by Rabbi Ben Weiner~
Like almost every Jewish festival, the High Holidays have both spiritual and natural resonance, which, at the deepest level, are intertwined. Our ancient ancestors, linking the quality of the oncoming rainy season with the quality of their deeds, derived the need to perform an intense ceremony of repentance at just the time they began anxiously scanning the sky for clouds.
Growing up in central New England, it was not the rains I anticipated as the days of Elul ticked away but the first signs of autumn–cool dewy mornings and crisp breezes by day that brought refreshing contrast to the humidity of summer. These awoke in me not so much the existential gratitude of an Israelite receiving the water of heaven as a subtler sense of safety and familiarity, the childhood feeling of everything being in its right place that can ripen amidst the complexities of later life into an intense nostalgia. It was this seasonal advent, more than any sort of brimming awe and trembling, that defined the time for me–and it is this feeling that I yearn for now as the Days of Awe approach.
I have increasingly come to taste the disappointment of this yearning over the past several years, as September continues an inexorable transition into a full-blown summer month, with early fall heatwaves becoming more common, and leaves that in the past would already be tinged with color holding green and stubborn to their stems, and, last year, cherry tomato plants giving fruit well into October whose tartness in my mouth was mixed in my mind with the ominous tang of a poisoned apple.
So I have come to approach this time with quite a bit more fear and trembling than I would prefer to feel–maybe more like my ancestors awaiting the rains that have themselves become less abundant and predictable in our times–and my understanding of tshuvah now grows precisely out of the chasm between my nostalgic expectation and the planet of today. As the High Holidays now bring climate change into this stark relief, accompanied by an emotional tension that I sometimes find almost unbearable, they must by necessity also occasion an intense soul-searching, as I seek the rhythm by which to live with love, righteousness, and joy in the face of the peril of this changing world.
*Solastagia describes distress produced by environmental disaster.
Benjamin Weiner is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst. He lives with his family on their 3.2 acre homestead in Deerfield, MA, where they keep dairy goats, chickens, and bees, and grow much of their own food.