Laudato Si and the Sages

Five years ago, in advance of 5776, and following the September 2015 publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si (addressed to all people in advance of the United Nations meeting and the Climate March) Rabbi Daniel Swartz prepared a text study to use on Yom Kippur or any time through the year.

On Yom Kippur at the fifth anniversary of the both the encyclical and the study, we are re-publishing this resource. Find the downloadable study here, and the opening letter republished below.

daniel headshot

Dear Colleagues and Friends,
Shanah Tovah! As you prepare to welcome 5776, I invite you to connect with one of the most notable faith events of the year – Pope Francis’s visit to the United States just after Yom Kippur, during which he will speak about his encyclical on climate change and justice, Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home. At this time of year, as we reflect on how we have treated our fellow human beings and how we might better live up to God’s expectations of us, we have a special opportunity to examine our relationship with all of God’s creation– and the Pope’s encyclical provides us with an excellent way to do just that.

To that end, I’ve selected a number of excerpts from the encyclical and paired them with Jewish sources ranging from the Tanakh, to midrashim, to Heschel, to rabbis of today. Here at Temple Hesed in Scranton, PA, I will be using this text study, “Laudato Si and the Sages: Reflections on Climate Justice,” on Yom Kippur afternoon, and we have invited the press and other faith communities as well. Please use it however it might work best for you: at High Holy Day Services, at a multi-faith gathering, at a social action weekend etc.

The texts are presented in two formats. The first is a more complete four-page selection, designed for in-depth or multi-session discussions; it can be studied in a larger group setting, in hevruta, in small groups or in some combination. The second is a single page of texts, meant to serve as a ready-made one-hour program. In both formats, I’ve included questions on each topic highlighted by the texts, as well as some summary questions. I’d love to hear how you’ve used it or if you have any questions – drop me an email.

I also hope this text study will inspire further action to combat climate change. (To help with this, some “next steps” are presented at the  end of each discussion guide) I present it in my role as board president of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light, one of 40 IP&L affiliates, each of which works with communities, organizations, and individuals of faith to address climate change as a moral issue. If  you’d like to learn more about PA IPL, please feel free to email me or our Executive Director [2020 edit: Executive Director Daniel Heayn-Menendez, or rising Board President Rabbi Nathan Martin]

Lastly, I’d like to thank colleagues who reviewed this text study and made suggestions: Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein of Philly IPL, Rabbi Larry Troster of GreenFaith, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center.
In Hesed,
Rabbi Daniel Swartz

Before becoming the spiritual leader of Temple Hesed, Rabbi Daniel Swartz was the coordinator of Greater Washington IPL, executive director of the Children’s Environmental Health Network, Associate Director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, and Congregational Relations Director for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where he was the lead author of To Till and to Tend: a Guide to Jewish Environmental Study and Action.

Earth Seder for Everyone — via Zoom

When? 6:00pm, Friday, April 10th
What? An Earth Seder, with prayer and music
Where? Around your table, and via Zoom
Who? You — this is an all-faiths-welcome celebration of the Passover seder, cosponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Temple Hesed of Scranton, and PA IPL.
How? Register and get the link. Register now!

Why now?
This year, Passover comes just before the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  It also comes as a new and unique Passover Haggadah has just been published by a colleague of Rabbi Daniel,  Rabbi Ellen Bernstein, the founder of the first Jewish environmental group, Shomrei Adamah.

Before COVID-19 threw a wrench into the plans, Temple Hesed was going to host one of 10 inaugural “Earth Seders.”  Now, our seder has to go online, which, while it has its downsides, also means that we can be connected to presentations by Rabbi Bernstein and others from across the country.  So we will have a Zoom Earth Seder on April 10th at 6 pm — which you can join from wherever you are!
What is an Earth Seder?  
EARTH SEDERS understand that the freedom we celebrate on Passover depends on the earth’s well-being. If the earth and its systems are compromised, our freedom is compromised. Life itself is compromised.   EARTH SEDERS  are rooted in Rabbi Bernstein’s new Passover Haggadah, The Promise of the Land,  which blends traditional text with a modern ecological sensibility.   EARTH SEDERS offer an opportunity to deepen our connection to the natural world, and, to raise awareness, commitments, and funds for an environmental or conservation project. 

Everyone who signs up — and all are welcome, from within the Temple Hesed community and well beyond, even for those living far away — will be given guides for what to do in their own homes as they join the seder, as well as the link to join the Zoom Earth Seder on April 10th.  

Register now!
($5.75 or donation)

Seder or “table” is however many people join you on one Zoom connection.

All funds raised go to support the work of COEJL and PA IPL.

Register now!

Seeking forgiveness: an invitation from a 13 year old with wisdom that goes back a lot further.

Hi, my name is Hadassah. I’m a 13-year old climate activist and daughter of a Rabbi.  In just a couple of weeks we are going to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, where we focus as a Jewish community on teshuva, the process of seeking forgiveness and becoming our best selves. Our ancient sages even claimed that this process of seeking forgiveness was created before the world itself was created! (Babylonia Talmud Pesahim 54a) But, in light of the damage we have caused to our planet, how does one seek forgiveness from the earth?

Perhaps we can draw from Maimonides’ guidelines on repentance by (a) fully acknowledging our transgression and taking responsibility (b) allowing ourselves to experience remorse, and (c) taking steps to repair the damage. 

That is why I joined the Sunrise movement — a youth-led organization whose goal is to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process. Sunrise recognizes that we must act before the possibility of a livable planet diminishes. Specifically, the movement is calling for a Green New Deal, a ten year plan to transform our economy by guaranteeing almost 100% clean renewable energy by 2030, a living wage job to every American who needs one, and progress towards ending oppression of minority groups. I created a Sunrise Hub in Northwest Philadelphia to bring the Sunrise activism to our part of town and to fight climate change with my community.

I hope you all can consider joining me on September 20th when I, along with thousands of other youth from around the country, will be striking and standing up for our generation’s future. As the sage Hillel taught, “it is not up to us to finish the work, but we can’t desist from it either.” (Ethics of our Fathers 2:21) Wishing you all a sweet new year and a better year for our planet!

WEBINAR: ReBirthday of the Trees

Our friends at the Shalom Center are offering a webinar on Wednesday, January 9 from 7:00-8:30 PM in preparation for Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees.   This year, Tu B’Shvat falls on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.  Webinar registrants will receive a recording of the webinar, and tools to hold a seder ceremony on Tu B’Shvat.

Description from Rabbi Arthur Waskow:
Join us as we explore the connections between Tu B’Shvat and a commitment to the physical health of our entire planet, a commitment to act to protect trees and the Interbreathing of all life. We know now that trees  and all vegetation breathe in the CO2 that humans and all animals breathe out, and all animals breathe in the oxygen that vegetation breathes out. And that Interbreathing is now endangered by the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.

And in line with this renewed concern with the physicality of Earth, our webinar will explore a Tu B’Shvat seder in which the four elements (Earth, Air, Water, and Fire/Energy) are celebrated and connected to  the Four Worlds of the Kabbalists, with the aid of four species of fruit and four cups of wine or grape juice.

REGISTRATION is a must and is $18 

Join the Shalom Center for the webinar.  Registrants will receive a link to the webinar, even if they are unable to attend at the scheduled time.  

Trees, Justice, and Faithful Learning

Bill Hemmerling, Friendship Trees

Our traditions refer to trees as rooted-and-reaching symbols, as wise teachers, or as important and respected resources. We have so much to learn from them.  In this post you will find several tree resources.  We’d like to do an additional post around our secular arbor day, so please share your favorite tree poems or stories (even if you’re sure we must have them!)

We begin with a poem we shared as the meditation at the end or our Sustained Advocacy call near Tu B’Shvat 2019, and continue with hands-on work PA IPL groups are leading, and two learning and worship resources.

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.
It sings, and I hear its song.
Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.
It sings, and I hear its song.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it. As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.
                                —Wendell Berry

In several collections including This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems

Tu B’Shvat is a minor Jewish holy day that, in Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s words, “celebrates the bare beginnings pf the reawakening  of trees in mid-winter, and was seen by the 16th-century Kabbalists as the rebirth of that Tree of Life that has its roots in Heaven and its fruit in the existence and creativity of us — the whole of life.”

The festival itself and its amazing Seder come at the full moon on the 15th day of the Jewish lunar “moonth” of Shvat, this year from Sunday evening January 20 through sundown Monday January 21. That means it falls this year on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday.

Consider registering for the Shalom Center’s Tu B’Shvat webinar (webinar on January 9, 2019; Tu B’Shvat begins the evening of January 20, and is January 21this year — there are also webinars preparing for earth-climate-justice rooted Passover celebrations as part of their Sacred Seasons for Sacred Earth series.  The webinars include tools for holding your own celebration.

image source

Martin Luther King’s birthday (and birthday-as-observed) are always close to Tu B’Shvat on the calendar, but in 2019, they fall together.  While we focus on the struggle for civil rights for people of all races in our celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King and his work, in fact, the larger trajectory of his work was justice.  In 2014, Rabbi Daniel Swartz, then a board member of PA IPL, wrote this piece about the connections between the two holidays.

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade left Pennsylvania when she took a job teaching at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, but we remember her well, and are pleased to share this 8-week devotional connecting trees and faith “Healthy Trees, Healthy People, Healthy Faith”

intro   week 1   week 2   week 3   week 4
week 5  week 6  week 7  week 8

Each spring and fall, the Germantown Tree Tenders plant and tend urban trees in publicly-available space from sidewalks to houses of worship.  They do so in community, and often include opportunities to offer blessings and dedications (and sometimes chances for shared food together)

In Central Pennsylvania, under the energetic leadership of Greg Williams, groups of community members, the 3rd Way Collective from Penn State, congregants, and Central PA IPL regulars have been joining for work parties  to clear space for native trees and tender plants to thrive, adding diversity and resilience to our forest systems.  Much of this work has been removing invasive plants and staking out the beginnings of the native seedlings, but the have also done successful bareroot tree plantings, live staking (along the Juniata River), (over 600 trees in 2018!), as well as native wildflower meadow plantings.  Over time, inspired by a Joanna Macy practice called Honoring our Adversaries, they have challenged themselves to recognize and honor the tenacious and exuberant qualities of the very invasives they are working so hard to hold back so the diverse native plants can thrive.

We’ll close with this browsing link on tree writings over at Baha’i Teachings. 

Return to the home of your soul.

PA IPL’s 2018 Annual Conference was in Pittsburgh, on Saturday, October 27th, across the river from Squirrel Hill.  The terrible news broke just as the first people were arriving.  Most people heard the news at the conference.  We made space for prayers together, and songs and prayers already planned took on different significance.

Filmmaker Kirsi Jansa was there, and captured the audio from the song “Return Again” by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, led by Barb Ballenger, and sung by all present.  She set the audio to scenes from the following hours and days.  Despite what the screen below says, the video link will work well, it just will take you to Kirsi’s vimeo page.

Return Again from Kirsi Jansa on Vimeo.
Return again, return again
Return to the home of your soul
Return to who you are
Return to what you are
Return to where you are
Born and reborn again.

The song followed a shared litany that had the repeated line “We have forgotten who we are.”

Comments by the president of the national IPL network, the Rev. Susan Hendershot, and some further reflection about connections can be found on our Facebook page, where you are welcome to join in the conversation.