Sunday, April 23, 2023

Midnight in the Garden of Eden Jewish visions of climate and change. Can sustainability become the New Normal? (Earth Week talk at Interfaith Council's "For the Life of the World: Religious Responses to Climate Change" program)

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Let’s begin this exploration of Jewish views on climate change by going back to the very beginning.  When we think of Adam and Eve, whose very names remind us of our connections to the earth. The word Adam means earth, after all, and Adam and Adama are virtually the same word, like soul and soil.  And the name Eve comes from the word for life.           

A midrash states that when the first humans, on the day of their creation, saw the setting of the sun, they were terrified. They said, “Oy Vey! OMG! It’s because we have sinned that the world around us is becoming dark; the universe will now become again void and without form — this then is the death to which we have been sentenced from Heaven!”

So they sat up all night fasting and weeping. When dawn broke, however, they breathed a sigh of relief and they understood and said: “This is the usual course of the world!”

From the very first sunset, as darkness enveloped them and Adam and Eve were only a few hours old, they experienced the first pangs of Jewish guilt in recorded history. They sensed that they had somehow let God down, that this darkness thing was somehow their fault, that they had already messed up the marvelous gift that they had been given.

The Midrash elaborates - God leads the humans around the Garden of Eden, God says, "Look at My works. See how beautiful they are, how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you."

That’s what God tells Adam and Eve.  When giving the world’s first garden tour, they are warned:  This is a beautiful world.  But this is it.  Don’t mess this up.  Because if you do, there could come a time when that sun will not rise at the end of a cold, dark night.  And if that happens, it will not be my fault, God says, it will be yours.          

And as if to underscore that point, God creates a sign a few generations later, following the great flood of Noah.  The rainbow is the symbol of the covenant that God makes with humanity; that God will never again bring about the kind of massive natural disaster that could destroy humanity.  The implied message is that we not only are the earth’s custodians – but if we break it, we own it.  If we can’t make things work on this beautiful planet, we have only ourselves to blame.

The midrash is a folktale of course – it tells us less about actual goings on in the long -ago Garden than it teaches deep-seeded Jewish values for our time.  And the punch line is that we have messed it up.  The punch line is that the onus is on us.  We broke it, we own it.

That climate change is real and a product of human action, is now incontrovertible, undeniable, unquestionable, categorical, absolute, incontestable and conclusive.

Wherever you go on this earth you see it.

In Israel just last week, a freak late April deluge resulted in flash flooding in the Negev, and an Israeli couple was washed away in the currents and swept to their deaths.  This is now a rather common occurrence.   Until recently, there would never be a heavy rainstorm this far into April.

We are Adam – on that first night.  We look around and ask, “What have we done?” What is wrong with this picture?

In one of the special sections of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we read how God remembered Noah and his family in the ark, and we hear the refrain, “v’zacharti et briti.”  God remembers the covenant.  Long before Sinai, well before Abraham, the rainbow was the first covenant – the first time where God and humanity entered into a contractual relationship.  And it was over caring for the planet. The Great Flood was supposed to be the last time God would cause such unfathomable destruction – the last time we could pin such a thing on God.  The appearance of that rainbow marked a key moment in the human story – the instant when God turned the wheel over to us.  That was the deal. That was the brit that God pledged to remember.

If you read the text of Genesis 9, whether you are a rabbi versed in midrash or a Bible thumping preacher who takes the passage literally, there should be no disagreement at all.  Noah’s flood was God’s doing.  But the text makes it clear as can be, that subsequent Super Storms would not be.  Run of the mill thunderstorms – OK.  They are truly what rabbis and insurance companies would call “acts of God.”

But not what we endured just over a decade ago: Superstorm Sandy. 

God did not flood out the New York Subways.  God did not submerge the roller coaster on the Jersey shore.  Hurricanes that follow the natural order of things, the kind we had until the mid-20th century, those are acts of God.  Mega storms that defy all historical precedent, those are on us.

Yes.  As outrageous as it sounds, from a Jewish theological viewpoint, we caused Sandy. We broke the earth. And we have to fix it.

The costs of inaction are undeniable. The lines of scientific evidence grow only stronger and more numerous. And the window of time remaining to act is growing smaller: delay could mean that global warming becomes “locked in.”

If Adam couldn’t sleep a wink thinking he had messed it all up, because of a simple sunset, how should we feel right now?

Not good.  And polls show that increasing numbers of Americans, from all across the political spectrum, agree.  But still, not enough is being done.

Hurricane Katrina should have been it.  But somehow, it wasn’t.  The tsunamis in south Asia and Japan should have been the last straw.  When Japanese soccer balls are washing up in Washington State and motorcycles are coming ashore in British Columbia, that’s got to make us stop and think.  The ever-increasing ferocity and frequency of crippling blizzards and cataclysmic tornadoes; that should have done it.  

But if that wasn’t enough, surely Sandy should have been.

In the past, when I considered writing a sermon about sustainability, I worried about two things.  One that it would be too political for people.  Well, in this part of the country, Sandy changed that.  The political argument is - or at least should be - over.  

And two, that climate change is irrelevant to people’s day to day lives.  “Heaven can wait. We’ve got other priorities.”

Maybe Heaven can wait – but the earth can’t.  It matters to each of us.  It reaches to the core of our being.

That’s  the New Normal.  As if it’s normal and acceptable to look at revised maps and it looks like New Jersey’s coastline has gone on a diet.  In parts of Staten Island a year after Sandy there was still no there there.   The New Normal carries with it the expectation that we will suffer week-long power outages at least twice a year, “The New Normal” is not a normal that we can accept, even as we are being told we have no choice but to accept it.

Increasingly, when I leave my house and walk down the driveway to get the morning paper, I sense a very unfriendly world around me.  There are more and more occasions when I feel as Adam and Eve must have felt on that first night, scared and unsure, listening to the howling winds and seeing the gathering clouds and wondering what will come next.

For just about all of us, there was nothing scarier than Sandy.  Sandy felt like a return to primordial chaos.  But as with Elijah at Mt. Sinai, God was not in the howling winds or crashing waves but in the still small voice of compassion that beats in each of our hearts, which led to immeasurable acts of kindness, of people sharing their homes, their showers, their wi-fi – neighbors loving neighbors.  We fed and warmed and powered-up about 100 people here during Sandy.  At one point, one congregant turned to me and said, “This feels so right.  This is what a congregation is all about.  Can we do this more often?”

I turned to her and said, “Unfortunately, I think we will have to.”

The Hebrew word for wind is ruach, which also means "spirit."  In Judaism, the meteorological and spiritual are deeply intertwined.  The experience of a storm is a profoundly spiritual one, even in our day.  Perhaps especially in our day, since, we can pinpoint well in advance what will happen, yet we are completely powerless to stop it.  The weather is one of the few things left that reduces us to mush in the face of its power.  It makes us realize how insignificant we really are.

Except that we’re not.

We’re not insignificant here.  Because we can make a difference.  We can turn the tide, in a very literal sense.  If we each take action, some of the damage of climate change can be reversed, or at least slowed.  Roxbury Road does not have to become beachfront property.  And from a Jewish perspective, what is most important is that we can fulfill God’s call to Adam and Eve by preserving our planet and we could save lives.

Feeling small is a cop out.  Being helpless is a crutch.  Not wanting to bother fighting for a sustainable planet because it is politically controversial for some inexplicable reason, well that is inexcusable.

There is no reason why sustainability can’t become the New Normal too.   The Torah states that our iniquities have an impact on the 3rd and 4th generations.  Our children will bear the burden for the decisions we make today.

In the words of environmental activist Nigel Savage, “You could argue that the Jewish people have been thinking about sustainable energy ever since God spoke to Moses out of a bush that burned but was never consumed. Moses was perhaps the first environmentalist: He recycled his staff into a snake, got Egypt to turn off all its lights for three days, and convinced an entire nation to go on a 40-year nature hike.  The Maccabees took a small cruse of oil and stretched it out for eight miraculous nights.”          

If Moses could do it, so can we.  If the Maccabees could do it, so must we.

How astounding it is that the Torah derived its basic value of conservation, the mitzvah of Bal Tashchit, from of all things, the rules of warfare.  Deuteronomy states that when besieging a city we should not cut down trees (“for is the tree a human that you would besiege it too?”).  It’s fascinating also to witness how the rabbis broadened that law’s scope to address all sorts of gratuitous destruction in civilian life.  This mitzvah is particularly relevant as we witness all kinds of wanton ruination perpetrated in our own societies.

The Torah got it right. The rabbis got it right. Now WE have to get it right.

So we must live in harmony with nature – and with our own human nature, conquering that side of us that wishes to conquer all that is around us.

This week is not only Earth Day, it is Yom HaShoah, and I see a close connection between the themes of the two commemorations. Years ago, I visited the site of Dachau, the concentration camp just outside Munich. I say that I visited the "site" of Dachau, because it wasn't Dachau. Yes, the name was there, right next to the infamous inscription, "Arbeit Macht Frei." Yes, the barbed wire was there, and the barracks, remarkably well preserved, and the ovens. Yes, there were memorials to the dead, marking mass graves of nameless victims. But it wasn't Dachau.

Dachau was hell and this wasn't it. There were flowers at this place, surrounded by fresh-cut grass. I could hear birds. I even saw a butterfly, which confirmed for me that this was not Dachau, for the famous Holocaust poem tells us that there were no butterflies in the death camps.

If this was not hell, then what was it, and why did it suddenly look so lovely, so natural? Was this a cruel trick by God, a vain attempt to reclaim that which God had ceded to the beast in humanity in 1933? Or was this God's apology, this smattering of forget-me-nots and daisies embedded in cemetery sod, a plea for forgiveness, too little and too late?

Or maybe God was hoping, beyond hope, to give Jews one last chance to regain the illusion of an attainable paradise on earth, a thin veneer of April hope covering the reality of August hell.

"Here," God is telling us, "I can't give you redemption. All I can give you is this spring-like illusion. Let it ease the pain of your wanderings. Take it."

On Yom HaShoah we say to God that this plan, however comforting and kind, can't possibly work. We reject the illusion. We have seen hell first-hand; it won't be forgotten. Time will not heal this wound. If renewal is possible following the Holocaust, a God who was absent during it cannot bring it about. God, who could not save the Jews, will also not redeem the earth. If renewal and hope are at all possible, only human beings can facilitate it.

Anyone can grow a few forget-me-nots.

There are two seemingly contradictory verses in Psalms: Psalm 24 tells us, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," while we read in Psalm 115, "The heavens are the Lord's heavens, but the earth has been given to humankind." This discrepancy can be resolved by drawing from it this lesson: Once upon a time, the earth was the Lord's, but since the Holocaust, it is ours and ours alone.

Before the Shoah, when the earth still belonged to God, we, who had once experienced Paradise first-hand, could only imagine Eden's opposite. As David Grossman wrote in his masterful novel, "See Under: Love," "We always pictured hell with boiling lava and pitch bubbling in barrels," until the Nazis came along, "showing us how paltry our pictures were."

Now, nothing is left to the imagination. The earth is ours and we are utterly responsible for all that happens to it; all of it, the people, and the flowers, too. Those flowers at Dachau have become a symbol of God's ultimate helplessness and our ultimate responsibility. We still pray, though no longer for divine intervention, but in gratitude for the basic tools provided us: warm summer days, rain in its season, the miraculous ecosystem. We look to heaven for resolve but little else, for "the earth has been given to humankind."

And the blood of our brother Abel is screaming from that very earth. And his father and mother, Adam and Eve, are once again shaking with fear.

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