We By Fire: Rosh Hashanah 5781

In the keynote High Holy Days prayer of Unetaneh Tokef, we reflect, “umi ba’esh – And who by fire.” An accurate answer might be, more and more of us each year.

Already, well over four million acres have been scorched by the latest round of wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington. Just one of those fires, sparked by a lightning strike in August, recently became the worst fire in California’s history, burning over 740 square miles to date. Entire neighborhoods and towns have been literally seared off the map. Researchers trace the force of these fires, which are rapidly increasing both in frequency and intensity around the world, to global climate change.

According to our tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of God creating Adam and Eve, placing them in the Garden of Eden, and charging them “to cultivate it, and to guard it – in Hebrew, l’avdah ulishamrah.” Fifteen hundred years ago, our sages recorded a powerful retelling of this story, in which God leads Adam around the Garden of Eden and says to him: ‘Behold my works, how beautiful they are! All that I have created, I created for your sake. Pay heed that you do not destroy my world; for if you do destroy it, there is no one to repair it after you.”

God’s warning to Adam & Eve, and to humanity in general, is especially resonant today. In its light, the wildfires present not just a disaster response or economic challenge, but a religious challenge as well.

Rosh Hashanah inaugurates the period known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, ten days of repentance, that culminates with Yom Kippur. The towering 20th century thinker and rabbinic leader, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, identifies the most basic form of teshuvah, of repentance, as our natural desire to mitigate the damage we have caused to avoid suffering the harshest consequences of our actions.

However, when it comes to the climate, those consequences are, at this point, likely unavoidable. Indeed, the wildfires are not just a result of climate change, but will be a significant cause of climate change themselves. The fumes from the fires, which have turned the skies over the West Coast that ominous shade of red, have released, to date, over 83 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions into the air – more than all of California’s power plants emit in a typical year. Those gases will remain trapped in the atmosphere for decades to come, contributing to even hotter temperatures – and, in an ever-accelerating cycle, to more fires.

The individual and collective actions we take now to conserve natural resources and reduce our waste and emissions may be understood as expressions of teshuvah – they are attempts to acknowledge past misdeeds and chart a better course forward. But if we are already locked into an inevitable spiral, what scientists call a “feedback loop,” their meaning may well turn out to be symbolic at best, perhaps even delusional at worst.

As if in response, Rabbi Soloveitchik also provides a second, even more profound way to understand teshuvah. The Talmud tells us that God created teshuvah, that God created repentance even before creating the heavens and earth – before any sin was committed, and before anyone who could have done anything wrong could even have existed. Rabbi Soloveitchik understood this to mean that teshuvah is more than making specific amends for a particular misdeed. He explained that humankind is uniquely endowed with the capacity to become creators, following in God’s footsteps – and that is what it means to be created in the Divine Image.

First, we imitate God’s creation of the world by developing technology and culture, by harnessing the resources around us to solve problems and drive civilization forward. But God’s crowning achievement, celebrated on Rosh Hashanah itself, is the creation of mankind, which we imitate through teshuvah, through repentance, by remaking, by literally recreating ourselves from who we are into who we aspire to be. By affirming and celebrating God as Creator of the world on Rosh Hashanah, we also affirm and celebrate our own creative power – by creating ourselves as the ethical, moral, spiritual people we aspire to be. By creating connections of empathy and support we share with our loved ones and communities. By involving ourselves in what is important to us and finding fulfillment in that work.

Kate Marvel, a climate scientist who teaches and writes at NASA and Columbia University, recently concluded that it is far too late for humanity to avoid most of the devastating, ever-worsening effects of climate change, which we already see unfolding. “There is now no weather we haven’t touched,” she writes, “no wilderness immune from our encroaching pressure. The world we once knew is never coming back. I have no hope that these changes can be reversed.”

“We need courage,” she concludes. “Not hope…courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.” Courage without hope is not easy – it is no wonder that the American Psychological Association has identified climate anxiety as a growing phenomenon, particularly among younger people. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, speaks as well of a Cultural Climate Change, in which cynicism and nihilism have come to dominate our popular and political discourse, partially as a result of the disillusionment with a global leadership that seems incapable of taking meaningful steps to mitigate the crisis.

Marvel tells us that, “The sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts trapped together under a warming atmosphere.”  As the world burns around us, it is an act of courage to dream and pray together on Rosh Hashanah, that humanity will together, as we say in our prayers, repair the world by shouldering the yoke of heaven – by creating through teshuvah lives of purpose and meaning, by taking individual and collective steps to care for those we love, and by honoring the innate dignity of each human being, created in the image of God. In this new year, may we cultivate that courage within ourselves, and inspire it in those around us.

Adapted from The Hampton Synagogue Rosh Hashanah Service telecast on JBS – Jewish Broadcasting Service. To find your local JBS channel or watch online:

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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