Grieving the Earth: The Spiritual Technology of Yom Kippur

October 20, 2022

There’s a gap between knowing a truth and living it. The ongoing climate crisis is one place we experience this, where knowing and acting live far apart. Similarly, there is a gap between acknowledging and truly feeling that we will die. Facing overwhelming impermanence – the elemental weight of sacred change – is an exercise in learning to grieve, to face our planet’s dying and our own.

Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for our own death, creating a ritual container deep enough to hold us as we step towards this reality. We’re invited to turn towards the role of death and loss in our lives – to practice inhabiting this weight and the questions it raises. By doing so, we learn to grieve – to metabolize suffering into insights to inform our futures.

As an aspiring hospice social worker, I’ve had the honor of sitting with dying people and their loved ones. I’ve witnessed honest conversations made possible by the knowledge that life ends, and by the understanding that dying well is a gift that can heal in every direction – our loved ones, our ancestors, future generations, and especially ourselves. To borrow an idea from Ram Dass, hospice is one way we walk another person home. In hospice, we’re not aiming for a true solution. There’s no answer to death. It’s similar for our planet. 

Even if we stopped all negative climate impacts today, there would still be drastic effects. Instead, we are present and focused on where we can act, with care. With clear eyes, hospice meets the reality that everything is impermanent and changes. Because of this truth, every action matters, especially the little things, because they are often what we can actually do. When we begin to see the reality that surrounds us, we may be afraid or enraged. These feelings are not only normal, they are holy. These energetic signposts point us to where our loving focus is needed. By doing little things with love, we pour care into the world as well as make our living selves a sanctuary for our values.

Yom Kippur creates 25 hours of deep, embodied ritual to inhabit the ideas of loss and transformation called forward by both death and climate change. To fully embody these questions, our tradition offers four key pieces of spiritual technology (among many more): the container, fasting, the breath, and teshuvah

First, making time to enter this ritual container – at home, online, or in person – is a foundational call of the holiday and vital to accessing its wisdom. Fasting from food, drink, and sex is another way in. The signals the body sends about hunger, thirst and being tired help us stay present and remind us of the people, animals, and plants that are not being nourished, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Our shared experience connects us. Another spiritual tool is being with our breath and all it creates in prayer (tefillah) and song. When you pray, when you sing, when you sigh from exhaustion, know that your breathing is a sacred act. Recall that this air was exhaled by forests to nourish you. It circulates through countless lungs and uplifts innumerable creatures, somehow finding its way to you right now. Interdependence is more than a lofty idea, it sustains us moment to moment.

Finally, we can return to right our relationship with the Earth through teshuvah – repentance or return. Teshuvah calls us back to ourselves, to examine our souls in divine light, to reflect on our alignment with our values, and to see where we better care for another and ourselves. We’re invited to expand that circle of right-making from our own hearts to the world around us. Remember that you are a natural extension of this Earth. This can be difficult when, by the very act of how we live, many of us and large corporations are co-creating the climate crisis. But to paraphrase Alan Watts, we do not come into this world, we are born from it. Like lilies and whales and mountains, we were called into being by our planet. That means we have both the duty and the capacity to heal our relationship with our earth. Creation is always in process – never complete – to leave room for our participation. We can return to the human and more-than-human communities (kehillah) that need our help to repair and heal.

For 25 hours, we visit with our own impermanence, journeying through a place where we cannot live long-term. The weight of this contemplation grounds and energizes us towards the destination of rebirth and new insights. 

We must practice being present with what is challenging to see what loving actions are possible. The classic teaching from Pirkei Avot, a compilation of ethical maxims, says we are not obligated to complete the work of the world, but neither are we free to desist from trying. While we can’t solve it all, maybe we don’t have to.

Sitting with grief and loss is practicing being present with what’s hard. It also is a magnifying glass on what can be done, in our own hearts, our homes, our communities, our world. Turning towards places of rupture and loss can be a source for deep insights, for us, our kehillah, and our earth. 

This Yom Kippur, may we be reborn through the practice of grief. May we face fear and open to transformation, so future generations can harvest our healing and not our pain.

Jen Rusciano’s (they/she) path to healing comes through a commitment to uprooting oppression and planting justice. Grown in Detroit’s thriving food justice community, their roots are as a food system educator, youth ally, and non-profit director. A love of spirituality and a dedication to harm reduction introduced them to the world of psychedelic medicine. Now as an aspiring social worker, they are focused on hospice care, values-aligned death, and the application of psychedelics in death work.