For non-observant Jews, who may choose not to fast or pray, and even for those who do, why not meditate upon the environmental significance of Yom Kippur and how we might change our destructive habits for more than just one day?
By Josie Glausiusz | Oct. 2, 2014

I stood on the bima on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, leading the morning service at Ansche Chesed, my beloved synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As I sang the words “the pious will celebrate with joyful song; evil will be silenced and all wickedness will vanish like smoke,” I thought about the meaning of this third-century liturgical poem. How is evil to be silenced, or, as the verse continues, “the tyranny of arrogance” removed from the earth?

Two weeks later – in October, 2012 – I moved to Israel with my husband and then-toddler twins. The following Yom Kippur, last year, could not have been more different. In the morning I pushed my kids in their stroller through the quiet, searing-hot streets to synagogue, and two hours later took them home to nap. In the afternoon I read my children the book of Jonah. No cars were on the roads outside, but in their place were cyclists, tricyclists and scooter riders – lots of them, mostly children.

The dearth of drivers on the Day of Atonement – as well as the shutdown in commerce and industry – has a profound impact on the environment in Israel: On Yom Kippur, the smoke literally vanishes. According to research published last year by Dr. Ilan Levy, a research fellow at the Technion’s Center of Excellence in Exposure Science and Environmental Health, air pollution plunges in Israel as virtually all motorized traffic comes to a halt. Levy’s data showed that nitrogen oxide – a greenhouse gas and major ingredient of smog – falls by up to 98 percent and to near-zero at some sites in Tel Aviv and in the small city of Modi’in.

I couldn’t find the answer as to why even secular Israelis stop driving on Yom Kippur, or when or why the cycling tradition originated. But the phenomenon prompted me to wonder: For non-observant Jews, who may choose not to fast or pray, and even for those who do, why not meditate upon the environmental significance of Yom Kippur, and how we might change our destructive habits for more than just one day?

I know that this is not the popular view of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Hebrew calendar; nor is it, paradoxically, the way that I have chosen to observe it myself. I love almost everything about Yom Kippur traditions: the beauty of the words and melody of Kol Nidre and other, special prayers; the morning Haftarah reading of the words of Isaiah, “to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke,” and the afternoon reading of the book of Jonah, the reluctant prophet rebuked by God for his lack of mercy toward the repentant people of Nineveh, “who do not know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well.”

Above all, I value the opportunity to look inwards and contemplate the ways in which I have fallen down, and the many ways in which I can improve.

The opportunity for contemplation of our environmental impact – on the earth, on other humans, as well as many beasts – seems well-suited to Yom Kippur. As science officer Dr. Yuval Arbel of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) reminded me, Yom Kippur is a day for “cheshbon nefesh,” or soul-searching, on which we not only apologize and ask forgiveness from family and friends, but also resolve to change our behavior in the future. Those resolutions, he suggests, can also include decisions to moderate our impact on the environment – for example, by reducing carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

Such resolutions seem even more important than ever this year, when “the tyranny of arrogance” toward the earth seems ever more obvious. Global emissions of greenhouse gases leapt to record levels in 2013, polar ice caps are melting at an unprecedented rate and extreme events, such as the brutal heat wave that struck Australia in 2013, are prominently linked to human-induced climate change.

On Yom Kippur, when the crowded metropolis experiences a day of collective calm, when driving is, by common concord, suspended – a phenomenon unknown anywhere else in the urban world – we can look around us and rejoice at the silencing of the traffic hum and the disappearance of earth-choking smog.

I’m reminded of another prayer, this one attributed to medieval Spanish poet Moses Ibn Ezra (1055-1135) that is sung during the closing Neilah service in many Sephardi communities: El Nora Alilah, in which we ask our awe-inspiring Creator to “find forgiveness for us in this closing hour.”

This is the hour when we wait, suspended in time, for the verdict from on high. This is the hour at which change is still possible. We are not yet out of time.

Josie Glausiusz is a journalist who writes about science and the environment for magazines including Nature, National Geographic, and Scientific American Mind. Her weekly column, On Science, appears online each Wednesday in The American Scholar.