Reviving our Commitment to the Environment

Rabbi Rachel Kort
Temple Beth Or, Everett
Rosh HaShanah Morning 5781


There is something special about this sermon. I wrote it in the forest at Deception Pass. I did something I’ve never done before. I went camping by myself. Just me, my laptop and a really long extension cord. It was so nice to be surrounded by lush, majestic pine trees.

Barukh Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh Ha’olam oseh ma’aseh b’reshit.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who continually does the work of creation.

These difficult times we are living in have given me a greater appreciation for nature. They also make me feel closer to people I have lost in life, especially my dad.

Before I left to go camping, my mom asked inquisitively, “When did you discover you like camping?!? The Kort Family is more of an indoor family, enjoying concerts and museums. But I think my dad would have understood why I like camping and why I went into the woods to write and revive myself. We grew up minutes from Lake Washington. I remember playing for hours along it’s sparkling shore. My dad would snooze. Every so often, a breeze would come along, rouse him from sleep and he would declare: ‘This breeze is a mechaye.’

Mechaye’ is one of those Yiddish words, rich with meaning, impossible to translate into just one word in English. A delight, a pleasure, from the Hebrew ‘mechayei’ meaning something that vitalizes and rejuvenates. Think of the Gevorot, the second prayer of our Amidah that declares God’s Power. Baruch Atah Adonai, mechayei ha-kol. Blessed are You, the One who gives and renews all life. (Miskan HaNefesh)

Dr. Quing Li, is an expert on traditional Japanese art and science of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Li describes Shinrin-yoku as a bridge to the natural world. She teaches:

The key to unlocking the power of the forest is in the five senses. Let nature enter through your ears, eyes, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Listen to the birds singing and the breeze rustling in the leaves of the trees. Look at the different greens of the trees and the sunlight filtering through the branches. Smell the fragrance of the forest and breathe in the natural aromatherapy…Taste the freshness of the air as you take deep breaths. Place your hands on the trunk of a tree. Dip your fingers or toes in a stream. Lie on the ground. Drink in the flavor of the forest and release your sense of joy and calm. This is your sixth sense, a state of mind. Now you have connected with nature. You have crossed the bridge. (Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness)

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the 18th century Hassidic master, had a similar practice: “Grant the ability to be alone” he would pray. “May it be my custom to go outdoors each day. Among the trees and the grasses. Among all growing things. And there I may be alone and enter into prayer. To talk with the one that I belong to.”

When I have connected with folks these past months, so many people have shared how much they are appreciating nature. Camping, gardening, birdwatching, hiking, kayaking, walking, even if it is just around the block, or enjoying a sunset at the end of your driveway, we’ve experienced and appreciated the revitalizing power of nature while physically distancing.

In the midst of a health pandemic, we are experiencing a climate crisis. I was remembering the beginning of the secular New Year. Folks all over the world enjoy bringing in the New Year with fireworks. But this January the show in Sydney Harbor was canceled due to poor air quality caused by the most horrific bushfire season on record in Australia. We spent the final days of our Jewish year, unable to go outside with poor air quality caused by the worst wildfire season on the West Coast. Climate change is fundamentally damaging the quality of our air and our lives.

I want to share a Midrash and teaching from my friend and environment thinker Rabbi Kevin Kleiman.

When the Holy Blessed One created the first human, God took Adam and led him around all the trees of the Garden of Eden. And God said, “See My works, how good and praiseworthy they are! And all I have created, I made for you. [But,] be mindful then that you do not spoil and destroy My world. For if you spoil it, there is no one after you to repair it. (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)

The message embedded in this midrash acknowledges and praises God as the creator of the earth and then charges the human race with the task of using our planet’s precious resources wisely. The last line in this text is a forewarning: we must be responsible caretakers of the planet’s resources, to use only what is necessary, and to be conscious of the negative impact that human beings can have on the ecosystems of the earth if we are not careful. God reminds Adam, the first human, that there is only one world to provide for the needs of human beings, plants, and animals. Then, God leaves the fate of the world in our hands.(“Curb Your Consumerism: Developing a Bal Tashchit Food Ethic for Today” in Sacred Table)

Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of our universe and humanity. In a few minutes, together we will read the story of Creation from our Torah:

ּHebrew: In the beginning God created heaven and the earth. The earth was unformed and void.

God created the universe out of chaos. In this time of chaos we find ourselves very much needing to recreate our world right now. Our tradition calls upon us to be stewards for our natural environment and we must do a better job of caring for our earth. Nature has the ability to revitalize us. We must work to revitalize our earth now!

This is not an easy time to say ki tov–it is good. There is power in naming what is lo tov–not good. And yet we rise to the challenge of this new year with the yearning and commitment to not only say, but to create ki tov–that good. (From ‘Reconstructing Judaism: High Holy Day Resources,’ 5781)

**To learn more on how to advocate for our environment through a Jewish lens, here are great resources from our Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center.