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Earth Day is a Jewish holiday

April 22 marks Earth Day, which has been celebrated worldwide since 1970. It is celebrated in more than 192 countries every year. I would suggest that bringing a more specifically Jewish consciousness to Earth Day will help us deepen our commitment to practices that help and don’t hurt God’s creation.

Traditional Ashkenazic Judaism, being a text-based tradition that took place so much in synagogues and yeshivot, tended to be fairly disconnected from nature. Classical Zionism performed a tikkun (repair) on this in one way — by prioritizing agricultural work — and contemporary American Jews also do a tikkun by environmental education and by including a stronger Earth consciousness in our worship and practice.

I don’t tend to be too legalistic in my thinking, but if you think about the different between a minhag (a custom, without force of law) and a halachah (legal precept or required behavior), the latter tends to be taken much more seriously, and even to have metaphysical implications. And that is the way I am encouraging us to think about Earth Day — as a Jewish legal precept.

How do we celebrate our holidays? We have texts that we study, prayers that we say, behaviors we perform. To make Earth Day a Jewish holiday, we will have to develop practices in all these areas.

We can spend more time outside, for one thing, which I can tell you is a real challenge for me sometimes. We can learn about how we get our water, how and where our electricity is generated, about how the Kaw behaves, about species of plants and animals native to this area. This could fulfill the “study” aspect.

There are many wonderful readings, both traditional and contemporary, that speak to the divinity we can witness through nature. I try to bring one of these to each service I lead. Putting ourselves in a prayerful, or meditative space and reading the poetry of Wendell Berry or Gary Snyder can be a soul-enlivening experience.

And there are many actions we can take to put our commitment into action. Installing timed thermostats or water-saving gaskets on our faucets, driving less, lowering the amount of waste we send to the landfill through recycling and composting, using mugs instead of disposable cups, are all things we can do, both at home and at the synagogue.

The reason I suggest we make this a Jewish holiday comparable to others, and that we use the language of Jewish law, is because we know all too well how easy it is to let our commitment flag when something in only “a nice thing to do.” It is by using the Jewish sense of “commanded behavior” that we will begin to recognize the importance of, and take the full range of steps necessary to do a full tikkun on our relationship with the Earth.

Rabbi Moti Rieber is executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, a statewide, faith-based advocacy organization.