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Earth Etude for Elul 18 — What I Hope to Be

by Joan Rachlin

~The temperatures, sun, moon, breezes, trees, grasses, plants, and flowers all signal that change is in the air. We’re moving into a new season and a new month, Elul, with its promise of transformation and its possibility of renewal.

Elul is when we can hit the reset button and begin again. Sounds easy, but we cannot appeal to the “better angels of our nature” without engaging in Teshuvah, or “return.” There are many interpretations of what “return” means in this context but, in the end, each of us must choose our own definition and destination. I am anchoring my journey of Teshuvah to nature, for it is where my soul is most whole and energized.

Our Torah tells us that humankind came from the earth…Adamah. Long before I knew of that sacred teaching, though, I had already formed a primal connection to nature. As a child growing up in Florida, the beach, ocean, and horizon came to represent freedom, joy, and awe. Their beauty, vastness, and mystery brought me as close to God as I’ve ever been and it is thus the place to which my soul is forever tied.

There’s a Niggun (tune) that’s sung in many congregations during High Holiday services. Each time I hear it I’m hypnotically lulled back to the gentle waves at the seashore:

Return again, return again

Return to the land of your Soul

Return to who you are, return to what you are

Return to where you are

Born and reborn again.         

–Shlomo Carlebach

Spending time in the landscapes I love calms, nourishes, and strengthens my soul, but those places are fighting for their very lives. How can I find my way back to the land of my soul when that land is burning, cracking, flooding, boiling, freezing, and being battered by elements and plagues of biblical proportions?

Many Rabbis tell us it’s not enough to talk about Torah, we have to “Be Torah.” Similarly, it’s not enough to talk about the environment, we have to “Be Environmentalists.” So as I embark on this return to the land of my soul, my priority will be doing what I can to make it right with the earth. I want to evaluate everything I buy, consume, and use in terms of its environmental impact.

Another part of my commitment involves reaching out to others—without judgment — and asking if they might consider incorporating this kavanah, this intention to help heal the earth, into their lives? Protecting and preserving the earth is a daunting task, so most people surrender to either paralysis or despair. As with all long journeys, it helps to begin with small steps and to consider them in concentric circles:

—How can I personally Be more of an environmental steward?

—How can my family or living unit Be less wasteful? 

—How can I influence my friends, neighbors, and co-workers to Be more involved? 

—How can I help my city or town Be more energy efficient? 

—How can I help my state and country Be a positive leader in environmental action?

This is my kavanah. With commitment and action, change is possible. Be hopeful! Be involved! Be a change agent! It’s Elul. 

Joan Rachlin, JD, MPH, 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 45 years and served as its Board chair. An active member of Temple Israel, Boston, she serves on the Leadership Council, TI Cares, and is the founder and co-chair of its the Green Team. Joan is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Higher Ground Initiative, a coalition of reform congregations working on climate change mitigation education and policy. 

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