Sign In Forgot Password

Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

October 4 , 2022

Last week, many of us were here, gathered together, for Rosh Hashanah. We spent those days together in prayer and community, in song and joy. 

It was so good to be together again.

Last week, many of us were also following news updates and weather maps, as Hurricane Ian gained force and made its way north, first striking Cuba, and then making landfall on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The storm then continued up the coast, causing damage, flooding, and loss of life. 

For my family, this storm wasn’t only a headline or a TV clip. This was personal for me. My parents and my grandmother live in Sarasota, which for a good portion of the lead-up to the storm, looked like it would be the exact place where the storm would hit. 

Between our prayers for a safe and healthy new year, I was thinking of my family, as my parents put up giant metal shutters to protect their windows, and made sure they had enough bottled water and shelf-stable food. They were getting ready for the worst. 

Thank God, my parents and my grandmother are fine. The storm tracked further south, and they live far enough inland, and they were prepared, and they were lucky. 

They have some damage to their home, but they’ve had power the entire time. 

I’m sad that they aren’t able to join our services here for Yom Kippur as they had planned, but I’m so grateful that they are safe.

I know many of you have friends or family in Florida, or spend time there yourself, and I hope and pray that everyone you know and love is safe and healthy, too.

It’s been quite a week, one where we connect in a different way with those words of Unetaneh Tokef: 

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed. Who by fire, and who by water. We saw the words of our machzor, our prayerbook, acted out this week.

The path of a hurricane, its timing, where it makes landfall, all of this is beyond our control. God does not send hurricanes to punish people, and God also does not protect good people from harm, at least directly. 

As Rabbi Harold Kushner explains in his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, “Laws of nature treat everyone alike. They do not make exceptions for good people or for useful people….And really, how could we live in this world if God did?” [1]

God does not send us hurricanes, or COVID, or financial stress, or wildfires, and on and on. While we can’t control the path of a hurricane, sitting, refreshing our live maps, watching it inch toward people we love, we can control how often and how intense these storms are. That’s where our personal agency to shape our fate comes in.

While I was tracking the storm’s progress, I had a little time to review the climate science behind hurricanes. I had forgotten how linked hurricanes are to the warming of our planet prompted by climate change. 

As NPR reported this week:

“Storms like Ian are more likely because of human-caused climate change. Heat is the fuel that makes hurricanes big, powerful and rainy. As humans burn fossil fuels and release huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, the amount of heat trapped on Earth rises steadily. The air gets hotter, and the ocean water gets hotter…A warmer planet also drives more flooding from hurricanes and tropical storms….Together, sea level rise and powerful, rainy storms like Ian conspire to cause catastrophic flooding across huge areas of the U.S. when a hurricane hits land.” [2]

Hurricanes and wildfires, heatwaves and floods. None of these are punishments from God, but all of these natural phenomena are intensifying because of our human actions  that cause climate change. 

As citizens of this earth, we are all responsible.

We cannot change the path of a hurricane, no matter how much we pray, no matter how righteous we are. It just doesn’t work that way. Our prayers, t’filot, provide us comfort and strength in troubled times. Our righteousness and our giving of charity, tzedakah, help to support those in need, in the aftermath of disaster. 

But God shows us another path to shape our fate: teshuvah.

Teshuvah can mean both repentance and return. While teshuvah is available to us at all times of year, on this day, Yom Kippur, it is our focus. When teaching young children about teshuvah and Yom Kippur, we often explain that this is a day to say “I’m sorry,” to apologize, and to try to be a kinder, more patient person in the year to come. For people of all ages, teshuvah is about acknowledging how our actions impact other people and the world around us.

Maimonides, the 12th century rabbi and scholar, emphasizes this:

הַתְּשׁוּבָה כִּתְרִיס לִפְנֵי הַפֻּרְעָנוּת. וּכְשֵׁם שֶׁהָאָדָם חוֹטֵא מִדַּעְתּוֹ וּבִרְצוֹנוֹ כָּךְ הוּא עוֹשֶׂה תְּשׁוּבָה מִדַּעְתּוֹ וּבִרְצוֹנוֹ

“…Teshuvah is like a shield from calamity. And just as one sins by one’s own awareness and intention, so too one does teshuvah by one’s own awareness and intention.” [3]

By ones own awareness and intention, m’dato u’virtzono, aware and intentional, knowingly and willingly. Just as we can sin intentionally, we can return intentionally, too. We have the power and the agency. It’s in our hands.

So while we cannot change the path of a hurricane or a wildfire, we can knowingly and willingly commit to teshuvah for the earth this year. To take actions, large or small, to counter climate change, to save our planet. 

As many of you know, I firmly believe in the connection between Jewish values and social justice. 

I’ve spoken to you about important issues over the years and on Shabbat, from reproductive justice to anti-semitism. I am dedicating an entire High Holy Day sermon to climate change because I believe that this is the key issue of our time. 

Simply by living in the modern, industrialized world, we have an impact on our climate. We drive cars, we buy groceries that often traveled great distances to reach us. We pick one-time use products for ease and convenience. 

I know for me, personally, the problem of climate change can feel too big to wrap my mind around, and it can also feel like any small action that I take is not enough to truly make a difference. But what is the alternative? That we all ignore our responsibility to our planet and to future generations? We have to believe that every action we take can add up. 

As we often say but need to take to heart: lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo at ata ben chorin l’heebtel mimena - it is not your duty to complete the work, and neither are you free to ignore it. [4]

We can’t throw up our hands and say, I can’t fix this entire problem, so I can’t do anything at all. 

That’s where teshuvah comes in. That’s where we have the opportunity to knowingly and willingly return, to think about the small and large actions we can take to heal our earth in the new year. To set an intention to do better, to be aware of our impact on our earth.

Because we know more about climate change than ever before, and because there is more public sentiment and private funding going toward climate mitigation than in the past, we really do have the opportunity to make a difference this year.

For me, my personal commitment from this past year and going forward to protect our climate was a process of teshuvah, in the sense of both repentance and return. For many years, as a child and through college, I was a vegetarian. This past year, Neil and I returned to this practice,limiting our consumption of animal products, eating only fish and dairy. 

I stopped being a vegetarian for several years as a young adult because I had become cynical about my ability to make a difference in the world through my own personal decision to avoid meat. And because I was hungry. 

Even as someone with a great love for the environment, I was skeptical that my diet, as one person on a planet of billions, was making a difference. This year, I held up the mirror, and I thought about what kind of world I want to leave our children, Lior and Mikah. I reminded myself, knowingly and willingly, that each small action I take can shape the planet they will live on. It was my moment of teshuva, of return.

If being a vegetarian isn’t for you, perhaps committing to eliminating or reducing the amount of beef in your diet is a path for environmental teshuvah this year.

Dr. Naomi Oreskes, Harvard professor, taps into the potential for individual actions to make a difference. As she explains:

“It is easy to feel helpless in the face of the strength of the fossil-fuel behemoth or to think that calling your congressperson is a meaningless gesture, especially when you learn about the billions of dollars the industry and its allies have spent trying to block Congress from acting. But one effective act, and one that can be amplified, is to eat less red meat.

Cutting meat consumption is a powerful and personal thing most Americans can do to tackle the climate crisis, and they can do it immediately. About 40 percent of greenhouse gases come from agriculture, deforestation and other land-use changes. Meat—particularly beef—drives climate change in two ways: first, through cows’ emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and second, by destroying forests as they are converted to grazing land….By eating less beef, we can start to decrease that demand.

You do not have to become a vegan to do this. According to one recent study, if every person in the U.S. cut their meat consumption by 25 percent, it would reduce annual greenhouse gas emissions by 1 percent. That might not sound like a lot, but it would help protect the rain forest, so the positive effects—including reduced water and fertilizer use, improved biodiversity and safeguarded rights of Indigenous peoples—would be amplified. [5]

Perhaps most important, social action is contagious—in a good way. If lots of us begin to eat less meat and if we talk about it constructively, we will likely influence others. Pretty soon the 1 percent reduction becomes 2 percent or more.”

Environmental teshuva, returning to a focus on our climate and our world, can happen on a personal level, and this year, nationally, too.This has been an unusually successful year for legislative progress in the US to counter climate change. In September, President Biden signed sweeping climate legislation into law. 

As the New York Times reported, “Gina McCarthy, the White House climate adviser, said that regulatory moves, combined with the new legislation and action from states, could help Mr. Biden meet his promise to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, compared to 2005 levels, by the end of the decade.” [6]

New laws and standards on a state or national level are a big deal. It’s a cause for celebration, and we also must make sure that we are still paying attention to the role we can play individually this year. The reason that this climate legislation was finally successful, after decades of activism, was the advocacy of individual people adding up. Each phone call, letter, or email sent, each one-to-one meeting or rally organized, all of it was individual people coming together to make collective change. 

And so that means, we can’t let up. There are new pieces of environmental legislation to work on in the year to come, and the implementation of the climate bill will also need our attention and support. Currently, our partners and friends at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism encourage us to support the Environmental Justice for All Act. This bill counters the unfortunate legacy of environmental racism and the disproportionate environmental and climate impacts on communities of color. [7] We’ll share more information in upcoming Temple communications about how you can advocate for this bill. We saw what could happen with the climate legislation passed this fall, a reminder that when we take individual action, we can make a difference.

Even with the US taking the lead after so long, we know that what happens in one country has an impact on the entire planet. I have been lucky enough to be connected for many years to Israelis and Palestinians doing important environmental work in the Middle East. When I was in college, I lived at Kibbutz Ketura, studying with the Arava Institute, a peace and coexistence program built on the premise of a shared environment. The highlight of my semester there was a trip around the Jordan river basin, seeing the ways in which Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis use the scarce natural resources of the area, and how their political and geographic borders conflict, collide, and create opportunities for collaboration. 

Currently, I’m participating in a summit through the Wexner Foundation, bringing together twenty-five Americans and twenty-five Israelis toward the joint goal of fighting climate change. 

Like legislation in the US, or even the problem of climate change itself, what’s happening in Israel may feel far away or unrelated to our own lives. But it has been an honor and privilege to sit in the (virtual) room with these Israeli and American leaders, who are doing so much to combat climate change both in their own countries and for the entire world. I look forward to gathering with these thoughtful individuals for an intensive workshop later this year, sharing more with you in the months to come about Israeli and global climate initiatives we can support. I also look forward to connecting more deeply with these Israeli climate activists and scientists when I am in Israel in 2023.

I would be eager to talk with you about ways that you, personally, might make a difference in your actions and behavior for our climate this year, and how we as a Temple can make teshuvah for the earth as well. 

I know there are many of you who care about this issue, and if you’re excited 

about doing something together, communally, let’s talk. 

This year, I invite you to think about how you can make teshuva, a return, to intentional and aware behavior toward the environment. Knowingly and willingly, we can make real change this year. 

The whole earth depends on it. 

G’mar chatimah tovah - may we be sealed for blessing, safety, and justice this year.

[1] Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 66-7.

[2] Rebecca Hersher, Climate change makes storms like Ian more common, September 29, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/09/29/1125875383/climate-change-makes-storms-like-ian-more-common

[3] Hilchot Teshuva 5

[4] Pirke Avot 2:16

[5] Naomi Oreskes, Scientific American, “Eating Less Red Meat Is Something Individuals Can Do to Help the Climate Crisis,” January 1, 2022, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/eating-less-red-meat-is-something-individuals-can-do-to-help-the-climate-crisis/

[6] Lisa Friedman and Jim Tankersley, The New York Times, “After Signing Climate Bill, Biden Prepares More Actions to Cut Emissions” Aug. 19, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/19/us/politics/biden-climate-bill-emissions.html

[7] https://cqrcengage.com/reformjudaism/app/write-a-letter?0=&engagementId=511495

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Wed, May 22 2024 14 Iyyar 5784