Jewish Gifts to Interfaith Climate Change Work

by Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman

Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav used to say:

“Friends do not despair!
When a difficult time has come upon us, joy must fill the air!
We must not lose our faith in living, we must not despair.
When a difficult time is upon us, joy must fill the air!”

When I was a child, singing this song in synagogue gave me great hope. I hear it now as a call to keep joy and hope alive amidst this huge challenge facing humanity. We must not lose our faith in living, we must not despair. Though a difficult time is indeed upon us, joy can fill the air!

I want to highlight three major gifts that Judaism brings to the table of interfaith climate change work. Experience with paradigm shifts. The connection between the environment and human actions. The Jewish cycle of time, specifically of the cycle of rest & renewal.

Paradigm shifts: When the Second Temple was destroyed by Rome in 70 C.E., the Jewish community suffered cataclysmic violence and the loss of a way of life. In the chaos, a man named Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was smuggled out of burning Jerusalem in a coffin. He brokered a deal with the Romans to give the Jews a place in Yavneh, and rabbinic Judaism was born. Out of the ruins, Judaism took death – the coffin – and made it part of our plan to survive.

Whether after the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion from Spain, the emancipation of Jews in modernity, or the tragedy of the Holocaust, or the founding of Israel, Jews have had to reinvent how we live over and over, while maintaining integrity with who we are. What does it look like to rethink how we live? How we relate to community? How we relate to land, material resources, people not in our group? In the 1990’s, His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized that his people were undergoing a dramatic cultural, religious, and political shift in exile, and he brought in a group of Jews to advise him. He called on Jews as experts in continuity through crisis. We as a human collective now face our own versions of these questions, our own crisis of continuity. If we can rise to the challenge of paradigm shift we have a much better chance of survival.

Judaism understands there is a deep and visceral connection between human actions and the wellbeing of the land. In our daily liturgy, we read Deuteronomy 11:13-21. Some synagogues, uncomfortable with the overt language of divine reward and punishment, omit this passage. But many of us read it as a clarion call to sustainable living. A translation by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, may his memory be a blessing, is particularly attuned to this idea:

God says to Israel: When you really listen and hear my directions… Your earthly needs will be met at the right time, appropriate to the season. You will reap what you planted for your delight and health. Also your animals will have ample feed. All of you will eat and be content.

But be careful! Watch out! Don’t let your cravings delude you; don’t let your cravings become your gods. Don’t debase yourself to them, because the God-sense within you will become distorted. Heaven will be shut to you, Grace will not descend, Earth will not yield her produce, Your rushing will destroy you! And Earth will not be able to recover her good balance in which God’s gifts manifest.

Therefore, may these values of mine reside in your hearts and souls, so that you will be more aware, and you and your children will live heavenly days right here on earth.

The ancient land of Israel, like the modern middle east, lived on the ecological edge. The right rains in the right times would lead to abundance, but drought would lead to starvation. The topsoil was thin, the yearly harvests were uncertain. Yet this vulnerability gave rise to a tradition with great wisdom and respect for the thin balance of living well on land. If we are in right relationship to our natural world, spiritually as well as materially, our weather will support our needs. If we are out of balance, it has drastic consequences, for us, for our children, for non-human animals. When I read Deuteronomy 11, I think not of geographic Israel alone, but of our whole planet. The vulnerable weather that the Torah speaks of has now expanded to the world, and it has never been so clear how much our actions impact that weather.

In Judaism, the cycles of land and the cycles of time are intimately connected. My teacher, Rabbi Dr. Nehemia Polen, teaches the Shabbat dance. The dance goes like this:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, REST.

In the creation story in Genesis, God dances this dance: Six days of creating, the and on the seventh day God rests. While God did it on a mythic cosmic time scale, we people count days: Six days of working, and then Shabbat, the day of ceasing, of rest. Shabbat is a time to refrain from purchasing, from travel, from stress, from technology. In our fast-paced, consumer age, Shabbat is an important Jewish offering to the environmental toolkit.

But we can’t stop at Shabbat. The Torah teaches that the land also rests, every seven years, during the Shmita (Sabbatical) year.

The most recent Shmita started this past Rosh Hashanah, in mid-September 2014. Biblically, it is a time when debts is forgiven, land is not cultivated, and anyone can harvest what they need for the day – from anywhere. Private property boundaries become irrelevant, because the year is a reminder that the earth belongs to God. The contemporary environmental Jewish community has been re-envisioning what the Sabbatical year means to humanity today. Sustainable agriculture, reconnecting to our local watersheds and landscapes, bringing a sharing-economy to life in a community, working for economic and environmental justice… We need to bring Shmita values to life in a modern world, not just this year but all the time.

I love that this dance of 6-units-work, 1-unit-rest is danced by God, people, and land. The dance is one of Judaism’s ways of asserting that nature, human, and divine are linked by sacred rhythms.

I will conclude with a teaching from an early Jewish rabbi recorded in the Mishna, a text almost 2,000 years old. It is a wonderful metaphoric description of climate change:

Rabbi Tarphon said,

“The day is short,

the task is abundant,

the laborers are lazy,

the wages are great,

and the Master of the house is insistent.

It is not up to you to finish the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Mishna Pirkei Avot 2:15-16).