Acting with Urgency: Returning to Our Best Selves

Growing up I’d get questions like “Is that your nanny?” “Are you adopted?” “Is your mom from Ethiopia?” Because I had the lightest pigmentation in my family, I saw myself as an “undercover brother,” privy to conversations in the broader Jewish (and non-Jewish) community that may have otherwise never been uttered in front of a Jew of Color. With sidelocks and a black kippah, curiosity and a tinge of sadness, I grew up knowing my family had been slaves in America. I learned young that there was sometimes a disconnect between Jews and Judaism; between how people thought of themselves and what people actually did. It became clear to me that as human beings, one of our oldest primal instincts is to resist that which is hardest to do, and to ignore people who are hardest for us to identify with.

As rabbi-in-residence at Hazon and as a Jew of Color who grew up in Monsey, New York, I can attest that changing our habits and our prejudices as individuals and as a community is easier said than done. We sometimes say that we are bound to one another as a Jewish people in the 21st century. But the human condition, as we know, is complex. We are subject to, and sometimes capable of aggression, isolation, and tribalism. It is easy to forget about the climate crisis, or the lives of people on the margins.

It is well known that the Torah in thirty-six places (and some say in forty-six places) adjures us to not put pressure on the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol (Bavli, Bava Metzia, 59b) suggests that this mitzvah had to be repeated so many times “because humanity has a disposition toward negative tendencies.” Jewish tradition understands this pull to the particularism of our own lives, and it goes out of its way, by repetition, to challenge us to think more deeply about others.

This period from the start of Elul to the end of Simchat Torah is, as we know, about teshuva. This is not just repentance, narrowly constructed. In a deeper sense it means a return — to being our best selves; to holding ourselves to higher standards.

And so this is the time of the year that my identity and my professional work align tightest of all.

As a Jew of Color — and with all that has happened in America, this year, and in the world — this is a moment that I call on you, and me, and all of us to build vibrant healthy communities in which we care for those who are like us (however we understand that) and go the extra mile to welcome those who in whatever way might so easily feel themselves not part of the whole.

As rabbi-in-residence at Hazon, I see that it is shaping up to be — again — the hottest year in measured human history, and I believe this is also a time for “environmental teshuva.” It is on all of us — and on our institutions — to learn about the consequences of our behaviors, and to change our ways. Industrial meat and dairy, for instance, account for more than 15% of anthropogenic climate change. And that includes most of our kosher meat and kosher dairy. So we need to develop food policies in which we think more carefully about how we teach about the world, and how our commitment to kashrut — to eating what is fit for us to eat — is manifested in our communities.

Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish month of Tishrei are the ultimate social equalizers of the year (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2). Flattening hierarchies between all peoples and binding us to all of humanity and planet earth, these times mark a distinct opportunity for all citizens to see themselves as an Adam and Eve: stewards of planet earth and the marginalized, building a legacy for a better tomorrow, year, and generation. What I find most remarkable about this time of year is that it ushers in a sense of collective urgency to reflect deeply on what we say; what we eat; what we use; how we interact with others; and how, who, and what we love or hate. A time to self-actualize, purify and humble, grow and change. A nation of movers becomes a nation of seekers, seeking out what binds us to ourselves, our communities, and the Divine.

My blessing is that this time of year lifts your spirits to see this moment in human history as one that binds us to one another and also calls for our unique voice — and for deliberate and sustainable choices and actions. May we be blessed with the resilience needed to make steady change in our behaviors. May this be a time when we ask what sacred truths we hold to be self-evident, what spiritual choices we can make to help our planet heal. And may we act with urgency to think well about protecting our planet — for ourselves and our communities, and for our grandchildren …

Isaiah Rothstein is rabbi-in-residence at Hazon, the Jewish Lab for Sustainability, and an Orthodox Jew of Color who cares deeply about the environment.

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