“If you know you have harmed the earth, know that you can heal it.”
On Shabbat Naḥamu, the Sabbath of Comfort the week after Tish’ah B’Av, we read Parashat Va-Etḥanan. Though Shabbat Naḥamu is about consolation and healing after lamenting Jewish traumas on the 9th of Av, the threat of destruction continues to loom in Parashat Va-Etḥanan. Moses tells the Israelites:
“When you … are long established in the land, should you act wickedly… causing the LORD your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish” (Deut. 4:25-26).
The calling of heaven and earth as witnesses is not just metaphorical. The natural world doesn’t just witness our actions, but actually suffers from humanity’s destructive tendencies. As Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it: “Heaven and earth do indeed witness against us when we make improper use of that with which God has blessed us. Poisoning the air and water, despoiling the environment do threaten to cause us to ‘perish from the land.’”
Our fate is not sealed, however. We can return to God and right our relationships with the earth: “Because Adonai is a compassionate God… and will not fail you, nor let you perish” (Deut. 4:29-31).
This dance between justice and mercy, between the threat of punishment to the promise of forgiveness and renewed relationship, reminds us that we are part of an ecosystem that has Divine roots. Just as the natural world ebbs and flows, in cycles of life and death, so too humanity moves through periods of loss to times of growth.
This is why Tu Be-Av, the holiday of love and relationship, comes six days after Tish’ah B’Av, the day of deepest mourning. A midrash about these two days teaches that the Israelites would dig graves every year on Tish’ah B’Av and sleep in them, waking to discover that more of their number had died. This went on every year until the 40 years of wandering in the desert were complete, whereupon they woke and everyone was still alive. By the 15th of the month, they realized that this chapter of their journey was over, and, in awe and gratitude, they climbed out of their graves into renewed life.
We too face a fearful reality, facing the consequences of the way we’ve treated God’s good earth. We must prepare for the grief of impending losses due to climate change, while committing to changing our ways and cultivating hope and faith. Like the Israelites, we must accept that we’ll witness loss as we seek a better future. But we can each do our small part in changing the world for the better by observing the covenant and practicing shmitah – returning to a healthy and loving relationship with the land.
In the words of Rebbe Naḥman of Breslov: if you believe that you can destroy, believe that you can repair. This is the message of both Va-Etḥanan and shmitah: if you know you have harmed the earth, know that you can heal it.
Though humans have bought into the idolatrous falsehood that we own the earth, we can still realize the truth that we are part of it. Though we will continue to suffer the consequences of abusing the natural world, it’s never too late to change our ways and find comfort and hope in our sacred relationships with the earth. We can do this through shmitah – letting go and letting the land renew itself, with heaven and earth as our witness.
Louis Polisson is a musician and rabbi. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2018, where he also earned an MA in Jewish Thought focusing on Kabbalah and Ḥasidut. He currently serves as the rabbi of Congregation Or Atid in Wayland, Massachusetts and is a co-founder and co-leader of the Metrowest Jewish Mindfulness Community. He and his wife Gabriella Feingold released an album of original Jewish and nature-based folk music in November 2018 – you can listen at https://louisandgabriella.bandcamp.com/album/as-full-of-song-as-the-sea.