The Haze of Elul

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I apologize for not having written in a few weeks. After coming back from my summer travels (you can still read the blog here), I fell into a combination of catching up with what I missed and planning for the coming fall (read: High Holidays).

But this was a week to turn back to the computer because time outside was limited. With haze settling over Olympia and much of the northwest because of wildfires, and air quality lingering in the hazardous zone, I spent most of my time this past week indoors.

It was a strange reality, looking at the ominous haze. There were beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and the moon glowed an interesting shade of red, but then I was quickly reminded of what was behind all that beauty. And while I don’t suffer from asthma or allergies in the way others do, some of the physical effects of the smoke were palpable. I didn’t wear a mask or craft a makeshift air filter, but the windows remained closed.

I also became obsessed with the air quality readings, and checked frequently. I would watch the numbers creep up or down and hover in the red. It was humbling to be at the mercy of nature, and I also felt increased empathy and compassion for those truly in harm’s way and under the immediate threat of the fire. And overall, a sadness settled down along with the haze–sadness at the realities of a changing climate, and sadness at our role in creating it.

We are currently in the month of Elul, making our way towards the High Holidays. It is a time that we focus on self-reflection and teshuvah, repentance. The word literally means turning. We turn from the bad and turn towards the good. We are called upon to do some heavy spiritual lifting as we examine change in our lives.

But Rosh Hashanah, the new year, is also called the birthday of the world. It is traditionally understood to be the anniversary of Creation, and while we may not believe in a supernatural power creating the world in six days 5,778 year ago, we can use this time to note how the earth, as it ages and goes through its cycles, is also changing.

We tend to compare seasons: how this summer compared to past summers, or whether we had more rain this winter than last. It is how we note not only the passage of time but the shifts in climate. Its the cyclical nature of our physical existence that allows us to make these comparisons, so on Rosh Hashanah, when we spiritually mark a new cycle, it should be on the forefront of our minds.

This year, the haze of Elul therefore should provide another wake up call, like the shofar does throughout this month and into Rosh Hashanah. As we examine how we can change, and as we observe how the earth is changing, we can pay particular attention to the intersection of the two, and ask ourselves how we can do teshuvah in relation to the earth. We ask, what we have done (or not done) that contributed to where we are now, and how we can commit to do something different in the future.

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