Grief, Hope, Action: Tisha B'Av for the Earth

Photo of

"It's an infusion of oil and gas unlike anything else that has ever been seen anywhere, certainly in human history," said Samantha Joye of the University of Georgia, the expedition leader. [NY Times June 9, 2010.]

For two brief video teachings that move from lamentation to hope -- how to connect the ancient wisdom of Judaism to active change -- see YouTube here. and here.

What can we do to prevent this disaster in the Gulf from becoming a model of disaster for all Earth?

My heart is drawn to the day Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem -- and after a day of grief, according to the ancient rabbis, are able to welcome the first stirrings of the birthing of Messiah, on that same disastrous day.

The day is called Tisha B'Av: the ninth day of the midsummer month of Av. On that day, Jews have traditionally chanted in a special mournful melody the Book of Lamentations --- in Hebrew named Eicha, for its opening word: "How lonely ... sits the city, once full of life, now desolate."

I want to suggest drawing on ancient midrash and our own good sense to see Tisha B'Av this summer as a framework for grief, vision, and action in regard to our Earth. First we will cite the ancient midrash, and then [see blue passages below] suggest some kinds of actions we might take.

Ancient rabbinic midrash asks, "When was the first Eicha ?" and answers -- Ayyeka, "Where are you?" -- the question God put to the human beings after they ate of the tree in the Garden of Eden, Delight. (In Hebrew the two words have the same consonants; only the vowels are different.) The first exile is not only universal, it is the exile of adam, humankind, from adamah, the earth.

And what has occasioned this exile? Why does God cry out "Ayyeka" and then lament as God later lamented when the Temple was destroyed?

Think back on the teaching of Eden: God says to the human race: "Here there is overflowing abundance. Eat of it in joy! --- But you must also learn self-restraint. Do not gobble up all this abundance. The fruit of one tree you must not eat."

But they do, and their eating ruins the abundance. So they must work with the sweat pouring down their faces just to wring from the earth enough to eat, for it will give forth thorns and thistles.

So the ancient midrash is rooting the destruction of the Temple in the destruction of the Garden, in the ruining of Earth itself. This is the story of oil despoiling the Gulf today, of destroying West Virginia mountains in greed for coal, of burning the Amazon forest. From abundance to greed to desolation.

Moreover, the Temple is known as the microcosm of Creation. To quote from one passage of Hassidic interpretation:

  • "The rites performed within [the Temple] are both symbolic of and actualizations of the wider divine service that [hu]mankind performs in the world at large.
  • "To wit: Salt is a mineral, and through it the mineral kingdom was rectified. The wine and the oil [offered with the sacrifices] rectified the vegetable kingdom. The animals rectified the animal kingdom. The confession the animal's owner recited over the animal corresponds to the articulate kingdom [i.e., humankind]. The intention of the priest while he was offering the sacrifice corresponds to the soul within [humanity]. Through these five aspects of the sacrifice, the four "kingdoms" are elevated."

So not only is the Exile from Eden the prototype of Tisha B'Av, but the Holy Temple itself is but a microcosm of the earthy creation, intended to heal spiritual brokenness in the earth.

Shekhinah Herself -- the Divine Indwelling Presence embodied in the world, usually seen in the Jewish mystical tradition as the Feminine aspect of God, is embodied and symbolized in Earth. In our generation the web of life on Earth is in danger of destruction.

Our Earth is raped by Big Oil and Big Coal -- even the mile-deep ocean pierced, penetrated, by the drill seeking every last gallon of oil, even sacred mountains smashed in search of every last lump of coal.

Her shriek of pain calls on us to make clear and explicit a "new" aspect of Tisha B'Av: We must grieve the destruction we ourselves have wrought –"For our sins is this Holy Temple shattered." And the Rabbis' vision that on this day of disaster is Messiah born must be turned into action if we are to save our Mother.

The BP assault on the Gulf, and its results, echoes the story of Eden: Abundance, Greed, Disaster - and the need for visionary action. ("Hashivenu YHWH elecha, v'nashuva!-- Turn us to You, O Breath/ Wind/ Hurricane of life, and indeed we will return!)" as Eicha/ Lamentations ends.

The organic, archetypal framework for dealing with these disasters is there, in our tradition, and even before we faced planetary disaster our sages could make this deep connection. Surely it would benefit us all to bring that connection to the community at large, where it could not only make a new contribution to the healing of the earth, but also strengthen connection to Judaism ajd even to the spiritual life more broadly -- among many who do not now understand how these teachings bear upon their lives.

What could we do to make this real and active?

Three possible approaches:

1) If our congregations do in fact schedule observance of Tisha B'Av on the evening of July 19 and/or the day of July 20, we could -- along with the chanting of Eicha and kinot in memory of the Temple -- include some passages of these midrashic teachings (including those above); and some Kinot of outcries from and for the wounded earth.

We will be sending one such lament. And in our generation, perhaps the very form of kinot should expand to include this song and video, a lament from the Gulf Coast:

2) On the Sunday before Tisha B'Av, July 18, we might gather in a public place - perhaps near a Senator's home office, a BP office, etc. to pray, chant, and describe what we think are the necessary elements of change in public policy.

Have a brief religious service, including old or new prayers, psalms, etc., that praise the Creator of our sacred earth -- led by clergyfolk if possible, dressed in clerical garb. Chant in the waling melody of the Book of Lamentations. Blow the shofar, toll bells, chant from the Bible and Quran.

Recite aloud the names of coal miners recently killed in West Virginia, the oil-rig workers killed in the Gulf, and the species of birds, fish, animals endangered in the Gulf. Then set aside five minutes of utter silence.

Consider being dramatic --e.g., wearing gas masks or bandannas across the face, carrying signs with photographs of oil-soaked pelicans, saying "The Gulf Now - All Earth Tomorrow?" "Our Climate is God's Breath - Heal It Now! "Clean our Air!" or "Senator [Blank}: Will you Vote against Offshore Oil Wells?" or "Coal Kills."

End with a passage of ancient or modern sacred text that envisions a world of harmony, with songs of joy and dancing.

3) On Tisha B'Av itself, July 20, ask several friends and co-workers to join with you to visit your Senators' home offices. Call ahead to make an appointment to meet with the Senator or a policy staffer.

If possible, include a rabbi, minister, priest, imam , and/or earth scientist -- but go ahead even if they can't make it.

If you have permission from an organization to take a stance, make that clear; if not, say who you are as an individual and note your chief affiliation. Say politely but clearly and firmly how dangerous to us, our children, and our grandchildren are the CO2 emissions that are heating our planet.

Urge the Senator or his/her staffer to support the CLEAR Act sponsored by Senators Maria Cantwell (D - Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the "cap and dividend" bill. It will set a year-by-year cap on CO2 emissions in the US, will draw our society away from carbon-based fuels by raising their cost through a Federal fee, and then will return more than the higher cost by a dividend to every American of about $1,000 a year.

(For more details on CLEAR, see our "Action" note at the bottom of our Home Page and its "Further info" continuation.)

If the Senator or staffer says we can't just shut down coal mining and oil burning, firmly but gently point out that we could start now to set regulations and ramp them up over the next decade as we create new green jobs. Point out that Congress can and should provide retraining and reemployment for coal miners and oil workers as well as capping national CO2 emissions.

Let us know at what you are planning and what you have done.

Again, let me remind you:
For two brief video teachings that move from lamentation to hope -- how to connect the ancient wisdom of Judaism to active change -- see YouTube here. and here.

With blessings that the sacred energy you bring to healing our children, our country, and our planet bring back to you the blessings of healing and shalom, salaam, peace --- Arthur

For your work on Global Scorching, you may find these books of mine useful: Godwrestling -- Round 2; Down-to-Earth Judaism; Torah of the Earth (2 vols, eco-Jewish thought from earliest Torah to our own generation). All are available from "Shouk Shalom," our on-line bookstore, here.


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: