Op-Ed: Ancient Torah Speaks to Today’s Climate Crisis


Lessons from this week's Torah reading and other relevant biblical sources apply to today's climate change issues, writes the director of the Shalom Center.

This week’s Torah reading from Leviticus sets forth the Torah’s most explicit regimen for healing the Earth from human overuse. 
It makes sure the Earth gets to rest in every seventh year — a teaching that should speak to us today, as we move deeper into the planetary climate crisis that has been caused by human overworking of the Earth. 
The Torah calls this year Shabbat Shabbaton and Shmita, Hebrew for “release.” In the Shmita year, which comes every seven years, both the Earth and human communities are released from economic coercion.
This Shmita year is the first during which there is such broad public concern about the climate crisis.
The passage in Leviticus 25-27, in parshah Behar/Behukotai,  arose from an indigenous people of shepherds and farmers, who understood their relationship with the Holy One Who breathes all life, centered on their sacred relationship with their land.
Our own generation, facing a catastrophic crisis in the Earth-earthling relationship, can wisely go back to biblical Judaism for guidance on how to apply an indigenous people’s wisdom to the planet as a whole.
Torah first signals this perspective in a powerful parable — the Eden story. It begins with the birth of Adam from adamah, the human earthling from Mother Earth. Then God speaks on behalf of reality, saying to the human race: “Before you is great abundance. Eat in joy! And eat with self-restraint: There is one tree whose fruit you should abstain from.” 
But the human race does not restrain itself. So the abundance vanishes. History unfolds in scarcity, as human beings work every day with the sweat pouring down their faces, in order to wring barely enough food from the land.
The parable points to modern-day occurrences — for example, to the story of the Gulf of Mexico five years ago, when BP refused to restrain itself and brought death upon its workers and disaster to the Gulf.
Yet the Torah also teaches the great tikkun of human history. Pharaoh’s tyranny brings plagues upon the Earth, but his power dissolves into the sea, and then — only then — comes the first reversal of Eden’s disaster. 
When the people bellyache about the scarcity of food in the wilderness, YHWH/Breath of Life brings forth astonishing abundance. There falls a flaky food the people have never seen. They call it mahn-hu — “what’s that?” — and we know it as “manna.” And it comes with Shabbat, one day of joyful restfulness that is the first hint that toilsome labor need not govern all the future.
How can this story be of use when the people cross the Jordan and begin to cultivate a land? Here we come to the sabbatical year of release — Shmita. Shepherds quickly learn that they must rhythmically move their flocks to new pastures; otherwise, the sheep will gobble up the grass, destroying it and themselves.
Farmers cannot move in space. So they learn to move in time. They let the entire land lie fallow for one year of every seven. Mother Earth herself, says Leviticus 25, is entitled to a restful Shabbat. 
In the very next chapter, we are warned what will happen if we refuse to let Earth make Shabbat. The Earth will rest, regardless. It will rest upon our heads: There will be famines, plagues, floods, drought, and the people will become refugees in exile. That warning is echoed by our modern ecologists. For about 200 years, the most powerful institutions and cultures of the human species have refused to let the Earth make Shabbat. 
By pouring carbon dioxide and methane into our planet's air, these institutions have disturbed the sacred balance in which we breathe in what the trees breathe out, and the trees breathe in what we breathe out. The upshot: global scorching. 
So now we must let our planet rest from overwork. For biblical Israel, this was the central question in our relationship to the Holy One. For us and for our children and their children, this is once again the central question of our lives and of our God.
Our congregations should reshape prayers, festivals, Torah readings and life-cycle events to celebrate the more-than-human life around us and create support groups of recovering carbon addicts.
We must move our money from spending that helps the modern Carbon Pharaohs that are bringing plagues upon our planet to spending that helps to heal it by: Using wind-born rather than coal-fired electricity to light our homes and congregations; shifting our bank accounts to community banks and credit unions that invest in nearby neighborhoods; moving our endowment funds from supporting deadly carbon to supporting stable, profitable, life-giving enterprises; and insisting that our tax money no longer subsidize big oil interests but instead subsidize the swift deployment of renewable energy.
This week, a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, signed by 250 rabbis, was issued to coincide with this week’s Torah portion. The letter, a kind of Jewish analogue of the Papal Encyclical on Climate expected to be published this summer, points toward a serious transformative renewal of the ancient Jewish concern for the Earth.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow founded and directs the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center (theshalomcenter.org). 



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