Earth Etude for Elul 15 – Shema: Listen to, and do for, the Earth
by Joan Rachlin~
During Elul, the month of reflection and spiritual return, or t’shuvah, I am working to deepen my connection to the earth so that I can in turn strengthen my efforts to protect it. I want to listen to and observe nature in a more intentional way and to encourage others to do the same.
We all know how to observe nature, but how—and why—should we listen to it as well? I want to both watch and listen to the miracle that is nature so that I can better understand what we have, stop taking those gifts for granted, and to become more aware of what we are losing second by second.
What would I hear if I could listen to nature outside my pinpoint-tiny corner of this earth? The crackling sound of entire forests being consumed by fire, the haunting sounds of human and animal suffering during floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, the terrifying sounds of fracking, drilling, mining, and clear cutting, and the heart-wrenching silence of polar bears and other species starving to death because their habitats have been destroyed.
One of the most important words in Judaism is “Shema,” which means “listen,” “hear,” and “do.” In ancient times, Jews said “Shema” when they went into battle and we are now in the midst of a battle of a different kind…the one against climate change, which is threatening to destroy our planet.
Because most of us have not yet experienced the ravages of climate change, we have no incentives to change our fossil fuel loving habits. I am therefore trying to “hear”—as well as see—nature so that I can be more aware of its fragility and of the ways in which my actions contribute to its degradation. I pray that listening will increase my learning, understanding, and ability to teach others what they can do to help mitigate climate change.
Most importantly, I want to honor the “do” part of the Shema by working with others to accept our collective responsibility for healing the earth. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible,” so individual and collective t’shuvah are both essential.
Anyone reading this Etude is likely already doing a lot, but we can do more. We must vote with both feet and dollars by putting our savings in socially responsible/impact investments, working for and donating to progressive candidates—whether they be in our own state or elsewhere, donating to environmental organizations, purchasing products from companies that practice sustainability, and by buying organic and locally grown fruits and vegetables from farmers markets and CSAs. Those acts—if done by great numbers of people—will matter. A lot.
Finally, during Elul, I am trying to tap into the hope, awe, and call to action that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel embodied. Susannah Heschel said that … “For my father, life was precious, every moment. He used to say, time is life, and to ‘kill time’ is to commit murder.” This exhortation feels more pressing than ever, since only we humans—acting individually, collectively, and quickly—can save the planet.
Shema…My prayer this Elul is that I will immerse and remain immersed in the urgent work of turning and returning to my higher self, so that, by my spiritual return, I can plant seeds of hope for our earth’s physical return.
Joan Rachlin is the executive director emerita of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, an international bioethics organization. She has also practiced health, criminal, and civil rights law. Joan has been involved with the Women’s Health Organization, Our Bodies Ourselves, for over 40 years and chaired its Board from 2016-2017. An active member of Temple Israel, Boston, she serves on the Leadership Council, TI Cares, and chairs the Green Team. She received a Distinguished Service Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2013 and the Harvey M. Meyerhoff Award for Leadership in Bioethics from the Berman Institute for Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University in 2014. She holds a J.D. from the Suffolk Law School, and a M.P.H. from the Harvard School of Public Health.
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