God led Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, ‘Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’ – Midrash, Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13
As a Reconstructionist Jew in 2007, I will admit that I don’t relate easily to the concept of a God that rewards and punishes—but I can embrace the idea of a creation ruled by a matrix of laws the fullness of which I can only begin to understand.
In the passage above the message is clear—there is an order; there are laws controlling the unfolding of events and God will not step in and veto that order. God will not supercede the actions we take by our God-given free will. With our eyes able to open ever-wider, it is our possibility, our opportunity, and our responsibility to become aware of our unique play in this creation and to see ourselves as empowered to act in accordance with its laws, so that our life’s work might be seen as “excellent” as well.
I believe that though we may not fully understand this order, we can begin to understand the working order of things. My teacher teaches, “If you plant and tend the garden, food will grow. Yes, it is a miracle, but it is not really a reward. If you poison the river, there will be nothing to drink—it will be a shame. But we cannot really call it a punishment.” What we choose today we will experience in its fullness at some time tomorrow. What then is there, but the reciprocity of the choices we make in response to the everyday reality of our lives?
What am I saying? If we want love, we best start loving. If we want forgiveness, we might be wise to begin to forgive. And if we seek sustainability, now is the time to act sustainably. We are all making choices. These choices are made with our time, our money, our actions and our words. Choices that influence and affect those in circles close to us today, and choices that will ripple out to generations to come. As choice-makers and individuals of influence in circles both big and small, we are called by the Universe to see ourselves as leaders and to lead, to steward, in big and small ways, even if for the first time.
To illustrate this, I offer a personal/communal story:
Like many people I know, I have long had the mindset of an activist, and have been an eager volunteer. By showing up I have even found myself in a position of leadership more than a handful of times. The tallit I wear, given to me by my women’s spirituality group as I became president of my congregation, reads across the atarah: “Who knows if but for this moment you have become empowered?” Yet I could never have imagined what this would come to mean in my life.
As we began to plan for a new building and collected the first $4.5 million of our initial $6.5 million dollar goal, it became clear that a great opportunity stood before us. My own work and interest on the environment, and the Jewish value of Bal Tashchit, taking care of our world, inspired several of us in the congregation to rally for building “green.” It was for us to educate, to motivate and to facilitate the process. To let the sustainability of our values embody the nuts and bolts of our planning. To my delight, even in my Reconstructionist home where consensus is revered above unanimity, my board voted unanimously to build the most sustainable building possible, at the highest level of sustainable design feasable according to the Green Building Rating System.
The steel has begun to rise out of the snowy ground, and our collective dream is becoming a reality. I am awed to see my personal and our communal values take physical shape and form, and am ever grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of the leadership that has made it possible. We are currently on track to be the first Gold certified LEED building in a not-for-profit faith community, and are reaching beyond that for the elusive Platinum designation as well.
I won’t mislead you; we are not in Eden, and it has at times been a leap of faith for our congregation. But I cannot imagine anything more Jewish than this values-based decision making experience, and the bringing to life of the teachings that each of us hold so dear.
Now, who knows if but for this moment YOU have been empowered?
See the announcement of the LEEDS Platinum award for JRC in January 2008 at http://www.jrf.org/JRC-greenest-shul
Also see the JTA's February 2008 coverage of JRC's receiving the first Platinum LEEDS rating for a synagogue in the United States:
Questions for thought and discussion:
In what way can you apply the question “Who knows if but for this moment you have become empowered?” to your role as a steward of the Earth?
For those of us not building a new space, what steps can we take in our current congregational spaces to live the Jewish value of Bal Tashchit?
What are the benefits and drawbacks of using values-based decision making when deciding which changes to make in our communal sustainability practices?
Carole Caplan is a 500 hour Yoga Alliance meditation and yoga instructor serving the Chicagoland yoga community. Carole recently completed her term as President of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL,and is currently a Wexner fellow.