Clouds, Yom Kippur, and Climate Change: In the Balance
"I blotted out your transgressions like a thick cloud, and your sins like a cloud." (Isaiah 44:22 – see Hebrew for all verses quoted below.)
This verse from Isaiah is read in every Yom Kippur amidah prayer: God will blot out our wrongdoings "like a thick cloud" – kha`av and "like a cloud" – khe`anan.
As climate change has become one of the most pressing issues of our time, this verse from Isaiah about clouds stands 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 will become not only warmer but also unstable, melting polar caps, creating hurricanes, flooding cities, parching valleys and burning forests, destroying ecosystems. The sky that looms not only over our heads, but also in our imagination, has become a mirror that reflects how our hand is changing this planet.
What can Isaiah teach us about clouds, about climate change, and about t'shuvah – returning or repentance?
For starters, let's look at Isaiah in more detail. The verse doesn't say sins will be blotted out "with a cloud" but rather "blotted out like a cloud" – so how is a cloud blotted out? And what exactly is the difference between a thick cloud, `av, and a cloud, `anan? In Job (37:11) we read: "Even so, with abundant moisture God will load up a thick cloud/`av; a cloud/anan will scatter His light." So a thick cloud or `av is full of rain, so much so that it is black, while a lighter cloud or `anan is a white cloud that scatters light but lets it through. Normally, the way an `av, a black rain cloud, gets blotted out is that it expends its rain upon us, but a white `anan cloud can simply dissipate with the wind. This is why more severe "transgressions" or p'sha`im are like an `av, while more commonplace "sins" or chatot are like an `anan. So what Isaiah is promising is that even the thick clouds can be dissipated – if we turn back toward what is good and right.
According to the Talmud (Yoma 86a), a sin between a person and God, bein adam lamakom can be dissipated by t'shuvah alone, while most sins against another person can be dissipated by also appeasing that person – kind of like the `anan in the verse. But some sins are not forgiven, the Talmud teaches, until personal sufferings m'markin/"scratch" them out. This is the harsher version of blotting out – not to erase the errant mark or to soak it up, but to spill ink onto it and scratch ink into it and abrade it, until it can no longer be read. That corresponds to blotting out "like an `av". (This is the kind of blotting out we mean when we say about someone who is a source of great evil, "May their name be blotted out.")
The rub, so to speak, with climate change, is that we can't be sure what category our environmental wrongs fall into, our "sins" that are literally bein adam lamakom, between us and "the place" – 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 know what will happen. We can't know when our sins cross the line from being like an `anan to being like an `av.
This is like the continuation of the passage in Job (37:14): God brings forth the clouds "to be a rod, or for God's land, or for lovingkindness." Even a rod for chastizing can be wielded out of love, but from our side of reality, chastizing and love feel radically different, like the difference between an `anan and an `av (though either could be "for God's land"). No one knows which kind of cloud or which kind of "blotting" will follow from these sins of ours.
In Torah, the most fearsome 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, when God opens up "the floodgates of the heavens." (Gen 7:11) But "the floodgates of heaven" are not only opened to be a rod for chastisement. But just as Isaiah promises the transformation of the `av, in the words of Malakhi (3:10), this image of floodgates is transformed:"I will open for you the floodgates of heaven and I will empty out blessing for you…"
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 in time? Will they wipe out "kol y'kum," i.e., whole ecosystems, whole species? How many species? We simply don't know for sure; we cannot know beforehand, just as it says in Job, "Do you know the dynamics balancing thick clouds?" (37:16).
But that doesn't mean we don't get to choose. What we know 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 and land? Will we change our laws and our economy so that we are part of a sustainable world? If Isaiah and Yom Kippur teach us anything, it's that we may yet get to decide whether or not our sins will be like thick clouds that will blot the earth. As the prophets and the machzor liturgy teach, while there is yet time to act and pray, to do t'shuvah, there is time to avert the decree.
So, what will we choose for this year; 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. Let us act so that Malakhi's words of blessing can be what gets fulfilled.
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 mif'l'shei `av / Do you know the dynamics/balance of the thick clouds? (Job 37:16)