Kol Nidre: Come and Choose

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Ordinarily on Kol Nidre night I speak about forgiving the vows we’ve broken to ourselves and to God. (Broken vows made to each other require not only an apology and teshuvah, but also reparations — making amends for any harm we caused.) But this year I keep thinking about the implicit vow we make to future generations about leaving them a planet that’s capable of supporting life.

Our planet is burning… and our nation is pursuing policies that seem designed to fan the flames.

In the last few years, the United States has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord. Restrictions on power plant emissions, and on carbon pollution from cars and trucks, have been loosened. The New York Times reports that climate change is already heating the oceans and altering their chemistry in ways that threaten our food supply, fuel extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods, and pose profound risk to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction… For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

Many of you probably recognize those words from Greta Thunberg, the teenaged activist who spoke at the UN a couple of weeks ago. A lot of people are calling her a modern-day prophet. (I think they’re right.) In Jewish tradition, a prophet isn’t someone who tells the future — it’s someone who speaks uncomfortable truths to prod us to teshuvah and action.

Of course, it’s easy to praise her and call her a prophet. She’s also a child who’s had her childhood stolen by fear of the consequences of the world’s inaction. I wish with all my heart that she didn’t feel the need to take on these adult concerns. I wish with all my heart that the adults who came before her had done a better job of creating change.

Greta points out that even if we were on track to reduce global carbon emissions by half in ten years, that would only offer a 50% chance of keeping the planet’s warming below the “safe” threshold of 2.7  degrees F above preindustrial levels. And we are not on track.

In the words of Rabbi Alan Lew — this is the title of his book about the spiritual journey of this season — “this is real, and you are completely unprepared.” Climate change is real, and I don’t feel prepared.  Alan Lew’s point is that spiritually we may never feel “prepared” for the work of the holidays, and that these days call us to inner work anyway. But when it comes to the climate crisis, I don’t think we have the luxury of feeling unprepared.

We learn in Pirkei Avot (2:16) that “It is not incumbent on us to finish the task, but neither are we free to refrain from beginning it.” That teaching is one of Judaism’s tools for all kinds of big spiritual tasks. Like teshuvah. And justice. And — in our era — the climate crisis.

Tonight, itself, is another tool that can help us in this work. Kol Nidre night asks us to face the work we haven’t been doing. The inner work, and also the work we do together: building community, seeking justice, creating change.

Tonight asks us to face our broken promises. And that includes the promise that when we die, the earth will still be livable. Right now, that promise is in pieces.

I mentioned, when I sang Kol Nidre tonight, that I was changing our usual words. The version we usually sing asks God to annul, in advance, all the vows and promises and oaths that we know we’ll fail to live up to in the year to come.

This year is not like other years. This year, the stakes feel different.

This year I sang the version that pleads: God, forgive our broken vows from the year that’s already over. Because we don’t have the luxury of letting ourselves “off the hook” on our vow to do something about the climate crisis in the year to come.

All season we’ve been singing, “…It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows / a thousand times before / And yet again — come again, come…” We’ve all broken our vows to ourselves and to God. That doesn’t disqualify us from being here, or from trying to be better. On the contrary: failing and then trying to do better is the work of being human. Teshuvah asks us to affirm that we are flawed, and that we can be better than we have been. Yes, we missed the mark: the planet is burning. This year we must do something about it.

Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong famously said, “We either live with intention or exist by default.” Are we here tonight by intention, or by default?

I’m hoping we’re here by intention. Each of us could be out to dinner, or at the movies, or working late — but we’ve chosen otherwise. That choice counters some strong assumptions in the culture that surrounds us: that there’s nothing more important than profit, or pleasure; that we aren’t obligated to anyone or anything; that we don’t need to grow. We chose to be here tonight. How will that choice fuel our other choices in the new year?

Making teshuvah also is a choice. That fundamental move of Jewish spiritual life — re-orienting, turning-toward-God, embodying our highest selves — is a choice. We could always choose not to make teshuvah. We could always choose an unexamined life. For that matter, we could always choose to ignore the climate crisis. But Judaism calls us to do otherwise. Judaism calls us to turn, to awaken, to choose to do (and be) better.

It’s a truism that in Judaism action matters more than belief. Now, if someone comes to me and says, “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God,” I want to learn more about what they mean.  As the saying goes, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in, because maybe I don’t believe in that one either!” And yet our texts and traditions are less concerned with “belief” than with action.

Believe in God or don’t, but the hungry still need to be fed. Believe in God or don’t, but the climate crisis still demands our action.

Mystics and rationalists alike can find common ground in the doings of Jewish life. Judaism is about choosing, day after day, to do things. To feed the hungry. To work toward justice. To make Shabbat. To build the future. To give tzedakah. To hear the wake-up call of the shofar and live up to what the shofar asks of us, what God asks of us, what our anguished, burning planet asks of us.

What can we do about the climate crisis? We can do all the little things we already know: reducing, re-using, recycling, consuming less, flying less, moving to renewable energy.   They’re not enough, but they’re still worth doing. We can learn from the wisdom of our tradition’s Shabbat practices: setting aside one day out of every seven for not consuming, for regenerating our souls and also letting the planet rest from endless production.

And we can volunteer, and canvass, and fundraise, and vote for public servants who take the climate crisis seriously. The Hebrew word לבחור means “to choose” — and it also can mean “to elect.” If we believe that our planet is in crisis, then we need to choose wisely who we will uplift to positions of decision-making power. And we can work to make sure that no one is disenfranchised and that every vote is counted.

Maybe even that isn’t enough. Maybe we should be in the streets. Maybe we should be  hounding our elected officials night and day. That’s more or less what the historical prophets did. (Of course, that works better when our elected officials believe that science is real.)

The Washington Post reports that even if we keep things where they are, we may see a rise of 7 degrees F by the end of the century. That’s the same as the difference between 1990’s norms, and the last Ice Age. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by the enormity of the work ahead. I feel it too. And… we don’t have the luxury of giving in to that paralysis. Our tradition calls us to choose, to build, to repair. We need to build systems that will provide food for the hungry when global agriculture changes, and housing for the displaced when the oceans rise.

A few days ago I was studying the writings of R’ Shalom Noach Berezovsky, known as the Slonimer, on last week’s Torah portion, Vayeilech. In Vayeilech we read: when we screw up, God will be far away from us, hidden from us by our misdeeds. (Deut. 31:17) We can read this as descriptive, not prescriptive. It’s not that God hides from us because we err. Rather: when we err, we feel as though holiness were hidden from us. When we do things that are wrong, or fail to do what’s right, we experience a withdrawal of holiness from our world. And when that happens, it’s easy to shift into despair.

The Slonimer teaches: our yetzer ha-ra, our “evil impulse,” wants us to despair when that happens. Because when we despair, we’ll give up.

But there’s another option. Vidui is always open to us: naming what we’ve done wrong and taking responsibility for it. Teshuvah is always open to us: returning to doing what’s right. And with those tools, we can build a new way of being in the world.

Yes, the future of our planet looks pretty dark right now. But the Slonimer reminded me that Torah speaks of darkness and smoke and cloud at the time when Torah was given. Moshe went into the cloud where God was. And that means that the darkness isn’t devoid of God. On the contrary: when we’re willing to face the darkness, that’s precisely where we’ll find hope and the strength to build a better world.

The Jewish value of tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” comes to us from our mystics. R’ Isaac Luria imagined that at the moment of creation God’s infinite light was too great to be contained. The vessels made to hold it shattered, leaving brokenness and holy sparks all over our world. Our mystics teach that with every mitzvah, we uplift a spark of divine light and bring healing. In today’s paradigm, that repair work feels all the more literal — and all the more urgent. The planet is burning. What will we do to soothe Earth’s fever?

Come, come, whoever you are. Come and live with intention, not by default. Come and choose to act. Judaism offers us philosophy, theology, liturgy, poetry  — and Judaism is not a tradition of “thoughts and prayers.” Judaism is a tradition of action. Judaism asks us to make blessings, to make Shabbat, to do teshuvah, to repair the world.

Come, come, whoever you are. Come and immerse in Yom Kippur to do the inner work of re-aligning your soul, but not for the sake of solipsism or self-satisfaction. On the contrary: we do our inner work so we can be strengthened to go out into the world and do the outer work of pursuing justice for every human being and for our planet.

It’s okay if we aren’t sure we can live up to this. It’s okay if we feel afraid. What’s not okay would be using our doubts as an excuse not to even try. It’s Kol Nidre night. The season is calling us to choose. The planet is calling us to choose. How will we answer?

Come, come, whoever you are
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving
Come, come, whoever you are
Ours isn’t a caravan of despair.  
It doesn’t matter if you’ve broken your vows
A thousand times before:
and yet again, come again, come,
and yet again…
בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
נָע וָנָד, מִתְּפַּלֵל, אוֹהֵב לָצֵאת.
בּוֹא, בּוֹא, מִי שֶׁאַתָּה:
אִין זוּ שַׁיָירַת יֵיאוּשָׁה.  
מַה נִשְׁתַּנָה שֶׁנִשְׁבְּרוּ נְדָרִים
אֶלֶף פַּעֲמַיִם לִפְנֵי כֵן,
עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב – בּוֹא שׁוֻב, בּוֹא.
עִם כָּל זֹאת שׁוּב …

This is Rabbi Rachel’s Kol Nidre sermon (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

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