Having just passed through the Days of Awe (Yamim haNoraim) of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur and the seasons of joy of Sukkot, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (moadim l’simcha) we look ahead to the months of fall and winter. This is a part of the year when we reflect on where we are in our lives, on the meaning of life, and on the importance of our involvement in our Jewish community.
As I was reviewing the special prayer for rain that the shaliach tzibur sang on Shmini Atzeret, I came across a poem by Rabbi Tamara Cohen (a family friend of long standing), printed in the margin of the Conservative Siddur Lev Shalem, published by the Rabbinical Assembly. Geshem, the prayer for rain, contains images of our ancestors and how their lives were tied to water. For their sake, and for ours, we pray for the blessing of rain. The piyyut concludes:
“For You are Adonai our God, who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall – for blessing and not as a curse, for life and not for death, for abundance and not for famine.”
This is Rabbi Tamar Cohen’s poem:
Kavanah for Tal and Geshem
by Rabbi Tamara Cohen
Let us pray as if prayer were all we had,
And let us act as if our daily decisions could themselves
Fill the dry river beds with mighty waters,
For water, yes, and for rain in its time.
For the creatures critically endangered, for those vulnerable
And those extinct in the wild.
For the rainforests and the mountaintops,
For the teeming oceans and the trickles that could again be rivers,
For the earth that has not forgotten its greener dreams.
We are your partners, dear God.
Be with us and may we be with You,
Bringing the rain, pure and generous, the dew, gentle and life-giving.
May the words of our mouths and the actions of our hands be acceptable to You,
Acceptable and responsible, honoring of You, of Your anemones and monarchs,
Of the generations to come.
Anyone awake and aware of the myriad of forces threatening the future of our planet, our air, soil, and water, and the number of species facing imminent extinction should be deeply worried about our future and the kind of world we will surely be leaving to our grandchildren and their children. Surely this is the greatest threat facing humanity. While prayer can be helpful, action is what is needed now. Action on every level: local, national, and global.
Human activity is responsible for this crisis. Our responsibility as human beings to our world can be traced back to a verse in Genesis, chapter two. “Adonai, God, took the human and set him in the garden of Eden, to work it and to watch (over) it.” The Hebrew for watch over or care for is leshomrah, to see to it that nothing should happen to injure or destroy that garden, our earth. Humanity has a dual function in its relationship with the natural world — we are to draw our sustenance from the earth, and we are to sustain it, to preserve and protect it from harm. We are to keep it healthy and productive, so that future generations can be sustained by it. Through our experience of living in God’s creation, enjoying its awesome beauty and power, and deriving our very existence from the earth’s life-giving nature, we can sense the divinity that dwells within and is its life force. God is truly the chay-haOlamim, the source of the life of the worlds.
We are all responsible to educate ourselves about our environment and to act for the future of the planet. Begin with your own home, community and town, and go from there. One good place to begin is the website of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL). Its website says: “…COEJL mobilizes the Jewish community to conserve resources, increase sustainability, and advocate for policies that support environmental protection.” COEJL has resources for congregations on education, holidays, on how to green your home. The UJA Federation of New York has produced a report: “Lessons from the Jewish Greening Fellowship” on greening your congregation. Check out its report on its website, ujafedny.org.
There is much to be done. The time to learn about the issues is now. The time for action is tomorrow. In the words of Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but neither are you free to do nothing.”
Rabbi Aryeh Meir, a retired Jewish communal professional, is an active member of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck and involved in the work of the New Israel Fund. He was chairperson of the Environmental Commission of Teaneck.