(A sermon on Chukkat)
I love the Sunday comics. My wife laughs at me every week because as soon as the newspaper arrives, the first thing I do is open up to the comics. One comic, which is actually not among my favorites – is Family Circus. It tells about the daily life of a family with young children. And although it’s not a particularly funny comic strip, there is one motif that I think is brilliant. It’s the “Not Me” motif. Here’s how it works: Something has gone wrong. Maybe a lamp is broken, or a mess has been made. And when the parents ask who is responsible, all of the kids answer, “Not me!” And in the background, a shadowy figure called “Not Me” is seen escaping from the room.
I couldn’t stop thinking about “Not Me” as I read this week’s Torah portion. In Chukkat, our people are in the midst of the desert, doing what they do best – complaining. In Numbers 20, it says that after the death of Miriam:
The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD! Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
We all know what happens next – God tells Moses to speak to a rock and water would come out. But Moses – so angry with the people – instead hits the rock twice. And he is condemned to die before entering the Promised Land.
So I couldn’t help but ask, who’s really at fault here? Moses is right to be angry – he’s led the people through the desert for 40 years, given them food and water and shelter. And the minute something goes wrong, they all pull out the “Not Me” motif. “It’s your fault, Moses! You get us some water. How dare you lead us into this desert.” It’s probably the most self-centered, infantile response that the people could possibly have had in the situation.
It’s easy to condemn that bunch of slaves who couldn’t stop complaining about water, until you compare the way we tend behave around a certain other liquid that we can’t live without. At this moment, there are between 40 and 90 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Balls of tar are washing up on beaches from Florida to Louisiana, and the precious wetlands of my home state are being changed – probably forever – by oil.
And people are angry. Around the country, we are demanding answers. We’re angry at the government – Why weren’t the regulations tighter? We’re angry at the President – Why didn’t he respond more quickly? We’re angry at the Oil Executives – Why didn’t their safeguards prevent this and why can’t they seem to figure out how to stop it 2 months later? But there is one group that we don’t seem to be angry at, and that’s ourselves.
I recently say a political cartoon in the Observer. It showed a man ranting and raving about the oil spill – ranting about the wetlands, about Obama, about BP and the executives. And then it zoomed out, and you saw that while he was ranting, the man was filling up his SUV with gas. No matter how angry we are about the oil in our gulf, most of us have not changed the way we live. We’re trying to pull the “Not Me” motif.
Ranting and raving and boycotting may make us feel better, but it won’t solve the problem of what to do about the oil companies. As Sharon Begley wrote in Newsweek last week:
They’re drilling because of America’s—and the world’s—insatiable lust for oil. The U.S. consumes 800 million gallons of petroleum per week…. The only way to make this the last oil spill in the gulf is to make oil obsolete.
And she adds, only somewhat facetiously…
Shall we all hop on our bicycles, charge our plug-in hybrids with wind-generated electricity, swap out the heating oil or natural gas warming our homes for geothermal wells and passive solar?
Blogger Stephen Markley writes similarly:
We can’t go careening from “Drill, Baby, Drill!” to “No More Blood for Oil!” and expect anything to improve unless we take a hard look at our own behavior.
“Not Me” isn’t going to do us any good here. We will need policy changes; we will need cultural changes; we will need lifestyle changes. We will need for each of us to look at our own lives and consider the changes we might be able to make. Can we carpool? Can we raise our thermostats? Can we consider hybrid or electric for our next cars? Can we grow gardens and cut down on the fuel used in transporting vegetables across the world? Can we produce less waste and buy fewer things? Can we turn off our idling computers, unplug our phone chargers, and wean ourselves off of plastic water bottles and grocery bags? There are little things we can do to change the way we live and cut down on the Petroleum that we use.
This isn’t only our problem to fix, of course. We need help from from policymakers and corporate executives. But we have to at least send the message that we’re willing to do our part. Otherwise, we’re just complaining in the desert.
A Jew once came to his rabbi in tears, and said: “I’ve tried to repair the world but the world is still broken.” The rabbi said to the man: “Before you can change the world, you have to start with yourself. And after you’ve repaired yourself, repair your community. And after your community, repair your nation. And then, you will have begun to repair the world.”
It’s a long journey toward repairing the world. Much longer than 40 years in the desert; much longer than any one generation can handle on its own. But let’s see if we can’t begin that journey together now.
I was quoted briefly in this article in the Charlotte Observer this morning about religion and the environment:Believers say religion goes hand in hand with protecting the earth – CharlotteObserver.com. (Of course the interview was much longer, but at least I got a paragraph!)
We think of Environmentalism as a modern ethic, tied especially to climate change and the particular ecological crisis of the modern age, but caring for the earth is an ancient religious command tied to our stewardship of God’s earth. In Judaism, as least, we are supposed to view everything we have as a gift, and treat it with care, respect, and gratitude. That is the root of a number of Jewish practices:
- Saying blessings – Berachot are a kind of “permission” to use things that God has given us. When we say “Baruch atah…” we are obtaining the right to utilize things.
- Kashrut – Among other explanations, keeping kosher heightens our awareness of impact that our food has on us and the impact that that we (and our needs) have on the created world. “Eco-kashrut” – a melding of kosher and environmental thinking – is one way to apply these ancient ideas to a modern situation.
- Shaatnez – The seemingly nonsensical prohibition against wearing clothing of mixed wool and linen (animal & plant product) is actually rooted in the idea that God’s world is “Tov M’od – Very Good” and we’re not supposed to change it or mess with it.
We mess with the world plenty today, and many of us are not all that careful about wearing linen and wool at the same time. But we do believe that the natural world is Tov M’od, and it needs our help now more than ever to stay that way. The little things that we do can make a big difference, especially when we work together with others who believe similarly. It may be one of the few things that people of all religions – and people of no religion – can agree on.
I consider myself an environmentalist. I write about the earth, think about the earth, care about the earth. I wrote my rabbinical thesis partly on Judaism and the environment, and I helped found en environmental advocacy committee in my synagogue. I believe that rethinking our relationship to the earth is THE great challenge and THE most important task of our generation.
So I was sorely disappointed in myself recently when I realized that I’m not actually doing much for the environment. Sure, my favorite pastime is walking around the house turning off lights that the kids have left on, but that’s mostly a money-saving activity. I drive a gas car (albeit a pretty small one); I use the A/C and heat a little more than I probably should; I don’t compost; I’m usually too lazy to unplug appliances at night; and I am a terrible gardener.
I don’t want to be an environmentalist only in name. So this summer, we are doing something about it. We are joining a CSA – a Community Supported Agriculture program. It’s a small step, but it’s something. I am proud to say that Temple Beth El will be sponsoring this program for the first time this year, and that it will allow local Charlotteans to eat local Charlottean produce for 16 weeks of the summer. The pickup is at Shalom Park, so it’s convenient. (Charlotteans, let me know if you’re interested and I’ll get you details. It’s filling up quickly!)
I’m excited about this for two reasons. First, because it’s a tangible effort to do something green. Second, because it will – I hope – increase the variety of produce that our family eats, and force us to be creative with our cooking in a way that is in concert with the earth’s natural cycles. I like the idea of eating local, seasonal vegetables – not only because of the carbon footprint issue, but because I like the idea of being a little more aware of where my food comes from, and of my relationship to the earth.
This Shabbat is Tu Bishevat, the Jewish “New Year of the Trees.” Although it is often celebrated as a Kabbalistic festival, it is also a powerful reminder that Judaism is – at its core- an agricultural way of life. Our ancestors were farmers, and all of our holidays are agricultural in their origins. (Before Pesach celebrated the Exodus from Egypt, it was the beginning of the Spring harvest season.) In our ancient agrarian society, Tu Bishevat was the day in which you began to count the new year for purposes of tithing of fruits; that’s why the trees need a New Year.
Nowadays most of us don’t grow anything, and we don’t really even know where our food comes from. That’s a tragedy. I’m as guilty as the next guy, and this CSA isn’t really going to change that very much. But maybe it will push me in the right direction.
Now I just have to get myself to turn off those darned appliances …
What are you doing for the earth?
[This post was featured as a guest blog by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, as part of its Green Table. Just Table Initiative. Thanks for noticing! -MS]
This is disturbing! Did you know there is a garbage dump the size of Texas in the middle of the Pacific? According to an article this morning,
Light bulbs, bottle caps, toothbrushes, Popsicle sticks and tiny pieces of plastic, each the size of a grain of rice, inhabit the Pacific garbage patch, an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas.
Apparently, over the course of decades, the waterways have been naturally consolidating all of our trash – especially plastic – into huge and still-growing areas in 5 of the world’s oceans. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the environment, so I’m no longer shocked by new studies or statistics on the earth. But this shocked me. It’s so obvious – so plainly in front of our faces. You can’t see global warming; you can’t really see greenhouse gases (though you can see their longterm effects), but you can see huge islands of trash in the ocean, leaking toxic chemicals and altering the makeup of the ocean’s ecosystems. If there was ever solid evidence that humans are having a detrimental effect on the earth, here it is.
What does this have to do with Judaism? Well, Jewish tradition has a very strong ecological ethic at its core, born out of some of the very first verses of the Torah:
וירא אלהים את כל אשר עשה והנה טוב מאד
God looked upon everything that God had made, and saw that it was very good. (Genesis 1:31)
To our tradition, “very good” means that there is divine wisdom and order in the universe. Even for the non-Creationists among us, this resonates, since we can see the beauty of ecosystems and food chains that seem to work together seemlessly. The world is a beautiful place – a kind of well-oiled machine – that continues to astound, surprise, and humble us with its power and its diversity.
So what does that mean for us? It means that the Jewish way to be in the world is to appreciate it for its wisdom and beauty, and to conserve and preserve it as best we can.
- Appreciating the world, Jewish-style. One way we accomplish this is through saying blessings over food and drink. We don’t often stop to think about those “Baruch atahs,” but they are really a way of recognizing that everything we have is a gift, that we should stop of ask permission before making use of the world’s resources.
- Conserve and Preserve. The Torah says that humans were placed on earth “L’shomrah ul’olvdah – to care for the land and to work/use it.” We are supposed to utilize the world’s resources in the context of preserving them for others and for future generations. Among other things, the Talmud declares that we are forbidden to waste things that can be used, that humans are not permitted to destroy a species, and that we should take care not to pollute land, air, or water in ways that would cause health problems to others.
Judaism has been teaching for centuries that it is our responsibility to care for the planet. We’re only now getting the message, and change is coming slowly. Our recycling bins and compost bins and hybrid cars are born out of Jewish tradition.
But they sure seem small compared to a Texas-sized trash heap in the ocean.