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High Holy Day Green Thought-Starters


In every morning’s Yotzer prayer, we celebrate the Divine as m’chadesh ma’aseh bereshit, renewer of the work of creation; “God has no hands but ours” in this holy effort of protection and renewal. 

At RH Musaf (the additional service), with each set of shofar blasts we say Hayom Harat Olam, “today is the world’s birthday” – a call to consider how the Earth is doing compared to its previous or upcoming birthday – and thus, like the shofar itself, a call to action.  

At YK’s Vidui/confessional, we admit our triple failure:  we’ve wronged the Earth and the many species with which we share it; we wrong the poor, who are most vulnerable to pollution and climate change, yet did the least to cause it; and we wrong the generations after us, our own descendants included (see Ex. 34:6-7). 

In the YK Torah reading, many congregations read Deut. 30:19 – “I’ve set before you this day life and the blessing, or death and the curse; you should choose life (u’vacharta ba’chayim), that you and your descendants may live – today, choosing life means tackling climate change with all we’ve got. 

And two weeks hence, Sukkot revolves around water – the four water-loving species (lulav and etrog) from various ecoregions in Israel; the “rejoicing at the house of water-drawing”, described in the Talmud as the biggest party ever; and the rabbinic dictum that “on sukkot the world is judged for water”.  Sukkot reminds us how climate change drives extreme weather events (“global weirding” more than “global warming”), with more droughts and more floods in the same locations within a season of each other – too little, then too much, water, all at once.


The seventh / sabbatical / shmita year — the time of release, of letting land and people and animals rest – begins now, this Rosh Hashanah.  During shmita, we traditionally annul debts, and promote equality; we develop communal and personal resilience; we intertwine our economic, social, and spiritual/religious ideals.  The wonderful www.Jewcology.org, among other sites, expounds on this.  Though few today argue for a complete cessation of agriculture, a great movement (starting with www.hazon.org/shmita-project) now reclaims shmita’s core values, and engenders a global Jewish conversation about them. 

At Erev RH, we welcome the shmita year with fanfare; name its core values; and begin our year-long exploration of them. 

In Avinu Malkeinu, this one year in seven really puts the chadesh (“new/renew”) in chadesh aleinu shanah tovah, “renew for us this year as a good one”.   

At Malkhuyot (the RH Musaf theme of God’s sovereignty), possible privations of shmita illustrate how our personal will and desire are rightly overridden by something larger than short-term private interest. 

At Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance amidst the Ten Days), we consider shmita as tshuvah (re/turning) on a grand global scale, re-orienting social priorities toward ethics, holiness, and sustainability. 

At Kol Nidrei (YK eve) we acknowledge our own imperfections, and the limitations of the efforts and initiatives we get behind; shmita is a prime example of something to be imperfectly, but continually, applied. 

And the timeless YK Haftarah (Isaiah 57-58) insists that we align our ritual life with our ethical life, keeping moral behavior front and center – precisely the logic of the ethically-oriented, year-long set of rituals that is shmita. 


Still touched and scarred by the events of the summer, our connections with Israel are multiply highlighted during these Awesome Days.  Even as political realities demand our attention (see JFNA’s and JCPA’s Israel Action Network as one important resource here), Israel’s social, spiritual, and ecological life continues.  Our love of Israel / ahavat Yisrael, evinced throughout our liturgy and history, includes love for the land itself, and for all its inhabitants.  Just last week Israel’s Supreme Court ruled against fracking in the ecologically sensitive Emek Ha’Elah – shmita/release in that vital democracy, perhaps? 

At Erev RH (and throughout the holiday), Israel-watchers may note the implications of Shmita on life at the shuk or makolet (outdoor market or neighborhood convenience store), while also considering 5775’s Knesset-level and society-wide efforts to raise ‘shmita-consciousness’.

In the morning Yotzer prayer, we sing Or hadash al Tzion ta’ir, let a new light shine on Zion – or, perhaps, let Israel be a ‘light’ by encouraging its sustainable harnessing of light, via solar technology.  

The first RH Torah reading describes the family split-up among us Semites; it’s environmental issues in general, and water in particular, which most clearly unite these cousins divided since Gen. 21. 

Then the second RH Torah reading (Jeremiah 31) shows our people’s restoration (v’shavu vanim ligvulam, “your children will yet return to their borders”) going hand-in-hand with that of the land.  Those in Israel drawing those linkages (e.g. www.Heschel.org.il and Shmita Yisraeli) deserve our support. 

And on YK afternoon, the haftarah (Jonah) implies the need for Israel, and Jews everywhere, to work for justice and sustainability anywhere – even on a boat; even inside a great fish; even as far afield as Tarshish.


Many Jews who’ve long embraced social justice work are newer to environmental efforts.  Our local communities, much like the larger JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs, for whom the Confronting Poverty Initiative is a key priority right alongside COEJL), remain places of concern and involvement on a host of issues.  The most effective and enduring work is that which views green and other issues within their larger systemic context.  Eco-angles abound throughout our vital social justice agenda.

This RH, we hail the dawning shmita as tradition’s clearest integration of ecology (the land and animals rest) with social justice (the poor are released and debts annulled). 

The powerful Unetaneh Tokef piyut (pietistic prayer) sees cosmic implications behind our inter/personal reckoning – ba’shofar gadol yitaka, v’kol d’mama daka; “the great shofar is sounded, and a still small voice is heard” – then celebrates tzedakah (righteous action and generous giving) as the rare step that can lessen the decree’s severity. 

 At Shabbat Shuvah (or any time we reflect on tshuvah, re/turning and repentance), we review Mishnah Yoma 8:9:  YK atones for sins between a person and Makom/God, but not for transgressions l’chavero, against our fellow; what happens now, when the chaverim/fellows we wrong are millions of other species, billions of global poor, and countless future inhabitants of a planet denuded by our own actions?!  

With the piyut L’El Orech Din (“To God the Law-Arranger”), we might step back and consider how law and priority-setting appears from on high – how large might the degradation of Earth’s vital systems loom, viewed from the Divine bench? 

And two weeks from now, while dwelling in our Sukkot or temporary booths, we’re vulnerable both to the elements (whose potential threat we exacerbate via climate change) and to potential dangers posed by those around us (magnified by social injustices and inequities for which we bear some responsibility) – our intense season’s capstone festival insists that we conjoin our social and environmental concern.  

Assembled by Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb with Rabbi Steve Gutow, 2014

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