The Ecology of Teshuva: Yom Kippur Evening 5782

I have lived much of my life as if I was a floating head. By which I mean, my default tendency is to intellectualize everything, to the point of at times more or less ignoring the fact that I have a body. I mostly got away with leading with my head, because it usually worked out ok. Mind over matter, right? 

This continued into rabbinical school, and even though my pregnancy with my first child had some tempering effect, I figured I would resume my modus operandi when I returned to class after a few months at home with my new baby. 

Well, I was in for a shock. Through sheer force of will, I pushed through 6 classes a semester, nights of interrupted sleep, schlepping to and from daycare, and what felt like endless hours in the Seminary nursing room – called the pray and play room – folks, I was neither praying nor playing. They should rename it the “weep and sleep” room. 

Obviously, this was not sustainable. Just a few more months, when everyone is sleeping more, and things will get better, I thought. I just have to get through this. Eventually, my fatigue caught up with me. I started waking up with aches and pains that I couldn’t shake throughout the day. Everything hurt. After several months with no relief, I sought medical advice, but the doctors didn’t find anything obviously wrong. My body was trying to tell me to slow down or stop, but I kept ignoring these messages. 

Eventually, it resolved after I slowed down my pace for a few months. After my second child was born, I was so grateful for the simple things my body allowed me to do – to be able to pick her up and carry her without pain. To walk through my day with ease. Even with this experience behind me, my thinking brain still likes to be in charge. I have to remind myself to pay attention to what my physical being needs, what it’s telling me. It is a lesson I have to keep learning and relearning. It is all too easy to slip back into old patterns, and to forget to listen to the inner voice, to privilege mind over matter. 


I used to find it a little strange that we combine the celebration of the creation of the physical world on Rosh Hashanah with the very internal and intellectual process of teshuva culminating in Yom Kippur. It seemed to me like a pastiche of two completely different traditions into one celebration. 

Why do we mark the turning of the cycle of the year on Rosh Hashanah? The Torah itself identifies this occasion only as Yom HaZikaron, a day of remembrance and for sounding the shofar, that takes place in the seventh month according to the Torah’s calendar. 

In many ways it seems counterintuitive to mark the beginning of the year at this time. We might expect our year to begin in the spring, which seems like a logical starting point to celebrate creation and renewal, as the world begins to wake up from winter, when everything is new, growing, and alive. Even the Torah identifies the month of Nissan, in the spring, as the beginning of the year. 

On the other hand, autumn feels more like an end than a beginning. After growing all summer, crops of the field and fruit on the trees are concluding their harvest. We might notice leaves beginning to turn colors, and a shift in the quality of the light, and we know that we have begun the slow descent into winter. [Why would this, of all times, be a time for celebrating creation? And what does it have to do with teshuva? ]

And yet, as we sang after blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah – Hayom Harat Haolam – Today the world is born. According to one explanation in the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah occurs on the day when God first conceives of the idea for the world, and actually brings the world into being in the spring. Another possibility the Talmud offers is that Rosh Hashanah marks the date when human beings are created – that is, on the sixth day of creation. 

In the creation story in the book of Genesis, God separates darkness and light, creates dry land and contains the waters, fills the world with plants and animals of all kinds, all before creating the first human being, HaAdam-  who like the Hebrew word suggests is shaped from the earth itself. When Adam and Chava, Adam and Eve, are brought into being, they emerge into an already-existing, vibrant, and self-sustaining world. Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, as the Torah tells it, is a self-contained ecosystem. Everything needed for the flourishing of all forms of life is held within it. The human beings are charged with being the garden’s stewards – maintaining and protecting it. 

Of course, this state of equilibrium doesn’t last – the human beings are tempted to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and with that knowledge comes a new way of seeing the world. Most of us know what happens next – Adam and Chava are exiled from the garden, and must now labor to survive. 

As we move forward in time – through the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the wandering of our ancestors in the desert, we get further from the garden, but it never entirely goes away. In the ancient rabbis’ understanding, Gan Eden – the Garden of Eden – becomes a mythical vision of wholeness. The garden is sometimes referenced as a heavenly home for the souls of the departed. Gan Eden is spiritualized as the place where we really belong. Our tradition has always understood and sought to give voice to our yearning to return to the garden from which we were exiled. 

Even with this awareness preserved by our tradition, it is so easy to become disconnected from the parts of ourselves that sometimes get forgotten behind all the thinking and planning – the part of us that is “animal”, that guides us in cooperation with our environment rather than separate from it. 

Although we might not be accustomed to seeing ourselves this way, it is not unreasonable to suspect that human beings are just as responsive to our environments as our animal neighbors. If squirrels know to gather nuts in the fall, and geese fly south for the winter, what might the unconscious parts of ourselves, deep within us, be telling us in this season? What is there, lying just beneath the surface, for us to uncover? 

The Torah’s creation narrative, our sacred origin story, points to an existential truth that researchers today are validating in an astounding number of ways: that as human beings, we are creatures of our environment and our wellbeing is intimately connected with our surroundings. 

The biologist E.O. Wilson hypothesizes that we are all equipped with what he calls “biophilia” – an innate “emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms,” that helps us respond and thrive in a natural environment (cited in Sue Stuart-Smith, “The Well Gardened Mind,” p. 100). Research has shown that spending time in nature reduces stress, anxiety and depression; that it helps us recharge from “attention fatigue” and improves focus; and that when students take a walk in nature before a test, they perform significantly better.

Recent studies have also found that contact with nature even affects how we relate socially – people in the presence of indoor plants, or who just looked at pictures of nature demonstrated higher levels of generosity and trust toward others. The evidence we have so far suggests that immersing ourselves in the natural world fosters our mental and emotional wellbeing, enables us to function at our best, and helps us connect us to our communities (Stuart-Smith, p. 99). We may leave the garden, but the garden never really leaves us. 

If we are able to reorient ourselves to our surroundings, what might we learn? We might begin to see mirroring between our internal and external landscapes. As the days lengthen in the spring and we see new leaves on the trees, we may notice changes in ourselves – increased energy and alertness, a desire to be active, to go out into the world, to create. And as the days shorten, the leaves begin to turn, we might notice a turn within ourselves as well – a turning inward as we prepare to sustain ourselves through the winter ahead. It is at this time, the turning point, when our tradition suggests that we take stock of where we are, and turn our attention to our internal ecosystem. 

During this season, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, when we celebrate creation and renewal, we are invited to remember, first, that the world is a creation worth honoring, and secondly, that we, as human beings, are a part of that created world. In this moment of the turning of the seasons, we too are called to turn, to engage in the process of teshuva – a word that means to return: to turn and return to our innermost selves, to the relationships and connections that matter most to us,  To renew and reorient ourselves. To reground and reroot. We are invited to return to the garden – a state of integration between our inner and outer world, connectedness to what is at our core, and attunement to our environment.

As much as teshuva requires introspection and individual reflection, it is incomplete without considering our relationship and connection to the world we inhabit. 

We can begin the process working from the inside out, widening the circle with each step. First, let’s consider the inner ecosystem. What do I feel? When do I feel at my best? What do I need physically, emotionally, spiritually at this time? 

Next, moving outward, consider our relationships with other people, who we are linked to through a web of interconnection, or as I like to think of it, like the underground network of tree roots and mycorrhizal fungi that work together in symbiosis. Our roots are enmeshed and entangled. We draw from the same sources of nourishment. These connections enable us to communicate, to share resources, and to become stronger. Where am I in my social ecosystem? What do I share with others, and what do I receive? Where do I experience connection with others? Where are those linkages broken or in need of repair? 

Finally, panning out further, consider how we as individuals, and as part of the human community, are part of a larger ecosystem. What is my relationship to the places I call home? What do I take from my environment, and what do I give? What resources do I and my family depend on to thrive? What other species – plants, animals, fungi, bacteria – are part of my daily life? How do my actions affect the wellbeing of the ecosystem I am a part of? 

On this Yom Kippur, we have a unique 25-hour-opportunity where we can step away from our daily business to reconnect with the voice inside of us that understands that we are not isolated individuals, but are part of a web of existence.  Your fate and mine are interconnected, and so are we individually and collectively connected with the well-being of the other life that we share the Earth with. 

At this moment of teshuva -this time of turning and returning – we are asked to consider what we want to change in the year ahead. It can be easy to focus on what’s missing and what we’re not doing, as much of our liturgy reminds us to do. And it is important to be attentive to those things. But I think we can also find our inspiration to change through reconnecting with what sustains us and brings us joy, and by asking what we can do to bring more of that into our lives and our communities . More connection, more abundance, more health, harmony, and peace, more life

This Yom Kippur, I invite you to join me in tending our gardens – internally, externally, physically and spiritually and allow ourselves to be moved to act from a place of deep understanding, awareness, and connection. 

As we sing in our prayers during these days of teshuva:

Zochreinu l’chayim melech chafetz bachayim, v’kotveinu/hotmeinu b’sefer hachayim l’ma’ancha elohim Chayim. 

Remember us for life, sovereign who desires life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for your sake, living God. 

As we ask to be inscribed in the book of life, may we too remember our connection to the Source of Life and all that is living, for good, for blessing, and for peace.