Torah's Commandments for Earth Day, 2021
Torah’s Commands for Earth Day 2021, by Gail Albert, PhD
Earth Day always occurs while our weekly Torah readings are in the book of Leviticus, which in Hebrew is named Vayikra “And God called.” Often we are reading the double parshot of Tazria-Metzorah, both of which focus on a kind of skin disease that also contaminates one’s clothing and one’s house. As in all of Vayikra, the literal has always been understood to be metaphor as well, and in this case the skin disease represents a spiritual weakness. Most often we have heard of it as referring to the specific weakness of gossip or bad-mouthing, lashon harah, and certainly bad-mouthing contaminates the whole environment, as we have so clearly seen in our nation these last years.
But more generally, the rabbis have understood it to be a kind of narcissism, of being too full of oneself. Too focused on “me, me, me,” ignoring the Torah’s insistence on “we, we, we.” Ignoring the Torah’s insistence that our individual actions always occur within a larger community. Ignoring the basic command to this community, at the center of Leviticus, to love your neighbor as yourself, or as is said even more often in Torah, to love the stranger as yourself.
Which brings me to the topic for this blog, which is what we can do in the face of climate change and the crisis it creates around social justice, issues in which our private actions—including who we vote for--inevitably affect the larger world.
Until recently, environmentalists were in a different group from those seeking racial justice, or justice for the poor and the powerless. Just as we Jews form a group focused on action around social justice, and however much we love the earth, have not in general made environmental action an equal priority.
However, we are learning more and more that the two are interwoven.
As sea levels rise with climate change, Bangladesh, one of the poorest nations in the world, is flooded. So is the Mekong delta.
As glaciers retreat and disappear, the Himalayas will no longer fill the ten rivers (such as the Indus, the Ganges, the Yangtze) that 1.3 billion people depend on for their water: for drinking, for washing, for crops. We already see changes.
In central America, we now have a Dry Corridor that runs down from southern Mexico into Panama, and parts of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. Here, years of drought have already become normal, alternating with torrential rains that destroy what crops there are, along with hurricanes that destroy everything.
Whatever the other issues in these countries around crime and corruption, people also have no food. In 2020 the border patrol reported to President Trump that many reaching our borders are fleeing starvation. Many are sending their children alone only because they don’t have the money to pay smugglers for the adults as well. Sending their children so that they at least might live.
But when environmentalists begin searching for relevant Jewish teachings, we are surprised by how little there seems to be.
Most of us know that in Genesis the Divine Mystery, God, tells Adam that he is to serve the earth and protect it. (Gen: 2:15) And in the Garden earlier in Genesis (Gen. 1:29) the humans are told to eat of the plants and the trees of the garden. So we seem to be vegetarians at that point. But there was not much more in the way of quotes, particularly not in Torah.
And then I took a wonderful course with Rabbi Yedidya Sinclair at Hazon.org.
And in this course, it suddenly became clear that the Torah is all about climate catastrophe and what we need to do to avoid it:
As we leave the Garden, we are told that we are going to have to work the earth if we are to have food to eat. If we are to survive.
And then in the next parshah, comes the Flood. All the earth and its crops under water.
And then famine. Famine that sends Abraham to Egypt where irrigation from the Nile will save his family in a time when the rains have not come.
And volcanic eruption, or something like, it that buries Sodom and Gomorrah.
And then with Isaac, yet another famine and another trek to Egypt.
And then a period without disaster for Jacob as he raises his family. But soon we have Joseph in Egypt, and a 7-year famine about to begin that will affect not only Joseph’s homeland of Canaan but all of Egypt itself. Famine in which everyone would starve if not for Joseph’s understanding of Pharaoh’s dream.
And then we get to Exodus where we are simply dependent on God’s loving-kindness to send us mannah to eat each day.
In Torah we are a herding and farming people, totally dependent on God’s bounty to send us rain; enough rain at the right time, and not too much rain either. So we have harvest festivals and at Sukkot we harvest and get ready to plant again, for the spring barley crop—if the rains come as we need. And we live in shelters, sukkot, that are open to the wind and the weather, so that we remember how fragile life is, how utterly dependent we are. In R. Sinclair’s course at Hazon, we were also told that Israel is in a weird climate zone, like only one other—in the middle of the ocean—in which weather has always been particularly unpredictable. The Torah doesn’t need lines to quote: the Torah’s entire context is one of potential climate catastrophe.
Of course, back then, we had no control at all on the weather. All we could do was pray. And we believed, and the prophets told us over and over, that when the rains failed, or there was too much and the fields were flooded, it was because we had sinned. And most of this sinning was in accumulating unneeded wealth, in favoring the rich, in ignoring the poor. So we are back to where we started. The climate and social justice are interwoven in Jewish understanding.
The most important prayer in our service is the Shema, which Torah tells us to pray twice each day.
Shema yisra’el, Adonay elohaynu, Adonai echod.
Listen O-Godwrestlers, Creation Unfolding, our God, all is one.
And then the v’ahavta, also part of our service. But then comes a part which we seldom read: where we are offered blessing or curse, life or death. If we listen to the voice we heard at Mt. Sinai, if we guard the earth and love our neighbor and the stranger, our crops will be bountiful. And if we don’t, the earth will fail us and we will be destroyed.
“It came to pass, and will again,
that if you truly listen
to the voice of THE ETERNAL ONE, your God,
being sure to do whatever has been asked of you today,
THE ONE, your God, will make of you a model
for all nations of the earth,
and there will come upon you all these blessing,
as you listen to the call of THE ABUNDANT ONE, your God:
Blessed be you in the city,
blessed be you upon the field
Blessed be the fruit of your womb,
the fruit of your land, the fruit of your cattle,
The calving of your oxen, and the lambing of your sheep.
Blessed be your basket and your kneading-trough.
Blessed be you when you come home,
and blessed be you when you go forth.
See, I have placed in front of you today
both life and good, both death and ill,
commanding you today to love The BOUNDLESS ONE, your God,
To walk in ways I have ordained,
Keeping the commandments, laws, and judgments,
so that you survive and multiply.
THE BOUNTIFUL, your God, will bless you
on the land you are about to enter and inherit.
But if your heart should turn away,
and you not heed, and go astray,
and you submit to other gods and serve them,
I declare to you today that you shall be
destroyed completely: you shall not live out
a great expanse of days upon the land
that you now cross the Jordan to possess.
I call as witness concerning you
both heaven and earth, both life and death,
that I have placed in front of you
a blessing and a curse.
Choose life, that you may live,
You and your seed!”
We tend to leave this out our services because we don’t really believe that climate events are punishment. But we do understand cause and effect: consequences. And the verses can easily be read with this understanding. We are in a different position from the ancients because we know just what we humans have done in terms of energy use to bring about climate change AND we have the power to ameliorate that change, across the whole globe. We are not limited to God’s will.
But the issues remain the same as in Torah and in these parshot of tazria/metzorah. Our actions, actions that seem private, affect the environment outside of us. The oil we burn to keep our houses warm and to drive our cars, scorches the planet and starves Guatemalan children. Leaves Tibetan villages w/o water as the glaciers disappear. Floods the crops of Bangladesh farmers as sea level rises. And on the larger scale, the people we privately vote into office determine what our government will do or not do.
So do we allow ourselves to see each human being, as each made equally in god’s image, each one as important as ourselves? Do we act to protect not only the earth that we have been asked to guard, but the innocent animals upon it, and the people?
In this time, when so many religious voices in this country deny the reality of climate change, we need to make known that we as Jews see protecting the planet and those who live upon it a religious and spiritual mitzvah, answering the Divine command to choose life and to choose justice.
Please stand up for life. Contribute to organizations that are working for climate change, make change in your own life as you are able, like eating less or no meat, converting to electric power through solar panels or a community farm, changing the cars you drive.
And work to make our larger community our allies.
Vote for candidates who support the changes we need at the local, state, and federal levels. Campaign for them. Help get out the vote everywhere for these candidates.
Online petitions have relatively little power. But a letter or call or comment on a legislator’s Facebook page does. Legislators want to know what their constituents care about: many want to do the right thing and most also want to get reelected. So go to Hazon’s site for a list of organizations such as Jewish Earth Alliance, Jewish Climate Action Network, Dayenu, Citizens’ Climate Lobby. These send out action alerts and give you templates to follow for making your calls or sending your letters or comments.