Prayer as if the Earth Really Matters


[This article appeared in the print edition of Tikkun magazine for Spring, 2015.]

More and more often, religious communities are bringing their prayer and practice to bear on a profound religious and spiritual question: radical dangers posed by the climate crisis to the web of human and more-than-human life forms on Planet Earth.

There are two aspects of what is beginning to happen in relating prayer to the present crisis of our planet. One is exploring how Earth-awareness can enter more deeply into our formal prayer services. The other is exploring how public action intended to affect public and corporate policy toward the Earth can become prayerful.

I. Earth-awareness in formal prayer.

“Prayer in meaningless unless it is subversive”  -- Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel.

One powerful way to enhance earth-awareness in the formal prayer of many religious traditions would be to introduce new symbols and rituals into them. One extraordinarily powerful effort along these lines was undertaken at the “Interfaith Summit on the Climate Crisis” called in 2008 by the Church of Sweden and chaired by its Archbishop in Uppsala. The initial service in the Cathedral of Uppsala was in many ways a conventional interfaith service: shofar (ram’s horn) blown by Jews, a bell rung by Buddhists, etc. The most moving aspect of the initial service was the rolling of a large green (moss) Globe down the center aisle of the Cathedral — the symbol of no one religious community and the possible symbol for them all.

A version of this practice has been introduced since then into a number of multireligious services focusing on the climate crisis -- especially several held by Interfaith Moral Action on Climate (IMAC) at the White House fence and Lafayette Park in 2012 and 2013.
At those events, the participants passed an inflatable Globe from hand to hand, singing:

We have the whole world in our hands,
We have the rain and the forests in our hands,
We  have the wind and the willows in our hands,

We have the rivers and the mountains in our hands,
We have the lakes and the oceans in our hands
We have you and me in our hands,

We have the trees and the tigers in our hands,
We have our sisters and our brothers in our hands,
We have our children and their children in our hands,

It is both factually and theologically notable that this liturgy transformed an older hymn in which the refrain was, “He has the whole world in His hands.”

That assertion -- He is in charge of the world --  is closely related to a major traditional metaphor in most Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayer. In that metaphor,  God is King, Lord, Judge --  above and beyond the human beings who are praying.  In regard to the Earth, this metaphor crowned a series of hierarchies:

The great Chain of Being is a hierarchy from rocks and rivers up to vegetation, thence up to animals and then to human beings and finally up to the Divine King and Lord. 

Today we know that the relationship between the human species and the Earth is ill described by these  metaphors of hierarchy.  Not only do we know that what we breathe in depends upon what the trees and grasses breathe out; now we know that within our own guts are myriads of microscopic creatures that occasionally make us sick but far more often keep us alive and healthy.

There is no “environment” in the sense of an “environs” that is “out there,” not us. There are fringes, not fences, between us and other life, and sometimes not even fringes at our edges but in our very innards.

Though now we know the Human species has indeed great power to shape and damage the web of life on earth, we also know today that we are part of that web–– a strand within it  --  not simply above and beyond it. What we may do to the web out of our unusual power also has an impact upon us. The more we act as if we are in total control, the closer we come to “totaling” the whole intricate process (to use a phrase that – perhaps not accidentally – comes from the world of automobiles.)

So  those metaphors of ordered hierarchy are no longer truthful, viable, or useful to us as tools of spiritual enlightenment.

If we are to seek spiritual depth and height, the whole framework of prayer must be transformed.

How can we do this while yet drawing on the rich experience of prayer that did spiritually enlighten many in the generations that came before us?

If we look deep into the Torah tradition, we can find accounts that hint toward a very different metaphor and therefore a very different path of prayer.

When Moses hears a Voice speaking from the Burning Bush, the Voice gives him two new Names by which to understand the universe and God and by which to lead the liberation of the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh.

One of those new names is in Hebrew – Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh  – – that is, “I will be who I will be.” The world, we understand, is always Becoming. Slaves can become free; a rabble of runaways can become a community.

The other Name was/ is, in the Western alphabet, YHWH. Much later in biblical understanding, we were taught this name must not be pronounced and instead the Hebrew word Adonai for Lord should be used as a substitute for it.  This practice greatly affected Christian prayer and practice, as Adonai became Kyrie, then Dominus, and later Lord.

But if we do try to pronounce this YHWH without any vowels, what we sound and hear is not quite a pronunciation but a breath. A breath that appears not only in Hebrew and Sanskrit and Latin and Swahili and Greek and English and Chinese but in every human language --  all of them. And it appears not only in human languages but in every life form on our planet. No living creature on our planet breathes in a little bubble. We breathe each other into being. Into living. What we breathe in is what the trees breathe out. What the trees breathe in is what we breathe out.

The metaphor that God is the Interbreathing of all life is far more truthful than the metaphor that God is King and Lord. It brings together spiritual truth and scientific fact. It has only been about 250 years since human beings discovered that the great exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen between plants and animals is what keeps our planet alive. Yet this scientific fact echoes the ancient sense that we are all interwoven, enter breathing.

Even to say the word “spiritual” is to teach the importance of this inter-breathing. For just as the word “spiritus” in Latin means “breath” and “wind” as well as what we call “spirit,” so the word ruach in Hebrew means “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” Much the same sense is expressed in many other languages.

What would it mean it, then, to reframe our forms of prayer around the metaphor of God as interbreathing? I will speak here from my own roots in Jewish prayer, but the basic question should arise in the prayers of all cultures.

Let us start with what many consider the central affirmation of Jewish prayer, the Shema. Drawing on our new metaphor, we might hear the Shema saying “Hush and listen, you  Godwrestlers! Our God is the Interbreathing of all life, and the interbreathing is ONE.

In the traditional Jewish prayer book, the Shema is followed by three paragraphs of explication and affirmation. The second paragraph is especially devoted to the relationship between human beings and the earth. It asserts that if human beings follow the sacred teachings that indeed the Divine is One, then the rivers will run, the rains will fall, the heavens will bless the earth, and the earth will be abundantly fruitful in feeding human beings, in making the harvest abundant, and in making the land flourish.

But the paragraph continues that if we follow false gods, if we carve the world up into parts and worship not the One Breath of life but some substitute piece we have carved out  --  then the rivers won't run, the rain won’t fall, and the Heavens will become our enemy. We will perish from the good Earth that the One Breath of life, our God, has given us.

In the last half-century, that second paragraph has been excised from many modern Jewish prayer books. The argument for removing it has been that it teaches a false notion of reward coming for sure from good action and punishment coming from bad action. But that excision came before we understood how interwoven, how fragile was our relationship with the Earth, and how we might in fact act with such strength and arrogance as to wound even the rain and the rivers. So as a way of understanding the Shema so that the Earth really matters, I offer this translation of the three paragraphs that can be chanted quite easily in English:

 Sh’ma for the 21st Century: A Jewish Invocation of the Unity

All together chant: ”Sh’ma Yisrael Yahhh elohenu Yahhhh echad.” Then, going around the room, each person reads one paragraph :]

Sh’sh’sh’ma Yisra’el –
Hush’sh’sh and Listen, You Godwrestlers –
Pause from your wrestling and hush’sh’sh
To hear -- YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh/ Yahhhhhh.
Hear in the stillness the still silent voice,
The silent breathing that intertwines life;
YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh / Yahhhh elohenu

Breath of life is our God,
What unites all the varied
forces creating
all worlds into one-ness,
Each breath unique,
And all unified;
Listen, You Godwrestlers –
No one people alone
owns this Unify-force;
YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh / Yahh is One.

So at the gates of your cities,
where your own culture ends,
and another begins,
And you might halt in fear –
“Here we speak the same language
“But out there is bar-bar-bar-barbaric,
“They may kill without speaking—“
Then pause in the gateway to write on its walls
And to chant in its passage:
“Each gate is unique in the world that is One.”

If you hush and then listen,
yes hush and then listen
to the teachings of YHWH/ Yahh,
the One Breath of Life,
that the world is One --
If you hear in the stillness the still silent voice,
The silent breathing that intertwines life --

If we Breathe in the quiet,
Interbreathe with all Life --
Still small Voice of us all ----
We will feel the Connections;
We will make the connections
and the rain will fall rightly
The grains will grow rightly
The rivers will run,
The heavens will smile,
The forests will flourish,
The good earth will fruitfully feed us,
And all life weave the future in fullness.
Earthlings / good Earth.

But if we break the One Breath into pieces
And erect into idols these pieces of Truth,
If we choose these mere pieces to worship:
gods of race or of nation 
gods of wealth and of power, 
gods of greed and addiction – 
Big Oil or Big Coal –
If we Do and we Make and Produce without Pausing to Be; 

If we heat the One Breath with our burnings -- 
Then the Breath will flare up into scorching,
Great ice fields will melt 
And great storms will erupt:
Floods will drown our homes and our cities.

The rain will not fall —
or will turn to sharp acid —
The rivers won't run —
or flood homes and cities;
The corn will parch in the field,
The poor will find little to eat,
The heavens themselves
will take arms against us:
the ozone will fail us,
the oil that we burn
will scorch our whole planet

The Breath, Holy Wind, Holy Spirit
Will become Hurricanes of Disaster.
and from the good earth
that the Breath of Life gives us,
We will vanish;
yes, perish.

What must we do?

At the gates of our cities,
where our own culture ends,
and another begins,
Where we might halt in fear –
“Here we speak the same language
“But out there is barbaric,
“They may kill without speaking—“
Then pause in the gateway to write on its walls
And to chant in its passage:
“Each gate is unique in the world that is One.”

On the edges of each Self
take care to weave fringes,
threads of connection.
So we end not with sharpness,
A fence or a wall,
But with sacred mixing
of cloth and of air —
A fringe that is fuzzy,
part ours and part God's:
They bind us together,
Make One from our one-ness.
Good fringes/ good neighbors.
Deep mirrors/ true seeing.
Time loving/ right action.
The Infinite/ One.
Connect what we see with our eyes

To what we do with our hands.
If we see that a day is coming
That will burn like a furnace --
Turn for our healing to a sun of justice,
To its wings of wind and its rays of light
To empower all peoples.

Then the rains will fall
Time by time, time by time;
The rivers will run,
The heavens will smile,
The grass will grow,
The forests will flourish,
The good earth will fruitfully feed us,
And all life weave the future in fullness.


Honor the web that all of us weave  --
Breathe together the Breath of all Life. 
[The community simply breathes quietly for several minutes, staying aware that each breath comes from all breath.]

[This midrashic translation//transformation of the Sh’ma was written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center <>

Now let me go back to an earlier part of the service of the traditional Jewish service that comes before the Shema. There were three passages in which the Hebrew word neshama is central. The first begins this month: high below shall not have to be to hold up the. In English, the breasts my God has placed within me is clear this morning, as I wait. The second says Ms. Mott coral by devoted and Jim McKay: in English, the breath of all life blesses your name our God. The third says: Kol hameshama t’hallel YAH: hallelujah. That is, in English: Every breath praises Yah, the breath of life.

In order to pray so that the earth really matters, we might actually breathe these three different passages in three different ways. For the first, we might experience the breath coming into our noses, mouths, and throats.  Moving into our lungs to be picked up by our bloodstream, bearing the oxygen to our brain, our arms, our heart and legs and genitals and skin – to all our organs that through their diversity make each of us into a One. This is my breath, and it comes from my God.

The second passage invites us to see the breath of all life, praising the name of our God – no longer my God. For this passage, we might begin by experiencing how our breath — now mostly carbon dioxide — leaves our mouths and noses, how it moves into the air and atmosphere of all God's creatures, how it moves into a plant and is breathed in by trees and grasses.; how they absorb the carbon to making new leaves, new wood — and then breathe out oxygen into the world, so that we can breathe it in.

We might chant the passage thus:



You Whose very Name ---

YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh --

Is the Breath of Life,

The breathing of all life

Gives joy and blessing to Your Name.

As lovers lie within each other's arms,

Whispering each the other's name

Into the other's ear,

So we lie in Your arms,

Breathing with each breath

Your Name, Your Truth, Your Unity.

You alone,

Your Breath of Life alone,

Guides us,

Frees us,

Transforms us,

Heals us,

Nurtures us,

Teaches us.

First, last,

Future, past,

Inward, outward,

Beyond, between,

You are the breathing that gives life to all the worlds.

And we do the breathing that gives life to all the worlds.

As we breathe out what the trees breathe in,

And the trees breathe out what we breathe in,

So we breathe each other into life,

We and You.





And finally the third passage comes from the very end phrase of Psalm 150, the last Psalm. It affirms that every breath praises, blesses, the God who is the breath of life. It uses one of the ancient names of God — Yah, as in Halllelu Yah — the name that has an the initial Y and the ending H of the YHWH name you might say ye is an intimate nickname of why each WH.

The exercise I have described is a way of teaching and reminding the community that it is part of earth, interwoven with Earth, not its ruler nor the Viceroy of a King still higher and more Royal.

With this new relationship with Earth in mind, we moved to the moment in the Jewish service that affirms there is a minyan, a community, a quorum for prayer, in the room. Traditionally, this required 10 male Jews at least 13 years and one day old. Now 10 adult Jews of any gender would, in many Jewish circles, make a minyan.

As we pause to say a welcoming affirmation --   Let us praise that holy breath of life which is indeed to be well praised --  we might in our new mode look from face to face around the room, pausing at each phase to say within ourselves, “This is the face of God. And this, so different, is the face of God. And this, and this, and this.”

We affirm that each face – so different not only in its physical shape and look but in its history and future – is the Face of God, not despite their differences but precisely because of their diversity. For the infinite can only be expressed in the world through the many facets of diversity.

With the Earth in mind, we might then turn to see the green Faces of God – especially if the prayer space has been so shaped that there are windows to see the trees and grasses. (For this kind of prayer, indeed it would be important for the spaces of our congregations to include exactly these kinds of Windows.)

Someone might actually say, We invite into our minyan these green faces of the holy breath of life, for no minyan could live and breathe if these green faces of the Holy One were not breathing into us what we need to live.

There are many other moments in the service when this new metaphor takes on a fuller meaning. In some ways it seems more accurate within our prayers then King or Lord do. For example, as we celebrate the way in which the Red Sea was blown apart for the Israelites to walk through into freedom, the action of a great when, the wind of change, seems a more accurate metaphor for the force that forced the sea to split then the metaphor of King..

And in the Alenu prayer where traditionally we bow and bend before the Royal Majesty, we can indeed bow and bend and let our bodies wave and move in the great Wind of change.

Finally, the Kaddish that appears as a bridge between sections of Jewish prayer addresses God as “shmei rabbah,” the Great Name. One way to understand the “Great Name” is that it is the Name that includes all the names of all the beings in the world – all species, all mountains, rocks, and rivers  (like the 50,000 names in the Vietnam War memorial in Washington that make up one “great name”). Asking people to envision and mention one of these names would help the whole community to begin weaving these names into the Great Name, and thus heighten awareness of how all Earth is interwoven.

II.  Making public advocacy actions prayerful

“I felt as if I were praying with my legs.” (Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, returning from the great Selma Alabama march for equal justice in regard to voting rights.)

The intertwined religious stories of Passover and Holy Week speak in powerful ways to the danger facing the Earth – and in Islam, though there is no analogous festival, the Exodus story and the story of Jesus are major aspects of the Quran. So interfaith and multireligious  groups have drawn on this tradition in these ways:

  • § Recalling  that the arrogance and stubbornness of Pharaoh brought plagues upon the Earth -- all of them ecological disasters – as well as oppression upon the human community.
  • § Understanding the yearly gatherings of a million people in ancient Jerusalem on Passover itself and the march of protest against the Roman Empire led by Jesus at Passover time on the first Palm Sunday as protests against oppression by the Pharaohs and Caesars of every generation.
  • § Holding public religious gatherings to lift up the symbols of Passover and Palm Sunday – matzah and palms – in calls to act against the plagues of global scorching brought on by the modern Pharaohs of Big Coal and Oil.
  • § Marking the matzah as a call to urgent action – what Dr. Martin Luther King called “the fierce urgency of Now” – and the palms as witnesses of fresh green life renewed.
  • § Carrying these religious celebrations into the city streets with marches interspersed with vigils at  local centers of “pyramidal power.”
  • § Welcoming arrests at the White House to demand urgent action against Tar Sands pipelines, coal-plant CO2 emissions, etc.

Eco-Jewish activists have in similar ways reconfigured many Jewish festivals as direct actions to protect and heal the Earth:

  • § Reshaping Tu B’Shvat, the ReBirthday of the Trees, as a time for protests and civil disobedience to protect ancient redwoods and the Everglades from corporate depredation.
  • § Drawing on the tradition of Hanukkah as celebrating the miraculous fulfillment of one day’s supply of sacred oil to meet eight days’ needs, as a spur to energy conservation.
  • § Celebrating Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh day of the harvest festival of Sukkot, a day traditionally set aside for invoking rain, honoring the seven days of Creation, and praying for salvation from insect swarms, droughts, and other natural disasters --  as a day of protest against the corporate poisoning of the Hudson River with PCBs.
  • § Observing the laments of Tisha B’Av over the destruction of the Holy Temples in Jerusalem by defining the universal Temple of today as Earth itself, and gathering at the US Capitol to lament the ongoing destruction of Temple Earth and demand action to save it.

The reframing of Jewish fasts and festivals in this way has been especially attractive because the Jewish festival cycle is closely keyed to the dance of Sun, Moon, and Earth. Many of the festivals, therefore, can be understood as universal at heart though clothed in Jewish history and culture. Probably for that reason, these actions drawing on uniquely Jewish ceremonies and practices have often attracted members of other faith traditions and secular eco-activists to take part.

As the experience of religious communities grows in exploring this whole area of reframing festivals as forms of public action, there has begun to emerge  a pattern of spiritual practice in each event: first, public celebration of the Earth; then, mourning for its wounds and dangers; finally, a commitment and covenant to act on its behalf and to challenge whatever power centers are worsening its wounds.

This three-fold pattern echoes many powerful evocations of spiritual depth: prosperity of ancient Israel in Egypt, slavery, and Exodus; the Promised Land, Exile, and Return; Celebration, Crucifixion, Resurrection; Gautama’s life of royal luxury, his discovery of suffering, Enlightenment.

This process of reframing festival observances as action to protect the Earth has only begun. It is likely that much more richness of spiritual imagination and political adeptness will be brought to bear as religious and spiritual communities keep facing the planetary crisis.


*  This article appeared in the print edition of Tikkun magazine for Spring, 2015.  Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., is director, The Shalom Center <>; newest books of 22,  a revised edition of Seasons of Our Joy (Jewish Publ Soc, 2012) and Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011); newest arrest of about 22, in interfaith climate action at White House before Passover & Palm Sunday, 2013. See also Waskow, “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics and Morality (Elliot N. Dorff and  Jonathan K. Crane, eds.; Oxford University Press, 2013).



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