Reading this next passage might suggest that the rabbis were not especially interested in nature and what we now call the environment (as if we, too, were somehow not part of it.) Interpretations, however, insist that whatever we do should be with our full attention (kavanah.)
Rabbi Yaakov says: One who while walking on the road reviewing a Torah lesson and interrupts his review to exclaim: “How beautiful is this tree!” “How beautiful is this plowed field!” – Scripture considers it as if he bears guilt for his soul.
Pirke Avot 3:9
Being ‘in nature’ is often a way for us to return to ourselves for a while, to let go and rediscover what our lives are really about; a way, even, for us to begin to make teshuvah – a ‘turning’. But Theodor Adorno raises a very challenging question. In 1951 Theodor Adorno published in Germany the little book of aphorisms and reflections he had written in America as the war was drawing to a close and news of the Nazi atrocities was beginning to emerge.
Section 5 of Part I of Minima Moralia begins ‘There is nothing innocuous left…Even the blossoming tree lies the moment its bloom is seen without the shadow of terror…the caring hand that even now tends the little garden…but fearfully wards off the unknown intruder, is already that which denies the political refugee asylum.’ This must surely strike a chord in us all. It is summed up in Adorno’s famous remark that after Auschwitz lyrical poetry is no longer possible.
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”.