JTS Dayenu Circle: Eight Days of Climate Torah

| Hanukkah Posted On Dec 18, 2022 / 5783 | Natural World

This year for Hanukkah, the JTS Dayenu Circle – The Jewish Theological Seminary’s chapter of Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action – is sharing Eight Days of Climate Torah. The Hanukkah story is a reminder that the Jewish community can take bold collective action to change our fate. We hope these teachings from JTS students, faculty, and administration provide illumination over the holiday.

Day 1: Climate Justice in Partnership with God (Joe Blumberg)
Day 2: Making the Earth Sacred (David Kraemer)
Day 3: The Earth Exhales (Sarah Rockford)
Day 4: Becoming our Ought Selves (Anna Bruder)
Day 5: Who’s Responsible for the Fire (Andy Weissfeld)
Day 6: Drilling a Hole (Ilana Sandberg)
Day 7: Miracles and Scarcity (Dr. Shira Billet)
Day 8: For the Good (Aiden Pink)

Day 1: Climate Justice in Partnership with God
Joe Blumberg, 1st year Rabbinical School student.

The task of pursuing climate justice can feel daunting. Composting feels like too little but going to marches and phonebanks feels like a lot, and we are too often stuck in the uncomfortable in-between of taking no action at all. I often felt like there are not enough hours in the day to throw myself at the massive walls of climate catastrophe going up all around us. I have been hesitant to dive in, afraid that my efforts would be laughably meager in the face of billion-dollar corporations and seemingly unshakeable incentive structures that keep us hurtling towards the environmental brink.

But in a different light, climate justice can be understood as the holy and obligatory work of partnering with the Divine.To me, that is tremendously exciting. Jewish tradition compels us to recognize when we are living in untenable times that threaten our future, and to overcome our own despair to protect creation.Reframed as an inherent part of our natural religiosity as Jews, we can see climate justice not as an additional task in our daily obligations, but another opportunity to deepen Jewish expression and our commitment to God. To say it better than I ever could, I will turn the mic over to our teacher, Rabbi Heschel:

“Religious existence is living in solidarity with God. Yet to maintain such solidarity involves knowing how to rise, how to cross an abyss. Vested interests are more numerous than locusts, and of solidarity of character there is only a smattering. Too much devotion is really too little…

To be moderate in the face of God would be a profanation…for the darkness is neither final nor complete. Our power is first in waiting for the end of darkness, for the defeat of evil; and our power is also in coming upon single sparks and occasional rays, upon moments full of God’s grace and radiance. We are called to bring together the sparks to preserve single moments of radiance and keep them alive in our lives, to defy absurdity and despair, and to wait for God to say again: 

Let there be light.

And there will be light.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, “On Prayer,” from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity

As Dayenu’s fossil fuel campaign fellow, I am excited to share that Dayenu’s report Bechol Meodecha, which describes the state of fossil fuel investments in the American Jewish community. The report lays out a roadmap for how American Jewish organizations across the country can take a massive step towards healing our world by aligning our investments with our Jewish values and investing in a clean energy future.  We in the JTS family have a unique opportunity to play a pivotal role in this work.

This Hanukkah, may the “single sparks and occasional rays” of our hanukkiayah remind us for eight consecutive nights to stand in solidarity with the Divine and take steps towards involving ourselves in the pursuit of climate justice. This Hanukkah, as we partner with God to increase light and joy over the course of the week, let us also be inspired to partner with God to heal our sick planet. This Hanukkah, may we be reminded that despite steep odds, the Jewish community can take bold and transformative action to change our planet’s fate. Let us overcome our hesitancy to dive in. Hanukkah sameah!

Day 2: Making the Earth Sacred
Dr. David Kraemer, Joseph J. and Dora Abbell Librarian and Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics.

The Tanakh’s priestly tradition emphasizes that the earth on which we live is the Lord’s, and we are but “resident aliens” upon it (Lev 25:23). In practical terms, this means that we must take responsibility for the earth and its products–observing its sabbaticals, restoring properties during the Jubilee. On a deeper level, this means that the earth is “inherently” sacred. The rabbis translate their recognition of this fact into a simple but profound teaching: “anyone who benefits from this world without first reciting a blessing has as though stolen from the sacred” (Berakhot 35a-b).

But what is “sacred,” and what does it mean to be “inherently” so? Contemporary scholars of ritual teach us to be suspicious of such categories, arguing that we make something sacred through our actions in relation to it. Indeed, this is precisely the lesson of Hannukah. Before the Middle Ages, there was no such thing as a Hannukah lamp. Instead, the rabbis of Late Antiquity taught us to take common oil lamps and place them in a particular way at a particular time–outside of one’s door facing the public domain, on the right side of the door, from the time of the sun’s decline until footsteps were no longer heard in the shuk. Lighting flames in this way at this time, accompanied by blessings, made common oil lamps into the symbols of divine intervention in the history of Israel. The common was rendered sacred.

If the earth is not inherently sacred, then we must make it so through our actions, through our protection of = responsibility for its gifts. If it is inherently sacred, we must do the same. Either way (“mi-ma nafshach“), if we neglect to do so, we are “stealing from God and the community of Israel” (for our purposes: the community of humankind; Berakhot 35b). Let us commit ourselves to the sacred, whatever its source.

Day 3: The Earth Exhales
Sarah Rockford, 2nd year Rabbinical School student.

Did you know that the earth breathes? In winter, as the Northern Hemisphere rotates away from the sun, some of the COtaken up by vegetation in the summer, sighs back into the atmosphere. Watch the animations of this natural process from NASA and you’ll see that the rhythmic summer inhale and winter exhale, mirror the way we breathe. Imagine the earth exhaling and nodding off like a loved one drifting to sleep next to you as you whisper the Shema and wait for your own sleep to come.  

As the earth slumbers around us, dreaming through the shortest days of the year, we keep the night-watch and illuminate the dark with little lights. Many different cultures and faiths celebrate light in the dark of winter. In Jewish tradition, Hanukkah candles bear witness to a great miracle.   

What miracle? An unlikely military triumph? A flask of everlasting oil? Or perhaps, they bear witness to a more primal miracle. Each year, Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, when the moon is a waning sliver in the sky. These are the longest nights of the year, and our Hanukkah candles stir the earth and remind her that she can’t slumber forever. It is time to slowly start working her way back towards the light. On the winter solstice, December 21st, we’ll light our fourth candle, and the scales will tip, and the days will begin, imperceptibly at first, to grow lighter. 

May your Hanukkah be one of attunement to the quiet beauty of the dark, dormant world. May you emulate the earth in deep rest, and may your candles serve as a miraculous reminder that at the end of Hanukkah, the earth will have again begun to swing towards the light – the days will grow longer, and one day, a few months from now, the earth with inhale deeply and wake up to summer. 

Inspired by Arthur Waskow on Hanukkah and the Winter Solstice

Day 4: Becoming Our Ought Selves
Anna Bruder, 1st year Rabbinical School student


This week I will return to the west coast of Canada where I am from. There I will climb the local mountains and kayak the local waters. I will spend time immersed in the rejuvenating powers of the west coast rainforests, preparing for my second semester of rabbinical school. When I am surrounded by the forests or the mountains, or when I am on the water, I am reminded of a teaching from Kohelet Rabbah. When I am surrounded by these great acts of creation, I stop and think of God telling Adam:

“כמה נאים ומשובחין הן”
Look at what I created, look at how beautiful and wonderful it all is. Kohelet Rabbah goes on to say “שאם קלקלת אין מי שיתקן אחריך”
that if we, the humans, mess up what God created, there is no one after us to fix it.

What I failed to mention when describing kayaking through these waters and hiking these mountains, was that I am surrounded by oil tankers, their daunting figures visible from the peaks of the mountains. What do we do if we are the ones ruining God’s creation? How do we become the other people? The ones who can fix this. It starts with opening our eyes and coming to terms with the fact that we are part of the problem. But we are also  part of the solution.

Author Daniel H. Pink writes that there are three versions of each of us: the actual self, the ideal self (what we believe we could be), and the ought self (what we believe we should be). In this midrash and in our shared reality, we are all three versions of ourselves. The actual self walks in the modern Gan Eden with God, seeing the beauty of creation that is our world, but also destroying it. We need to shift from our actual selves to our ought selves, with an eye to our commitments and responsibilities,  who are motivated by our teachings and our call to justice. We must harness the power of our community to shift to the version of ourselves that can stop the destruction of all that is  (beautiful and wonderful) נאים ומשובחין. As future rabbis, we must lead this fight for climate justice. Only then will we have the chance to see this beauty for generations to come.

DAY 5: Who’s Responsible for the Fire?
Andy Weissfeld, 5th year Rabbinical School student

One of the most extensive discussions about Hanukkah in Jewish text appears in Talmud Shabbat. On daf 21b, the Gemara asks “Why Hanukkah?” The text tells the story about the oil that lasted eight nights. However, immediately after explaining the miracle, the Talmud   explores a hypothetical situation about damages that a lit hanukkiah may cause. Under normal circumstances, if a piece of flax fell off a camel into someone’s shop and it caught fire, the camel driver would be liable due to negligence. Given that on Hanukkah one should place their hanukkiah right outside their door, the Rabbis argue that perhaps the storekeeper should be liable, if on Hanukkah, a hanukkiah were to ignite the stray piece of flax and cause damage. However, Rabbi Yehudah clarifies that the camel driver should still bear responsibility, as one should not be discouraged from celebrating the holiday.

Even though this debate fizzles out, it raises an important conversation about predictable, yet unintended consequences that result from our actions. One of the first things that the Rabbis think about after describing the miracle and celebration of Hanukkah is the potential consequences of many people lighting fires near their places of residence. We can extend this same lesson to our personal and collective behaviors related to the environment. Before undertaking major projects, making a big decision, or large purchase, it behooves individuals, and especially large governments and organizations, to consider the environmental impact of their future actions. At first, just like the Hanukkiah, something can seem like it has no drawbacks or negative consequences. However, we know that playing with fire is dangerous, so it demands proper precautions and responsible management. May the Hanukkah lights remind us to celebrate sustainably, not only this year, but for many years to come.

Day 6: Drilling a Hole
Ilana Sandberg, 4th Year Rabbinical School student

Two years ago as I stood before a small community in upstate New York on Rosh Hashana, chanting the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, I choked up as I read the words that outlined who shall live and who shall die. I could barely sing the words “who by plague”. This year, as I stood in the very same spot, I was once again paralyzed as I read the words “who will perish by fire and who by water”. I find myself and others I speak to, all too often paralyzed by the fear of what environmental disaster will strike next as we dread what may come in the future. 

While in the Rabbinic period the concept of climate crisis was centuries in the future, the rabbis discuss and struggle with topics that are timeless, becoming relevant in a new way as we search for direction in meaning in a scary world. We find a striking parable in Vayikra Rabba:

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught a parable: people were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath himself (i.e. where he was standing). The others said to him: What are you doing?! He replied: What do you care? Is this not underneath my area that I am drilling?! They said to him: But the water will rise and flood us all on this ship

Vayikra Rabba 4:6

We are drilling holes (both literally and figuratively) in our earth every day. We are deciding how many holes we drill every time we make choices about the food we eat, the places we shop, and the companies and organizations we support. It is easy to say that the choices I make only affect me or are small enough to be insignificant, but the sailors in the parable know better. We are drilling holes in our earth and it will sink us all. For a long time, the ship we call earth was keeping us afloat despite the small holes but we can no longer hang on to this false sense of security. Our ship is sinking and we need to do something about it. 

I have turned to environmental books, leaders, and organizations to learn how I can stop drilling as many holes. I have turned to Dayenu to see if there is a way to patch the holes we already drilled. Our decisions affect the broader community, not just one individual. We have the power to understand that our actions effect the world and that we are  capable of doing something about it. We need to be God’s partner in deciding who shall live and who shall die and that partnership starts with us taking climate action. 

Day 7: Miracles and Scarcity
Dr. Shira Billet, Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics

In Emmanuel Levinas’s philosophical readings of the Talmud, the philosopher is careful to distinguish between what he does – i.e., philosophy – and the Talmud itself, which makes no claim to being a work of philosophy. Nevertheless, Levinas thinks there is philosophy in the Talmud. This is because, for Levinas, the source of all philosophy is reflection upon lived life and lived experience. “If the Talmud is not philosophy, its tractates are an eminent source of those experiences from which philosophies derive their nourishment.” For Levinas, in many of the Talmud’s legal discussions, the rabbis are “arguing about fundamental ideas without appearing to do so.”

As part of Dayenu’s “Eight Days of Climate Torah” over the eight days of Hannukah, I want to present the Talmudic discussion of the miracle of Hannukah along with its biblical intertext as a site for a philosophical reading of Jewish sources in a Levinasian register. This reading brings together lived life and philosophical reflection and is attuned, in particular, to some of the central issues that are of concern in contemporary ecological ethics and climate justice. In keeping with Levinas’s concerns with philosophical ethics, my focus will be on some of the human, social, and communal aspects of climate crises.

In the books of Maccabees, historical accounts of the Hasmonean-Greek wars, no mention is made of the famous miracle of oil that burned for eight days. This miracle is mentioned in Megillat Antiochus (the scroll of Antiochus), and more famously, in the Talmud. In Tractate Shabbat, the Talmud states that the festival was established to commemorate a miracle upon the conclusion of the Hasmonean-Greek war. During the Greek-Hasmonean wars, the Greek powers had defiled the storehouses of pure oil in the Temple. Only one pure cannister of oil remained, containing enough oil to light the Temple’s golden Menorah for only a single day. The Menorah was lit with this one canister of oil. Miraculously, the oil continued to burn for eight days until more pure oil could be procured. An eight-day long holiday was established, on which “no mourning or fasting” would take place.

I want to highlight a few aspects of this miracle that are relevant for our thinking about ecological ethics and climate justice. Our attention is called to a scene of devastation after a war and the scarcity that reigns in the aftermath of war. The war was over, and the Hasmoneans had won, but devastation and deprivation were manifest everywhere. The holiday that is established is described as a pause on mourning and fasting, rather than as a moment of unmitigated joy and celebration. There is a need to conserve resources and to do the impossible: to make insufficient resources last longer than imaginable, longer than they possibly can. The deprivation was not merely physical, but spiritual. The inability to access clean or pure staples needed for life – such as oil or water – is not merely of concern for physical wellbeing, but for spiritual wellbeing. Of course, in this version of the story, the spiritual aspect of the scarcity is emphasized, with a focus on the need for clean oil for the Temple service, and not, say, for preparing food.

We are reminded again of the physical realities that underly this spirit-focused story when we consider the biblical intertext for this miracle of a scarcity of oil that was somehow made to be sufficient. In 2 Kings 4, a widow turns to Elisha the prophet in a moment of financial desperation. Her husband had died, leaving herself and her children destitute and weighed down by crushing debt. Her children were on the brink of being sold into slavery by creditors. Elisha asks her what she has in her home. The widow replies: “but one jug of oil.” That’s it. Elisha instructs her to borrow empty vessels from all of her neighbors and to shut the door to her home behind her. She is then to pour from her jug of oil into each of the vessels until each one is full. She does so, and her one jug of oil continues to pour oil until all the vessels become full of oil, at which point her jug finally becomes empty. The prophet then tells her to sell the oil, pay the debt, and raise her children in peace with the remainder.

The story of the widow who turned to the prophet Elisha deepens our understanding of the miracle of Hannukah. While the Hannukah story focuses on the big institutions that were affected and devastated by the Hasmonean-Greek war – the Temple itself, and religious observance – the literary connection to the earlier biblical story of Elisha and the widow calls our attention to what was happening all around the temple at the time of Hannukah. Surely, it was not just pure Temple oil that was scarce after a war, but also oil in the homes of women and children who had become widowed and orphaned during the war. The story of Elisha and the widow also calls our attention to poverty in general, and especially to insurmountable debt, and the compounding losses these bring in their wake, injustices in the structure of society that are exacerbated in times of war and crisis. The need to conserve, and to stretch the finite, the scant, the almost non-existent to its limits is fundamental to life and survival under these circumstances. This story also calls attention to the community and the friendship that is found, even under the worst of circumstances. There would be no miracle of oil if there weren’t many borrowed jugs from friends who were likely impoverished and suffering too, but still willing to share what they had with one another and to support one another through hard times.

I want to suggest that these two stories must be read together, for the reasons I already suggested: The biblical story helps us widen the frame on the later Hannukah story to see lived life that is happening all around the big institutions, and the injustices we risk perpetuating when we are not looking at this more holistic picture. But I also want to suggest that the Hannukah story sheds light on the biblical story, by reminding us that scarcity is not only a problem for physical wellbeing, but also for spiritual wellbeing, and that both are crucial to survival in times of crisis and devastation. The two oils are equally important, and in times of crisis, it is important to conserve both.

Ecological ethics and climate justice call our attention not only to the physical world and to the need to conserve and preserve it, but to the human devastation that is caused by climate crises: war, mass poverty, mass scarcity and deprivation. While it is important for climate justice to focus its attention on all that can be done to prevent these things from happening, it is important not to lose sight of the ways in which philosophy, ethics, and Jewish thought can helps us think about how to be, and how to find meaning, hope, and community, if and when these things come to pass.

I draw out three elements of these two stories taken together:

First, they remind us of the need to act on the basis of hope in times of crisis and hardship. Lighting the menorah with enough oil to last for one day, even though there was not enough to get through the next day, was an act of hope. It was a way of saying: We’re going to celebrate this moment that we have right now, without worrying about the fact that it may not – cannot – last. Gathering those jugs from friends, starting to pour the oil, was also a profound act of hope, almost to the point of absurdity. Sometimes, good things last longer than expected. We can only discover this when we act on the basis of hope.

Second, the two stories taken together remind us that institutional life and the lives of individuals are deeply intertwined. The conditions of one mirror the conditions of the other. We must always pay attention to both – and never lose sight of one for the other – because survival and flourishing depend on healthy private lives and healthy institutions. By institutions I mean both our spiritual and other centers that organize communal life – where we shine light from large structures – and also institutions like friendship and local community – the folks we borrow a jug from when we’ve run out – and the family and the home. When it feels like there is little to celebrate or hope for, friends and community and places to come together over what we value most will help us get through.

Finally, the Talmud’s description of eight festive days as “days on which there is no eulogizing or fasting” implies that we can – indeed we must – find ways to lean into joy and celebration even while there is also pain and loss. Joy and hope coexist with grief. The Talmud focuses on this in a religious and institutional context, whereas the story of the widow and the prophet Elisha sheds light on the local, small scale, private joy that is found by celebrating family, friendship, and community even amid pain, loss, and profound hardship. Pausing grief temporarily to make space for joy does not mean we aren’t attuned to all the problems we face. To the contrary, finding hope and joy give us the strength we need to face the complex challenges that lie ahead.

Day 8: For the Good
Aiden Pink, 3rd Year Rabbinical School student

Every fall, as the days grow noticeably shorter, Jews around the world begin to ask the same question – when is  Hanukkah this year? From Thanksgivukkah to Chrismukkah and beyond, we know that the Festival of Lights is sometime in November or December, but its arrival on the Gregorian calendar always seems random and haphazard. Luckily, there’s another Jewish observance that falls around this time of year on an entirely predictable date: the seasonal changing of the Birkat Hashanim prayer on December 4th (with a one-day deviation to December 5th every fourth year).

One of the 19 prayers included in the weekday Amidah, Birkat Hashanim asks God to “grant blessing upon the earth,” but in the Diaspora, from December 4th/5th to Pesah – prime rainy season in Babylonia –  the prayer instead asks for “dew and rain for blessing upon the earth.” (In Israel, the changeover happens earlier, on Shmini Atzeret). The reason why this change is marked on the Gregorian calendar rather than the Hebrew one is complicated, having to do with equinoxes, Julius Caesar, and a 16th century pope. But the change is notable not just for its rationale but also in the power of the change itself: it forces the worshipper to pay close attention to every word in the prayer, to make sure they say the version corresponding with the right season. And for me, the most powerful phrase in Birkat Hashanim occurs right before the seasonal variation, asking God to bless “all manner of produce for good (l’tovah).”

In a prayer that focuses on agriculture and sustenance – asking for the blessings of rain and harvest – it makes sense to ask for blessings for all the many different types of crops. But why does it say l’tovah? It seems obvious that a blessing over produce would lead to them being tov, so why mention it at all?

In his 1980 book To Pray as a Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin had a possible answer:

If there is waste, mismanagement, and corruption, there can be scarcity despite an abundant harvest. It is quite possible that people will be unable to afford what the blessed earth provides….We also want God’s blessings to be good for us in the long run as well. If as a result of being blessed with abundance, we indulge our vices and turn our backs on the moral and spiritual values that God wishes us to pursue, can such abundance be regarded as having been ‘for good’? Or if the granting of our wishes creates conditions that lead to self-destruction or that cause children to go astray, can such answered prayers be regarded as having been good or beneficial to us?

Our society is built on extraction from the earth. The United States has a surplus of food made from the crops we’ve grown, and yet there is hunger and food scarcity across the country. And while fossil fuels have made possible the modern society in which we live, their use has also created the conditions that are leading us to self-destruction. The word l’tovah reminds us that abundance means nothing if it is not sustainable or equitably shared, and that the Jewish vision of blessing the earth includes making sure that what comes out of it truly benefits us – and benefits the earth itself – in the long run, rather than hurting us. As we pay close attention to the words of the Amidah this season, we must consider the ways in which we can do better, on both individual and institutional levels, at partnering with God to make sure our abundance is truly l’tovah.