By Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz
Ten days before Yom Kippur, there is a divine reckoning on Rosh Hashanah of all our deeds from the past year. A heavenly ledger book is produced at our trial, and the evidence scrutinized and carefully considered. Each mitzvah — divinely ordained commandment — we have performed during the past year is akin to a defense attorney who vigorously argues our case before the celestial tribunal, and advocates for leniency if not outright clemency. Conversely, each avera — transgression — of the Divine will creates a k’tagor — a prosecuting angel who demands justice. Our goal is to seek acquittal, have our names inscribed in the Book of Life and have our lease on life renewed.
We believe and pray that on Rosh Hashanah we are inscribed in the Book of Life, while on Yom Kippur the verdict is sealed and made final.
Yet, contrary to popular belief and despite the somber tone, Yom Kippur is not a sad day. In the Talmud, Yom Kippur actually is discussed along with Tu B’Av — the Jewish holiday of love — as one of the happiest days of the year. On Tu B’Av, the single women would engage in an elaborate dance ritual to attract potential spouses. Significantly, we are taught that the women would go out in borrowed white dresses in order not to embarrass those who could not afford them — a powerful metaphor for the proposition that just because you can do something does not necessarily mean that you should do it. For example, while bal taschit — the prohibition against wanton destruction — technically may allow for the destruction of a tree under circumstances such as needing the wood or empty ground to improve adjacent trees, the law simultaneously offers the individual the opportunity to reframe the debate in terms of what we should do rather than what we merely can do.
It is an exercise in both spiritual growth and self-restraint. Such self-restraint is firmly embedded in the heart of a genuine sustainability ethic.
A further manifestation of such self-restraint is evident from the fact that having fasted for more than 25 hours on Yom Kippur, we still take the moment to wash our hands and say the blessings on both the hand washing and the bread upon which we break our fast. Indeed it is those 15 seconds that allow us to transcend our animalistic tendencies and simultaneously focus on the “can-should” continuum.
Miracle in the Temple
The Mishnah (Avot 5:8) relates that one of the miracles that occurred in the Temple in Jerusalem was omdim tz’fufim mishtachavim r’vachim — when the Jews were packed into the courtyard to hear the high priest utter the ineffable name of God, they would fall to the ground face down and prostrate themselves. Miraculously, although the crowd was packed in tighter than a mosh pit at a Korn concert, there was enough room for each one to stretch out fully on the ground. Perhaps the miraculous nature of this occurrence underscores for us the challenges inherent in our own perennial jostling for more space without regard to the consequences or to our encroachment on the space of others, the displacement of persons and the destruction of wildlife habitats. As the famous quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., but actually written by Zechariah Chafee, Jr., goes: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”
Similarly, when spices were ground and compounded for incense to be used in the Temple service, the Mishnah tells us that the artisan would speak to the spices and say, “chop up finely, chop up finely,” for it is known that the sound of the voice is beneficial for the spices. This demonstrates that our impact on our surroundings is ever so subtle and delicate.
During the year, it is not uncommon for us to seek to place blame on and to point an accusatory finger at others — Bernie Madoff, multinational corporations, big government — who we feel have brought us to where we are. Yom Kippur teaches us that we indeed have to point a finger —at ourselves. A deep, thorough search of the nooks and crannies of our spirit is the order of the day. Yom Kippur shows us that the people, places and things around us — our own personal ecosystems — mirror the discontent in our own souls, a sad byproduct of our own rapacious behavior. Perhaps Mick Jagger expressed this sentiment best when he sang, “I shouted out, who killed the Kennedys? When after all, it was you and me.”
Or Walt Kelly’s famous line from his comic strip, “Pogo”: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Chassidic thinkers have suggested that the formal name Yom (Ha)Kippurim can also be read as Yom K’Purim — a day similar to Purim. They ask why Yom Kippur, the majestic day in which we transform ourselves into angels — wearing white, abstaining from food, drink and other carnal delights — would aspire to become Purim, a day known for consumption, ribaldry and levity. They explain that it is no great thing to become an angel when you act like one and dress like one, but it is a genuine tribute to the ability of the Jewish soul to transcend its limitations while indulging in the pleasures of this world. Granted it is no easy task to keep our feet firmly on the ground while our heads and souls soar through the clouds but our very existence is a delicate dance on the high wire suspended between those two poles.
The Horse and the Jewish Question
A story is told about a distraught father whose son was beginning to stray from the path of his ancestors. He brought his son to Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, known by Chabad chasidim as the Alter Rebbe. Rabbi Zalman asked the boy what he enjoyed doing. The boy responded that he liked riding horses.
“And what qualities do you look for in a horse?” Rabbi Zalman asked him.
“Speed,” the boy replied.
“And what if you are on a fast horse which takes a wrong turn in the road?” the sage continued.
“You can get very lost in a hurry,” was the boy’s response.
“And what if you turn the horse around?” the elderly sage pressed on.
“You can get back just as fast.” A slight smile crept across Rabbi Zalman’s face as the boy nodded his head, indicating that he understood the message.
While Yom Kippur remains a day devoted to introspection, contrition and self-improvement, perhaps we can extrapolate that mindset for year round use and turn around our own coal and oil powered horses currently galloping out of control toward the oblivion of climate change. Then we can finalize the transition from that which we merely can do to that which we ought to do.
Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz is the executive director of Project Y’aleh V’Yavo, which offers environmental programs for youth on his maple farm in southern Vermont. Simenowitz, who is also a lawyer and a musician, has spoken widely on Judaism and the environment. He lives in the Baltimore area, where he serves as an advisory-board member of ACHARAI: The Shoshana S. Cardin Leadership Development Institute.
The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.
The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy. The Guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.