More than twenty years ago, I had the great pleasure and honor of being with Reb Zalman Schacter when he was celebrating Rosh Hashanah at Mt. Madonna in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There was a stream not far from where we were meeting and we went there for tashlich. Everyone was so happy to be in such a setting, they all went into the water itself to offer up their sins and transgressions. As I stepped toward the waters on that breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful afternoon, something stopped me. I could not perform that ritual.
Later, when we had a group discussion, many were concerned about another part of the Service, when Abraham, the father, is offering his son in sacrifice. I was concerned about the ram. We cannot continue to offer animal sacrifices for our own benefit, I said. And, I continued, we cannot continue to pollute our waters with our sins and toxins. We need to honor Creation as the way of honoring the Divine. We are not the center of the universe. Our homocentric failure to understand the true nature of the universe leads us to disregard the non-human world and the essential nature of the myriad beings. Biodiversity is as central to all life as oxygen and water. Our reflex to use and exploit rather than to align with and protect is leading to the end of the planet as we know it and the death of all life. This is not an exaggeration.
An unexpected and profound understanding came to me that day. It came to me through Judaism while it took me on another path. It took me back to what we call the old, old ways, the earth-centered, spirit-centered universe where all beings live in harmony with each other.
My relationship to Judaism has been profound and idiosyncratic.. My father was a Yiddish writer engaged with Jewish mysticism and Labor Zionism, and so I gained the complex values of a spiritual, political, socially conscious life, if heartbroken by WWI, the Spanish Civil War, WWII and the Holocaust. We did not go to Temple but we lived a profoundly integrated Jewish life where my father taught me some of the basics, how to read Hebrew, for example, but the teachings came on a daily basis from the life lived with deep engagement in community, literature, social and spiritual values.
In winter, he wrote every weekend from early morning until late afternoon at his desk, which I now have, looking out the window. And in the summer, he set up a card table under the cherry tree he had planted on the adjacent strip of land he had managed to purchase for back taxes. He interrupted his writing work only to tend this piece of land, which he turned into a Victory garden that gave us many summer meals. Not unlike some contemporary responses to climate dissolution, the negative effects of commercial agriculture and Covid-19.
I learned independence from my father and read every chance I had. I read the Bible on my own many times and was always taken with wonder by the lines, In the beginning…
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
No one interpreted these lines for me and so I took them in as a novelist does, trying to fathom all the dimensions, meanings, implications of those words, trying to decipher from them, how I was to live my life.
Over the years as I left the academic world, an act which increasingly seemed bashert, guided by Spirit, and began teaching on my own, I found myself carrying this simple question: If we know, from our deep and true experience, that Spirit exists, how then shall we live?
I come to you today, during the greatest crises that the human world has ever faced, during the most dire one hundred years of global human history, to ask you to take on that question: If we believe in the reality of Spirit, in the Divine, in God, how then shall we live?
I was filled that day during the services of the High Holidays with Reb Zalman, with the original awe I felt when I had read the words, “… and the Spirit of God moved on the waters….” I realized that my spiritual loyalty had to be to the manifestation of the Spirit of God in the act of Creation. I could not be beholden to human concerns alone – with the delusion that they can be separate — when all of Creation requires our attention, not as stewards, but as peers, allies and kin..
The use of fossil fuels and other human activities are diminishing the environment. I had known it to my horror when we dropped the Bomb and I was only nine years old then. The Anthropocene, or Age of Man, will be designated as an epoch because the human effect – the extreme negative human effect on the environment has become clear. American biologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term in the late 1980s and Dutch chemist and Nobelist Paul Crutzen brought it to our attention in 2000. Today, twenty years later, we all know.
Seven days to create the world and a few years to destroy it.
However, is this the only trajectory?
Every year the High Holidays offer us possibility. It is a remarkable demand and privilege to partake of these ten days. But to meet this sacred opportunity, we have to change our ways — radically. To do this we have to question all our habits, assumptions, beliefs, ways of life and be willing to shift. No, not shift, but reconceive, re-imagine, alter, transform. The changes required of each of us are equal to the gravity of the situation.
Here we are at the Days of Awe. Days when we enter into the deepest possible reflection on our lives in order to consider with ruthless honesty the harm we have done, the injuries inflicted and then we are called to make amends. This self-scrutiny that each of us is called to engage cannot be performed on a superficial level. And the motivation cannot be so that our individual lives and the lives of our kin and those we love be entered in the book of life. In these times, the prayer needs be on behalf of all life.
I no longer think of repentance. It is insufficient without changing behavior, without considering our on-going responsibility without meeting the spiritual requirement to consider the consequences of our ordinary and familiar behavior, and then to change, Repentance, even making amends, are insufficient if we do not spend the rest of the year, of our lives, bearing witness to the effect of our behavior and life style and our collusion in what destroys, and then in daily focus on divesting from these ways.
Several years ago I gave a lecture at Palo Alto University. on ReVisioning Medicine, which I have conceived and convened since 2004. As it happened the parking lot was next to a small grove of Redwood Trees. As I walked past them to the auditorium, the Trees said, “Tell them we only have 12 years.” I was startled. These were not my thoughts, but I knew when I heard them that they were referring to the October 8, 2018 Summary for Policymakers of IPCC, the International Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.
Now we have only nine years and we have not in any way changed the outlook.
Rather, since then, the Amazon, Australia and the US west have been burning. More than 2.5 million acres have burned in California, and what about the wild life and the trees? The Derecho devastated Iowa. Lake Charles Louisiana, India, Pakistan, China, Nepal, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Turkey were devastated by flooding and we are fearing this hurricane season in this country.
Let us pause also to note the climate change associated pandemic of 26 million+ cases, more than 860,000 dead worldwide. We lost 58,000 military deaths in Vietnam which was, for many of you, the war of your lifetime, and 189,000 to the pandemic.
How will we change?
Indigenous people know how to live on the planet in right relationship to all the beings. They understand inter-dependence and inter-connection. We, Western people, Imperial people, Colonizers, Settlers do not. Indigenous people and all the beings of the natural world understand the profound laws of the natural world and live accordingly, or lived accordingly, until we imposed our ways.
Life flourishes when people and tribes think we rather than I. When they think of all beings, Mitakuye Oyasin as the Lakota Sioux say, “all my relations. All our relations.”
The rigor of these times calls us to learn these ways. To become quick studies. We may have knowledge but the natural world has wisdom. When we plunder it and decimate it, all life, including ours, dies.
We were born into a Garden and we were thrown out. But the Native People laugh and say they never had to leave. They know how to live in the Garden.
Now it is up to us to learn again. To return to the old, old ways and align with the wisdom of the natural world, and all the beings, and live accordingly so that we may all live, so all life will flourish. This, I believe, is the mandate for these Holy days.
To view Deena Metzger delivering this talk – Click Here
Any book by Susan Cerulean, writer, naturalist and activist, is a gift to all of us. Deeply trained by her heart, in exact observation of what she loves, Cerulean devotes herself to understanding the nature of what is before her in these times – the fragile nature of everything we love. She reminds us what intimate relationship is, whether the object is a bird or birds in Florida whose lives and futures are overwhelmed by humans overrunning the shore bird’s fragile territory, or her aging father, whose life is equally threatened by Alzheimer’s and his similar loss of his own territory and agency.
One would not imagine that these very distinct creatures would each inform us about the other, but to the contrary, Cerulean’s keen understanding of how our contemporary lives endanger all beings, allows us to follow the striking and undeniable parallels between the two. One way that Susan understands Alzheimer’s is as a disease of relentless and continuous loss. The analogue is the dementia of our world which instigates the relentless and continuous loss of one species after another until our lives will be as barren and unsustainable as someone in the last stages of dementia.
A single urgent question threads its way through the book: How can we take care of what we love? And this question devolves into another even more desperate: Can we take care of what we love? How might such caring manifest?
One response that can be gleaned from Cerulean’s inquiries when navigating the confusions, contradictions and traumas that confront both father and creatures, is the need to protect and provide home. And the great difficulty of doing so. What gives us certainty and security in our lives? What is our foundation? Upon what do we depend for comfort and a guarantee of a future? Home.
We follow Cerulean’s heartbreak as she realizes her father cannot stay in his home, cannot care for himself and none of his children, Cerulean included, can take him into their homes. We do not live alongside each other or even in the same cities or states. We do not live in villages. We no longer have the ability to take care of an aged parent with dementia. A patient with Alzheimer’s requires constant care, sometimes, as Cerulean discovers, more than one person at a time. And if the care is to be kind, then definitely more than one person to lift, dress and undress, bathe, take to the toilet, feed and reassure. Then after such an exhausting and repeating regime, remains the challenge of conversation, entertainment, affection, carrying the memories so life, even if waning, continues to have meaning and satisfaction.
Cerulean has a family to tend. And work that calls her and the natural world to protect, and she is a writer. She cannot care for her father in the ways her values, her heart, her expectations demand. These day almost everyone faces such dilemmas whether with an elder, a parent, siblings, children or friends and has to reckon with the institutional inadequacies despite our increasing dependence upon them. These personal challenges are equaled by the gross inadequacies of our laws, environmental and conservation organizations and government agencies to provide for the natural world whose demise we will not survive.
Cerulean cannot protect the birds whose habitat, whose homes are being overrun by humans and the effects of climate dissolution. The birds’ nesting area is the tiniest sliver of beach in a rising ocean. This is where they lay and tend their eggs. Storms take increasing territory back into their watery maws. The storms that are the consequences of our activities, our life styles heating the planet. As I write this, tropical storm Laura, strengthening over a very warm ocean, is threatening to make landfall with 120 mile an hour winds. Half a million people are being evacuated in advance, but how many birds?
In addition to the increasing numbers of natural disasters which affect the creatures inordinately, and their loss of habitat and sustenance, of home, the birds also suffer the on-going appearances of humans. We do not recognize and respect their territories We do not see their breeding grounds. We do not see these others who live among us or whose lands we trash. A man pulls his boat up on the sand without any awareness. The helpless squawking birds are not able to alert him to the harm he is doing.
“The man stands and unfolds his body from the boat. Nothing safe stands this tall on the sand …. A few of us tolerate the fear longer than others. Others jump in the air, swoop and turn “aa-a-raw, aa-a-raw” we cry. And we will, all of us, leave our refuge, which is no longer one, because the man in the boat is pushing against our sand which is the only place we can nest. …Our flightless chicks scurry for cover, and we cannot protect them, nor our eggs, which are now baking in the sun.”
Even Susan, when trying to fulfill a scientific demand to accurately accomplish a census, comes too close to the breeding birds, aware though she is, trespasses.
“I felt the anxiety of this pair who tended this nest, up on the hill. … Our roles were so very different, I was the one who watched, who wanted to know and they were the objects I studied and counted and adored. Perhaps a relationship could be created if I agreed to curb my desire to be close, to back away, and to honor their subjectivity. It would be better if I honored their moral agency and the fact that they were engaged in the serious business of continuing their kind on the planet. I intuited the moment when I had nearly exhausted them with my insistence on being in their space. I felt their signal, “Go away,” they said.”
And here is the dilemma. In Cerulean’s own words, she, even she, is asked to “Go away.” But if she does, she will not do what she has agreed, what her soul has agreed to do — Bear Witness.
In a dream, Cerulean was assigned a single bird:
“Don’t take your eye off the chick-child and parent! Care for them! Protect them.”
A single bird when what she wanted was a sturdy congregation. But the single, or the most fragile, the declining, the threatened, the disappearing, the ailing, is what we’re being given.
“Transforming our culture, our assumptions, our world view, cosmology of separation, our economies, — that is the single bird we must heal.”
In her final chapter which she, thankfully, dares to call Saving the World, Cerulean writes, in words which refer equally to her father, our Mother Earth, and all the blessed creatures, “We must keep watch over these beautiful lives and pray for direction to inform our actions on their behalf and our own.”
“We must keep watch,” she says, “We!” We must keep watch, pray for direction, and act.