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Transforming Grief: Climate Catastrophe & Us - Yom Kippur 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

The High Holydays, these Ten Days of Teshuvah, are fundamentally about life and death.  On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the birthday of the world and of humanity.  We sing “Hayom Harat Olam,” “Today the world is created.”   The Rosh Hashanah Torah and haftarah portions tell stories of birth – the birth of our ancestor Isaac, the birth of the prophet Samuel. We celebrate life. 

We also confront and acknowledge death. On both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we chant the Unetaneh Tokef, with its litany of possible fates in store for humanity in the new year:  “Who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by flood…”  The Unetaneh Tokef goes on to name the impermanence of our lives, that we are ultimately like the grass that withers, the flowers that fade, the clouds that vanish from the sky.   This morning’s Torah portion began with God speaking to Aaron “acharei mot,” after the death of his eldest sons. And during the Yizkor service we remember our loved ones who have passed on. The tradition of wearing white on Yom Kippur is based on the custom of wearing the kittel, a linen robe, on this day; it is akin to the garment that every Jew is traditionally  wrapped in when we are buried.  On Yom Kippur we confront our own mortality, as part of a process of taking stock of our lives. 

The cycle of life and death is of course the most natural thing there is.  Every carbon-based life form is born, and at some point it dies.  Bugs, trees, animals, humans – we all share, on vastly different time scales, the reality of life and death. 

Yet there is something going on now that has brought the realities of life and death into focus in a deeply troubling way.  I am speaking about the climate emergency that we are living through in this moment.  The evidence is all around us, and it is overwhelming.  While awareness of human-caused climate change has been mounting for decades, there was something about this summer that seems to have brought it home to many of us in a new way. 

What I would like to do this morning is not add to the overwhelm. I will trust that this community is aware of what is happening across the planet in terms of melting ice caps, devastating hurricanes and heat domes, the catastrophic effects on humans and on plant and animal species of rising temperatures in every part of the globe.  What I’d like to talk about is us, how this is affecting us, and how we might move forward, both individually and collectively, in this new year.  For our own sakes, and for the sake of the planet. 

As I am offering these words right after our Yizkor service, I want to begin with some wisdom from Dr. Simcha Raphael, a scholar and grief counselor whose work on Jewish views of the afterlife I’ve shared with this community before.  Simcha wrote a piece this past August in which he noted how the work of grief can help with what many are now calling “eco-anxiety” or “climate grief” – a mind-state of profound worry and distress at the state of our planet.  Many of us, in different ways, are either grieving the losses and damage that have already occurred in the world around us , or are anticipating the environmental cataclysms, the future losses, that loom on the horizon. 

Simcha teaches that the first step in the process of grieving the death of a loved one is accepting the reality of our loss.  He writes, “the reality we are being asked to accept right now is that we are living in a time of climate catastrophe.”  He goes on to say that, as with personal grief, we need to not deny what we are feeling – our fears, our anguish, our uncertainty.  He says, “Our fears, trepidation and sense of dread are all legitimate reactions to what is taking place in this 2nd decade of the 21st century.” 

The psychologist Renee Lertzman has noted that when many of us confront the reality of climate change, we have a tendency to shut down.  We each have what she calls a “window of tolerance” for stress, and when we take in too much, we either collapse or go into denial.  To protect ourselves, we push our feelings down and become immobilized.  In conversations with people of all backgrounds and political views about changes happening in the environment, Lertzman found that most people expressed deep concern and caring, a lot of fear, and a sense that their actions are insignificant.  Despite – or maybe because of—their awareness of what is happening to the earth, people feel stuck.  From the outside, this stuck-ness looks like apathy or denial.  The response from those who are engaged is often a drumbeat of “Wake up!! Here are the facts!”  This response is well-intentioned, but instead of moving people to action, it often has the effect of simply adding to the overwhelm, reinforcing the numbing and the inaction. 

Both Raphael and Lertzman invite us to begin not by leaping into action, but by feeling what we are feeling about the climate catastrophe.  To sit with our fear, our sadness, our sense of loss or uncertainty – without shame, without a sense of self-judgment.  This is real, and it’s really hard.  Let’s be compassionate with ourselves. [Maybe take a moment right now, and breathe, and see what you are feeling.] 

In an article published in The Lancet last summer, a group of researchers on climate grief wrote: 

“Recognizing that emotions are often what leads people to act, it is possible that feelings of ecological anxiety and grief, although uncomfortable, are in fact the crucible through which humanity must pass to harness the energy and conviction that are needed for the life-saving changes now required.” 

If indeed our “feelings of ecological anxiety and grief” are a necessary prelude to taking effective action, then perhaps we can a learn a bit from our tradition’s wisdom about grief.  From a Jewish perspective, grief is both intensely personal, and necessarily communal.  Each loss is unique, and every person has their own particular grief journey.  But by mandating that Mourners Kaddish be said in a minyan, by gathering together in the mourner’s home during shivah, by mobilizing the community to support one another during mourning, Jewish tradition teaches us that there is always a personal and a communal aspect at times of grief and loss.  This feels important as we think about what it means to confront the realities of the climate crisis in productive ways. 

Simcha Raphael and Renee Lertzman both emphasize the importance of connecting with others when it comes to dealing with eco-anxiety.  We need to have our concerns validated; we are not crazy or over-reacting if we are living with a real sense of dread and loss.  I realized recently that I don’t actually talk a lot with people about the eco-anxiety that I am experiencing, except perhaps to complain that it’s been a terribly hot summer, or to express my concern for friends in the vicinity of wildfires and floods. I haven’t said aloud – until this moment – how much fear I carry for the young people around me, the little ones who should not be facing the future that looms before us.   It is hard to admit these things out loud.

But we need to talk about this, to share what we’re feeling and noticing with people we care about, and to listen to others as they share with us.  Not to convince or terrify, simply to be together in our worry and our concern.  By sharing and by listening we can actually lessen some of our angst; we can feel heard and reassured that we are not alone. 

The personal and communal aspects of grief also suggest that there is an ongoing tension and balance between how we respond to climate change in our personal lives, and the very real need to address the root causes, the systemic issues at the core of climate change – which are societal and political, not personal.  As the Jewish climate activist Rabbi Jennie Rosenn writes: 

We need to not just focus on "what car do I buy?" but "what cars does Detroit manufacture?" Not just "where do I bank?" but "why are the biggest banks in the world pouring trillions of dollars into fossil fuels and how do we stop them?" It’s not a question of whether or not I turn on my air conditioner, but rather how can we ensure that everybody has access to an affordable, cool, and energy efficient home, and how do we reach 100% clean energy as soon as possible?” 

And I’d like to share these words from my friend and colleague Rabbi Elliott Tepperman, the current president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, who is also giving a talk about climate change this morning. In his words: 

“When I spoke to my friend Rev. Fletcher Harper, the founder and Executive Director of GreenFaith, he said it would be a sin of omission to not say clearly: We face a climate emergency because the fossil fuel industry has put its own profits above the well-being of people and the planet.  Yes, industrial agriculture and massive deforestation are also to blame.  But the fossil fuel industry has spent massive amounts to deceive the public, to lobby and to block change. They have systematically targeted vulnerable communities that bear the brunt of coal, oil and gas operations.  And governments have outright supported the destruction or played both sides of the fence. Banks and asset managers are still bankrolling the problem. These enormous institutions, with their massive wealth and power, dwarf other causes of the climate crisis.” 

What  Rabbi Rosenn and Rabbi Tepperman and many others point out is that we are all living in a system that needs to change, and that there are culprits who are explicitly profiting off of the calamity we are experiencing. Only massive pressure on the corporations responsible and on the governments that enable them will lead to the yearly reductions in carbon emissions needed to stave off complete disaster. 

Which brings me back to the personal.  The enormity of the change needed can feel overwhelming, and can make my individual actions seem trivial. But we can’t refrain from action out of the mistaken belief that no individual act is “enough.”  Simcha Raphael points out that as part of moving through grief, we need what he calls “small victories.”  For the mourner, that might mean making it through the first anniversary of a death, or getting back to routines of work or daily living.  In facing the climate crisis, a small victory might mean impacting legislation on the local level, or achieving adaptations in my own life that align with my values. 

As I think about what changes I need to make to tread more lightly on the earth, I do so not because I think that my shifting to an electric car will save the world – I know it won’t.  Individual behavior change will account, by one estimate, for about 4% of the change needed to get to net-zero carbon emissions.  But as an upper-middle class American, as a person who over my lifetime will use far more energy than the vast majority of humans on the planet, I do believe I have a responsibility to figure out how to live in a saner way.  I need, on an emotional and spiritual level, to know that I am personally doing what I can.  I also know that when we do get ourselves out of a fossil-fuel based economy, I will need to learn to live differently, whether I want to or not.

But more importantly, each of us as individuals has some role to play, however small, in a much larger, humanity-wide struggle to transform our economies and our societies. Simcha Raphael writes that “we are being called into a time of radical physical and spiritual self-care, so that we can keep out of despair and become agents of healing and transformation.” 

We are, every one us, needed as agents of healing and transformation in this moment.  The climate journalist Emily Atkins recently wrote a column called “What Can I Do? Anything.”  In it, she cites a blueprint for stemming climate change by the International Energy Agency which details the extent to which the energy sector, and the fossil fuel industry in particular, will need to be transformed to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.  Given the amount of pressure needed for this to happen,  the blueprint says that “a transition of the scale and speed described by the net zero pathway cannot be achieved without sustained support and participation from citizens.”   Atkins goes on to say that we don’t all need to become full-time climate activists.  But as global citizens, we do all need to become engaged.  She writes: 

“However worse the climate crisis gets now depends on how quickly society transforms. How quickly society transforms depends on how many people demand it. The most harmful lie being spread about climate change today is not that it is fake. It’s that nothing you can do can help save the world.” 

Which brings us back to grief.  When we lose someone whose life touched us, it is possible, and enormously healing, to make meaning from the loss.  We say of the deceased, “may their memory be for a blessing,” and this is not just a comforting phrase.  It means that their memory has power, that the values they taught us, the action they modeled for us, can bring blessing into the world.  Their death becomes meaningful if we take it as an opportunity to continue the good that they did in life.  In a similar way, we can take our anger and despair at the destruction we are facing and turn it into meaningful action.  We can dedicate ourselves to the memories of the species that have disappeared, to the human beings who have lost their lives to flood and drought. 

There is one very concrete step that I am hopeful our congregation will take in the new year.  In 2020, a new organization called Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action launched. Its mission is “to secure a just, livable and sustainable world for all people for generations to come by building a multi-generational Jewish movement that confronts the climate crisis with spiritual audacity and bold political action.”  Dayenu is run by very smart, very effective people, rabbis and organizers who understand that climate action is about racial justice, is about economic and political transformation, and that it calls upon us as citizens and as spiritual beings. By establishing Dayenu Circles in Jewish communities around the country, Dayenu is expanding the Jewish community’s capacity to effect national legislation and to take action on local issues. 

To not give in to despair, to know that our action is effective, to be a part of the solution, we need to join with others not just as individuals, but as a community.  I do not want to have to say that my congregation was on the sidelines while others tackled the most daunting struggle of our lifetime. We have had initial conversations with Dayenu national staff, and our new rabbinic intern, Emmanuel Cantor, is dedicating part of his time with us this year to getting a CDT Dayenu Circle off of the ground.  We need a core of dedicated leaders, and there will be opportunities for children as well as adults to get involved in the months ahead.  I hope many of you can come to our Tikkun Olam Sukkot gathering next Wednesday evening, September 22, to learn more about this initiative.  And for those of you beaming in from other parts of the country, check and see if there is a Dayenu Circle near you. 

In the Jewish calendar, this Rosh Hashanah kicked off a year of shmittah, the Biblical sabbatical year. According to the Torah, the sabbatical year was one in which agricultural land was given a rest, and all those who worked the land rested as well. Also in the 7th year, the poor who had fallen into debt were released from that debt, and indentured servants were released from their servitude. The word “shmittah” means “release.” There was an understanding, in the time of the Torah, that the earth’s renewal was linked to the freedom and wellbeing of the most vulnerable members of human society. The sabbatical year was about rest, but it was about much more than that.  It allowed for a glimpse of a society in which that which grew on the land was accessible to all who who were hungry, an economy in which no one owned another person or their labor. It granted the land a year free of human manipulation, in which whatever wanted to grow could grow. 

In this shmittah year of 5782, may we imagine together new ways that humans can relate to the earth and to one another. May we find time and opportunity to be nourished by the earth, and do all that we can to sustain her.  May we turn our grief into action, our anxiety into agitation, our despair into victories for sustainability and justice. May it be so! 


Rabbi Toba Spitzer 
Yom Kippur 5782

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784