Hope Amidst the Ruins: Living Through the Crisis

There is a powerful story in Talmud Berakhot 3a about Rabbi Yossi, who lived about a century after the destruction of the Second Temple. Rabbi Yossi enters the ruins of an old abandoned building in Jerusalem to pray. While there, he encounters the prophet Elijah, who asks him: “What voice did you hear in that ruin?” Rabbi Yossi responds:

I heard a heavenly voice cooing like a dove and saying: Woe to the children, due to whose sins I destroyed My house, burned My Temple, and exiled them among the nations.[1]

While this story connects us to our foundational narrative of destruction and exile, I have actually found myself turning back to it as we face the current moment of climate crisis. I am moved that Rabbi Yossi actually puts himself at great risk to return to Jerusalem (then under Roman occupation) to allow his heart to break open as he sits amidst the ruins. This heartbreak seems to call forth a kind of holy spirit — a channeling of prophecy reflected in the visitation of Elijah and the heavenly voice. The voice is not the kind of Divine voice you might imagine hearing roaring from Sinai. Rather, it comes as the voice of a dove, perhaps flying nearby, echoing back to Rabbi Yossi his own feelings of loss.

No one text can be the ultimate guide during this period of climate uncertainty. But I think the Rabbi Yossi story is a good place to start as we wrestle with our new reality. While some would have us believe that there is still time to act in order to stop our planet from experiencing dramatic change, I believe that we have “crossed the Rubicon.” We are now living on a changed planet that will be subject to much more frequent extreme weather events, drought, climate migration and more.[2] Our focus now will be on ways that we hope we can limit some of the worst effects expected in our uncertain future.

Rabbi Yossi is drawn to return to the physical evidence of destruction — his equivalent of the contemporary glacier that no longer exists — so that it will wake him up to feel its impact. This practice of facing and lamenting destruction is something that the great Eco-Buddhist philosopher, Joanna Macy, calls “honoring our pain for the world.” (Joanna Macy, Active Hope, p. 57.) For Rabbi Yossi, his pain was clear-cut; there is no hiding among the ruins.

For me, I find myself struggling still to acknowledge the loss, in part because while some loss is current — the last five years have been the hottest ever globally recorded — there is a state of anticipatory grief I’m working on cultivating about the loss that we will be facing over the next generation. How do we hold that loss? How do we honor it? How do we express it? And even though I spent 10 years working in the field of energy efficiency research in the 1990s, learning about climate change before it was popularized, I find that now, as a parent of two teenagers, my sense of loss has deepened when I think about the challenging future my children will face, along with many others.

Like Rabbi Yossi, who turns to the language of lament in his prayer, perhaps we, too, need to turn to prayer and ritual as well. Joanna Macy offers a variety of rituals — a karpas-like one where people dip their hands into bowl of water/tears and, as the water is dripping, share what is causing them to shed tears; or a simple exercise in pairs where each partner responds to prompts about what breaks their heart about the world today and the one we are leaving to our children.[3] I don’t think that we can reserve our pain for key liturgical moments in the year cycle like Tisha B’Av. I think it is time for us to find a way, like Rabbi Yossi, to enter into the ruins on a regular basis and to seek ways to do that in community.

Rabbi Yossi hears in the cooing dove in the ruins the harsh reality of loss that he already sensed at some deep level: “Woe to the children, due to whose sins I destroyed My house.” In the story of Noah — our last global mythical destruction — it is a dove that heralds salvation with an olive branch in beak. And yet here, Rabbi Yossi’s dove forces introspection, demanding reflection on behaviors that initiated a cycle of destruction and exile. To me, the dove is a stand-in for all the animals we share the planet with, bemoaning our behavior that has led to destruction of the Earth, which is itself a Divine house. We have indeed burned the Temple of the Earth, and we need to reflect on this without becoming mired in guilt or blame.

I realize this is complicated. The problem of climate change feels so much bigger than any one of us. Our economic system is not set up to value and internalize the significant environmental impact of living in a fossil-fuel economy. Fossil-fuel-based corporations and the banks that support them — or, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow aptly names them, today’s Carbon Pharaohs[4] —put profits ahead of people and planetary health. These economic forces seem big, immobile and immutable, ones that we think of as impervious to change even though all human systems can be modified and reshaped.

And, at the personal level, we are also resistant to change even when we know abstractly that it is the right thing to do. The carbon-intensive lifestyles that bring us comfort still seem better than an alternative we imagine to be one of deprivation. We want to still live in sizable homes, have mobility to travel near and far on a moment’s notice, and consume goods and services that may have a high (but hidden) carbon price tag.

What is the heavenly voice that, like Rabbi Yossi’s dove, will elicit reflection, regret and a true willingness to change? How do we take stock of our behaviors today? How do we hold and understand the exploitative economic structures that have generated such inequity and global fragility and not be afraid to change them? How do we hold our own places as actors in this system? And how do we not give in to despair?

In order to respond to these questions, I want to take us to a second “Temple destruction” talmudic story. In this story four great first-century sages, Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva[5] were heading up to Jerusalem (Makkot 24b). When they arrive at Mount Scopus, which overlooks the Temple, they see its desolation and are overwhelmed. A fox emerges from the spot where the Holy of Holies existed. Everything seems desecrated and destroyed.

At that moment the first three sages — Gamliel, Elazar and Yehoshua — descend into lament and rend their clothes. Similar to Rabbi Yossi, lament feels like the natural way to respond to profound loss. Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, responds with laughter. Outraged, his colleagues challenge him. How can you laugh at a time like this? But Rabbi Akiva quickly offers an explanation. He quotes two texts from the book of Isaiah that link together two prophetic voices: that of Uriah (a First Temple-era prophet), and that of Zechariah (a Second Temple prophet). Uriah’s prophecy is of Israel’s doom and destruction. Zechariah’s by contrast is one of repatriation and return from exile. For Akiva, the path to wholeness and return depends first on destruction and loss; the desolation he saw before him — “the Uriah moment” signaled the impending return to wholeness — an upcoming “Zechariah period.” Akiva had the vision and foresight to see beyond the destruction, and his faith quickly converts his colleagues’ anger into respect; they, too, find comfort in his vision and words.

While I may not be as true a believer in the power of prophecy as is Rabbi Akiva, I am moved by his response to loss. Literally standing over the ruins from his promontory on Mount Scopus, he had the ability to reimagine a new reality. He is able to see a bustling and revived Jerusalem down below, almost within reach. Like Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Akiva also seems to be channeling prophecy. But in Akiva’s case, they are not solely words of blame, but rather words of hope for a better future.

Rabbi Akiva’s willful positivity is a powerful direction for us to also consider for this moment. There is no question that to move ourselves away from a future that is not catastrophic (which may or may not be possible), we are going to need a tremendous Akiva-like reimagining of how we live as a people on this planet. In this contemporary channeling of prophetic vision, we need to rethink globally how we live without using fossil fuel and make significant changes in a very short span of time.

It seems that Rabbi Akiva, while atop Mount Scopus, was able to balance the pull of despair signified by his colleagues’ grief with the light of hope and possibility. Perhaps we, too, can learn from this. I like to imagine that the fox they saw scurrying about on the Temple Mount, like Rabbi Yossi’s dove, may have simply been an animal totem reminding them and us that we cannot construct sacred edifices or human civilizations without taking into account the many forms of life with whom we share this planet.

Joanna Macy sees this kind of visioning (or revisioning) as a critical element in “The Great Turning” that is needed towards a new future. Like the new vision of Akiva, Macy invites us to “see with new eyes” the possibilities that we can create for our future. As she notes on her website,

We can sense [when we see with new eyes] how intimately and inextricably we are related to all that is. We can taste our own power to change, and feel the texture of our living connections with past and future generations, with people of all colors and cultures, and with our brother/sister species.[6]

In one “seeing with new eyes” exercise I once did on a retreat with other like-minded colleagues, we imagined ourselves around a campfire 50 years from now looking back at how we managed to steer our world in a new direction. “Remember how we gathered as tens of millions across the country congregated around our state houses and capitals? Remember how demanded change?” Exercises like these invite us to put on our prophetic glasses, like Rabbi Akiva, so that we not only see into the future, but we are able to feel it and make it our own. It is time to reimagine and to act.

As we face this delicate moment as a human species, I remain somewhat buoyed by the knowledge that just as my people adapted to catastrophe with the destruction of our sacred center, we can adapt and change as well. Of the many tools we will need to carry with us, I invite us to make sure we bring with us the wisdom of our ancients, the rigorous attention to our inner work that will allow us to grieve the losses we will undoubtedly experience and sincerely reflect about our behaviors. May we draw new resources from this process of a renewed commitment to re-envision and live in a new and gentler world. I look forward to being on the journey together.

[1] Translation from Koren Noé Talmud, excerpted from Sefaria.org

[2] See, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 2018, “Global Warming of 1.5° C,” https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/

[3] To see a fuller list of Joanna Macy rituals, you can refer to her list of practices: https://workthatreconnects.org/resources/practices/.

[4] See various articles on the Shalom Center website, including https://theshalomcenter.org/yhwh-says-theology-matters-why.

[5] Rabban Gamliel was a leading authority in the Sanhedrin in the first century C.E. Elazar ben Azarya was a contemporary sage and priest who shared Sanhedrin leadership with Gamliel. Rabbi Yehoshua, also known as Joshua ben Hanania, was a sage and frequent contributor to the Mishnah. And Rabbi Akiva was also a leading scholar and sage of this period known for his legal insights; he was later killed by the Romans for teaching Torah and supporting the Jewish rebellion.

[6] See, for example, https://journal.workthatreconnects.org/seeing/

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