”Rabbi David Seidenberg, neohasid.org, email@example.com
David is the Eco-Judaism Fellow of the Shalom Center
We read in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “I have blotted out your transgressions like a thick cloud, and your sins like a cloud.” [Machiti kha’av p’sha’ekha v’khe’anan chatotekha, shuvah eilai ki ga’altikha.] (Isa. 44:22)
As climate change becomes one of the most pressing issues of our time, this verse from Isaiah about the clouds stands out in a new way. These days we look to the clouds not only to see if it will rain, but also to discern the traces of global climate change, the fearsome prospect that climate could become not only warmer but also unstable, melting polar caps, creating hurricanes, flooding cities and destroying ecosystems. The sky looms not only over our heads, but also in our imagination, as the mirror of how our hand is changing this planet.
We read in every Yom Kippur amidah that God will blot out our sins “like thick clouds” (kha’av) and “like clouds” (khe’anan). The difference between a thick cloud, av, and a cloud, anan, is no small thing. In Job (37:11) we read: “Even with abundant moisture God will load up a thick cloud, av; a cloud, anan, will scatter His light.” [Af bri yatri’ach av, yafitz anan oro.]
The difference is that a thick cloud, av, is so full of rain that it is black, while a cloud, anan, is the kind of white cloud that scatters light but lets it through. What it means to blot out an av, a black rain cloud, is that it must spend its rain upon us, while a white anan cloud can simply disappear as it is scattered by the wind. This is why more severe “transgressions” are like an av, while more commonplace “sins” are like an anan.
According to the Talmud (Yoma 86a), a sin between a person and God can be blown away by t’shuvah alone, while even a sin against another person can be dissipated by appeasing them. But some sins are not forgiven, the Talmud teaches, until sufferings m’markin, scratch out, the sin. This is the harsher meaning of blot out – not to erase the errant mark or to soak it up, but to add ink to it or abrade it, until it can no longer be read. This is why we say about someone who is the source of great evil, “May their name be blotted out.” [Y’mach shmo.]
The rub, so to speak, is that our “sins,” our environmental wrongs that are literally bein adam l’makom, between us and this place, this planet, we don’t know which of our sins are like an av and which are like an anan. This is why the passage in Job continues (37:14), God brings forth the clouds “to be a rod, or for God’s land, or for lovingkindness.” [Im l’sheivet im l’artzo im l’chesed yamtzi’eihu] Even a rod for chastising can be wielded out of love, but from our side of reality the two are radically different.
The most famous time that the clouds came out as “a rod” was in the flood of Noah. There, God says (Gen 7:4), “I will blot out everything standing which I made upon the face of the earth.” [Umachiti et kol hay’kum asher asiti mei’al p’nei hadamah.] Not blotted out like the clouds, but blotted out by the clouds, because God opened up “the floodgates of the heavens” [arubot hashamayim]. (Gen 7:11)
We don’t know yet what our hands have wrought, we don’t know how great the impact of our changing the atmosphere will be. In just a few generations, the carbon that was removed over many many millions of years by untold numbers of long-gone organisms and species is being released.
In our lifetime, the atmosphere that nurtured not only our evolution but the evolution of all mammals and birds, will revert or convert to something else. Or we will change, do t’shuvah, change how we live, how we drive, how we use electricity, we will change our laws and our economy, so that we are part of a sustainable world.
Are our sins like an av, a thick cloud that will storm us, or like an anan, a cloud that ultimately will pass on, because we changed our path? We cannot know, as it says in Job, “Do you know the dynamics balancing thick clouds?” [Hateida mifl’shei av] (37:16). All we know is that today we are still able to take action, to pray and act for healing our relationship with the earth. As the prophets teach, while there is time to act and pray and do t’shuvah, there is time to change the decree.
What will we choose for this year, and what will we choose for our children? This year let us work together and help each other, to change our synagogues, our workplaces, our homes. The “floodgates of heaven” are not only opened to be a rod for chastisement. Let us act so that the words of Malakhi (3:10) can be fulfilled, “I will open for you the floodgates of heaven and I will empty out blessing for you…” [Va’eftach lakhem et arubot hashamayim vaharikoti lachem brakhah]
Umachiti et kol hay’kum asher asiti mei’al p’nei hadamah And I will blot out everything standing which I made upon the face of the earth. (Gen 7:4) …va’arubot hashamyim yiftachu and the floodgates of heaven were opened. (Gen 7:11)
Machiti kha’av p’sha’ekha v’khe’anan chatotekha, shuvah eilai ki ga’altikha I have blotted out your transgressions like a thick cloud, and your sins like a cloud.
(Isa. 44:22, from the Yom Kippur liturgy)
Va’eftach lakhem et arubot hashamayim vaharikoti lachem brakhah ad b’li dai And I will open for you the floodgates of heaven and I will empty out blessing for you until it is beyond limit.
Af bri yatri’ach av, yafitz anan oro…Even with abundant moisture God will load up a thick cloud; a cloud will scatter His light. (Job 37:11) Im l’sheivet im l’artzo im l’chesed yamtzi’eihu…Whether to be a rod or for God’s land or for lovingkindness, He brings it forth… (37:14) Hateida mifl’shei av Do you know the dynamics of the thick clouds? (37:16)