‘Help us know what we can do?’ I’ve been asked repeatedly to stress the environment in my High Holyday letters. Each day until Yom Kippur I will try to focus on a different Jewish value, a specific sentence from the prayers, and practical actions we can take.
The place to begin is the beginning: ‘This day is the birthday of the world’. Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation and creator, all matter, every living being and the presence of the living God within all life.
Most of us realise we are in the midst of a climate emergency, the central issue in global justice, and survival itself.
Just as there is a debate among the legalists as to which is the first commandment, the fear or the love of God, so there are different views among climate activists as to whether we are motivated more by love or fear.
‘You shall love the Lord your God’, is the essence of the Shema, Judaism’s central, daily meditation. To love God is to care, deeply, for God’s works: people, animals, nature the very elements of earth and air.
I’ve met no one who hates trees, despises birdsong, or is immune to the intricacy of nature. To those who love it, the wonder of the natural world, even in a single leaf or bud, lifts the heart and replenishes the spirit. To anyone who reads any of the research, nature is also us: we are interdependent with it, dependent even on the smallest insects and worms.
Love, taught Maimonides, deepens with knowledge:
When one contemplates God’s works, perceiving in them a fraction of the infinite and endless divine wisdom, at once one is filled with love… (Foundations of Torah 2:2)
One does not have to believe in God to be moved in this way.
To love therefore means to learn. We can choose a tree, bird or animal (oak, ash, bumblebee, starling, elephant, red squirrel, cow), look out for it, study its fate, reflect on the challenges it faces today. We can join the Woodland Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Plantlife, The Wildlife Trust, the Worldwide Fund for Nature or any similar organisation in the UK, Israel or across the globe.
Ignorance, when we have the opportunity to learn, is a form of indifference. But love leads to knowledge; knowledge to awareness, and awareness to action.
On its birthday the world calls to us in the shofar’s cry to be more deeply aware:
Let everything You made know that You made it; all creation understand that You are its creator. (The Rosh Hashanah Amidah)
If all life is so precious, how can we bear to destroy it? What can we do to protect it? How, in traditional terminology, can we be co-creators with God?