Praying for a Sustainable World (Longer Article)

Core Teaching #11: Praying for a Sustainable World

Praying for a Sustainable World

By Evonne Marzouk[1]

“Change your lightbulb! Call your senator! Buy a hybrid car! Think global, act local!” Sound familiar? These are today’s strongest environmental messages, the messages of action that we most likely associate with protecting the environment.

Today’s environmental movement seems to focus strongly on doing. There are things to buy, actions to take, petitions to sign, policies to advocate. It is rare for environmentalists to think of prayer as a tool for change. Many people in today’s society think of prayer as a passive, contemplative activity – a break from action.

Jewish leachings express a very different view of prayer.[2] The paradigm was established over 3,000 years ago in Egypt: “We cried out to G-d and He heard our voice; He sent an emissary and took us out of Egypt.”[3] The Midrash, part of the Jewish oral tradition, teaches based on this verse of a special power of Jews praying and G-d hearing their prayer.[4] What is true for the people is also true for their leader. The Midrash teaches that the greatest power of Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, was his communication with God via his mouth.[5] For example, when the desert tribe of Amalek attacked the Israelites in the desert, Moses' response was to act at both a physical and a spiritual level. He appointed Joshua to lead Israelite soldiers in battle, and then ascended a mountain to pray to God for the Israelites' success.[6] The Torah makes clear that his prayer– and not the military prowess of Joshua or his soldiers—was what decided the battle.

Prayer is one of the key tools that God has given us to change the world. As we will see, it is our responsibility and opportunity to pray for the health of the earth and human civilization living on it and with it.

Created to Pray

At the moment before the human was first created, the Torah expresses an important lesson about our role in creation.

Now all the plants (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth and all the herb of the field had not yet sprouted, for Hashem G-d had not yet sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to work the soil.” (Gen. 2:5)

What was this human role in relationship to rain and land? Rashi comments based on the Talmud:

For what is the reason that G-d had not yet sent rain, because there was no man to work the land and there was no one to acknowledge the goodness of the rain, and when man came and knew that they (the rain) are a need for the world, he prayed for them and they came down, and the trees and grasses sprouted”[7]

The rabbis teach that human beings’ prayers for rain are what make plants grow. In this understanding of our creation story, the role of the human being is apparent. The very first task of the person is recognizing G-d, and then praying to G-d on behalf of creation. As Rabbi Daniel Kohn explains (based on Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook), one of the first acts of humans on this planet was to care for creation – by praying for it.[8]

The verse immediately before this lesson states: “These are the products of the heaven and the earth when they were created on the day that Hashem G-d made earth and heaven” (Gen. 2:4). The proximity of these two verses demonstrates the direct connection between G-d’s creating of theearth and the tending of the creation, to be done by human beings. In other words, G-d created it in order for us to tend to it. Our integral role, however, is not exclusively through our actions. It is also through our prayers.

Many Jewish environmentalists have focused on another verse in Genesis: the instruction “to work and to protect” the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15). Interestingly, some commentators understand the “l’ovda” (to work) as spiritual work: meaning prayer. Understood this way, our human responsibility is two-fold – to pray for it and to protect it.[9]

Praying for Creation

Traditionally, Jews pray three times a day, in the morning, afternoon, and evening. The Talmud cites a verse from the Book of Genesis to establish each prayer. The afternoon prayer, established by Isaac, has an interesting connection to nature. It is written:

Isaac instituted the afternoon prayer service, as it is said, “And Isaac went out to su’ah in the field before evening” (Gen. 24:63); and [the Talmud goes on to explain] there is no sihah except prayer, as it is said, “A prayer of the afflicted man when he swoons, and pours forth his supplications (siho) before Hashem” (Ps. 102:1).[10]

What was Isaac doing in the field before evening? The word “su’ach” is unclear, but the Sages conclude that he was praying based on the linguistic similarity between this word and another reference for prayer in the Psalms. If we contrast this word with the verse from Genesis above (“Now all the plants (siah) of the field were not yet on the earth”) we can see that there is also a relationship between the root of the word for prayer and the word for plants.

Rabbi Natan Sternhartz teaches: Meditation and prayer are called 'sichah.' A plant or shrub is called 'si'ach.' When the plants of the field begin to return to life and grow, they all yearn to be included in one's sichah, in meditation and prayer."[11] This implies that not only does G-d want our prayers for the creation – the natural world is seeking them, as well.

Other Jewish teachings also imply that every aspect of creation has its own special song, the basis of the text known as Perek Shira (literally, Chapter of Song). This understanding would seem to indicate that all non-human aspects of creation – inanimate, vegetable, and animal – are themselves constantly praying to G-d.[12]

Nature in our Prayers

Perhaps reflecting the importance of the prayer-human-creation relationship, the liturgy of Jewish prayers is filled with nature imagery and recognition of our dependence on natural resources. Nature plays a prominent role in the liturgy, taking on symbolic roles in relationship to humanity, to G-d, and to righteous activities for which we are encouraged to strive.

Numerous verses in the traditional liturgy identify nature as a commendable example, either for praise to G-d or in the righteousness identified within the natural systems. For example:

“Praise Him, sun and moon, praise Him, all bright stars. Praise Him, the most exalted of the heavens and the waters that are above the heavens. Let them praise the Name of Hashem, for He commanded and they were created…Praise Hashem from the earth, sea giants and all watery depths. Fire and hail, snow and vapor, stormy wind fulfilling His word. Mountains and all hills, fruitful trees and all cedars. Beasts and all cattle, crawling things and winged fowl.”[13]

“A righteous person will flourish like a date palm, like a cedar in the Lebanon he will grow tall. Planted in the house of Hashem, in the courtyards of our G-d they will flourish. They will still be fruitful in old age, vigorous and fresh they will be.”[14]

Jewish prayers also help us recall and appreciate the beauty and consistency of nature, and how much we rely upon it and its Creator. Because the rhythms of nature are so constant, we may forget how special it is that the sun rises each day, that waters continue to flow in the streams, and that intricate ecosystems thrive with numerous creatures in our forests and preserves. Aside from their intrinsic worth, these things also have a value to human beings. Without the water we drink, without the sun to warm the earth, without the rain – without any of these aspects of creation, we would not be able to survive. Environmental economists have termed nature’s processes ‘ecosystem services,’ and have valued them in the tens of trillions of dollars per year.[15] This constancy is alluded to in the Psalm (repeated each morning in the Jewish liturgy):

“He Who illuminates the earth and those who dwell upon it, with compassion; and in His goodness renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation. How great are Your works, Hashem, You make them all with wisdom, the world is full of Your possessions.”[16]

These nature-centric verses in the Jewish liturgy remind us to be grateful to G-d for providing the natural world we live in, and themselves serve as a prayer for continued blessing of natural resources.

Healing the World: Through Prayer

Many of us long to make a difference in healing the world today. We may assume that our instinct to improve the world comes from our minds, our genes, or the society in which we live. According to Jewish mystical teachings, our desire to make a difference comes from our souls. The soul has experienced true bliss in the place where it comes from, and it knows that more is possible in this world. The soul sees that things in this world have not achieved their full potential. Our soul is the part of us that is not satisfied with the way things are and desires healing for the world.[17] Prayers are the language of the soul, and by praying we can affect ourselves and the world around us.

As souls seeking healing for our world, what can we pray for? At the general level, we can pray for the wisdom of our leaders, for more committed action by the Jewish community, for the success of our individual projects, and for all involved in the effort to build a more sustainable world. More specifically, we can pray for the strength to make environmentally positive choices, for the health of other species, and for people who are affected by environmental tragedies.

According to Rabbi Daniel Kohn (based on Rashi according to the Talmud), prayer is a tool for changing the world because by praying, we change our inner reality. Since we are part of the world, by praying, we become more complete and then bring that completeness into our world. Our inner life is the part of the world that we have the most influence upon; by changing our inner life through prayer, we bring goodness into the world. In this way, prayer is an active and critical part of our difference-making work.

In addition, it is a basic Jewish understanding that when we pray, G-d listens and acts on the physical reality based on our prayer. Jewish tradition is filled with descriptions of these types of effective prayers, from Moses’ prayer for forgiveness[18] to Chanah’s prayer for a child[19]. It is also a basic Jewish teaching that it is our responsibility to pray for the people and projects for which we are responsible.[20]

One prayer may make a world of difference, but the combined prayers of hundreds or thousands of people may, perhaps, inspire change on a global scale. A physical action like biking instead of driving impacts this process by reducing the amount of carbon emitted. A spiritual action like praying works at the transcendent level and may subtly generate far-reaching changes.

Jewish teachings help us realize that a moment spent in prayer is an active moment, with the power to make a difference. When we pray with a community, we become connected to the needs of the community and the rest of the world. To pray on behalf of the entire planet is to summon the entire earth within us. The more a person cares about this world and turns to G-d to make it complete and whole, the more G-d gives.

Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook emphasized the positive spiritual value of a person singing their song with all of God's creatures. He wrote:

Then there is one who rises toward wider horizons, until he links himself with all existence, with all God's creatures, with all worlds, and he sings his song with all of them. It is of one such as this that tradition has said that whoever sings a portion of song each day is assured of having a share in the World to Come.[21]

Prayer is a vision for what can become, with a heart full of hope, inspiring a brighter future. Today, perhaps the most important thing for us all to pray for is the health of the earth and of a return to balance within human civilization. Let us pray.

This material was produced as part of the Jewcology project. Jewcology.comis a new web portal for the global Jewish environmental community. Thanks to the ROI communityfor their generous support, which made the Jewcology project possible.

Evonne Marzouk is the founder and Executive Director of Canfei Nesharim: Sustainable Living Inspired by Torah.

[1] The author acknowledges Rabbi Yonatan Neril for his helpful editorial suggestions on this piece.

[2] This article reflects a meaningful approach to Jewish prayer focusing on its relationship to nature and protecting the environment. This represents one Jewish understanding of prayer. Within our rich tradition, of course, there are others as well.

[3] Numbers 20:16

[4] Midrash Tanchuma, Beshalach 9, cited in Rashi to Numbers 20:16.

[5] Midrash Tanchuma, 3, cited in Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki, France, 1040-1105 C.E.) to Numbers 22:4.

[6] Exodus 17:8-13.

[7] Rashi to Genesis 2:5, s.v. ki lo himtir, based on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chullin p. 60b.

[8] Essays on Prayer, distributed in 2011.

[9]As explained by R' Natan Greenberg. The Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, b. Mir, Russia, 1816 – d. Warsaw, Poland, August 10, 1893, in his commentary Harchiv Davar) teaches on Gen 2:15 that the 'work' of Gan Eden was spiritual work, and not agricultural work. Rabbi Greenberg connects this to the inherent link between people's spiritual work and the maintenance of the world.

[10]Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 26b

[11] Sichot HaRaN

[12] As explained by Rabbi Avraham Aryeh Trugman in The Mystical Power of Music, p. 66.

[13] Psalms 148:1-10, translation of Artscroll Siddur.

[14] Psalms 92:13-15, translation of Artscroll Siddur.

[15]“The value of the world's ecosystem services and natural capital,” Costanza et. al, Nature 387, 253 – 260 (15 May 1997); online at The article notes that “for the entire biosphere, the value (most of which is outside the market) is estimated to be in the range of US$16–54 trillion (1012) per year, with an average of US$33trillion per year. Because of the nature of the uncertainties, thismust be considered a minimum estimate. Global gross national product total is around US$18 trillion per year."

[16] Morning blessings before Shema, as found in Artscroll Siddur, p 85-87.

[17] Based on the teachings of Rabbi Daniel Kohn on prayer, taught at Yeshivat Hamivtar in 2010.

[18] Exodus 32:32

[19] I Samuel 1:11

[20] The model for this behavior is the High Priest who, during Temple times, was expected to pray for his generation. See Babylonian Talmud, tractate Makkos 11a, as cited in To Kindle A Soul: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Parents and Teachers by Lawrence Kelemen, p. 66.

[21] Orot HaKodesh vol. II, p. 444-445, translation by Rabbi Avraham Arieh Trugman in The Mystical Power of Music, p.132

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