Archive for October 8th, 2008

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What does Teshuvah, the power to change our lives for the better that we attempt to actualize at this, the highest moment in the Jewish year, have to do with reducing one’s carbon footprint? Isn’t connecting the two just a way of hitching a ride for one’s pet cause on the Jewish calendar?  

I raised this question in a blog two weeks ago introducing Jewish Climate Initiative’s Carbon Offsetting Guide, and want to continue pursuing it here. 

The place where the world is most stuck in combating climate change is at the point of connection between big and small, global and local, individual and government. The most common reason for individual inaction is “it’s pointless for me to change my lifestyle/lightbulbs; I’m just an infinitesimally small part of this. It will take government, laws, and loads of money to deal with this.” 

True it will, but the “big problem” is made up of billions of everyday decisions about how we choose to eat, shop, to heat our homes, and move around. Consumer spending represents 70% of the American economy. Somehow we have, as a civilization, contrived to so mismanage these primal areas of human life that the viable continuation of our civilization is in question.  

The stuckness comes from both directions. Governments are our agents, not our alibis. They won’t make far-reaching policy changes that will require us to alter our lifestyles until they see that we are ready to change and are not going to throw them out of power for requiring us to do so. 

As I wrote then,  

We intuitively understand the solid-bodies physics of how an SUV, if driven without care, can flatten pedestrians. Knowing this, we are generally careful to make sure not to do so. The atmospheric physics of how careless driving of a different kind can contribute to flattening somebody’s mud hut in the Maldives is beyond most of our scientific ken and so outside our frames of conceptual and moral reference. After all, very few people would knowingly and deliberately drive their SUV into a mud hut. And if we did so by accident, most of us would certainly say sorry, and offer to pay.  

      In Judaism, individual responsibility is the fundamental unit of social change. Teshuvah starts with me and you, (as my friend Jess Gold in England points out.)  “Great is Teshuvah, because through a single person repenting, the whole world may be forgiven,” says the Talmud (Yoma 86b). This is the redemptive flip side of interconnectedness; the deep, sincere transformation of one person can change the world.” 

I really think that’s true. But how can you put it across in a way that moves people to act? Let me introduce an idea that, I believe, will help.

Rabbi Israel Salanter, the great nineteenth century founder of the mussar movement coined a famous saying: “My neighbor’s physical needs are my spiritual needs.” When I feed, clothe or shelter my neighbor, I am also fulfilling my deepest spiritual imperatives. 

Let’s be clear: Rabbi Salanter was not saying that, actually, it’s all about my spiritual needs. He didn’t believe that my neighbor is merely an incidental bit-part player in the great drama of me. Rather, he was pointing out that the world is so set up as to inextricably connect reaching out to sustain his material life with my spiritual growth. 

Today I believe it is no less accurate to say: “the planet’s ecological needs are my spiritual needs.” When I engage with “ecological” issues, I fulfill some of the most basic and profound spiritual needs that Judaism identifies. This is true in manifold ways. I want to point out just one that has to do with Teshuvah the perennial power to fix and uplift  our lives  – surely one of the deepest spiritual needs that we have.  

An absolute prerequisite for Teshuvah is taking responsibility for harm we have caused. Maimonides says it unequivocally in chapter 1 of the Laws of Teshuvah: there’s no forgiveness for sins against others until you ask forgiveness from those you have hurt and make good damage you have done. 

There is no real Teshuvah for damage we do to people or their property until we identify and acknowledge the harm, and then do whatever we can to repair it. 

Back in the days when that meant redressing the damage of my ox goring my neighbor’s sheep; it was easy enough. I would say sorry to my neighbor, buy him another sheep and tie up my ox tighter in the future. 

But today the harm we can do every day is far more complicated and – scary. The vehicle I drive may be implicated in storms in Bangladesh or droughts in Mali; the food I put in my supermarket cart might have been produced with pesticides that poison water supplies and wreck eco-systems, before being trucked thousands of miles across the country to reach me. The manufacturing decisions made in the name of my everyday choices may, with or without my knowledge, cause havoc to the environment and to the lives of people far away. 

Striving to fix these things is not “environmentalism” or even “environmental teshuvah.” It is simply teshuvah. It is about redressing hurt and damage that we have caused in our daily lives just as if we had failed to repay a loan or smashed someone’s vase, or broken their leg in a car crash that was our fault. Whether or not we did these things knowingly and deliberately, once we do know about them; teshuvahmeans taking responsibility for putting them right. 

Today, the planet’s ecological needs coincide with each of our basic spiritual need for teshuvah; becoming aware of and repairing damage that we have done, and resolving to act more reverently and lovingly towards our surroundings from now on. And so we will each become part of the planetary fixing. As the Talmud says: 

Great is Teshuvah because it brings healing to the world… 

     Great is Teshuvah because it brings closer redemption…

      Great is Teshuvah because through an individual who does Teshuvah, the whole world may be forgiven.” 

   Talmud Yoma, 86a-b. 

     Click Here to download JCI’s Carbon Offsetting Guide

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