The Everyday Greening of Teshuvah

Dear Friends,

I’d like to open a kettle of worms. To reveal the concealed. Though quite honestly, I’m feeling a little guilty about sharing it. I’d like to dig into the anguish and sometimes near crushing feelings that writing about tremendous mountains of electronic waste stir up (see my past blog here).

Living in America in the new millennium, I’m aware that even the most “virtuous” of green paths cannot escape deep impacts and repercussions. After all, the problems are so large, and my everyday life is intimately wrapped inside the causes. Rabbi Heschel has a famous declaration, spoken to express his concern about America bringing war to Vietnam “In a democracy, only some are guilty, but all are responsible”. I can’t help but amend this to say, “In the Ecological Age, all are guilty and all are responsible.” Not ONLY individuals- I’m not giving a free pass to corporate decisions, government policies and our many workplace decisions, though here I wish to focus on our experience as individuals.

I suppose I should just say it. I’d like to speak for guilt. I know guilt is not in fashion. Even on attack in some quarters. Does that mean it disappears from our life? I wonder how much therapy and how many contemporary crusades have been fueled by our repressed guilt and anxiety? Guilt is part of the anguish I feel as I comprehend the ecological impacts of my daily actions. Living in a society of such affluence, convenience and its wasteful consequences tempt us at every turn and in every sector of life; with every vehicle ride, meal prepared and home improvement project, and yes, even with every cup of coffee. None of us can ever be immune or “perfect”.

I’m motivated to give voice to this private feeling in this public forum because of the repeated and palpable groaning I’ve been hearing in classes lately. When groups hear Rabbi Heschel’s view that endless tension and obligation stem from our experiences of awe and wonder, people groan. Or “the greatness of humans can be judged by the troubles we carry… life is a challenge not a satisfaction” and,“all that we own, we owe” Groan, groan. Or this from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, from an essay by Rabbi Larry Kushner in the new book, Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life, “Jewish thought pays little attention to inner tranquility and peace of mind….The Jewish approach to life considers the man who has stopped going on- who has a feeling of completion, of peace… to be someone who has lost his way.” Groan, groan, groan.

To me, this feels like an authentic consequence of receiving an ecological education, a real part of my inner landscape. I wonder, does this also ring true for you? I feel my eyes are ever on the horizon and yet do I ever come to the horizon? Never. All we have are our steps- and when we realize the implications of our actions along with our own imperfections, I am motivated to tread lightly. Sometimes, I can even become overwhelmed, guilt activated, when I realize how often I choose convenience when I could have chosen differently.

I used to be surprised by the groans. After all, Jewish tradition has long explored this landscape since the earliest of strata- Leviticus 19:2 “You must be Holy for I the Lord am Holy.” We are called to the highest level, and yet perfection has always been unattainable. Thanksfully, atonement, tikkun hanefesh, self healing, is built deeply into our tradition- first with animal sacrifices, and then, after destruction of the Temple, the Rabbi’s taught that our deeds of loving-kindness will act as our atonement. Perhaps today we can add street protests, letters to congress, consciousness raising workshops, and donations (to Jewcology for instance) as further actions on the path of atonement.

Dr. Louis E. Newman, in Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of Teshuvah, a profound text written from decades of study and life experiences, states directly the importance of our guilt. He teaches that guilt can help wake us up to the consequences of our actions and lead us to making amends and most importantly, finalize the work of Teshuvah by not repeating the action when it comes around again, as it undoubtedly will. In this way we can touch the true and radical freedom our life has to offer. In this way, we can tap into true and radical hope that the world of tomorrow does not have to be the world of yesterday or today.

I don't want to end this blog here, even if it were Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement. The danger of dancing with guilt, is that we can so easily become mugged by this dance partner. We can lose perspective and slip into a dark pit of guilt and despair, a place of not being good enough- when we focus our attention on how vast is the need, and how puny are our efforts. Chaim Grade, the modern Yiddish novelist, points to this kind of dark landscape with some of the characters in his novels, The Yeshivah and The Agunah. Perhaps some of us recognize this as well?

Unsurprisingly, Judaism’s collection of ancient wisdom has also foreseen the dangers of this for us. In fact, our commonest wisdom considers this landscape. We probably know this from Rabbi Hillel: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?" (PA,1:14) or this from Rabbi Tarfon, "It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either" (PA 2:16). Are not these teachings addressing very serious and overwhelming questions? Let us also add, “if not here, where?”

Rabbi Arthur Green encourages us to remember (riffing off the Sfat Emet and other Hasidic masters) that future generations will also like to share in “redeeming the world”. Yes, it is good to remember that none of us ever need to work alone. We are all part of a grand team, colleagues we share the same time with, and also we have colleagues in our future descendants, and we also are supported by our colleague ancestors from the past.

Similarly, Rabbi Kushner’s essay that contains the above Steinsaltz quote, addressed this topic, by citing Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s teaching that Moses was picked just because he did not feel worthy! The Berditchever is raising up this experience of unworthiness, presumably because of how common the darker feelings of inadequacy were in his day. This wisdom is solid, however, I wonder where is the wisdom stream that lies beyond the landscape of obligation and inadequacy?

It seems to me, this is the very heart of environmental education and what inspires me about this work. This stream is nothing less than the “aboriginal abyss of radical amazement” in Rabbi Heschel’s words. The everyday sense of wonder we might feel with a certain forest breeze or the wondrous birth of a child. Here Rabbi Heschel gives this experience ultimate significance. Speaking with the authority of 4000 years of Jewish tradition, Rabbi Heschel reminds us of mysterious blessing at the center of all life- not a mystery to solve, rather an unsolvable mystery for us to revere. Let’s listen in as he shares his wisdom about being human, “Where man meets the world, not with the tools he has made but with the soul in which he was born; not like a hunter who seeks his prey, but like a lover to reciprocate; not an object, a thing given to his sense, but a state of fellowship that embraces him and all things; not a particular fact, but the startling situation that there are facts at all; being; the presence of a universe; the unfolding of time.”

Perhaps in one pocket we need to hold the truth that life is endless obligation, the work is long, and we are puny, mere dust soon going back to dust. Our part is to work at what is given to us, wherever we find ourselves. In the other pocket, we remember the radical amazement that is present in every moment, we are awed by the infinite significance of our individual actions, we hold the realization that the world was created for us and we carry the voice of the earth inside our throats.

A new day is dawning. Tell me, how will you respond to the gift of these waking hours?

I’ll leave you with a clip from Rabbi Heschel, who inspires me with his fierce urgency for prophetic activism along with his deep understanding of the quiet power of prayer.

David Arfa, Maggid.

1 Reply to "The Everyday Greening of Teshuvah"

  • Deborah Klee Wenger
    December 13, 2011 (6:36 pm)

    Thanks, David, for re-charging the spirit!

Got something to say?