My grandfather’s first yahretziet was the 25th of Av—5 days ago. He lived fully and healthfully to the age of 92 and died after only a handful of days in the hospital.
Grandpa was from Czechoslovakia, and met my grandmother at a dance in London on furlough from the Czech army in 1942. They were separated for a number of years and wrote letters back and forth as my grandfather learned English. My grandparents saved these letters, and my grandmother recently reported deriving much joy from reading them through again, reliving the kindling of their love so long ago. In 1947 they were married—him Ashkenazi, my grandmother from a Sephardic family, and remained married for 67 and a half years. They eventually made aliyah, and he passed away and is buried in Israel.
Grandpa was a kohen, and took his duties as a kohen to his community seriously. Living in Israel, he duchenned (performed the priestly blessing) every Shabbat, would often lead shacharit or musaf and was lauded for his lyrical voice. He was proud of this position in the community. My grandfather had a few jokes he liked to tell. One of them, recounted at my brother’s wedding, goes as follows: Why is a kohen so short tempered? They wash their hands, get nothing to eat, and besides, they have to worry about someone stealing their shoes! (If you don’t get it, don’t worry about it, I’m not sure I do either…)
My grandfather believed firmly in upholding Jewish tradition from keeping kosher and Shabbat, to supporting others in his community who needed assistance, be it financially or otherwise. He had a strong moral character amongst family, friends, and business partners. As his grandchildren, we were told about how Grandpa would always sincerely thank Grandma for a meal, even if all it was was a boiled egg. He recognized his place in the family. He would say: “I am the head of the family, but your grandmother is the neck. The head goes wherever the neck turns.”
All of his grandchildren flew in from abroad to put him to rest. My father and uncle both took leadership roles in the congregation, as mourners are encouraged to do. Parshat Re’eh, this week’s parsha, was read the first Shabbat after my grandfather’s funeral. My father recited the haftarah after a hiatus of many years from layning. His death was unexpected in some ways, coming so suddenly, but also expected, seeing as he was an old man. We came together as a family to do what we could to follow in his footsteps and do it right. My cousins who got married this past year both formed their chuppot from Grandpa’s talit. Our actions remember him and will continue to do so.
I was asked to speak today especially about Jewish environmental concepts, so I’ll leave my memories of Grandpa for the time being, and oblige.
I grew up in a traditional family outside of Boston, and I loved nature—oxymoronic? Maybe… However, it was difficult to find a suitable outlet for this interest. There weren’t many organized hiking trips or environmental programs I could comfortably participate in as an observant Jew. So I was interested to learn of the growing Jewish environmental movement as I was getting ready to finish college. Since graduating, I’ve worked as a Jewish environmental educator at Surprise Lake Camp, the Teva Learning Alliance, and the Pearlstone Center’s educational farm outside Baltimore, MD. I continue to be connected to this community through attending conferences, visiting friends and reading blog posts. My training in these communities serves as a backbone for my teaching today: I focus on hands-on experiential lessons, and getting my students outside whenever possible.
To this end, in 2013, a friend (Ris Golden-Sieradski) and I co-founded the Syracuse Jewish Community Garden. It’s meant to provide a space for hands-on Jewish environmental and agricultural education for Jewish students (both adult and youth) in Syracuse. Most of the food we grow is donated to local family shelters, emphasizing our tradition’s commitment to social justice and caring for those in need.
A garden is a space where children and adults can come into contact with many different pieces of nature, and heighten our awareness of the kinds of relationships humans have had with plants and animals over the centuries. Adding a Jewish element to the programming connects us even more deeply to an identity we’ve held dear throughout our lives. To confine one’s Jewish identity to the synagogue is a disservice (no offense). By relating to nature as Jews, we deepen our relationship to both elements: Judaism and nature.
Since first identifying as a Jewish environmental educator eight years ago, the basics of how Judaism asks us to cultivate a meaningful and deep relationship with nature feel seamlessly integrated into my own personal practices.
The first couple of chapters of Genesis tell the story of creation, positioning the human “L’ovdah u’leshomrah” to work and to serve creation. We are here not to dominate, not to control and not to take advantage, but to care for and to tend.
The rabbis’ recommendation of saying one hundred blessings a day brings us into a relationship of awareness with creation that cultivates awe and gratitude.
The concept of “Bal Tashchit,” which has come to mean, “don’t wantonly destroy or waste” reminds us to be mindful of the resources we use and not to needlessly waste.
There are certainly other concepts that have shaped my Jewish practice to embody environmental values (for example, the agricultural connection of the holidays, celebrating Tu Bishvat, and Shmita, the implications of which I’m still striving to understand). However, these days, I’m feeling more interested in something a little deeper and a little broader.
Aside from being a Jewish environmental educator, I also teach science in the secular world. One of the goals that motivate me in this work is to heal the divide between “humanity” and “nature.” Much of the destruction we witness in and enact on the natural world originates with the false dichotomy between “us–humans” and “it—nature.” I’ve been guilty of reinforcing that dichotomy through the language I’ve used thus far in this drash. It’s taken me a while to find new language to express my ideas.
Rabbi David Seidenberg, in his recent book, Kabbalah & Ecology asks: can we make the claim that other (non-human) life is made in God’s image? Answering this question propels us toward finding the Jewish foundation for seeing ourselves as PART of creation, rather than APART FROM it. Seidenberg consistently uses the phrase “more-than human world,” explained in a footnote to “uproot the culture/Nature dichotomy…[It] includes the human—conceptualizing the environment that surrounds us as inclusive of humanity. It not only embraces a world that is both immanent and intimately related to us, but also acknowledges that this world transcends our needs, purposes, and knowledge.” This subtle redefining of terms can create a powerful paradigm shift.
Seidenberg presents a reading of traditional texts that reveals the Jewish teachings of how to live with the earth, offering us a way of relating to the More-Than Human World in order to sustain life. If we follow God’s commandments we will be able to live harmoniously, sustaining life on the planet in general. Parshat Re’eh details the ways the Israelites should live when they finally enter the land of Israel. We are instructed to live a spiritually sustaining life, close to God’s commandments and guidance, keep Kosher, and observe shmita every seventh year to release each other from debts and the land from our labor. Doing so, we will be rewarded with abundant sustenance, both physically and spiritually. However, the parsha also lays out the alternative: if we choose to commit adultery, follow false prophets, or ignore God’s commandments, we will be punished with a life of scarcity and struggle.
Traditional views of this parsha present God as a supernatural force that will cause it to rain when we’ve brought enough sacrifices or when we keep Kosher properly. The same force will deny us rain if we worship idols. This isn’t really the way I like to think about God—as a possessive and jealous force that I’m able to anger or please based on my actions and choices.
However, Seidenberg (and others) brings a different reading to this text. Not following God’s commandments about how to live well on the land will bring about a natural consequence of struggling. By ignoring the guidelines, we will be living a life alienated from the land, from ourselves, and ultimately from God. It’s a subtle twist, but to me, makes these ideas more palatable.
To tease this out a little more, let’s look to the laws of Kashrut as an example. In Re’eh, God outlines the animals we are allowed to eat and are not allowed to eat. We may only eat animals that have split hooves, as well as chew their cud. All animals that only possess one or the other or neither are “unclean” for us. How can we understand that following these laws has a natural consequence of living harmoniously with the land, and is not just obeying God’s seemingly random whim?
Seidenberg gives a fascinating explanation. An animal that chews its cud: what does this imply? It derives its sustenance from grasses, something that we as humans are not designed to do. What does cloven feet imply? These are animals that thrive on rocky slopes—land that is near impossible to cultivate. By limiting our domesticated flocks to animals who both chew their cud and have cloven hooves, we are ensuring that they are neither competing with us for a food source, nor with our crops for space. This choice will make it easier for us to sustain ourselves on the land, leading to more abundance than if we were to raise pigs, for example. As a student of ecology and a farmer, this makes sense to me.
Braiding Sweetgrass, by Dr. Robin Kimmerer (of SUNY-ESF) asks similar questions of how to heal our relationship with the more-than human world. As an ecologist and a citizen of the Potawatomi Nation, she draws out answers from her own native traditions as well as western scientific knowledge and methodology. Her writing is exquisite and many of her essays have moved me to the brink of tears. In one essay, Kimmerer describes her realization that as much as she loves the earth, the earth must love her back. She writes, “Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”
There is so much that needs to happen to shift the course of environmentally destructive policies and practices toward more sustainable ones. However, I am not one to advocate for social change on Shabbat. Today is a day to stop, and enjoy Creation without trying to change it or make improvements. It’s an exercise in awareness of all the “Tov Me’od—very good” that God beheld at the culmination of the creation of the world.
But, perhaps we can craft an appropriate Shabbat practice toward healing our relationship with the more than human world. How can we better see ourselves as part OF creation, instead of apart FROM? What might it be like to interact with a tree the same way you would interact with a friend? After coming home from a long day at work, running to embrace the first friend in your path, a maple tree that’s always stood tall and strong in your front yard right near the drive way. Or, to give the same attention to a hawk flying overhead as you would to receiving a new email or text message.
The last conversation I had with my grandfather was an argument. I left his car crying and feeling hurt, and he angrily drove away. That was the last time I saw him and the last time I heard his voice. We did exchange a few emails. He apologized, I forgave him, and I apologized too. Then about four months later, my cousin told me of his sudden decline.
Noticing mistakes and claiming them goes a long way in strengthening relationships, which are not always easy. In fact, the most intimate ones usually withstand the most hardship and challenge. It is this willingness to engage and get through the difficult times, which builds the intimacy that comes to be so ultimately rewarding. Healing our relationship with the more than human world will certainly challenge our culture and our way of life. But, hopefully, in so doing, it will strengthen our relationship to what we call nature, to what we call God and ultimately to ourselves, and in the process making our lives more whole.