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“We Are the Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings


September 22, 2023 | 7 Tishrei 5784

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, as we move toward Shabbat, I share my sermon from Rosh Hashana eve. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

I begin this Rosh Hashanah evening, by asking you to think of a  place where you have felt the beauty of nature. If you are willing, close your  eyes and in your mind’s eye, go to that place. Use your senses to be there. Take in the fragrances, the sounds. Look at the colors, the growth that surrounds you. What do you hear, what are the songs the wind is singing? Can you taste the air? Can you feel the earth beneath your feet?

Now take a deep breath and listen to these words of prayer by Rebbe Nachman.
You can keep your eyes closed.

May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
among the trees and grass —
among all growing things
and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer,
to talk with the One to whom I belong.
May I express there everything in my heart,
and may all the foliage of the field —
all grasses, trees, and plants —
awake at my presence,
to send the powers of their life
into the words of my prayer.
And let us all whisper, “Amen”

I invite you to open your eyes.

When we visualize nature, it evokes our senses. The elements of earth, wind, sun as fire, and water speak to us in ways that connect us.

Rebbe Nachman understood that his place of prayer was in the heart of the grass, trees, and plants, right in the midst of the foliage of the fields.

The natural world became his sacred sanctuary.

I’m not suggesting that we pick up and just go outside right now. We are visualizing.

We don’t need to be avid hikers, sports enthusiasts, or even forest bathers. Just the quiet rustling of the leaves or the shade of a tree does something for our souls.

That is the message of Rebbe Nachman’s prayer &8212; that nature has the ability to soften our hearts.

On this day of Rosh Hashanah, our tradition teaches us that the world came into being.
hayom harat olam היום הרת עולם. All of life and its natural beauty was created.

I often wonder whether the Torah is an ode to the earth.

From the beginning, the natural elements were present. בראשית ברא אלהים. God created the unformed and void filled earth with darkness and wind from the Divine sweeping over the water.

Earth. Wind. Water.

Each taking shape over the course of days. And even before the fire of the sun, earth gives birth to the plants, seed bearing and fruit offering trees of every kind. All good. And then the fire of the sun shines upon the earth.

Eventually, humans come into the picture after the animals and creeping things. God blessed the humans and God said to them,[i]

“Be fertile and increase, fill the earth
פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ
and master it;
and rule
the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky,
בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם
and all the living things that creep on earth.”
וּבְכׇל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

What was God thinking?
Master the earth and rule the fish, birds, and living things that creep?

Did God give us too much power?

Interestingly, there is another version of the creation story [ii] that follows that begins with the most beautiful garden. The earth is lavish with every plant. Two rivers water the foliage. A gentle breeze continually moves through the garden. The sun brings warmth.

When God created the garden, however, the Torah specifically tells us the reason for the creation of human beings:

God settled the Human in the garden of Eden,
וַיִּקַּ֛ח יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיַּנִּחֵ֣הוּ בְגַן־עֵ֔דֶן
to till it and protect it
לְעׇבְדָ֖הּ וּלְשׇׁמְרָֽהּ׃

The Hebrew here is quite different from the first instruction for Creation. There, humans were to master and rule the earth.

Till and Protect? Master and Rule?

Master and Rule projects a dominating force that intends to control and even destroy. While Till and Protect connotes a helpful relationship.

When we regard humanity’s connection to the earth from then until now which of the instructions has been heard and heeded?

The results are in: All the elements have suffered from mistreatment from attempts at mastery and domination.

And the result?

Water made undrinkable and un-swimable by toxins and pollutants. Fires blazing across Canada dispatching unbreathable air. This summer’s unbearable heat in Europe and across the south of our own country. The poor earth, overused and undervalued. How can humans survive in what has become inhospitable?

Water. Fire. Air. Earth. The elements are not in good shape. We have gone from global warming to global weirding to global boiling. We seem to be pointing in one direction from here and it is not a good one.

Maybe it is us. All the elements cannot contain us anymore.

We know the problems too well, the behaviors that have caused a climate and environmental crisis. I know many have studied these challenges in school.

Or read articles.
Or heard podcasts.
Or saw a vivid documentary.
Or maybe it is your life’s work to move from climate crisis to climate justice.

I am not going to list the problems. Instead, I share this story told to me by a colleague about her grandson:

My 7-year-old grandson and I were hiking in Live Oak Park in Berkeley during the winter of the Covid shutdown. We stopped on a wooden bridge to look down at the creek bed below. I said: “There used to be water in this creek every winter, but because of the bad drought we’re having, it’s dry.”

He was silent.

We crossed to the other side of the bridge and he pointed at two large oaks that had turned a sickly reddish-brown.

“What happened to the trees Grandma?”

“It’s called ‘Sudden Oak Death’ &8212; a kind of virus that gets into the trees and kills them.”

We walked a little further and JB stopped short and looked at me with eyes filled with fear:

“Grandma &8212; there’s Coronavirus so I can’t go to school or see my friends; there’s a drought so there’s no water; the trees are dying; there’s global warming. I can’t take anymore”.

And then he dropped his chin to his chest in anguish and defeat.

This little boy, whose name is JB, full of curiosity and despair at the world he experiences reflects how so many feel: Climate Grief!

It’s not fair to him and every child like him. How did we get here? How completely have we forgotten that the earth, wind, fire, and water don’t actually belong to us. Perhaps, we have mastered and ruled too much and too forcefully. And all that creation contains as if it was deeded to us. Why would we think we can own the earth?

Yes, we can own homes and plant gardens. But, we have forgotten that we return to the earth, too. And while we are here, our work is to do as God instructed: till and protect it because it nurtures and protects us.

Why wouldn’t we want to work hard to save that which we love and brings us joy?

When it comes to taking care of this earth bequeathed to us, we’ve imagined a future that will hold and solve the problems, postponing for too long that the future has become right now. Remedies cannot be decades away.

So, what can we do? What do we say to people like JB with his head bowed in despair? What will we say we were doing when the climate turned weird and devastating?

Will we make excuses or will we act?
The earth, air, water, fire provide for us, and we have to work for it.
To till and to tend it. It is not dropped in our lap.

What are the pieces to the puzzle that can help save the planet and us who reside on this earth?

We rose to the challenge during Covid by wearing masks and initially remaining indoors to contain the spread. Some may think it wasn’t a huge success but imagine what would have happened if no one listened?

How about the people who volunteered to test the vaccine? What a difference they made. What happened to the atmosphere during Covid?

The air cleared in ways it hadn’t since before we were all born, no matter how old we are. [iii]

We are part of a big puzzle to piece together all the ways that we can transform the climate crisis into climate correctives of concerted efforts.

Our survival on earth depends on it. Governments across the world have to join in the effort while we can support innovative and scientific research where creative discoveries of solutions are made possible. We can enact legislation not because of partisan politics but because we need good and helpful laws and guidelines to change the course toward the positive. And we need us all.

We can begin this Sunday and be part of a reverse tashlich (sorry! this sermon was from last Friday and reverse tashlich has now passed) at the Muddy river where instead of metaphorically throwing our transgressions into the water, we will be guided by professionals to safely help clean out the pollutants in the water that flows right across the street and ensure its beauty. All are invited. You can read more about it in the handout.

It’s one step of many that must happen. It will take all us to step up, to consider what impact each of us can make at home, here at Temple Israel, and in the larger community. We stand on the shoulders of the efforts of those before us. It is our turn. I believe in the power of human ingenuity and diligence. We can work together to show our appreciation and love for the natural world. And through our actions show it is worth tilling, tending, and protecting.

This day is Yom T’ruah, the day when the shofar summons us. Instead of closing our eyes, let us open them. Let us imagine a future filled with fresh air, basking in the warmth of the sun, where fires are contained, waters are clean, and their temperature appropriate and our beautiful earth is filled with healthy trees and dense foliage throughout the landscape.

As Maya Angelou wrote:
“We need joy as we need air.
We need love as we need water.
We need each other as we need the Earth we share.”

Climate change is climate transformation for us all.

What kind of future do you imagine? How do we start now to begin to create delayed satisfaction rather than one full of dissatisfaction, despair, and disappointment.

Our own survival on this earth depends on it.

In the next prayer, we say, Aleynu. It is on us:

To be guardians of the earth,
as well as the other elements of nature, too.
To be messengers of our Torah that teaches us
to take care of the precious world
created for us to till and protect it.
And to recognize that wherever we live,
no matter who we are, our destiny is bound up
with the fate of all humanity
and this planet on which we can thrive.

With eyes open, we rise, pay attention, and awaken.
It is all on us and on us all.

May it be so.

[i] Genesis 1: 22
[ii] Genesis 2:15
[iii] Image of puzzle and lessons of Covid from Jonathan Safran Foer, We are the Weather

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings. Share with me what you think here. Your email goes directly to me!

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    4:30 p.m. Young Family Kol Nidre Service. Register to participate onsite or online.
    5:45 p.m. Early Community-Wide Kol Nidre Service, onsite and online (via Zoom and livestream).
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    8:15 p.m. Late Community-wide Kol Nidre Service, onsite and online (via Zoom and livestream).
  • We gather for Yom Kippur, Monday, September 25
    9:00 a.m. Early Community-Wide Yom Kippur Service, onsite and online (via Zoom and livestream).
    9:00 a.m. Family Yom Kippur Service, onsite and online.
    9:15 a.m. Young Family Yom Kippur Service, Register to participate onsite or online.
    11:30 a.m. Late Community-Wide Yom Kippur Service, onsite and online (via Zoom and livestream).1:30 p.m. Between Services Session I:
    —Poetry as Prayer
    , onsite and online
    —Gather with the REDI Team, onsite and online.
    —Meditative Spaces (onsite)
    —Teen Gathering with Fallon Rubin (onsite)2:30 p.m. Between Services Session II:
    —Ask the Clergy, 
    onsite and online
    Spaces, onsite.3:45 p.m. Afternoon and Avodah Service, Yizkor, Neilah, Havdalah, onsite and online (via Zoom and livestream)


Rabbi Elaine Zecher