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This High Holiday Season, Commit To Joining The Fight Against Climate Change

The high holidays are a time of personal and communal reckoning. These are the sins we have committed, we recite. Before the beginning of Yom Kippur, even before Kol Nidrei, the prayer leader or shaliach tzibbur recites “with the consent of God … we allow ourselves to pray with transgressors.” We are in this together.

My rabbi in Middletown CT, Seth Haaz — now Senior Rabbi at Temple Zion in Penn Valley, PA — used to take the tradition of the fist thumping on the chest with each phrase of the viddui — the confessional — and suggest adding a gentle circular motion. It is not about punishing ourselves, he would say, it is about realizing our mistakes, softening our hearts, and changing course.

If nothing else, Yom Kippur is about realizing the consequences of our actions. What we do, what we say, and how we act in the world matters.

Now, in the fall of 2019, or the new Jewish year of 5780, we recognize that the burning of fossil fuels leads to increased carbon in the atmosphere, which acts like a blanket, warming the planet and destabilizing the climate. We recognize that higher levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases lead to warmer oceans, more devastating hurricanes, sea level rise, and extreme heat.

We recognize that the poor and disadvantaged — people who live in city areas without cooling trees, in coastal areas without the ability to relocate, and under extreme heat conditions without air conditioning — are most strongly impacted. We recognize that we are all vulnerable, and that our children and children’s children will be even more so because of our actions today.

We can beat ourselves on the chest, but self-affliction does not solve the problem. Is it possible, instead, to soften our hearts and change course?

We can certainly change course. We can awaken, with the call of the shofar, to the solutions that are available now, with immediate benefits to health, the environment, and the economy. There are new technologies like zero-emission electric cars that cost no more than the average gasoline-powered car, have lower maintenance costs, and get us where we need to go in almost all situations. And there are policies like carbon pricing that reduce pollution, improve health, spur innovation, and benefit the economy while also addressing the underlying causes of climate change.

Softening our hearts is another matter, and it takes time. Sometimes it takes grief for all that we have lost and all that we are losing right now. Sometimes it takes an acknowledgement of fear and an understanding that we are all in this together. Sometimes it takes the willingness to talk, to engage in honest dialogue, to recognize that we are each made in the image of God — b’tselem Elohim — and to recognize that we may have shared values along with different opinions and beliefs.

Three core Jewish values demand action on climate change. The first is tikkun olam, repairing the world. The second is caring for the poor and vulnerable. And the third value is avoiding needless waste, or bal tashchit .

Jewish organizations are stepping up to the plate. The Jewish Climate Action Network (JCAN) provides valuable resources and tools for congregations. Hazon gives Jewish Institutions the opportunity to earn a Seal of Sustainability. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has included environmental justice as one of five core issues in its Brit Olam. And Jewish groups are connecting with broader faith-based organizations such as GreenFaith and Interfaith Power and Light.

As I confront the enormity of the challenge in front of us, I often think of the verse from Pirkei Avot, “Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor”: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

I do not desist, I work at it each day while doing my best to balance other responsibilities and needs. May we each engage in this critical work to repair the world, soften our hearts, change course, and build the political will for a livable world in this Jewish new year of 5780.

Yonatan Malin is a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) and co-leader of the CCL Jewish Action Team. He lives in Boulder, CO.

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