Even though on this Yom Kippur like no other, services were shorter and quicker than usual, I admit that, captivated by the change of scenery, I occasionally raised my head from the depths of my machzor and looked around.
In pre-coronavirus times, the arc of my vision would have included the ark, bimah, ornamentation and the like. The color white would feature prominently in the clothes of the congregants and dressings of the holy instruments. Now as we sat outside reciting the ancient texts, hues of green and blue dominated, with trees and sky framing our flock.
There is something crucial to be learned from this altered landscape.
Cloistered inside our synagogues, homes, classrooms, malls and the like, we are surrounded by manufactured, modified shapes and colors of our making, walls and furniture, computers and clothes and the like. How often do we remember that these are fabricated from plant and animal, water, gases and all the other elements of our natural world. Enveloped by the purity of white on Yom Kippur, designed to elevate our connection to God, how much thought have we given to the resources required to produce this holy finery.
This year we stood between earth and sky. As we sang “Man... is like grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the shadow that passes, the cloud that vanishes, the wind that blows,” we got a sense of our kinship and dependence on God’s creation which is the primary, fragile building block on which our existence depends.
As a species, mankind is approaching the end of Ne’ila. All of the eminent environmental scientists agree that the Gates of Life are closing very, very quickly. If we do not repent from our unruly ways, humanity will suffer a fast and painful demise. Overpopulation, excessive abuse of natural resources, pollution, mass extinction of species, weather extremes and other factors, all, yes all, caused by the way we live, will soon result in immense suffering. We stand at the brink. If we continue to abuse God’s creation, we, one of the youngest species on our planet, are doomed to an appalling fate that is perhaps still ours to change.
Imagine that you were chatting between Mussaf and Mincha on Yom Kippur last year and one of your friends casually predicted that in the next year a million people would die from a yet-unknown plague and that we would be praying outside in “capsules.” You probably would have insisted on he or she breaking fast immediately out of concern for starvation-induced brain damage. If COVID has taught us anything in its brief existence, it is these two things: the first is never think that it cannot happen, and the second is that just like all, yes all, the other major and minor epidemics of the past 30 years – SARS, MERS, AIDS, etc. – COVID emanates from our excessive contact with other animal life forms caused by our encroaching into their natural habitat. Yes it is just another result of our abusing our power over the planet.
So what can we do to alter this evil decree? We must modify our way of life, each and every one of us. Just as we pray to God in the plural, taking responsibility for ourselves and our collective, it is incumbent upon us to lead by example and act in a manner that cannot be ignored by our community.
There are many ways in which we can and must evolve our conduct.
Here are two of my personal resolutions for the coming year.
I confess that I have been extremely lax in making blessings when I eat food, enjoy special scents, sounds and scenes. I am going to make an effort because I believe it will make me much more sensitive to their pleasures and the imperative of preserving the sources of these gifts.
The second is to perform the mitzvah of “do not waste” with fervor. We live in an age when buying without needing has morphed from a luxury to a curse. If you are an adult, you could probably get by without purchasing a single garment this year and still be respectfully and pleasantly dressed. You could save 30% of your food bill and feed your family with more than adequate nutrition. By not using disposables, you would work a little harder, feel a whole lot better and help to save our environment. These are but a few examples of essential behavioral change.
As we sit in our sukkot contemplating the fragility and transience of our existence, let us resolve to persuade God, and more importantly ourselves, by our actions that we value our habitat and our offspring enough to save them.
The writer is the author of the prayer for the preservation of the environment.