Rabbi Lawrence Toster (z”l) was one of the pioneers of ecological Judaism. He died this last year. This is an extract from a sermon:
In Jewish theology, abundant rain is an expression of divine blessing and approval, a means of measuring Israel’s commitment to the covenant, and a matrix from which life emerges.
For example, Deuteronomy 11:10-17, a source for the second paragraph of the Sh’ma, delineates the differences between Egypt and the land of Israel and how this reflects the Israelites’ relationship with God. In Egypt, rivers provide unlimited water at all times, allowing for human independence from divine constraints.
But Israel is different. Rain comes from heaven under Divine scrutiny, concern and control. If the Israelites fulfill the covenant, rain will come in proper time and amount, assuring the fertility of the land. If the people do not fulfill their commitments to God, God will “shut up the skies so there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce…” and the death of the community will inevitably follow. Here, ecology is interpreted theologically. The abundance or scarcity of rain is not a random natural occurrence dictated by changes in geography or climate, but a divine response to human morality. There is no “nature” separate from human concerns, and there is no “natural evil.” Israel and the land of Israel are bound together in one moral community under God. In rabbinic sources, (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Ha-Shanah 17b) there is also direct connection made between the behaviour of the Jewish people and the amount of rain that God will bring for the coming year.
As we move through the month of Elul we have the opportunity to work on ourselves, in the hope that we might begin a new year ready to make changes and to be the person we feel we could be. At Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of the world, and as we begin 5780 we know that our actions are increasingly not only impacting on our ‘environment’ (as if we ourselves were somehow detached from it) but changing and endangering our futures in the world.
This Elul, therefore, Reform Judaism is focussing on what wisdom and reflection Judaism can offer us, and encourage us in the changes necessary to make a difference in the upcoming year. Though we begin with ourselves, we do not end with ourselves. The changes we make, in our attitudes, understanding and behaviour affect all around us – our families, communities, our work place, the organisations we belong to, the government and the world itself. It begins with us.
The texts and reflections for this series have been drawn together by Rabbi Jeffrey Newman and Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, together with members of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors who are credited individually when appropriate. Reflecting together and learning in partnership has made this a much more meaningful process for us, and if you have the time and someone willing, we hope these texts might also provide a wonderful opportunity for learning with a partner (or chavruta). As Pirkei Avot 1:6 says “make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend”.