Clouds, Yom Kippur, and Climate Change: In the Balance
Note: This is a sermon rather than a d'var Torah. The difference (at least in my own use of these terms) is that a d'var Torah focuses on the interpretation of rabbinic texts and mitzvot, and opens up the text to multiple interpretations, inviting the reader (or listener) to come up with their own interpretations. A sermon is rhetorically a "finished" product, intended to drive a point home or to alter in a specific direction the way its listeners understand Torah. I prefer divrei Torah (pl. of d'var Torah) to sermons, but since I wrote this I thought I'd share it.
We read in the Yom Kippur liturgy, "I have blotted out your transgressions like a thick cloud, and your sins like a cloud." (Isa. 44:22 – see Hebrew for all verses quoted below.)
As climate change becomes one of the most pressing issues of our time, this verse from Isaiah about clouds stand out in a new way. These days we look to the clouds not only to see if it will rain, but also to discern the traces of global climate change, the fearsome prospect that climate could become not only warmer but also unstable, melting polar caps, creating hurricanes, flooding cities and destroying ecosystems. The sky looms not only over our heads, but also in our imagination, as the mirror of how our hand is changing this planet.
We read in every Yom Kippur amidah that God will blot out our sins "like thick clouds" (kha'av) and "like clouds" (khe'anan). The difference between a thick cloud, 'av, and a cloud, 'anan, is no small thing. In Job (37:11) we read: "Even with abundant moisture God will load up a thick cloud, av; a cloud, anan, will scatter His light." The difference is that a thick cloud, av, is so full of rain that it is black, while a cloud, 'anan, is the kind of white cloud that scatters light but lets it through. What it means to blot out an 'av, a black rain cloud, is that it spends its rain upon us, while a white anan cloud can simply dissipate as it is scattered by the wind. This is why more severe "transgressions" (p'sha'im) are like an 'av, while more commonplace "sins" (chatot) are like an 'anan.
According to the Talmud (Yoma 86a), a sin between a person and God, bein adam lamakom can be blown away by t'shuvah alone, while even a sin against another person can be dissipated by appeasing them. But some sins are not forgiven, the Talmud teaches, until sufferings m'markin, scratch them out. This is the harsher meaning of blot out – not to erase the errant mark or to soak it up, but to add ink to it or abrade it, until it can no longer be read. This is why we say about someone who is the source of great evil, "May their name be blotted out."
The rub, so to speak, with climate change, is that we don't always know what category our environmental wrongs fall into, those "sins" that are literally bein adam lamakom, between us and this place, this planet. What we do know is that in just a few generations, the carbon that was removed, over many millions of years by untold numbers of long-gone organisms and species, is being released. In our lifetime, the atmosphere that nurtured not only our evolution, but the evolution of all mammals and birds, will revert or convert to something else. But the consequences of our actions are too long range and too far-reaching to see. As a result, we don't know whether our sins are like an 'av or like an 'anan.
This is why the passage in Job continues (37:14), God brings forth the clouds "to be a rod, or for God's land, or for lovingkindness." Even a rod for chastising can be wielded out of love, but from our side of reality, the two are radically different. We cannot know for which purpose a cloud comes out, just as we cannot be which kind of "blotting" will follow from a particular sin.
In our tradition, the most extraordinary time that the clouds struck like "a rod" was in the flood of Noah. At the start of the flood, God says (Gen 7:4), "I will blot out everything standing, kol y'kum, which I made upon the face of the earth." Not, blotted out like the clouds, but blotted out by the clouds, because God opened up "the floodgates of the heavens." (Gen 7:11)
Are our sins are like an 'av, a thick cloud that will storm us, or like an 'anan, a cloud that ultimately will pass on, because we changed our path? Could they wipe out "kol y'kum," i.e., whole ecosystems, or all the individuals of many species? We simply don't know for sure; we cannot know beforehand, as it says in Job, "Do you know the dynamics balancing thick clouds?" (37:16).
All we know sitting here today is that we are still able to take action, to pray and act to heal our relationship with the earth. Will we do t'shuvah, change how we live, how we drive, how we use electricity? Will we change our laws and our economy, so that we are part of a sustainable world? As the prophets teach, while there is yet time to act and pray and do t'shuvah, there is time to change the decree.
What will we choose for this year, and what will we choose for our children? As we embark on a new year, let us work together and help each other, to change our synagogues, our workplaces, our homes.
The "floodgates of heaven" are not only opened to be a rod for chastisement. Let us act so that the words of Malakhi (3:10) can be fulfilled, "I will open for you the floodgates of heaven and I will empty out blessing for you…"
Umachiti et kol hay'kum asher 'asiti mei'al p'nei hadamah / And I will blot out everything standing which I made upon the face of the earth. (Gen 7:4) …va'arubot hashamyim yiftachu / and the floodgates of heaven were opened. (Gen 7:11)
Machiti kha'av p'sha'ekha v'khe'anan chatotekha, shuvah eilai ki ga'altikha / I have blotted out your transgressions like a thick cloud, and your sins like a cloud. Return unto me, for I have redemed you. (Isa. 44:22, from the Yom Kippur liturgy)
Va'eftach lakhem et arubot hashamayim vaharikoti lachem brakhah ad b'li dai / And I will open for you the floodgates of heaven and I will empty out blessing for you until it is beyond limit. (Mal. 3:10)
Af bri yatri'ach 'av, yafitz 'anan oro / Even with abundant moisture God will load up a thick cloud; a cloud will scatter His light. (Job 37:11) ...Im l'sheivet im l'artzo im l'chesed yamtzi'eihu / Whether to be a rod or for God's land or for lovingkindness, He brings it forth(Job 37:14)…Hateida mifl'shei 'av / Do you know the dynamics/balance of the thick clouds? (Job 37:16)