A Letter to Mother Earth
This was delivered as a keynote at the Greening Our Faith Communities Summit. May 20, 2021. Charlotte, NC.
Dear Mother Earth,
We come to you as people of faith from across the state and beyond. We come to you virtually because our world is sick. An illness extends across the globe – COVID-19. I know you can feel it. You can sense it. You wonder why we wear masks outside when the air that surrounds should be so beautiful and so perfect to inhale.
You wonder why, when we head outside to enjoy the sun that shines so beautifully and helps your vegetation to flourish with glory, we cover ourselves with glasses, hats, clothes and lotions to protect ourselves from harm. You cringe that we have come to fear rains and their floods, winds and their consequent hurricanes, when instead we should stand in awe of the miraculous cycles of your natural world that bring day and night, winter and summer, a rich harvest balanced by nature’s resting. We should be celebrating them and capturing their power to power our lives
We have so learned many lessons during this time of isolation.
Mother Earth, we have learned how beautiful you are. As we have stopped during the year gone by, we have learned that our busyness – so much of our driving, our flying, our racing from place to place to get somewhere and do something — was at your expense and often unnecessary.
We are called human beings but we have forgotten how to be – in relationship with ourselves, with our neighbors, and most of all, with you.
The first question of the Bible, a book that is embraced by billions of people of faith is “where are you?”
Adam and Eve get lost in the idyllic garden and Eden and God asks them, “Where are you?”
Today, as we are slowly emerging from the pandemic and from this year of unfathomable pain filled with death, violence, and poverty, we stop to hear and to ponder answers to that question: “Where are you?”
In Hebrew, that first question in the Bible — “Where are you” is comprised of one word “Ayeka.”
Those same letters form the first word of Lamentations, “Eicha – which means how. “How the city sits alone!” In Lamentations, God weeps because Jerusalem sits alone after the first exile of the Israelites. Our cities are alone right now — but they need not be.
In Genesis and in Lamentations, we are called to return — to get back to our ideals. That is what we do today. O Earth, we have taken you, your beauty, and your richness of resources for granted. And as a result, we stand at risk of disconnection, divorce, or even, worse death.
In Genesis, we were given the simple instructions to guide our relationship with you.
Adam, the first human being, was created from adamah, the earth. That first earthling was told that he and consequently we, have a two-fold obligation to the soil that sustains us.
God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to till it and to tend it. (Gen. 2:15).
The word ovdah, to till, has the same root of the word avodah which means both work and worship. Our relationship of working the land is a form of prayer. Boundaries were set so that as we labored over the land we could protect it. One day a week, the earth gets a day of rest, called Shabbat. One year in seven, the earth gets a sabbatical – a year of lying fallow for rejuvenation called shmita.
In Judaism, nature is God’s sanctuary and caring for the environment requires sacrifices which sadly we have failed to make.
Tikkun Olam – repairing the world is a Jewish mandate. The 16th century mystic, Isaac Luria, taught that when God first created the world space was needed so God contracted Godself into vessels, but they could not contain the light so they shattered. Much of the light returned to God but some of the light exists in shattered shards hidden in the material of our world. When we heal you, O Earth, with small acts and large, we reveal and release God’s hidden light. Help us all to be healers of your world.
Mother Earth, during this time of a global pandemic, we have learned that we are all interconnected. What happens in China, what happens in India, what happens in Washington, DC, or Georgia, or Portland, impacts as all – whether it is COVID-19 or political fighting or most of all, climate change.
We have learned that we are all neighbors. Even globally — what happens to one of us, happens to the next.
Rabbi Joachim Prinz who helped plan the 1963 March on Washington and spoke immediately before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said the following: “Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago, when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
Mother Earth, in harming you, we have harmed our neighbors.
Just look at the segregated city of Charlotte. It is segregated not only by race but by socioeconomic status. We have a crescent and wedge reality. Almost all outcomes of our city are determined by the lot of land on which we live or onto which our children are born – educational outcomes, health outcomes, exposure to environmental harm. And this pattern of disparate outcomes based on race and socioeconomic status is replicated everywhere across our country and our world.
Mother Earth, the book of Psalms teaches that a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, like a watch in the night. You have seen religious leaders come and go for millennia, teaching and preaching lessons of collective responsibility.
A first century teacher, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the ascribed author of the Kabbalistic Zohar, taught about the ways our actions impact each other.
“It is to be compared to people who were in a boat,” bar Yochai notes, “and one of them took a drill and began to drill a hole beneath himself. His companions said to him: ‘Why are you doing this?’ He replied: ‘What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under myself?’ They replied: ‘But you will flood the boat for us all.’”
And almost two millennia later, Pope Francis, the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, saw as one of his first and most significant acts the development of an encyclical on the environment published in 2015, entitled “Laudato Si, Praise Be to You” with the subtitle “on care for our common home.”
Mother Earth, You are our common home. We are in this together.
Pope Francis expressed his concern for your health. “Each year” he writes, “Sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever.”
Mother Earth, the current Pope expressed concern about the ways your tenants are treating you. He wrote: “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”
Mother Earth, we come here today to reflect on our relationship with you.
Just like in a large family, each child has a different relationship with their parents, so as large families of faith do we all have different understandings of our connection.
“To whom do you, as the earth, belong?” we ask as people of faith.
The Native American poet and scholar. Dr. Paula Gunn Allen of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe, offers one answer. She writes: “We are the land … that is the fundamental idea embedded in Native American life — the Earth is the mind of the people as we are the mind of the earth. The land is not really the place (separate from ourselves) where we act out the drama of our isolate destinies. It is not a means of survival, a setting for our affairs … It is rather a part of our being, dynamic, significant, real. It is our self.”
The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths teach that the land, belongs to God. God spoke all creation into being. Psalms 24 affirms, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”
The Qur’an, in Surah Al-Zukruf similarly states, “Everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to the Almighty Allah.”
But Mother Earth, we, too quickly, forget that.
There is a Jewish folk tale of two people who were once fighting over a piece of land. Each claimed ownership. Each bolstered the claim with apparent proof. After arguing for a long time, they agreed to resolve their conflict by putting the case before a rabbi. The rabbi sat as an arbitrator and listened carefully, but despite years of legal training the rabbi could not reach a decision. Both parties seemed to be right. Finally. the rabbi said, “Since I cannot decide to whom this land belongs, let’s ask the land.” The rabbi put an ear to the ground, and after a moment stood up. “My friends, the land said it belongs to neither of you – but that you belong to it.”
O Earth, how easily we forget that you, the land, belong not to us but to the future.
There is an ancient Iroquois (Ee-rah-kwah) philosophy called the Seventh Generation Principle. The decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. The decisions we make must transcend ourselves and our families, they must transcend time. Daily we need to think about the environmental inheritance we are leaving – rather than depleting your resources thinking only about now and ourselves, we need to invest in them.
Mother Earth, we have come together today for this summit to pay a sick call.
We understand that not only has humanity faced a global illness of COVID, but that you are sick, as well. Your temperature is increasing. Your symptoms are getting worse and the longer we wait to act, the more you are struggling and consequently we are struggling with droughts, excessive rain, extreme hot/cold, more tornados and more intense hurricanes
Your diagnosis is alarming. The harmful effect of our centuries of exploitation, especially since the industrial revolution, have doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in your atmosphere. Burning coal, natural gas, gasoline and diesel fuel are emitting carbon dioxide that are depleting your ability to support us.
The prognosis is fearful. Our North Carolina barrier islands will likely disappear and many of today’s coastal communities will partially be under water by the year 2100. The consequences of your illness will impact every person and every country.
Mother Earth, we are so sorry for our neglect. We are so tired. We face local challenges, national challenges, global challenges – all of them seem so overwhelming.
The Talmud, an expansive text holding centuries of great Jewish wisdom, teaches an awesome concept of 1/60. The text tells us that sleep is 1/60 of death; that dreams are 1/60 of prophecy; that Shabbat is 1/60 of heaven. And that the person who visits the sick takes away 1/60 of their illness.
We each need to do our 1/60th part and demand that our country does the same.
We don’t need to each do it all, but we each need to do something.
The Pope in his 2015 encyclical enjoined the global citizen to act. “An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” he writes adding that we should also consider taking public transit, car-pooling, planting trees, turning off the lights and recycling.
We need to demand that our local and national leaders lead to save our world before it is too late.
Like the patient in a critical care unit who faces a grave crisis with multiple doctors and disciplines who are needed to figure out the path to healing, we know earth, that you are in need of critical care. A local scientist and expert on environmental healing, John Dabels, shared that we need to implement science-based solutions, not political solutions. We need to use not just public funds but insist on private funds, as well. We need to ensure fair-and equitable implementation across all socio-economic groups.
Your treatment requires a change of behavior – our turning from our dependence on fossil fuels to green energy. We need to set our target of zero carbon emissions from transportation by 2050 – less than 30 years from now.
Earth, the task of your rehabilitation seems overwhelming.
When Moses was called to help save the Israelites from slavery he asked with humility and dismissiveness of his strengths, “Who am I to save the Israelites from Egypt? …I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
And God appointed for Moses, his brother, Aaron, as his accommodation and partner.
“Who are we,” we likewise ask, “To solve this global crisis?”
Yet, we have been given one another as partners.
Moses felt apprehension at tackling an issue as big as the redemption of an entire people. How much the more so do we feel apprehension at trying to redeem a planet?
John Legend in giving the commencement address at Duke earlier this month told the graduates, “When you feel lost in this tangled web of problems, know this truth, the way out of it is simple. It is instinctual. It is called love. Love should be your North Star. Let it guide you.”
“What does that mean?” He concludes, “Love is ensuring everyone is safe from the worst consequences of the climate crisis especially in communities already undermined, under-resourced and under water. To paraphrase the indigenous Australian activist Lila Watson, it means your liberation is bound up with mine and mine with yours. Professor Cornell West has a word for what this kind of love looks like in public. That word is justice.”
Mother Earth, today we renew our commitment to you as we recognize that the healing that needs to happen is not beyond our ability. It is within our grasp. It is within our hands.
I close with a poem by Hafiz, a 14th century Muslim poet. It is called A Love Like That.
all this time
the sun never
says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”
with a love like that.
It lights the
if the sun stopped
O Mother Earth, may we, like the sun, kiss you and love you daily through our actions, tending to you and thus honoring you, honoring our past, our present, our future, and all.
 Special thanks to scientist and Temple Beth El Congregant John Dabels for his research, wisdom and support.
 Hafiz (1325-1389) from the collection The Gift. Hafiz was a Persian poet, acclaimed in his lifetime, and still beloved and quoted throughout the world.