Every ending is a new beginning. This last month of summer vacation deposits us at the start of the new school year, and Rosh Hashanah. What have we learned this summer, and this past year, that can carry us forward into next? I always like using stories to deliver the message, and here are three “teaching moments” of tikkun olam:
1. A college grad is trying to explain modern life to a senior citizen: “You grew up in a different world,” he says, “with no television, computers, jet planes, space travel, moon walks, nuclear energy, cell phones, digital photos, or computers. It was almost primitive!”
The senior citizen agrees: “You’re right son. We didn’t have all those things when I was growing up — so we invented them. Now, what will you do for the next generation?”
2. An old fellow is walking on a beach littered with thousands of starfish when he sees a young woman coming his way, picking up every one she can find, and flinging it back into the sea.
“Why do you bother?” he asks when he reaches her. “You’re not saving enough to make a difference.” She picks up a starfish, throws it seaward, and says, “I made a difference to that one.” Then she picks up another.
3. At the “Jews in Canoes” camping weekend our synagogue takes every summer, a member asked me, “With the environmental challenges so big, what can we possibly do to make a difference?”
When Kol HaNeshamah started seven years ago, we threw all “waste” from our simchot and shabbat potlucks in the garbage. But over the course of 2004, we re-educated our congregation and our caterers, and the UCC church congregation with whom we share space, and all other users — the pre-school, garden club, bingo night-ers, etc.
Today, it feels uncomfortable for any of us not to recycle and compost. We’ve reduced our organization’s garbage by 80 percent. And “out in the wilds,” where the state parks do not offer recycling or composting for campers, the Jews in Canoes collected and brought theirs back to Seattle for appropriate disposal.
Clearly we can — and have — changed how we see our world, and how we act in it. And we can continue doing that. There’s no reason we can’t look at our gas, electric and water bills at home, school and work, and find ways to live more efficiently — so we reduce our bills, our carbon and ecological footprints.
The second story illustrates the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) principle, that humans were created alone, to teach us that destroying a single soul is like destroying a complete world; and saving a single one is like preserving a complete world. The first story illustrates our principle of dor l’dor, passing our knowledge and traditions from generation to generation. It also aligns with the Native American teaching to look seven generations out before making a big decision now.
On the threshold of the new and unknown, we should be asking new questions, rather than charging ahead on old assumptions. Our present world is not the only version of what’s possible. We are not entitled to having it stay this way (see Story 1 above), however much we fight to keep it so. Our destiny is not manifest. While we can guess at what’s coming, we never know till it arrives.
So here are my answers to that congregant’s question, “What can we do to make a difference?” (Find more suggestions in my other columns):
1. Dor l’dor: Incorporate tikkun olam principles into your religious school education programs. Put your temple or synagogue on recycling and yard waste collection, teach your students to reduce, or make no waste, and they’ll bring the ideas home and to school, so the adults can bring them to work. Start and manage a garden, do a carbon and water footprint assessment, and of course, celebrate Tu B’shevat and other nature holidays. Use activity suggestions and source materials from Let The Earth Teach You Torah (Bernstein & Fink/Shomrei Adamah), The Judaic Roots of Ecology (Lillian Ross/Central Agency For Jewish Education, Miami), Easy Green (Westerman), and online sources.
2. Follow Israel’s environmental example (politics aside): Drip irrigation, solar power, electric car networks, living buildings, waste reduction.
3. Link your synagogue or temple to local sustainability organizations, national “greening” programs (such as the Union for Reform Judaism: www.urj.org/green/index.cfm?; United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism: uscj2004.aptinet.com/Sustainability8089.html; Hazon: www.hazon.org and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life:www.coejl.org.
It’s not up to us to “save the earth” — Earth does a fine job of that on its own. It’s up to us to heal what we do on Earth, so we can assure our own survival. What can we do? There’s nothing we can’t do. Let’s take that fresh perspective into the new beginnings Rosh Ha-School Year and Rosh Hahanah offer us this fall. L’shana tovah.