Behar Bechukotai – Environmental Consequences

Sometimes the problems of the world seem so overwhelming, that rather than read and reflect – we encounter those problems and want to flee.  This […]

Sometimes the problems of the world seem so overwhelming, that rather than read and reflect – we encounter those problems and want to flee.  This past week, I scanned the headlines of a front page article about the documented disintegration of the polar ice caps – miles of ice cap collapsing into the sea. and unconsciously I turned the page. In a world where we can feel overwhelmed by the problems that defy easy solutions – one role of religion is to remind us of the ethical imperative to create a moral responsibility.  We don’t have the luxury to turn the page – when the page describes an issue of such importance.  We have to study, learn, reflect and act.

This morning’s portion jolts us to awareness of responsibility by reminding us of consequences – dire warning of what happens when we misbehave.  In a section that I used to dismiss as a reflection of religious immaturity or manipulation – using threat to change behavior as you might with a child – I now look at as a wake up call, to understand the causality between acts and their consequences.

Look specifically at verses 20 – 22 (p. 749)  “If you reject me…..Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit…..I will go on smiting you sevenfold for your sins. I will loose wild beasts against you, and they shall bereave you of your children and wipe out your cattle. They shall decimate you, and your roads shall be deserted.”  This is harsh!  Does God really do this?

I don’t think this is about Divine punishment – it is about what happens when we neglect Divine blessings.  It jars us to wake up and understand causality.  IF…..THEN – maybe one of the most important lessons for this moment in history because it is true.

Note that the Hebrew is in the plural.  The causality discussed here is communal– not individual.  Individuals are not singled out for punishment – but when society behaves unethically, there is always consequence. And those consequences described in this morning’s Torah portion mirror things we are observing in our world right now.

The havoc human actions are causing to the environment are described right here.  Look at verse 33 (p. 751) “the land will become a desolation and your cities a ruin”  describes the coastlines that are disappearing as ice caps melt at rates never before witnessed.  Our national and global societies’ acts are creating the consequences we witness today.  Comprehensive satellite study with confirms that the polar ice caps have melted faster in the last 20 years than in the last 10,000. The impact is that the sea level rises dramatically, with devastating impact on coastal cities in America and around the world.

The Leviticus text asks us to open our eyes.  We’ve known about this – and it is time for our collective voices to demand thoughtfully addressing the environmental disaster that is occurring.  The New York Times magazine last month devoted a powerful issue to helping understand the situation.   Jon Mooaliem, in a essay “The Deluge” writes: “The future we’ve been warned about is beginning to saturate the present. We tend to imagine climate change as a destroyer. But it also traffics in disruption, disarray: increasingly frequent and more powerful storms and droughts; heightened flooding, expanded ranges of pests turning forests into fuel for wildfires; stretches of inhospitable heat.” The impact of these changes ripple.

Our Biblical text describes what happens in moments like this:  Verse 26 –  “ten women shall bake your bread in a single oven; they shall dole out your bread by weight, and though you eat, you shall not be satisfied.” With the climate change we are witnessing already vulnerable societies – the poor, the poorly governed –being stressed to grim breaking points.  Places where we are witnessing starvation – South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia – where a total of nearly a million and a half children are predicted to die this year – and climate change will worsen the kind of droughts that caused the current situation. Climate change is a threat multiplier: It propels sudden-onset disasters like floods and storms and slow-onset disasters like drought and desertification resulting in failed crops, famine, overcrowded urban centers which inflame political unrest and worsen the impacts of war – leading to more displacement and disorder.

Consequences ripple.  One article in the magazine issue outlined outbreaks of mosquito born diseases in quantities we have never before witnessed.  Why? Because abnormal weather that is now part of our reality creates a confluence of circumstances that create environments where disease carrying mosquitoes thrive – spring when mosquitoes thrive is longer, more standing water exists. When the Bible talks about beasts and disease – it is talking about consequences we are witnessing now.

Yet rather than seeing the dire realities that cannot be denied – too many  choose to continue on living as we always have. We turn the page, scroll to the next article – often ignoring the reality all together.  Peter Kahn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, calls it “environmental generational amnesia.”  This morning’s portion reminds us that there are consequences. When we pollute, pouring devastating carbon emissions into the air, pollution into the water and land, the consequences are devastating. Religion can be the corrective to this reality.

And the text uses that awareness to jolt us to change.  It is actually a hopeful text.  At the end of chapter 26 – people finally wake up to the consequences of their actions.  Look at the end of verse 39 on page 752: “”They shall be heartsick over the iniquities of their fathers; and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, in that they trespassed against Me, yea, were hostile to Me.”  And God accepts them back.  We have to find the will to let the heartsick response to the climate change drive us to turn, to change, to stop devastating our environment.

It is not too late to have the awakening described in chapter 26.  In analyzing the risk of sea-level rise from Antarctica, Robert M DeConto of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and David Pollard of Pennsylvania State University used their computer model to predict what would happen if emissions were reduced sharply over the next few decades, in line with international climate goals – and they found a strong likelihood that Antarctica would remain fairly stable.  There are ways to reduce risks.  It will that require spiritual, political and societal vigilance. Spiritual context: Earth belongs to God – previous parsha talks about letting land lie fallow and return to its pristine state.  The poor have access – for the produce of the land is to do what is godly –care for others.  In Genesis our obligation is to till and tend the earth.  It is a spiritual context that deepens our resolve to seek change when we see the earth threatened.

To respond to the causality we are witnessing requires big acts, creative thinking, and enough people doing small things that the momentum for change continues to grow.  In magazine issue I referenced article climate change, there is an article by Jon Gertner, call “Pandora’s Umbrella” about experiments being done that imagine ways to make a significant difference.  Harvard professor David Keith studied volcanic eruptions like that of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which generated millions of tons of sunlight-scattering particulates and might have cooled the planet in significant ways.  He took this model and imagined fitting ten gulfstream jets, outfitted with special engines that allow them to fly safely around the stratosphere at an altitude of 70,000 feet spraying a chemical compound like liquid sulfur that would scatter sunlight for two years.  Might this be a solution?  It sounds crazy and the potential problems are myriad – there are so many unknowns. But if our job is to safeguard the earth, our current reality demands we explore possibilities.

But we don’t need to rely on such radical measures – serious policy advocacy and personal decision making about using energy with no carbon emissions is a door that is still open. Clean energy activism needs to be pursued with passion.  Changes people have embraced in the past decade – composting, communal gardens, rejection of pesticides, re-usable bags, reduction of water waste, new technologies in transportation, electricity, heating and building are all parts of building a different culture open to difficult decisions that need to come. We have witnessed a sea change is perception and behaviors.  When enough people say, “I’ll do my part” in small ways it continues to create its own momentum.

We live in politically charged times.  We need to choose our activism carefully and thoughtfully.  What greater value can there be than to protect the gift of our natural world so that there can be a future of hope for our children?  Will we heed to warnings of the Torah, or will we continue the path we are on?  The choice is in our hands.