that read, “Live free!” Challenge accepted! I felt cleansed by the rushing water!

The waters of the Pacific Ocean were no less wild, or perhaps even more so, when I was caught flat-footed in the sand by a rogue wave. I thought that I could outrun the wash-off from the wave hitting the shore as it slid towards me. I was wrong and I paid the price of wearing wet shoes for the remainder of the day. What amazed me were the designs in the sand left by the receding waves. There was a message in their shapes. Clearly, the messages were different from the ones at the beach near my parents’ home on Cape Cod. Nature has a way to show its tears in the sand.

I share with you the carbon footprint that I left in two places where I stopped to ponder God’s creation. Just as our former ancestor, Jacob, took the stones from the place where he had stopped overnight, and declared with awe and wonder that God was in this place, how could he not know; I, too, gathered some stones for others to know the sacredness of what it meant to be in such a God-place ~ “Mah tovu ohalekha, Ya’a-ko; mishkinotekha, Yisrael”. I left a marker for others to stop and contemplate the holiness of this place and see for themselves through the eyes of a photographer how lines and shapes work together, with color and substance to create a greater picture that can delight all of the senses. 

May my monument be a testimony to God for forgiveness.

Steven J Rubenstein is the Director of Spiritual Care at Jewish Senior Life, a continuum care facility in Rochester, New York.

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Earth Etude for Elul 1 - The Perception of Time

by Thea Iberall, Ph.D.  

’m driving home from Marblehead where we commemorated Erev Tisha B’Av. My trip home seems so much faster than the trip there, even though my GPS says travel time is 45 minutes each way. As I stare out the window, watching headlights cut through the darkness, I’m baffled. Why can’t I measure actual time?

We measure distance, size and number without difficulty. I can know if I can fit through a door or whether the leftover spaghetti will fit into a refrigerator container. I know how many fingers I have and I can point to where a sound is coming from. But I can’t judge the real time it takes to travel from point A to point B. Time is like slime. I know how slippery it is. And I know that time, like life, cannot be contained.

We break time up into pieces, like years and days and seconds. We use external things for measurements. We measure days and years by the apparent motion of the sun relative to the Earth. We measure months by the phases of the moon. And hours, minutes, and seconds? We inherited these base 60 divisions from the Sumerians 5500 years ago. Neuroscientists tell me our perception of time is a combination of neural processes that are changed by emotional states, level of attention, memory and diseases. The less attention paid to the task, the faster time passes.

Before our Tisha B’Av ritual, I went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. The seaweed was thick, a dull red carpet that didn’t protect my feet from the sharp rocks. They say in Florida the ocean is like bath water now. That’s what I was hoping for, even though I knew that would be terrible. For my human comfort, I want warmth and no bugs. But for the health of the planet, I want cold oceans and bugs. I can hold conflicting ideas in my head without a problem. Computers can’t do that. How can I find a balance in the conflict between my creature comforts and behaviors needed for maintaining a sustainable environment?

At sunset, in a small park on a bluff above the ocean, we began reading from the Book of Lamentations. Three Rabbis and a Cantor stood before us, candlelight playing shadows across their faces. The crowd had grown large. Seated on flat rocks and woven beach chairs, people huddled in anticipation. A middle-aged man in a blue shirt and sandals searched on his phone for the text. Two women with short brown hair studied the text on paper. As we read, I could hear the agony of time in play: “But You, O LORD, are enthroned forever, your throne endures through the ages. Why have You forgotten us utterly, forsaken us for all time?” In their misery experiencing the destruction of the Temple, time seemed endless. They had no guarantee God would act in deliverance. The horror of their reality stretched into the future, onward without end. Anyone who has suffered a great loss knows this feeling.

I’m watching a Ford Expedition SUV pass me on the left. It’s got twin tailpipes spewing carbon monoxide into the night air. We are facing our own horror, the specter of what the UN chief calls “global burning.” New England winters are disappearing. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation stream may collapse by 2025. Will we plead in desperation like the people in the Book of Lamentations spreading out our hands with no one to comfort us? Will we wake in the middle of the night with time dragging on in our fear and deep dread?

Why my brain works this way, I don’t know. It’s a mystery. But it’s also a useful tool. In this time of Elul, before the high holidays, it is a time to slow down and reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going. Let time stretch. It’s time to pay more attention.

Thea Iberall has been called ‘a shimmering bridge between heart and mind.’ An inductee into the International Educators Hall of Fame, Thea's poetry has been published widely in anthologies and journals including in Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust. Her book of contextual poems, The Sanctuary of Artemis, traces the roots of patriarchal domination. She is the author of the ecofeminist novel The Swallow and the Nightingale. Member: Northeast Storytellers, Jewish Storytellers of New England.