a photo of a tiny globe
(Photo/Marco Verch via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

For Earth Day, hang on to these two little pieces of paper

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 12:1–15:33

The Rabbi of Chelm appeared to be looking for something in his clothing. He was going through his pockets, coat and pants, searching. 

At last, he found what he was looking for: a small piece of folded paper in his right coat pocket. And then, another piece of folded paper in his left coat pocket. He examined each, smiled, sighed and replaced them where he had found them. 

A conversation with one of his students follows.

Student: What was that all about? We were in the middle of an important conversation about all the craziness in our world today, and you went hunting and searching for something.

Rabbi: Sorry, I know this Shabbat is Parashat Tazria-Metzora. It is also Earth Day. And I got overwhelmed. We were discussing the major ecological issues of our day: global warming from fossil fuels, poor governance, food waste, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, deforestation, air pollution, melting ice caps and sea level rise. I needed something.

Student: What did you need?

Rabbi: I needed a teaching from Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. He lived in the time of Napoleon. He held Enlightenment philosophy in one hand and traditional Jewish practice in the other.

Student: That doesn’t explain why you were searching yourself.

Rabbi: Oh, I was looking for two little pieces of paper. You see, Rabbi Bunim taught that every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “I am only dust and ashes.” When one is feeling too proud, reach into this pocket and take out this paper and read it. In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: “For my sake was the world created.” When one is feeling disheartened and lowly, reach into this pocket and take this paper out and read it. We are each the joining of two worlds. We are fashioned from clay, but our spirit is the breath of Adonai. I needed to remember that we are here in this world for a reason.

Student: And what reason is that?

Rabbi: To mend it, especially what we have broken. See this week’s parashah is difficult for most folks: descriptions of skin afflictions, mold and the purification processes. But, just as Rabbi Bunim wants us to have two pockets, there are two parts here too: Tazria-Metzora is about the insides (gunk that comes out of us) and outsides (gunk on our skin) of the body. We live in our bodies and our bodies live in the world.

There is a powerful teaching from the Midrash on Leviticus (Vayikra Rabba 18:1). You’ll need to trust me here, stay with me.

“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When any man has a discharge from his member, he is impure.” (Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 15:2)

We have learned in the Pirkei Avot 3:1: “Akabiah ben Mahalaleel said: Apply your mind to three considerations, and you will not come into the power of error. Know from where you came: from a fetid drop; where you are going: to a place of dust, of worm, and of maggot; and before Whom you are destined to give an account of reckoning: before the supreme Ruler of All, HaKadosh Baruch Hu.”

Student: So, this is a reminder that we are nothing in the world and yet responsible for our place in it.

Rabbi: There is another teaching from the Sefat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, from Rabbi Arthur Green) on this Torah portion. The Sefat Emet looks at when humanity enters creation: on the last hours of the sixth day and on the closet hour to Shabbat:

“The human was created last in deed, but first in the order of redemption. It is through humanity that creation and redemption are joined together. This is what the sages meant by noting that humans were created last, so that they could [immediately] enter the Sabbath, since the Sabbath belongs to redemption.”

Student: Humanity is created on the last afternoon of the sixth day, after the maggot and the worm and the flea. At the end of the line. But we are closest to Shabbat, day seven, which stands for reflection and redemption. We are part of the world, a tiny part, but play a big role in repairing what we have done in the world. That is Rabbi Bunim’s two pockets: We are both insignificant and significant, powerless and powerful.

On this Earth Day, a day of reflection, let us move forward with both our pockets.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].