Keeping Steady Focus on Addressing the Looming Climate Crisis

When I was studying to be a rabbi, my school required rabbinical students to read Steven Covey's 1989 business and self-help book entitled "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." One lesson that has stuck with me for all the years since ordination is Covey's insistence that one should prioritize the important goals, rather than constantly reacting to urgencies -- in other words, focusing on Q2 in the decision matrix shown below.

When I was studying to be a rabbi, my school required rabbinical students to read Steven Covey's 1989 business and self-help book entitled "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." One lesson that has stuck with me for all the years since ordination is Covey's insistence that one should prioritize the important goals, rather than constantly reacting to urgencies -- in other words, focusing on Q2 in the decision matrix shown below.

In our contemporary lives, fast media cycles keep our attention flitting from one topic to the next. And this year, in particular — between the struggles of managing our own day-to-day realities during a pandemic and the urgency of addressing pressing societal issues like racism — it can be hard to be disciplined about also carving out time and energy to focus on Q2’s “important but not urgent**” goals of protecting the environment and addressing the looming climate crisis.  (**Actually, our community does believe that the climate crisis is urgent... so perhaps it's more fair to call Q2 the issues that are “important but not immediately in our faces”. )

Fortunately, though, our Torah cycle doesn’t let the topic of our relationship with the earth move too far towards the back burner. This week, we read the double parasha of Behar-Bechukotai, both of which emphasize environmental themes. Behar begins with instructions regarding a shmita year, a sabbatical year of rest for the land at the end of each seven year cycle; Bechukotai contains critical warnings about the "iron skies," lack of food, and desolation that will result if we fail to follow God’s instructions.

The shmita instructions feel especially relevant this year, as the Covid pandemic has simultaneously emphasized our interdependence and the fragility of human life on this planet, and pushed us towards more time in and a deeper appreciation of nature (with distance from other humans). The next shmita year begins this coming Rosh Hashanah (September 6, 2021), and there is amazing work underway in the Jewish community to prepare -- educationally, spiritually, and practically -- for a year of hitting pause on our relationship with the earth. Close to home, our friend Deirdre Gabbay has launched The Shmita Project Northwest, which has curated a great speaker series... and in case you missed any, the videos are available on their website. The Shmita Project, sponsored by Hazon, is a wonderful website to explore if you're interested in learning more about the Sabbatical tradition and how it might help us build healthier, more sustainable Jewish communities. (Attention artists, artisans, writers, liturgists, and film-makers: they are awarding prizes for art that brings into focus the relevancy and application of shmita values in our contemporary world!)

Over many years, the Kavana community has supported local farms with sustainable agricultural practices, collected trash from beaches, cleared trails and planted native plants in parks, and held a bicycle drive. We have signed onto Seattle's Green New Deal, and partnered with environmental organizations from Hazon to EarthMinistry. We have advocated for legislation at every level of government in the hopes of achieving better climate protections on local, state and national levels; we feel a sense of personal pride at the great successes of Kavana partner and WA State Senator Reuven Carlyle during this historic legislative season (click here to read more). Last year at Tu BiShvat, Kavana launched the Big Bold Jewish Climate Fest, the brainchild of Lisa Colton, Ingrid Elliott and Rabbi Josh Weisman; this Tu BiShvat, the festival went national with over 100 partner orgs and 6000+ participants.

On Monday night, a new Kavana group met for the first time as a Dayenu Circle under the umbrella of Dayenu's new national movement to confront the climate crisis rooted in Jewish values, experience and spirit, led by Rachel Strickman and Rachel Doyle. On Zoom, this group discussed interests and ideas -- from green energy, green jobs and economy, to unifying our identities as Jews and as climate activists. Kavana's Dayenu Circle plans to continue meeting at regular intervals and also offering asynchronous opportunities for others to stay engaged, to keep the climate crisis on the front burner. To put it in Stephen Covey‘s terms, the Dayenu Circle will aim to help our community keep our focus on Q2, where we can work most effectively to address the climate crisis over time! If you're interested in joining this effort, please email Kavana's Dayenu Circle.

My friend Zelig Golden, founder of Wilderness Torah, has taught about the connection between shmita and the holiday of Shavuot, which we are quickly approaching. He writes: "The Torah teaches that if we obey the tradition of giving the land its Shabbat, we will live upon the land in security and abundance" (Lev. 25:18-22). The root of Shmita means 'release.' Thus, to fully live in abundance, we must let go. Whether literally or in our hearts, we must relinquish ownerships and drop away our materialism. We must let those we enslave go free, including ourselves. Unencumbered, we can then climb the holy mountain of self-reflection and self-discovery, and surrender with faith to the truth of lives. This is the essence of receiving 'Torah.'"

This work is both holy and incredibly challenging: in order to really observe shmita, we must change our fundamental orientation towards the land, to our possessions, and even to ourselves. And, we can't only talk about our relationship with the earth or the looming climate crisis when our skies are filled with the smoke of wildfires; we also must be thinking about it, making decisions, and taking action on beautiful blue sky days like today... and really, every day!

This week, as we continue our climb towards Mount Sinai, Parashat Behar-Bechuokotai returns our focus to precisely where it needs to be, calling us to re-consider our relationship with the planet we call home. If we want to "live upon the land in security" -- now and in the generations to come -- we must heed the call.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum