Dear Rabbis and Spiritual Leaders,
With each passing day, and each new scientific report, it is becoming increasingly clear that the climate crisis is and will continue to be the most pressing moral issue of our time. I know you, like me, feel a keen sense of obligation and responsibility to care for and protect the natural world and to ensure the safety and survival of those who are most vulnerable to the negative impacts of climate change. As rabbis, we have the ability to speak up and speak out on this issue. As Jews, we have a tradition that demands this of us and inspires us to care for all of God’s creation. And as humans, we have a vested interest in doing this work speedily, for ourselves, for future generations, and for the more than human world.
That is why I am writing to you today, to introduce you to a new project of Hazon, called the Brit Hazon. This initiative aims at inspiring thousands of Jews from all across the country and world to commit to small and achievable environmental actions in their own lives. Participants can choose one of six paths of sustainable change, and will be supported by Hazon over a six-week period to realize critical and affirming results. As part of this framework, participants will also be encouraged to donate their time and/or money to, and lift their voices for, environmental causes. The Brit Hazon will be a central focus of Hazon Detroit’s over the next year and beyond, and we hope you will join us.
Our first main ask of you is that you teach and/or preach on the climate and introduce your communities to the Brit Hazon over the next two weeks. As you know, the next two Shabbaton – Yitro and Mishpatim – contain the paramount brit/covenantal moment of the Jewish people as they stand at Sinai and accept the Torah. For this reason, and with our communities just coming off of Tu B’Shvat, we thought this would be the perfect time to launch this project locally.
To help you participate, we have put together some resources for you! Below, you will find additional framing and information about “the Brit,” as well as Jewish sources and materials on the project, its connection to covenant, and its connection to these two parshiyot. We hope you find these sources useful that when you preach/teach on the subject, you encourage your communities to join the Brit!
They say that we all stood at Sinai and received God’s Torah, including future generations. We hope that you all will participate in the Brit in this way, for ourselves and future generations. Should you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
-R’ Nate DeGroot, Hazon Detroit Associate Director, Spiritual & Program Director
The idea of “brit,” or “covenant,” is central to Jewish history, thought, and theology. To many, the presence of a covenantal relationship between the Jewish God and the characters of the Torah was a revolutionary idea for its time, and remains one today. As opposed to any other kind of relationship with God that we might have had – one of strict hierarchy, total authority, or unthinking faith – our God demands that we be in relationship, or partnership. In the words of Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks, “A brit is made when free agents, respecting one another’s freedom, bind themselves by a mutual promise to work together, to be loyal to one another, and to achieve together what neither can achieve alone.” Still, by today’s standards, this level of dependence, or hevrutah, is a bold and daring concept.
Examples in the Torah
Throughout our Torah, there are four key moments when God enters into a covenant.
Noah and The Flood
The first time is following the story of Noah and flood, when God declares, “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”
As we know, God displays a rainbow in the sky after declaring these words, and that image becomes the symbol of God’s original covenant.
Q: In the context of environmental sustainability, we must consider how our actions may or may not uphold God’s covenant. God promises not to destroy humanity and the natural world, but are we able and willing to commit to that, as well?
Abraham and Sarah
The second Divine covenant involves our original patriarch and matriarch – Abraham and Sarah. In one place (Gen 15:18-21), our ancestors are promised a particular swath of land to be passed down to their descendants as part of God’s covenant. In another (Gen 17:1-14), God promises to make their descendants numerous (2, 4, 6) filled with many nations (4, 6) and kings (6). God promises that the covenant will be for all time (7) and that it will result in land holding for future generations (8). In return, Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants must “walk in God’s ways” (1) and circumcise all male babies (10-13).
Q: What might it mean to “walk in God’s ways,” when it comes to climate and sustainability? What is the significance of land being promised to us as part of the Divine covenant, recognizing that elsewhere (Gen 2:15), we’re told we must protect and serve the sanctity of land?
The third covenant of the Torah is made in the wilderness at Sinai, when the “mixed multitude” of escapees from Egypt receive God’s Torah and become the Jewish people. The text says: “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine. (Ex 19:5). After hearing all that God is demanding of the people – the Ten Commandments, and more – the people reply, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and understand” (24:7). At that point, “Moses took the blood [of the offerings] and dashed it on the people and said, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD now makes with you concerning all these commands’” (24:8).
Q: Why do you think God tells the people that “all the earth is [God’s]”? If we take this idea seriously, how does that inform a contemporary environmental ethic?
The final covenant of the Torah happens in the book of Numbers, and it involves the Priests. In this covenant, God promises, “All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the LORD I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the LORD for you and for your offspring as well” (Numbers 18.19).
Q: What is the significance of this covenant focusing on agricultural products/livestock (sacred gifts), and natural resources (salt)?
Bite Sized Pieces
Before Yitro intervened, Moshe sat from morning until night hearing and adjudicating cases. He had little time to do anything else, and the effect, Yitro saw, would ultimately damage both Moshe and the people: “You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” Instead, Yitro recommended a decentralized system wherein numerous community or local judges would rule on smaller issues, with judges overseeing communities of decreasingly large sizes.
Reflection: The climate crisis is huge and overwhelming. It is not upon us to complete the task, or to do everything at once. The Brit Hazon supports individuals in picking one thing to focus on for six weeks. Like the system of Moses and the judges, by each of us doing our part, together, our collective impact will be great and we won’t burn out.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading (Shemot 18:1), we’re told “וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ, Then Yitro heard.” This seems like pretty passive language, like Yitro picked up the morning paper and happened to see a headline about the Israelites leaving Egypt. Rashi, however, completely changes the focus of Yitro’s character here. Quoting the Talmud (Zevahim 116a), he asks, “What is it that he heard that prompted him to come?” In Rashi’s reframing, the focus shifts from Yitro passively hearing to Yitro choosing to act on what he heard.
Reflection: We have heard the scientists tell us, that in order to avert the very worst of climate catastrophe, we must act now and we must act boldly for the climate. Still, it can be difficult to actually do anything about it! The Brit Hazon is set up to help us take that first or next step – and to support us along the way – as we act on behalf of nature, climate, and future generations.
Don’t Approach the Mountain
And you shall set bounds for the people around you, saying: ‘Take care of yourselves, so that you go not up on the mountain, or even touch the border of it, for anyone who touches the mountain is liable to be put to death. (Exodus 19:12)
The warning is clear, at least to me: If we are not ready, nor willing, to take responsibility for the great planet on which we are blessed to live, then we are also not ready to partake of it. Put simply, if we don’t accept our responsibility for this planet and its vast beauty and resources, we don’t deserve them. Casual observation suggests that this is the case.
Reflection: As humans, we have had such an outsized and unprecedented impact on the earth in such a remarkably short amount of time, that according to many scientists, a new geological epoch called the “anthropocene” – the first new epoch since the last glacial period ended 10,000 years ago – has had to be created in order to adequately describe and put into perspective the destructive influence us humans have had on the natural world in just a couple hundred years. The Brit Hazon helps us consider our relationship to nature and supports us in engaging with the natural world responsibly, respectfully, and by honoring its boundaries and needs.
Visioning the Future
In Parshat Yitro, the Israelites reach the foot of Mount Sinai, and God instructs Moses to tell the people, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians; and I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me” (Exodus 19:4). Again, the usual way of understanding this is that “to Me” meant to “God’s mountain,” i.e. Mount Sinai. But an ancient Aramaic version of the Torah (Targum Yerushalmi) reads it differently, saying that on the night of the Exodus:
“I carried you from Pelusium (i.e. Goshen) on clouds, as if they were eagles’ wings, to the place of the Temple, where you offered the Paschal sacrifice; and that night, I brought you back to Egypt and from there brought you to this place (Sinai) to receive My teaching.”
It seems to me that this ancient “tale within a tale” holds within it a deep insight into how worthy national goals are to be achieved. A people cannot simply do nation-building from scratch. It must first have a vivid vision — one might well call it an experience — of its moral and political goals.
Reflection: “Brit” means “covenant” and “Hazon” means “vision.” This amazing translation of the pivotal moment at Sinai reminds us of the importance of constructing a vision of an ideal future, in which to orient our covenant and commitment. So often we feel we must act more sustainably, or do climate justice work, to avert the worst of what might come. This teaching inspires us to orient towards a positive future. What’s the Promised Land that we want to live in? What does it look like, feel like, taste like, or smell like to live in a sustainable future. As we embark on the Brit Hazon, let’s center the positive vision of the world as it can be!
Tur HaAroch on Shemot 19.8
ויענו כל העם יחדו, “All the people answered simultaneously, etc.
Moses had called all the leaders, the judges, the law enforcers, etc., in the presence of all the people and had submitted to them all that G’d had told him, and had offered them the choice whether to accept all these commandments. Seeing the commandments concerned the entire nation, acceptance was also required by the entire nation. The people did not even wait until Moses had posed the question to them if they were willing to accept all this, but the Torah testifies that they interrupted Moses to indicate their ready acceptance
Reflection: The work for climate sustainability is, by definition, collective. It will require all of us to pitch in and do our part. And since the urgency is great, it will also require that we all jump in right away! Before the question is even done being posed to us, let’s accept the challenge and begin the Brit Hazon!
The ultimate moment of glory for the Jewish people — their greatest hour — occurred as God revealed His Torah at Mount Sinai. The Israelites remarkably pledged, Na’aseh v’nishma — “We will do and we will listen to all that God has declared” (Exodus 24:7).
They made two promises: to do, and to listen. The order is crucial. They promised to keep the Torah, even before knowing why. The Midrash (Shabbat 88a) related that, in merit of this pledge of loyalty, the angels rewarded each Jew with two crowns. And a Heavenly Voice explained, “Who revealed to My children this secret used by the angels?”
What was so special about this vow, “We will do and we will listen”? On the contrary, would not fulfilling mitzvot with understanding and enlightenment be a superior level of Torah observance? And why does the Midrash refer to this form of unquestioning allegiance as a “secret used by the angels”?
While wisdom is usually acquired through study and contemplation, there exists in nature an intuitive knowledge that requires no formal education. The bee for example, naturally knows the optimal geometric shape for building honeycomb cells. No bee has ever needed to register for engineering courses at MIT.
Intuitive knowledge also exists in the spiritual realm. Angels are sublime spiritual entities who do not require extensive Torah study in order to know how to serve God. Their holiness is ingrained in their very nature. It is only human beings, prone to being confused by pseudo-scientific indoctrination, who need to struggle in order to return to their pristine spiritual selves.
For the Jews who stood at Mount Sinai, it was not only Torah and mitzvot that were revealed. They also discovered their own true, inner essence. They attained a sublime level of natural purity, and intuitively proclaimed, “We will do.” We will follow our natural essence, unhindered by any spurious, artificial conventions.
Reflection: Most of us aren’t climate scientists. Most of us can’t easily explain or even understand the obscure specifics of climate science. However, that must not prohibit us from taking action. Like the Jewish people, it is imperative that we do – “na’aseh” – just as we try to better understand – “v’nishmah.” If we wait until we have all the data, or until all the models have been run, it will be too late. We know enough, and we trust that the experts know enough, that it is beyond time to act. Of course, both aspects are vital, and both aspects are lifted up in the Brit Hazon. But what’s most critical right now, is that we act.
While only Moses ascends to Mount Sinai, the collective Jewish people accepted the Torah. According to midrash, not a single member of the community missed the revelation for reasons of ritual impurity, and not a single person was blind, deaf, or otherwise unable to experience the totality of the revelation.
Reflection: Climate change impacts every single human being alive today. No matter where you are, who are you, or how you spend your time, we share this earth together. Alongside our more than human friends, the climate crisis will upend our ways of life and cause immense challenge to our habits. We share this earth together, and so we must also share the solutions to ensuring a habitable planet. This truth is revealed to all of us, and requires all of us to act. The Brit Hazon is one way to help you begin that process and do your part as part of the collective solution.
Furthermore, according to some commentators, the words na’aseh v’nishma indicate an acceptance not only of the immediate laws of the Torah, but also of all of the laws to come. According to Abraham Ibn Ezra, “na’aseh [indicates] all of the laws given until this point [and] nishma [indicates] the laws to come in the future” (short commentary, comment to Exodus 24:7).
Though only one generation of Jews actually stood at Sinai, this group comprised the ancestors of all future members of the Jewish community., They accepted the Torah not only for themselves, but also for all generations to come. Each year at Shavuot, when Jews recreate the experience of the revelation, each generation has a new opportunity to declare on its own behalf, “na’aseh v’nishma.”
Reflection: We’re told that the revelation at Mt. Sinai continues to happen in the present, and that not only were we all there, but that all Jews who will ever live were also there. Our tradition has a strong theme of “l’dor v’dor” – from generation to generation. So how can we continue down a path of status quo, when the science is clear that inaction on our part will mean an uninhabitable planet for future generations? It is our responsibility to ensure that, just like we inherited a planet where God’s beauty and diversity was revealed to us, our descendants also get to experience the prolific beauty of Divine nature. Taking part in the Brit Hazon allows us to know that we are taking steps to do just that.
Love Your Neighbor
Parashat Mishpatim contains perhaps the most well-known articulation of this charge: “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” By ger, the Torah means one who is an alien in the place where he lives—that is, one who is not a member of the ruling tribe or family, who is not a citizen, and who is therefore vulnerable to social and economic exploitation. The Torah appeals to our memory to intensify our ethical obligations: having tasted the suffering and degradation to which vulnerability can lead, we are bidden not to oppress the stranger. The Torah’s call is not based on a rational argument, but on an urgent demand for empathy: since you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse or mistreat the stranger…
Where Exodus commands us not to oppress the stranger and ties that obligation to the ways memory can be harnessed to yield empathy, Leviticus goes further, moving from a negative commandment (lo ta’aseh) to a positive one (aseh): “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.” With these startling words, we have traveled a long distance; we are mandated to actively love the stranger. A lot can be (and has been) said about what the commandment to love the neighbor does and doesn’t mean in Leviticus, but one thing is clear: the love we owe to our neighbor we also owe to the stranger who resides among us…The Torah forcefully makes clear that the poor and downtrodden, the vulnerable and oppressed, the exposed and powerless are all our neighbors. We are called to love even those who are not our kin, even those who do not share our socio-economic status, because, after all, we remember only too well what vulnerability feels like.
Deuteronomy subtly introduces still another dimension to our obligation to love the stranger. Along the way, it offers a remarkably moving lesson in theology: For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
…Here, loving the stranger is a form of “walking in God’s ways,” or what philosophers call imitatio dei (the imitation of God). Just as God “loves the stranger,” so also must we. The Torah here presents a radical challenge and obligation: If you want to love God, love those whom God loves. Love the fatherless, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In other words, Deuteronomy gives us two distinct but intertwined reasons for what lies at the heart of Jewish ethics: we must love the stranger both because of who God is and because of what we ourselves have been through.
Exodus teaches us the baseline requirement: not to oppress the stranger. Leviticus magnifies the demand: not only must we not oppress the stranger, we must actively love her. And Deuteronomy raises the stakes even higher: loving the stranger is a crucial form of “walking in God’s ways.”
Literature scholar Elaine Scarry hauntingly asserts that “the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.” By reminding us again and again of our vulnerability in Egypt, the Torah works to help us learn to imagine others more so that we allow ourselves to hurt them less.
The obligation to love and care for the stranger and the dispossessed is a basic covenantal requirement incumbent upon us as Jews. We surely have moral obligations which are incumbent upon us because of the simple fact that we are human beings. In its recurrent appeals to memory, the Torah seeks to amplify and intensify those obligations, to remind us, even when it is difficult to hear, that the fate of the stranger is our responsibility. This mandate may seem overwhelming at times, and its concrete implications may sometimes be difficult to discern. But loving the stranger is fundamental and lies at the heart of Torah. If we wish to take the obligation to serve God seriously, and to be worthy heirs of the Jewish tradition, we have no choice but to wrestle with these words, and to seek to grow in empathy and compassion.
Reflection: We know – now perhaps more than ever – just how interconnected we all are. When a virus can spread from one end of the world to the other in just a few days, there is no debating that even those who are thousands of miles away are still, in a real sense, our neighbors, and that our actions impact all corners of this world. The same is true when discussing climate. For the toxins we dump end up in the drinking water of those far beyond our sight. The pollution we put in the air ends up harming those on other continents. And the plastic waste that we discard will be here for those that come in 500 years. These actions harms humans and the more than human world in devastating ways. Thankfully, the Brit Hazon gives us a chance to “imagine other people” and put into practice this core Jewish value of not only not harming the stranger, but actively taking steps that embody our love of our neighbor, regardless of species or location on this planet. In this sense, participating in the Brit Hazon is an earnest attempt to “walk in God’s ways.”
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the following verse: “If fire breaks out and catches in thorns, so that the sheaves or the standing corn or the field are consumed; he that kindled the fire shall surely make restitution.” (Ex. 22:5). In other words, winds have sent a spark to your neighbor’s property; through no fault of your own, a fire has started next door. Yet you are liable for the damages…
The Rabbis in the Talmud (B. Bava Kama 60a-b) explain that the detailed list in our verse—“thorns, sheaves, and standing corn,” is meant to cover all possibilities: we are responsible for any and all damage we cause. But Rabbi Judah extends the liability farther: if a person sets a fire, that person is answerable also for unseen damage. Our responsibility covers a wide spectrum of unintended consequences.
The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas notes how fire works. Once it is set: “The wind adds its whims and violences to it. And yet, responsibility is not diminished.” Thinking beyond immediate results is particularly important in our culture marked by quick fixes and instant gratification. Even when it is impossible to predict the impact of our actions, once blowback occurs, we must take the opportunity to examine our part.
But Levinas goes farther. The Talmud tells us that the fire in our verse catches because of the thorns—and thorns, for our sages, represent the wicked. But, they note that the first to be consumed by fire is the stack of corn, which represents the righteous. Why do the righteous perish first? For Levinas, it is because they are held accountable for evil. “They are responsible because they have not been righteous enough.” According to Levinas, being a good person means nothing in isolation.³ He likens tolerating social injustice and exploitation to “murder.” Levinas widens our circle of responsibility to include not only our actions and their long-term effects, but also those of our fellow human beings.
For Levinas, this is at the very heart of what it means to be human: Fulfilling our radical responsibility toward the Other. At a time when the selfie represents so much of who we are as a society, isn’t it time to turn our cameras around and focus on the cries of our fellow humans from whose misery we may have benefited?
Reflection: If the carbon emissions from the car that we drive in Michigan contributes to the forest fire that burns in California, or Australia, are we responsible? According to this text, the answer seems to be an emphatic “yes!” Although the most severe impacts of climate change have not yet reached Michigan, our tradition holds us as liable for the damage that we cause to others. We might not see the damage, we might not be impacted by it – yet – but still, we are responsible. Unfortunately, we also know that the worst effects of climate change are being felt by those least responsible for it. Those who emit the least amount of carbon dioxide are feeling the most severe impacts of the crisis. Reading the Talmudic midrash differently, we understand the haunting reality that the fire catches because of the thorn – those of us in the developed world, who are responsible for the most amount of carbon emissions – but consumes the corn – those who are in the developing world and are responsible for the least amount of carbon emissions – first. By signing up for the Brit Hazon, we are taking responsibility for our actions, committing to reduce our footprint so the unintended impact on those we don’t even know will be less.
Rabbi Nate DeGroot is the Hazon Detroit Associate Director and Spiritual & Program Director. In this role, he is helping the Detroit Metro Jewish community to reconnect with their own inherited earth-based Jewish spirituality and reinvest in their historic relationship with the Detroit community around its transformative environmental justice work. He was ordained at Hebrew College in Boston, where he also received a Masters in Jewish Education. He most recently served as the inaugural Jewish Emergent Network Rabbinic Fellow at IKAR in Los Angeles, and before that founded a grassroots cooperative Jewish community in Portland, Oregon. He is a lover of the wild and is excited to bring his passion for all things sacred to his work at Hazon. Learn more about the work of Hazon Detroit here.