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Earth Etude for Elul 26: Why is this Elul Different from All Other Eluls?

by Joan Rachlin

During the Passover Seder we ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” and we then spend the evening answering the four – and more – questions. Reciting the plagues, remembering enslavement, identifying with the “other,” and rising up against abuse of power are four pillars of Passover.

The four questions and search for answers provide a relevant framework for this year’s Elul reflection. As I engage in teshuvah, the ritual of stock-taking in advance of the high holidays, I ask myself many questions as I seek to find and return to my best self. The questions are uncannily similar to those of the Seder. Among them:

  • What can I do to help repair the Earth after the plagues of fossil fuels and environmental degradation?
  • How can the memory of enslavement in Egypt fuel my commitment to fighting systemic racism?
  • What can I do to help lessons learned from Covid lead to strategies for fighting the disparities in healthcare?
  • How can I fight political chicanery and the degradation of our democracy?

Each question gives rise to many more: 

  • Isn’t it too late to repair the earth? 
  • How will something as entrenched as racism ever be eliminated? 
  • Aren’t healthcare systems always going to give the needs of the wealthy priority? 
  • What can I, one white-haired senior citizen, do to help rebuild our broken and divided country and heal our battered and burning earth?

The answer is “something”… I can do something. I must do something! If I am to find and return to my best self, I cannot be who came out of Egypt in April and forgot about it by September. I must remember that I, too, am “other” and act on the resultant thirst for justice, equality, and peace. 

I know what I cannot do. I am not prepared to risk my life like those “Righteous Among the Nations” non-Jews who risked—and often lost—their lives in order to protect Jews during the Holocaust. But I can work to ensure that my higher self wins a battle over my sluggish and scared one.

  • I can participate in Dayenu’s Chutzpah 2020  Campaign and support and help seed Roots and Shoots chapters, part of the Jane Goodall Institute. 
  • I can decide to which of Ibram X. Kendi”s suggestions for building a more just society in How to Be An Anti-Racist I can commit. I can support Black Lives Matter. 
  • I can support institutions like Boston Medical Center, Boston Healthcare for the Homeless, Pine Street Inn, and Health Care for All. 
  • I can be part of “The Rising.” I can write postcards as part of the “Reclaim Our Vote,” and other campaigns. 
  • I can work to elect candidates up and down the ballot who are committed to addressing these issues.

In this strange and surreal year, I will work toward a teshuvah that’s more than words. Elul 2020 finds us engaged in an epic battle for the soul of our country. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “We are not all guilty, but we are all responsible.” I pray that I can rise to my responsibilities and “Get into trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.” I’ll try, Congressman Lewis, I’ll try. Ha’levai.

Joan Rachlin is the executive director emerita of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research, an international bioethics organization. In addition, she practiced law for many years, specializing in cases involving women’s health. Following her retirement, Joan has focused on climate change education and advocacy, including founding and chairing the Green Team at Temple Israel, Boston, and serving on the Steering Committee of the Higher Ground Initiative, a national organization that provides the Jewish community with information on sea level rise and environmental issues more broadly. 

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