My favorite place on earth is Piha, New Zealand, just outside of Auckland. The cliff there plunges a hundred meters into the dark blue sea. Looking down, you cannot fathom what beasts live in that cold, deep water. Each wave makes and remakes the finest foam lace you’ve ever seen. In winter, mist rolls in and blankets the hillside. It will likely turn to rain as it moves east, and the creeks babble as they send the water home. In summer, the harakeke (flax) blossoms and tui birds dart to and fro, filling the air with their song. The land pulses with the hummm of insects. The sand on the beach is black, and glints in the sunlight. I stand there and breathe deeply of the freshest air on the planet. I feel at once insignificant, and at the same time special, capable. My life feels full of possibility.
“M’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo,” said the prophet Isaiah – “The whole world is filled with God’s glory” (6:3). Each and every bit of it, from mountain to mitochondria, is magnificent.
Who can but delight at an octopus or a chameleon changing colors? Who doesn’t grin when they bite into a perfectly sweet strawberry? Whose heart doesn’t flutter when they hear the wolf’s cry? Whose love doesn’t deepen beneath a full moon?
Our tradition embraces the concept of a wonderful, precious world. The earth and all its inhabitants are understood to be God’s creation, and therefore both “good” and “very good.” Human life is precious; saving it is the highest ideal. We violate most other orders, including Shabbat, to save a human life. Animal life is also precious; kashrut is a system of eating that respects animals in numerous ways. The principles of “baal taschit/do not destroy or waste” and “tzar baalei chayim/avoid the suffering of animals,” among others, are ways to enact our respect for the earth.
We need to fall back in love with the Earth. But how?
One simple way to do this is to have more encounters with nature. What if we took a walk each Shabbat – perhaps through the desert, perhaps in a park – and made a point of noticing, really noticing, the natural world? See how the parts of a tree are connected, know when the saguaro blossoms, hear the coyote’s cry, feel a rock’s roughness, stand in the rain. Leave the camera at home and experience the here and the now. Perhaps then we’d realize that the whole world is filled with God’s glory, and that we are the very ones to protect it. There is no one but us.
The Jewish holidays are another way to rekindle our bond with our planet. Because the Jewish calendar is soli-lunar, it acknowledges the phases of the moon, and also keeps holy days grounded in their season. In Hanukkah, in the depth of winter, we focus on the light. Through Passover, we celebrate springtime and rebirth. At Sukkot, we return to our agrarian roots by sleeping outside, in flimsy huts. In so doing, we acknowledge that our lives are dependent on the bounty of the earth and its harvest. Each holiday is an invitation to connect with the rhythms and realities of life on earth.
Shabbat itself is a love letter to the world. Although we are to create and be productive throughout the week, we are also to refrain from creating. We take one day out of seven to cease from work and consumerism, and the destruction that inevitably flow from these. We are to ground ourselves in the higher principles of relationship, rest, joy, and community. On Shabbat, we rest and we give the earth a chance to rest.
Imagine a world where all people ceased from production and consumption 1/7th of the time, and paused to remember who they truly are. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expressed it,
A thought has blown the marketplace away. There is a song in the wind, a joy I the trees. Shabbat arrives in the world scattering a song in the silence of the night. Eternity utters a day.