Religious Life

Protecting Our Planet – A Weekly Letter From Rabbi Davis – June 1, 2018

Shalom Chaverim,

As summer approaches and as I look forward to spending more time in the garden and in nature, I am brought to reflect on the writings of AD Gordon.*  It also inspires a short talk I will be giving next Monday at a rally at the capital.

Best know as a Labor Zionist, AD Gordon was also particularly attuned to the place of humans in nature. That, in fact, was the title of a collection of essays, Haadam V’hateva (Man in Nature, 1910). In it, he outlined how the Jewish people might build a more healthy and natural relationship with the Land. Gordon himself made aliyah from Ukraine in 1904 and moved to Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania, to work the land.

To understand Gordon’s message, we need two Hebrew words:

Hakarah means perception. For Gordon, it represented the human ability to analyze the world around us.

Chavaya means experience. It is a word Gordon invented by taking the chet from chayim (“life”) and attaching it to the word havaya (“being”).

For Gordon, chavaya represented the unmediated human experience with the pulse and flow of nature. Hakarah, on the other hand, has us standing apart from nature, studying nature objectively from afar. In a healthy system, chavayah (our immediate life experience) informs hakarah (our perception of the world). But in the age of industrialization, Gordon witnessed people increasingly becoming disconnected from the earth. They treated it as an object and used it for shortsighted ends.

Gordon, therefore, called upon humans to realign our relationship with the earth. “You must invent everything anew,” he wrote. “The way you eat and drink, your dress and your habitation, the way you work and the way you learn, everything…[For example,] when you build a house, make sure not to build too many rooms and chambers; make sure that there will not be anything in it to block out the cosmic expanse, the cosmic life… [Rather] in all your ways and in all your life you will learn to be a partner in creation.”

Gordon’s metaphor for a healthy relationship between human and nature, between chavaya and hakara was an oil light described in the Torah. We read in this week’s parasha and elsewhere about the Levites preparing the oil, wicks and lighting the menorah. When we are one with the natural world, Gordon taught, the oil flows allowing the menorah to illumine the world. When we are out of balance, the lamp sputters and fumes but produced no light.

Were he alive today, I imagine that Gordon would choose a solar lamp rather than an oil lamp as his metaphor. But even as is, Gordon’s message is more relevant than ever. Human neglect and abuse have further alienated us from the land and lead to environmental degradation. Speaking personally, I fear that the recent dismantling of policies, treaties and agencies will only increase the pace of climate change.

In this vein, I want you to know that I will be speaking at an interfaith rally next Monday afternoon against the danger of climate change. Part of the national Poor People’s Campaign, the rally will focus on the impact climate change is having on low income populations and on people of color and calls upon us to reduce our carbon footprint by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. If you are interested in joining me, let me know and I will send you additional information. I look forward to telling you more about it.


Rabbi Alexander Davis

*Based on an essay by Rabbi David Gedzelman, What does the Hour Demand? Environmentalism as Self-Realization.