Earth Etude for Elul 15 — T’shuvah is an answer.

by Andy Oram

~ At High Holidays we speak intently and repeatedly of T’shuvah (תשובה), by which we mean repentance or returning to God. T’shuvah does mean “return”, but it also means “answer.” We have to answer both God’s and a world that is dying before our eyes.

How can we answer? How can we approach the High Holidays with the urgency demanded us of from the modern world? In these times of imminent destruction, we also seek an answer to our plea for deliverance. And when seeking answers, Jews turn back to the riches of Torah.

The word t’shuvah derives from the simple foundation “shuv” (שׁוּב: again, or going back). So I used an online concordance* to find significant events marked by variants of “shuv”.

Adam and Eve have just been expelled from Eden when God lets them know that their free ride is over. God says in Genesis 3:19: “By the sweat of your brow will you eat bread until your return (shuvkha, שובך) to the ground; for out of it you were taken.” This reminds us of two key stances in regard to our spiritual connection to the environment: first, we are responsible for sustaining life, and second, we are inseparable from the Earth.

Exodus 14:26-28 describes the astonishing end of the Pharoah’s persecution of the Israelites. After parting the Red Sea, Moses causes the waters to return (וישב, vyashav) and drown the pursuing troops. The root shuv, appearing three times in these three verses, reminds us that while destroying the oppressors and saving the Israelites, the return of the waters restores the natural state of the world.

This root appears also in Exodus 24:14, as Moses carries out the crowning achievement of his life, ascending Sinai to receive the commandments from God. He leaves his flock with Aaron, who will supposedly handle any matters that arise, and takes off with Joshua, telling everyone to wait for them to return (נשוב, nashuv). The problem is that he will not return in time to reassure them of God’s presence, and with the help of Aaron they create the Golden Calf. This is a reminder to leaders to follow through on their promises. If you raise expectations and do not satisfy them in a timely manner, you will lose your followers.

I will finish with one occurrence outside the five books of Moses, in 2 Chronicles 32:25. Hezekiah, King of Judah, receives many good wishes from neighboring peoples but fails to reply (השיב, heshiv) because his heart has swelled. This brings down God’s wrath for reasons not explained here, but we get the back story (pun intended) in Isaiah 39 and II Kings 20. It seems that the sin of pride came on Hezekiah when visited by emissaries from the rising imperial power Babylonia. He takes them into the Temple and shows them its fine riches, a lapse of crass materialistic boastfulness. For this, Hezekiah receives a tongue-lashing and chilling prophecy from Isaiah. By devaluing the Temple’s holy mission and reducing it to a showcase for his wealth, Hezekiah brings on disaster.

Thus, the Bible has answers for those who want to address our environmental crisis. We must recognize our ties to the Earth and our need to keep it productive, smash oppressors in order to preserve its natural state; keep our commitments to those who depend on us; and avoid a fixation on material goods. Do these things, and your t’shuvah can help save the world.

*For more info about the word “shuv”: online concordance

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O’Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. Andy currently specializes in open source and data analytics, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. Andy also writes often on health IT, on policy issues related to the Internet, and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Andy participates in the Association for Computing Machinery’s policy organization, USTPC. He also writes for various web sites about health IT and about issues in computing and policy, and has published short stories and poetry.

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