Earth Etude for Elul 21- What Does Atoning and Returning to God Mean?

by Rabbi Judy Weiss
Ps. 27:1 “The Lord is my light and my rescue. Whom should I fear?”
For an entire month before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus on atoning and returning to God. But what exactly, in real life terms, does atoning and returning to God mean? We plan our path to return by adding Psalm 27 to our daily prayers. This psalm repeatedly affirms hope in God. It ends with:
Ps 27:14 “Let your heart be firm and bold, and hope for the Lord.”
As Robert Alter comments, the Psalm opens and closes with the same sentiment “It begins by affirming trust in God and reiterates that hopeful confidence, but the trust has to be asserted against the terrors of being overwhelmed by implacable enemies.”
The psalm focuses on hope, but what does hope have to do with High Holiday atonement? We all have some circumstance that destabilizes us, quashes our hope, fosters procrastination, apathy, or alienation. As you think about your issue, consider the possibility that one type of sin is succombing to despair, and for this sin, returning to God is pushing despair away and holding on firmly to hope.
My issue is climate change activism. I’m regularly filled with despair that my children and grandchildren won’t be safe, and that it is already too late to help them. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting faster than predicted. So is the West Antarctic icesheet.
I steer clear of this, my worst fear, I turn towards hope that humanity will eliminate carbon emissions and will stabilize the climate relying on the fact that 8 of the 10 largest world economies are already charging for fossil fuel emissions. China has six operating regional cap and trade initiatives, plans to start a national system for pricing emissions soon, and will prohibit coal powered electricity generation in Beijing by 2020.
Yet, very often I veer again into despair. The Beijing coal plants will be converted to natural gas which is no better for climate change than coal Missouri has 21 functioning coal plants, Kansas just issued permits for a new coal plant, and Florida’s Governor and Junior Senator deny anthropogenic climate change is happening. Seas are rising rapidly in the area. Some Miami streets flood with sea water and sewage during high tides. Residents will experience trouble flushing toilets as water level rises. Ludicrously, Miami construction continues as if it is a gigantic Ponzi scheme to maintain real estate prices. Climate change denial also props up real estate values in coastal North Carolina.
Religiously, I redirect myself towards hope. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) routed an extremist primary opponent. Alexander’s victory is a hopeful sign because, during the campaign season, he toured a solar factory, acknowledging anthropogenic climate change, acknowledging the need for emissions-free energy (solar, nuclear, bio), and acknowledging the need to eliminate fossil fuel companies special tax breaks (above and beyond the breaks that all other corporations receive).
I commonly do penance for despair by reading a few more articles, writing several more letters to the editor. Did you know that Senate candidate Gary Peters (D-MI) is running on climate change? Peters pressed his opponent (Terry Lynn Land) to affirm climate change is caused by humans and requires action. He trailed by 3 points six months ago, but is now up by 7. His campaign emphasizes Land receives campaign funding from Koch industries, the same Koch industries that stores piles of petroleum coke near residential Detroit neighborhoods. Voters seem to be responding to the health risks from exposure to petroleum coke dust, and to Peters’ calls for climate action. When the Koch brothers are a liability to the Republican party, strong Republican leadership will be able to reassert traditional Republican environmental values. I see hope here, opportunities for people to learn and connect, improve their situation and steward the world.
Despair furtively makes me forget hope. Climate change deniers caused Congress to waste decades. In 1988 Dr. James Hansen testified before Congress about climate change. Since then, climate change progressed faster than scientists had warned based on almost every measure. Deniers persistently bombard the public with propaganda, destroying resolve, undermining hope.
Ps 27:3 says “Though a camp is marshaled against me, my heart shall not fear.”
What is this military camp? Although the psalm means external enemies, rabbinic commentators suggest the enemy camp could be internal, our internal evil inclination. As some shun murder, adultery and swearing, I cold-shoulder despair. I reposition towards hope with the knowledge that Dr. Hansen left NASA to advocate full time for climate action. Despair, a weapon of the evil inclination, can be rebuffed.
To this climate change activist, atoning and returning mean defending against despair. Surrendering to the idea that it’s too late for climate action, cannot lead to a good outcome. Devoting oneself to hope that there is still time allows advocacy and anger, curbs apathy, prevents hatred towards deniers, and ends alienation from people and nations who are in worse straits than we are.

Whatever your source of despair, whenever your heart shrinks from bold, firm action, remember atonement and returning to God means affirming hope. Remember the old joke about the man on the roof during rising floodwaters? Drown fear, squelch everything you know, grab the helicopter ladder, and be rescued.

Rabbi Judy Weiss lives in Brookline, MA with her husband Alan. She teaches Tanakh and volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby.

1 Reply to "Earth Etude for Elul 21- What Does Atoning and Returning to God Mean?"

  • Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope
    September 15, 2014 (8:16 pm)

    An exceptional, intelligent and moving piece. I hope others will find this post as moving in addition to generating the sense that we can and should all make a difference in the ways that move us.

Got something to say?