What are we?
What is the meaning of our lives?
What is our kindness?
What is our righteousness?
What is our liberation?
What is our strength?
In the Jewish liturgical tradition, these are the questions we ask ourselves every morning at prayer. It is with these questions that we not only begin our days, but the questions by which we shape our lives.
In reading and reflecting upon Pope Francis’s encyclical on integral ecology, Laudato Si’, the passage about what Pope Francis calls “justice between the generations” brought these core questions from my own inherited tradition to mind. Pope Francis writes:
What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up? . . . .What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? (Laudato Si’, 160)
How true that how we choose to answer these questions, whatever their source, becomes in aggregate the signature we leave as individuals during our short time on the earth. How true all the more so that our answers to these questions as one human family leave an indelible inscription upon the earth in our generation and for all generations.
As Pope Francis asserts, the planet’s present and future health and well-being are inextricably bound up in the lives of each and every person, present and future, who calls it home. The earth’s dignity and our dignity are connected. What we see when we take a conscious look at ourselves, at our friends and loved ones, at neighbor and stranger alike; what we see when we look at our communities, our countries, the world, also is reflected in the visage of the planet we share—the planet gifted to us, placed in our hands by our Creator, that we do not own but that we have the ability to nurture or destroy. The world, and all the inhabitants thereof, rise and fall by how we answer these questions and build lives in accordance with our daily response.
As we read in Laudato Si’, “Nothing in this world is indifferent to us.” Yet, without a deep understanding of the human ecosystem, of how we are connected to and through one another by how we choose to lead our lives in even the smallest of ways, it is within the realm of our choices to be indifferent to the world. When we forget that our lives matter, that we count, that we are here to make something of our lives and to serve a purpose that transcends the tiny borders of our individual existence, how can we possibly see the big picture of a planet that is counting on us to preserve its existence?
Without a daily commitment to what is truly at stake in the details of how we live our lives—not just for ourselves but for all, we cannot fathom, let alone heed, the clarion call of Creation crying out to us all to be the tender, trusted, proactive, and stolid stewards of the environment that we, the descendants of Adam, were placed on earth to be.
Surely it could be said that we live in a moment in the history of the world in which we have never been more connected or more disconnected. The screens we use to link ourselves to others can be the same screens that become a barrier between ourselves and the world. With myriad devices we can hear the voices of people across oceans and continents, bearing witness to the lives of those we might never otherwise have the chance to meet; and yet far too easily those voices can become little more than background noise as we turn our attention to everything and nothing at all.
Part of that noise is the din of hopelessness and negativity, the sound of too many in need and too much to be healed for us to believe that it is within our power to make a difference. When we lose our faith in ourselves and what we can do to change the lives of our brothers and sisters for the better, we are all diminished. When we cede that faith to futility, the planet also pays the price.
Yet somewhere in all of that noise, I must say that in nearly two decades of being a rabbi, of serving Jews of all different backgrounds, ages, movements, and religious practice, never before have I heard more talk of social justice; and, what is most important, never have I seen more engagement in social action.
Never before have I seen more Jewish organizations created for the sole purpose of putting the word and the spirit of Jewish teaching and tradition to work in the world. Never before have I seen more passionate people, young and old, fan out into their communities to make a difference in all aspects of the human ecosystem. Be it Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, Bend the Arc, American Jewish World Service, Repair the World, Keshet, or Hazon to name but a few; whether focusing on gender-based violence, immigration, homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, fair labor practices, racial inequality, sustainability, and the environment they demonstrate through the daily unwavering pursuit of justice in all its forms that every positive step we take begins with seeing ourselves in the other—walking with the awareness that every human being is created in the image of G-d, imbued with infinite value, possibility, and unique purpose.
As Pope Francis affirms in Laudato Si’, and as I am heartened to see happening in my own community, when we see our lives, the contours of our kindness, the quality of our integrity, our decisions to redeem or degrade, and the way we use (and when necessary choose not to use) our power and freedom as having a direct and lasting impact on everything and everyone around us, we can do the sacred work of making a healthier planet that thrives and sustains us all.