Friday, February 10, 2017

B'Shallach: Stuck Between a Tree and a Hard Place

It feels weird to think of my topic this week as controversial. It shouldn't be. This shouldn't look, feel, sound, or come across as a partisan
or political statement to make, and yet, it does. This Shabbat, we are celebrating Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the Trees, and many rabbis around the world are writing about our stewardship of the planet. It seems like as good a time as any to examine how well we're caring for the earth and living up to the commandments of Bal Tashchit, "do not destroy," and Tikkun Olam, "repairing the world." And yet, in this age of climate change denial and "environmentalism" being used as a dirty word, somehow this is a controversial and divisive issue to address. But after "enjoying" a disconcerting 66-degree day in February this week, I just don't see how I could let Tu Bishvat pass by without saying SOMETHING on this subject. So here goes:

Sometimes I think that, in order to sidestep the politics of an issue, it might be helpful to focus on the unequivocal imperative that we see in the Torah. From a religious point of view, one cannot deny our responsibility to steward the earth and be responsible, conscientious caretakers of this tiny rock, zipping around
the sun. Our Torah portion this week features many miraculous Divine acts that defy the laws of nature. A sea is split, a pillar of cloud forms to protect the Israelites, and a second pillar - of fire - to protect them at night. And we also read a short, relatively unknown story in which the Israelites complain about lacking potable water, and God has Moses throw an ordinary stick into the water, and it instantly turns sweet. But part of the message is; we are not God. We don't have the luxury of performing supernatural feats, and when we damage our planet, it cannot be undone. If you look past the fantastical part of these acts, we DO actually see all the elements of nature working to help us achieve freedom. Earth (wood), Wind (cloud), Fire (pillar of ___), and Water (splitting sea) - they are partnering with us and God to defeat slavery. Don't we have an obligation to repay the favor?

This week, I read a brilliant, but scathing, article about how we need to do more for the earth. Rabbi Yosef Abramowitz wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post, entitled "Better Energy: Tree-sonous Value Gap," in which he compellingly chastised us all for not taking better care of our planet. He even singled out rabbis! And I can't disagree with him.
I do some things, sure, but not nearly enough. It's easy for us to shift blame elsewhere, but we really MUST resist that urge. Let others worry about their own carbon footprint; I need to examine mine! Rabbi Abramowitz writes about the damage caused by deforestation, stating: "These trees, covering about a third of the land, are Earth’s lungs gifted by God... Since 1990, a land mass the equivalent of South Africa – the 25th largest country on the planet – has been axed, making the planet wheeze and fever." What an incredibly evocative image! He goes on to talk about products we don't really need, and amenities we could live without. Change has to start somewhere. It's hard to give things up, and it's hard to change the comfortable status quo. But Tu Bishvat is meant to remind us of all the incredible gifts we get from the trees - and from our planet - and it should instill in us a real and heartfelt sense of obligation and gratitude back to the earth for all these things.

In yet another powerful part of his article, Rabbi Abramowitz talks about photosynthesis, and how "the trigger, of course, is the constant nuclear explosions 150 million kilometers away, with photons streaking out at the speed of light for eight minutes from the Sun to Earth and waking a sugary chemical reaction on a simple green leaf."
Have you ever truly thought about photosynthesis like THAT?!?! And at the end of his article, he again recalls this chemical reaction, though this time as a metaphor, and imagines US as the plants. We take in so much from our planet, but we're not giving back the way we should. The way we must. These things can be hard to talk about. They're too political, guilt-inducing, or perhaps just too darn scary. The thing is, you don't have to change EVERYTHING you do, and change it by tomorrow. But please use Tu Bishvat as an annual energy/green audit; as an opportunity to alter ONE THING you do. The planet IS getting warmer, and people ARE contributing to the problem. We need to move past the discomfort of saying that out loud, and get down to the business of being (more) responsible stewards.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Tony Webster on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of הגמל התימני on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Mbz1 on Wikimedia Commons

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