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My Two Environmental Essays Related to the Hebrew Month of Elul

Elul: A Time to Start Shifting Our Imperiled Planet onto a Sustainable Path

     Elul is here. It represents an opportunity for heightened introspection, a chance to consider teshuva, changes in our lives, before the “Days of Awe,” the days of judgment, the “High holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The shofar is blown every morning (except on Shabbat) in synagogues during the month of Elul to awaken us from slumber, to remind us to consider where we are in our lives and to urge us to consider positive changes.

     How should we respond to Elul today? How should we respond when we hear reports almost daily of severe, often record-breaking, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods, and storms; when very decade since the 1970s has been warmer than the previous decade; when the past four years are the warmest four years since temperature records were kept in 1880; when polar ice caps and glaciers are melting faster than the worst case projections of climate experts; when climate experts  are warning that we could be close to a tipping point when climate change will spiral out of control with disastrous consequences, unless major changes are soon made; when we appear to also be on the brink of major food, water, and energy scarcities; and when, despite all of the above, so many people are in denial, and in effect, seem to be “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as we approach a giant iceberg”?

     It is well known that one is not to shout fire in a crowded theater. Except if there actually is a fire. And, the many examples of severe climate change indicate that the world is on fire today. Therefore, we should make it a priority to do all that we can to awaken the world to the dangers and the urgency of doing everything possible to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path. We should urge that tikkun olam (the healing and repair of the world) be a central focus in all aspects of Jewish life today.

     We should contact rabbis, Jewish educators, and other Jewish leaders and ask that they increase awareness of the threats and how Jewish teachings can be applied to avert impending disasters. We should write letters to editors, call talk shows, question politicians, and in every other way possible, stress that we can’t continue the policies that have been so disastrous. We should make changes in our own lives to reduce our carbon footprint by driving less, recycling more, eating less meat, etc.

     The afternoon service for Yom Kippur includes the book of Jonah, who was sent by God to Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their evil ways in order to avoid their destruction. Today the whole world is Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption, and each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from greed, injustice, and idolatry, so that we can avoid a global catastrophe.

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Restoring the New Year for Animals

     Today is Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the month before Rosh Hashanah, when the shofar is blown at weekday morning services (except on Shabbat), and Jews are to examine their deeds and consider how to align their lives more with Jewish values.

     When the Temple stood, Rosh Chodesh Elul was a New Year for Animals, a day devoted to tithing for animal sacrifices. After the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE, there was no longer a need for this holiday and today very few Jews have even heard of it.

     Some Jewish vegetarian activists are working to restore this holiday and to transform it into a day devoted to increasing awareness of Judaism’s beautiful teachings about compassion to animals and how far current treatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings is from these Jewish teachings. It is hoped that the renewed holiday can serve as the beginning of a tikkun (healing) for the current widespread mistreatment of animals.

      Jews are to be rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, compassionate children of compassionate ancestors, and to imitate God, whose “compassion is over all His works” (Psalms 145:9), Restoring the New Year for Animals can lead to greater emphasis in the Jewish community in applying these and other Jewish teachings to the reduction of animal suffering, perhaps leading some Jews to shift to vegetarianism or even veganism. This diet is most consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, and helping hungry people. Dietary shifts toward plant-based diets would improve the health of Jews and also help shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.

     In addition to reinforcing Jewish teachings on compassion, restoring the New Year for Animals would show the relevance of Judaism’s eternal teachings to current issues, thereby helping revitalize Judaism and potentially bringing many idealistic Jews back to Judaism. 

     Restoring the holiday is also consistent with the Elul theme of teshuvah, since it involves repentance for actions inconsistent with tsa’ar ba’alei chaim, the Jewish mandate to avoid harming animals.

     For more information about Jewish teachings on animals, please visit the Jewish Veg website (www.JewishVeg.org). I have four articles related to the restored holiday at www.JewishVeg.com/schwartz.

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