Remembering Zusha On Yom Kippur: Climate Leadership In The Jewish High Holidays

September 25th, 2016 marks the one-year anniversary of Blessed Tomorrow’s Coming Together in Faith on Climate. Aligned with Pope Francis’ historic visit to the U.S., faith leaders from across the United States convened at Washington National Cathedral to coalesce their moral call to climate action.

The event was a proverbial who's who of American faith and climate leaders, including Melissa Rogers, Rev. Amy Butler, Rev. Sharon Watkins, Imam Mohamed Magid, Rev. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Rev. John C. Dorhauer, Rev. Jim Wallis, Rev. Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, Rev. Suzii Paynter, Rev. Dr. Susan Henry-Crow, Sister Simone Campbell, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Ebrahim Rasool, Brian McLaren & Rev. Otis Moss III. In partnership with the Auburn Seminary, Faith in Public Life, Convergence, Interfaith Power and Light (DC.MD.NoVA), Divest-Invest and The Washington National Cathedral, the night was electric as faith leaders challenged one another to expand their climate works and to build on the momentum generated by Pope Francis.

Among the many faith leaders that inspired me that evening, Blessed Tomorrow Leader, Rabbi Steve Gutow’s recalling the Midrash of Zusha stuck with me. Aboard my flight home, the Rabbi’s words echoed in my mind, “No power on heaven and earth could have prevented you from becoming the best Zusha you could be.”

Zusha wept as he recounted a dream in which angels visited him to explain what they would one day come to ask him. They would not question the holy man’s inability to surpass the works of Moses or Joshua, rather, they would inquire whether Zusha had been “the best Zusha he could be.”

In the climate movement, it’s easy to feel as though you are not doing enough with a mountain of unfinished projects and goals to meet. Strangely, aspiring to surpass our predecessors often feels easier than realizing our own limitations. But, as we move through the Jewish High Holy Holidays, I am reminded of Zusha’s story and the many Rabbinic teachings that lend valuable guidance to the fight for climate solutions. Notably, Yom Kippur (Oct. 11-12), the most widely celebrated of the Jewish Holy High Holidays is among them. Denoted by fasting, prayer and an opportunity to recompense past sins, “an undertone of joy suffuses” this Day of Atonement as participants look ahead to another year – freshly absolved by G-d.

“For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before G‑d” (Leviticus 16:30)

Capstoned with a single blast of the shofar (Ram’s horn), the holiday ends with a new beginning as G-d “writes in and seals the ledgers of human destiny for the coming year.” Just as He decides the destiny of every soul, we too must decide the fate our climate – continually renewing our commitment to care for creation.

For faith leaders to successfully offer guidance to their community on the moral issue of climate change, there must be a repetition of the message, just as G-d’s mercy is renewed for His people every Yom Kippur. But true climate leadership requires action.

“Addressing the threat of global warming is a religious imperative” Rabbi Mark Barry explained in a recent article for the State Journal-Register. “Prayer alone,” however, will not “suffice to avert this threat. Political will and serious effort at both the national and international level will be required.”

“At the time when G-d created Adam, G-d took him around the trees of the Garden of Eden, and said to him, “See My works! How beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything that I have created, I created for you. Take care not to damage and destroy My world, for if you damage it, there is no one to repair it after you” -Midrash Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) Rabbah 7:13

The Rabbinical Assembly is among the many Jewish institutions taking this request seriously and has been for decades. The Assembly passed a resolution in support of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Paris Agreement and the Green Climate Fund (GCF) in June 2016.

The document, which outlines the moral, spiritual and practical reasons for acting on climate, found quick support from Liya Rechtman, Manager of The Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) who publicly penned her agreement"Leadership from the faith community, and particularly the Jewish community, is vital in the fight to combat climate change. The Rabbinical Assembly’s resolution shows a steadfast commitment to environmentalism and the protection of our shared earth. The Jewish community has historically served as stalwart defenders of moral climate policy."

The COEJL, and leaders like Rechtman, are vital to raising the issue of climate change in the broader Jewish communities. To date, they maintain an advisory body that includes 16 national and 125 local Jewish community relations organizations. Rechtman is also the co-chair of the Washington Interreligious Staff Council’s Energy and Environment Working Group and a Religions for Peace USA delegate to the UNFCCC.

Rechtman is a skilled and experienced leader, but the fight for climate isn’t exclusive to seasoned communicators. If you’ve never talked to your congregation about climate change, the High Holidays are a great opportunity to begin the conversation.

This Yom Kippur, be the best Zusha you can be by making our climate a priority with these Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and the Environment from Rabbi Lawrence Troster. You may also find tons of climate action materials at The Religious Action Center, Directed by Blessed Tomorrow leader, Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner.

Share these materials with friends, family and community leaders so that they can honor creation with you during these Days of Awe.

Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside. 

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