FROM OUR PRESIDENT…
Judaism can be a little bit perverse. We start our days as the sun sets. In the winter when the days are shortest, we celebrate the Festival of Lights. And we observe the new year at least three different times (Rosh Hashanah, Tu B’Shvat for the trees, and the beginning of Pesach), none of which coincides with the secular new year.
Of these new years, Rosh Hashanah is the closest in meaning to the secular new year, as it marks the time when the Jewish year changes over numerically. But rather than looking forward and focusing on resolutions to improve ourselves, often related to our physical health (as anyone who’s ever worked out at Planet Fitness in January knows), we look back on the year that has passed. We listen to the shofar blasts with joy, but our liturgy encourages us to remember and regret the wrongs that we have done. Further, we are encouraged not just to regret, but also to atone for these wrongs by repairing the damage we have done if this is possible.
Unlike the secular new year as well, we enter the Days of Awe with awareness of our actions as a community rather than just engaging in individual introspection. One of the traditional Torah readings on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16) recounts the sacrificial progression that the High Priest follows: first for himself and his family, then for the priestly clan and finally for the people of Israel. Herein lies an important insight. While we can and should take individual actions to acknowledge the wrongs we have committed, we should not ignore or set aside the wrongs created collectively, nor should we focus our repair work solely on the things that we can and should do individually.
Over the course of the last year, I have written about racial wrongs, focusing primarily upon the present. These wrongs, however, go beyond individual acts of racism and extend into the past to a time long before any of us was born. Yet we see the legacy of these wrongs in contemporary politics, economics and society: people of color and particularly African Americans still struggle to exercise the right to vote on an equal basis, experience serious inequities in educational resources and suffer from generationally passed-on differences in family wealth. Many of these inequities trace back clearly to state and federal policies that actively benefited and lifted up some of our ancestors. The examples are myriad. Many Americans are familiar with the racialized benefits that the GI Bill provided and how the practice of redlining in real estate sapped Black wealth accumulation in the 20th century. Not so well known is the aggressive extension of American citizenship to immigrants who served in World War I – but which was denied on racial grounds to Asian immigrants who served, with longstanding repercussions for these men and their families.
More recently, however, as a society we have engaged in another wrong, the wrong we are doing to ourselves, our children and their descendants. Recently, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the report issued by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued very fittingly on the first of Elul. This report provides a frightening future vision that anticipates global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius, a threshold that, if we do not change collectively, many of us will see in our lifetimes.
The 1.5 degree barrier is significant. We are already living with the impacts of climate change, to which our friends in areas hammered by deadly heat waves, massive fires and catastrophic storm surges from “100-year events” in the last few years can readily testify. At 1.5 degrees of warming, the impacts will be far more devastating. Coastal areas will flood, mass extinctions will occur, the frequency of extreme climate events like storms, fires and heat waves will increase and the scope of worldwide human misery will equal or exceed most events in living memory.
The report is good fodder for reflection during Elul. By 2017, warming from human activities had reached about a full degree Celsius and the pace of warming has increased in the last decade. While our parents and grandparents contributed to the problem, quite a lot of it, collectively, belongs to us. Like the High Priest, we can accept responsibility on multiple levels. Individually, many of us don’t do as much as we could or should to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. Our extended community and family networks likewise bear some responsibility. But much of the responsibility lies with nations and international organizations that have not been assertive enough to rein in the emission of greenhouse gases. In 2019, the EPA identified the top three sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States as transportation (29%), electricity production (25%) and industry (23%), all of which require both individual and collective action to address. Our individual choices to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to support industries and companies that limit emissions are important, but without action by We the People, bigger changes won’t occur.
As we move through the High Holy Days and think about these wrongs, we may feel small and impotent as we feel the sorrow of encountering the legacies of the bad choices that we and our ancestors have made. Changing the world for the better is a tall order, especially when it entails changing the way you live and think and trying to assume some responsibility for the weight of these wrongs.
We should keep in mind, however, all that we have learned since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of us saw our lifestyles change drastically, and even without necessarily making conscious choices, we consumed less and traveled less. We also experienced – and many of us participated in – movements for racial justice. We masked, we distanced, we stood in line for vaccines, many of us more for the vulnerable people in our communities and lives than for ourselves. We took the time to think and reflect on the world as it is and the world that we want to have, not in an imagined afterlife, but here and now.
Perhaps the best message that we can take as we think about these urgent concerns in the context of all that we have experienced recently is that we can change, learn and grow, and that it’s far easier to do this together. Many of us – especially those of us at B’nai Sholom! – can and will choose to live our lives differently for the benefit of others, and to protect others. For me, this makes for a hopeful standpoint from which to think about what we can do in the coming year so that next year, on Rosh Hashanah, we can celebrate the rebirth of a slightly better world.