Earth Etude for Elul 5
Priestly Atonement and Cleansing the Environment
by Andy Oram
~Can you really have an impact on climate change by switching to veggie burgers or lowering the heat in Winter? How about making a change at work that shaves some of the carbon footprint off of your product? Do these really matter when the world continues to pump tons more carbon into the atmosphere each year?
The Jewish tradition offers a useful perspective on this question in the afternoon Yom Kippur service, where we recreate the atonement ceremonies of the Temple’s High Priest. Atonement is divided by this tradition into three parts that must be observed in strict order: first the High Priest’s family, then the house of Aaron, and finally the whole people. Leviticus 16:17 hints briefly at this three-part ceremony preceding the release of the scapegoat, but the ceremony does not appear in the meticulously detailed Talmud tractate about Yom Kippur, and seems to have been imagined by much later generations.
Let’s use these stages of atonement as analogies for our own psychological, spiritual, and moral evolution. Perhaps lowering the thermostat or instituting recycling doesn’t make a difference in itself, but provides a jumping-off point for education and activism.
Consider the first atonement, involving your family. You are modeling for your children and neighbors by changing your behavior to be more environmentally friendly. You achieve a bit of spiritual purification by purifying your trip to work of fossil fuels, or purifying your food consumption of polluting animal products. You also spur on activism, because you think, “If I can make this change without suffering, I can persuade others to do things with a much bigger impact.”
And taking “family” in a broad sense (not just the nuclear family that is familiar from the past couple hundred years), you can bring climate action into your local community.
The second stage in atonement is in the workplace, symbolized by the Levites carrying out Temple worship. Now you have moved from individual statements to demanding a commitment from your workplace that it will reduce, reuse, and recycle instead of dumping all its carbon production on the world. Such activism is nothing less than a redefinition of the role of work and corporations in society.
Finally, one gets to the third stage, involving global action. You have modeled environmentally conscious behavior, demanded reciprocal actions from your community and workplace, and make the climate a central concern for everyone with whom you have come in contact.
Collective action is more than just the accumulation of individual actions. but collective action is not something you can jump into all at once. The Yom Kippur atonement service shows how to think of upping your activity in a matter of grave concern to the whole of Creation.
Andy Oram is a writer and editor in the computer field. 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. He has lived in the Boston, Massachusetts area for more than 30 years. He self-published a memoir, “Backtraces: Three Decades of Computing, Communities, and Critiques” and his poems have been published in many journals.