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Natan Margalit
author of The Pearl and the Flame

A Story of Tshuva: The Kabbalah of Compost and Climate

photo by Natan Margalit
photo by Natan Margalit

Composting is one of my core spiritual practices.* Almost daily I take my green two-gallon kitchen collector filled with old cucumber or banana peels, stale kale and other smelly scraps out to the backyard bin. I toss it in and make sure to cover the smelly green stuff with brown, dry leaves and grass clippings from the big pile in the corner. It feels intuitively right and even pleasurable to return the carbon in those scraps to the soil. It’s a kind of t’shuvah – a return of those carbon molecules from an unpleasant, decaying state into one that brings life and vitality. And it’s also one of the best ways I can do something every day to combat climate disaster. Even low tech, backyard composting like I do takes carbon that would otherwise go to landfills and release methane into the atmosphere, and it stores that carbon in the ground. Our atmosphere and oceans may be filled to saturation with carbon, but the soil is actually quite thirsty for it. Composting is an even better way to sequester carbon than planting trees. Trees die eventually and they burn fairly often, releasing the carbon right back into the air. Carbon stored in the soil and integrated into the complex underground eco-system of plant roots and micro-organisms is stable and can stay there for decades, or even forever.

Composting could be a major factor in combating climate change if enough people were to practice it. Imagine what would need to happen for composting to become as common as, say, cell phones. A very different kind of worldview would need to spread across the world. We’d need to be seeing clearly not only the ineffectiveness, but also the wrongness of taking good fertilizer—those same kitchen scraps that I mentioned–and throwing them away to pollute the water or release methane into the air. A large number of people would need to feel viscerally that it is a kind of desecration to waste the life energy in those carbon molecules. We’d need a cultural shift to deeply understand that there actually is no “away” but that everything cycles back to participate in the living system that is the planet, and the cosmos. It would be a worldview that understands that nothing is actually waste: that there is a spark of good, or perhaps a spark of divinity, in everything.

In fact, that new worldview would have a lot in common with a kabbalistic worldview.

While the theory and lore of kabbalah can be complex and esoteric, we can get a basic idea through some core imagery.  Light, and especially sparks are a very common theme in kabbalah. Although God in the highest heavens is Infinite and Unknowable, here in this world, we can experience the sparks of God hidden in everything.

That hiddenness is also key: Another core analogy in kabbalah is garments. Just like you and I use garments to protect, sometimes hide, parts of ourselves, but also to express our personalities and styles, so kabbalists often speak of garments which are needed to protect, hide and help to manifest those hidden sparks. The great sixteenth century kabbalist, Moses Cordovero, used the analogy of the sun: it’s brightness and heat would harm us if we were to look at it directly. Only by covering it a bit with a screen can we look at the sun. It needs to manifest through a covering garment.

All the wonderful variety and diversity of the things of this world are garments of the Divine sparks. But the garments can also bring about separation, hiddenness and alienation. When the garments become too thick, so that they block the Divine light instead of helping it to manifest, then kabbalists start to call them shells. We experience evil because of the shells. But really, nothing is inherently evil. Someone may come up to me on the street and threaten to beat me up and take my money. That person isn’t inherently evil, but they have quite a thick shell. That shell may have its origin in childhood abuse, poverty, or many other factors which have obscured and blocked the divine light in this person from shining through. If I’m on a very high spiritual level, maybe I can look that person in the eye and shine my divine light on them and get them to feel their own divine sparks of light, and we’d hug and cry and become fast friends. But, since I’m in a garmented, shelled human form myself I may not be so confident that I can break through that person’s shell, I may just decide to give them the money, or run, or both.  But, even if I do try to protect myself in that way, I also know that that person is not inherently, immutably, evil. They have a divine spark. It’s just a bit too hidden right now.

As in the case of my made-up mugger, the kabbalistic worldview can give us helpful spiritual language for understanding composting. No smelly, rotting tomato from dinner three days ago is inherently bad. There are sparks of energy in the form of carbon molecules there. But in order to make those sparks of energy available and useful, they first need to be covered. The main cause of beginner composters giving up after a couple weeks is that they skip the step of covering their kitchen scraps with dry leaves, dry grass clippings, or hay. It then smells awful, attracts flies and animals and doesn’t compost very well. But when you add a layer of brown dry material on top of the smelly, wet stuff, it keeps the flies away, keeps it from smelling and it also adds air pockets which give the aerobic bacteria a chance to thrive, heating the compost and facilitating the transformation into rich soil.

In a natural, balanced ecosystem such as a forest or wetlands, there is no waste. Everything lives, dies, and is used in the cycle of energy transformation. That may be why we experience a walk in the woods as beautiful, calming and even spiritually nurturing. The natural world reflects the kabbalistic spiritual understanding of divine sparks. Nothing is waste: there are only divine sparks covered in their garments of trees, animals, plants, soil, sunlight, fungi, birds, micro-organisms, air and water. When we compost, we utilize these principles to bring our world closer to the beauty and efficiency of a forest—or a holy Garden of Eden.

In this month of Elul, when Jews are involved in tshuvah, returning to our best selves, we can take some inspiration from the kabbalah of composting: nothing and no one is irredeemable. When I go out to my backyard and add this batch of scraps to the cycle of transformation, I’m reminded that I, too, have gone through periods of hiding, “taking cover,” curing and healing, allowing my cells and my spirit to break down a bit from their rigid habits, let go of old fears, and finally open up to transformation. I’ve learned to never give up, even when my prospects looked bleak. When I look at the current state of our world, with its social, political and ecological fragmentation, addictions and arrogance, destruction and degradation, it’s easy to give up hope. Yet, I know from looking no further than my backyard that transformation is not only possible, it’s happening all the time. When we start to understand that something as mundane as composting can teach us kabbalah we may just be able to take vital steps toward turning ourselves away from our path of destruction, and toward a flourishing, joyful and beautiful world.

*Some of the images and ideas in this essay appear in modified form in my book, The Pearl and the Flame: A Journey into Jewish Wisdom and Ecological Thinking, Boulder, CO, Albion-Andalus Books, 2022, pages 141-146.

About the Author
Natan is the author of The Pearl and the Flame: A Journey into Jewish Wisdom and Ecological Thinking. He was raised in Honolulu and lived for twelve years in Israel where he received rabbinic ordination (1990). His Ph.D. in Talmud is from U.C. Berkeley (2001). Natan has taught at Bard College, RRC and the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is currently Chair of the Rabbinic Texts department in the Aleph Ordination Program and he directs the AOP’s Earth-Based Judaism Program. Natan is Founder of Organic Torah which is a program of Aleph.