A Guide to Teshuvah: Environment

Jewish ritual By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg 22nd Sep 2022

In the very year that Martin Luther King gave his last, tragically prophetic, speech on the night before he was assassinated –

[God has] allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over…I may not get there with you…[but] I’ve seen the promised land –

the environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote about the same scene:

I have been unable to escape the sense that I have been to the top of the mountain, and that I have looked over and seen, not the promised land… but a land of violence and sterility prepared and set aside for the damned.

That was in 1968. What would he say now?

Rosh Hashanah is hayom harat olam, widely translated as ‘the birthday of the world.’ There exists no more fitting time in the Jewish year or more critical moment in history to cherish and protect that world. God, we’re told, toleh erets al belimah, suspends the planet over the void: its fate hangs in the balance.

The abiding truth behind the myth of the Garden of Eden is that this earth is entrusted to us ‘to work and keep,’ to respect and preserve. The commandment to Noah to take two of every species into the ark may be the first reference in world literature to biodiversity and the specific responsibility incumbent on humans not to destroy any species. The authors of the Hebrew Bible as well as the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud understood our interdependence with nature. Ecclesiastes could not have been blunter: ‘Even a king (or president or prime minister) is subject to the field.’

We repeat twice daily in the Shema the obligation to teach our children Torah. For this to have any meaning we must also bequeath to them a breathable atmosphere, a liveable, viable planet. We owe this to the future.

The very first use of the Hebrew word from which teshuvah derives connects us with the soil, ve’el afar tashuv: God tells Adam that [in death] ‘you will return to the soil.’ But there’s a more positive way of understanding this verse. We need to get back to the land, to renew our relationship with earth, with the basic elements on which we depend for bread and every kind of food. We need to reconnect with its vitality and richness, its seasons and needs, even with the insects, as well as the plants, trees and all forms of life.

The Talmud speaks of teshuvah mi’yirah, repentance motivated by fear. Climate change does make me afraid. Climate injustice, in which some (witness Pakistan this summer) suffer terribly for the consequences of the behaviours of others, leaves me with feelings of contributory responsibility. What must we do to mitigate ‘loss and damage’ to limit global warming and mitigate its effects?

But the Talmud speaks more warmly of teshuvah me’ahavah, repentance out of love. Our greatest motivation should be a powerful love for this earth, its people, trees, birds; its wonder and glorious beauty. There is joy in such teshuvah, such reconnection with nature, where so many of us experience our deepest awareness of the sacred.

After leaving the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, the High Priest prays for a year of grain, wine, oil and good fruits, a year blessed with dew and rain. Let us do all within our power, personally, communally, nationally and internationally to help make this the case at home, in Israel and across the globe.

Read the rest of the series:

  1. Language
  2. Injustice

Related articles

  • Jewish ritual
  • 22nd Sep 2022

A Guide to Teshuvah: Injustice

  • Jewish ritual
  • 22nd Sep 2022

A Guide to Teshuvah

  • Jewish ritual
  • 22nd Sep 2022

A Guide to Teshuvah: Language

  • Jewish ritual
  • 07th Dec 2023

Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Chanukah