At the dinner table, I asked my family what I should write. One of my kids, age 10, immediately said, “Climate change. People think the problem’s all hot air, but the problem’s really hot water.” There was a smirk at his joke, but his twin nodded in agreement.
Hurricane Ida’s just made landfall and is churning its way up through swaths of the United States as I write this. Haiti is in shambles from its most recent earthquake, only compounded by the storm that followed. In Manitoba, we’ve lived through a hot, smoky summer, surrounded by wildfires and besieged by drought. When it finally rained, there was so much of it that some places flooded.
The weather has, at times, felt apocalyptic. While I’m not superstitious, the recent uptick in truly awful weather and world events made me think back to Yom Kippur, 20 years ago.
In 2001, my husband and I sat in Yom Kippur services in Durham, N.C., where we lived at the time. Just a little over two weeks after Sept. 11, the terrorist acts in New York, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon were on most people’s minds in that congregation.
Like many, I have images burned in my brain from that time, as both my family near D.C. and my husband’s in New York City, were alive, thank goodness, but personally affected. At synagogue, when we reached the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, the room fell silent, electrified. This ancient prayer, perhaps written by Yannai in the sixth century, is familiar to most who’ve attended services on the High Holidays or listened to Leonard Cohen:
“On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die after a long life and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by upheaval and who by plague, who by strangling and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer and Charity mitigate the severity of the Decree.”
In Temple Beth El in Durham, there was loud sobbing and then, the most elemental keening and grief that I’ve ever heard. Twenty years later, I can’t forget my brother-in-law running down Broadway as the second tower fell behind him, covered in its dust as he escaped Manhattan on the Staten Island ferry, or my father-in-law, who walked five miles through Manhattan in the middle of the street, only to stand in Central Park, afraid to go indoors. My father and brother, away from D.C. on business trips, waited days, unable to get home. My sister-in-law, stuck in D.C. overnight, was finally able to leave the city and walked home to her apartment in Virginia, only to suffer through continual sonic booms, as fighter pilots raced overhead, shaking her high-rise building.
I will never hear this prayer, which is primarily part of the Ashkenazi liturgy, without being shaken by that keening sound.
However, just as I remember it, it’s also helpful to keep reading. It says that, by doing repentance, prayer and charity, we can change the severity of the outcome. We’re taught clearly that repentance is not simply feeling badly about past behaviour, it’s about making amends. We must apologize to those we’ve wronged and try to fix our mistakes. Our prayers are not simply rote, but must come from our hearts, with the right kind of kavannah, or intention.
Finally, it mentions we must do tzedakah, which some translate as charity, but really also means righteousness. It is the obligation to do the upstanding, just thing, and to act with integrity.
Although I can’t help but think of this prayer in context of those who died, both on Sept. 11 and those who, each year, aren’t written in the Book of Life for the next year, it’s not just about that. This prayer says we must act now to make change and to stop bad things from happening to us.
Even for those who don’t believe in its literal power, the message is clear. If we want to be able to live with ourselves later, we’re taught that we must repair our relationships promptly, practise introspection through prayer, and make a big effort to step up and do the right thing.
Those who’ve lived through floods, wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes this summer would argue that bad things are happening. The rest of us, living through the pandemic, would be hard-pressed to disagree. Yet, Jewish tradition teaches us that we aren’t passive observers. We aren’t meant to simply submit and accept this.
More than one rabbi has told the joke about the man on top of his roof in the middle of a flood. He ignores the orders to leave, turns down a neighbour’s offer of a ride, says no to the rescue boat and refuses to be saved by helicopter.
The floodwaters rise higher. He drowns. Then he gets to speak with G-d. He says, “Lord, I believed in you. Why didn’t you save me?” And G-d responds, “Well, I sent you an evacuation order, a carpool, a boat and a helicopter! What else do you want?”
While we battle a pandemic, forest fires, rising temperatures in ocean waters and on land, it’s helpful to remember that our tradition teaches us that “G-d helps those who help themselves.”
This is a strange year, where some of us, used to sitting in synagogue, will instead be streaming services at home again, or perhaps spending time praying outdoors. It could also be the year where we decide that, upon reflection, it’s important to repair our relationship with the earth and to start doing the right thing personally. Climate change is upon us. It’s going to take everyone’s efforts to make a difference.
Wishing you an easy fast. May you be written for good in the Book of Life.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.