Bechukotai 5774 – Climate Change, DNA, and God’s Challenge to Us

On Monday of this week, two scientific papers were released by two separate teams that studied melting patters on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.  The groups conducted their studies independently, and used different methods to conduct their studies.  They did, however, come to the same conclusion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits on a bowl shaped depression of earth, with the base of the ice below sea level.  Ice on the edge of that bowl has been melting as it comes into contact with warming ocean water.  As that ice melts, it destabilizes the rest of the ice sheet, starting a chain reaction that will cause it to slide off the continent into the ocean.  The studies found that the melting has passed the point of no return.  Even if the water temperature goes back down, the progress of the glaciers cannot be stopped.  In fact, they will continue to accelerate into the ocean.

The cause is not clear.  Scientists think it has something to do with stronger winds stirring up the ocean and raising water temperatures.  Some think the stronger winds are caused by increased temperatures in other parts of the world due to global warming.  Others think that the hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica has added energy to the winds.  Natural variability may also be a factor.

The result, according to the studies, will be an additional rise of global sea levels of up to twelve feet over the next few centuries.  That is on top of other predictions, which do not take the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into account.  The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already warned that sea levels could rise up to three feet by the end of the century without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  With the new discovery, that estimate will have to be raised.

We are not going to go into whether global warming is caused by humans or not.  People’s emotions tend to overwhelm their brains in such discussions.

Let me state one undeniable fact: climate change, whatever the cause, exists.

What will the impact of rising sea levels be?  In America, a rise of up to four feet would inundate the homes of 3.7 million Americans.  Cities like Miami, New Orleans, Boston, and New York would all be vulnerable.

It is already happening.  The question is: what are we doing to prepare for it?  The collective decisions that we make over the coming decades will determine what kind of toll climate change will take on human lives.

The first half of this morning’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, records a series of blessings and curses which will befall the Israelites depending on their adherence to the covenant with God.  Im bechukotai telechu… it begins.  “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…”

The blessings are everything that ancient people could want: abundant rain, successful crops, peace in the land, strength to defeat their enemies, and a constant awareness of God’s Presence and love in their midst.

The curses are the opposite.  The sky will turn to iron, the land will not produce food, disease will spread, famine will ensue, enemies will terrorize the land, and eventually the nation will be exiled.

Whether the blessings or the curses befall the Israelites is entirely up to them.  The national fate will be determined by whether the people follow the mitzvot, that is, the commandments outlined in the Torah that are the Jewish people’s covenental obligations to God.

As moderns, the idea of the weather or the conduct of enemy nations being determined by our actions is a troubling theology.

What these blessings and curses are describing is not so much theology, however, but human nature.  The extent to which a community embraces shared values determines to a large extent whether a crisis will result in blessing or curse.

When the oceans rise, the impact on human lives will be determined by how we have prepared for that event, and how our society cares for the people that are affected.  Developed countries will fare better than poor countries.  We know this, because that is what always happens in natural disasters.  But human societies, whether in local communities, in nations, or globally, have it in their hands to do something about it.  The question is: will we?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably: not very likely.

Every living creature has a biological imperative to perpetutate its own existence.  Human beings are no different.  It is built into our DNA.  But that imperative operates at the individual level rather than the collective.  Individuals tend to do things which enhance their own abilities to survive, thrive, and repopulate.  It seems that there is no collective biological imperative for the perpetuation of humanity’s existence.

We form groups for the benefits they bring to our own ability to survive.  We make choices about what we think will further our own well-being, but are far less inclined to make decisions that will benefit humanity, especially when it will involve some sort of self-sacrifice.

This is not a moral point.  It is a matter of biology and genetics.

So many human civilizations over the millenia have ignored the warning signs and gone down paths that led to their collapse.  The biological imperative is for individual survival, not for collective survival.  That perhaps explains why so many societies today engage in wasteful and self-destructive behaviors.  We are not naturally inclined to do what is best for humanity as a whole.

So we pollute our environment, we use up too much of our fresh water, and we drive other species into extinction.  Why?  Because there is nothing in our DNA to stop us.

The Torah challenges us to overcome our biology.  The mitzvot, the commandments, are a comprehensive system of laws that govern all aspects of our lives: how we treat ourselves, how we function within our families and our communities, and how we are to treat the strangers among us.

Our tradition also tells us how to function within the context of a larger society that is not Jewish.

And of course, Jewish life is full of rituals that bind us through the observance of sacred practices and the marking of sacred time to Jewish people of the past, present and future.  Ritual also enables us to express our yearnings to God.

In asking us to live by the mitzvot, God challenges us to rise above our genetics.

To follow halakhah, the Jewish system of commandments, is to impose an unnatural code of ethics on our human interactions, and to instill a deep sense of humility into our relationship with Creation.

Ki li kol ha-aretz  “For the entire Earth is Mine,” God declares at Mount Sinai before giving us the Ten Commandments.  As Jews in a covenantal relationship with God, we are asked to remember this at all times, and not treat the earth as something that exists only for our exploitation.  As God’s possession, the earth must be treated with reverence.

In the kedushah we recite the words kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai tzeva-ot, m’lo kol ha-aretz kevodo.  “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord of hosts, the fullness of the the entire earth is God’s glory.”  How might human treatment of our planet differ if we saw every element in the natural world as a manifestation of God’s glory?  Think about the impact on things like pollution, deforestation, and carbon emissions.  Consider how our own behavior might change with regard to the kinds of plants we put in our gardens, the length of our showers, and the things we choose to purchase, if we were conscious of utilizing resources that belonged to God.

The Torah is speaking to a particular community: the Jewish people.  The Torah’s way is the Jewish recipe for overcoming our basic human instincts.  But the underlying principle is universal.  It applies to all peoples separately, and to humanity as a whole.  God asks all of us to be more than our DNA.  To work for the flourishing of all people, and to treat the earth with humility.

As evidenced by our behavior, it seems that humanity does not have an especially humble posture with regard to the earth.

A detail in the presentation of curses reveals an insightful point about human behavior.  The curses do not all happen at once.  They come in waves.  After each wave, we are offered a chance to return to God.  If we do not take advantage of that opportunity, then the next wave will strike.  One gets a sense that God really wants Israel to redeem itself, to prevent further curses.  But the Torah describes it as almost inevitable that the community will not be able to reverse course.  Curses will follow more curses, with people never recognizing that their fate is the result of having gone off course from the path of blessing.

The cycle ends with the land desolate and the people in exile.  Only then will a small remnant realize their mistakes and the mistakes of their ancestors and return to the covenant.  When that happens, God will be waiting, eager to take them back.

Weird weather, rising ocean temperatures and acidity, melting glaciers, more powerful hurricanes, shrinking fresh water reserves – as we see sign after sign pointing to increasingly severe consequences of climate change, what are we going to do?

When will we start to take real action?  The kind of action that calls on us to make lifestyle changes, to transform how and where we live, and what we eat.  Action that will shift how our economy is structured and how success is measured?

Humanity’s track record is not great.  We tend to not be good about making investments in preventative strategies for catastrophes that are not yet upon us.

Whether the challenge is man-made or not, our responses are always in our own hands.  The way that we come together as a community will determine whether this challenge will become a curse or not.

 

Emor 5774 – The Corners of the Fields, the Omer, and Homelessness in Our Community

Chapter twenty three of Leviticus is one of several texts in the Torah that describes the various holidays.  Each time the Torah lists all of the holidays, there are slight variations, including how exactly they are observed, the names that are used, their symbolic meaning, and so on.  As we might expect from the Book of Leviticus, the emphasis here is on agriculture, and the proper offerings that must be brought to the Priests to be offered as sacrifices.

It starts with Shabbat, then continues with Passover, the counting of the Omer, Shavuot (although it is not given a name),  Rosh Hashanah (again without being named), then Yom Kippur, Succot, and finally Shemini Atzeret.

The descriptions here discuss the various sacrifices that must be offered, as well as some of the rituals that individuals must observe – practices like not performing any labor, taking the Four Species on Succot, eating unleavened bread on Passover, and so on.

But there is one verse appearing precisely in the middle of this detailed calendar of holidays that does not seem to fit.  In the 44-verse chapter that lists all of the holidays, it is verse 22.  It comes between the descriptions of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah.

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God.  (Leviticus 23:22)

There are a few problems raised by this verse’s appearance here.

First of all, what does it have to do with the holidays?

Second, we already heard this commandment last week.  Just four chapters previously, in Parashat Kedoshim, we read the exact same mitzvah – word for word.  The Torah is repeating itself, as if we have already forgotten.  For a book that does not like to waste ink with superfluous and repetative details, this seems strange.

The commentators pick up on these questions, and offer some answers.  Ibn Ezra, the twelfth century Spanish Rabbi, points out that it appears precisely in the context of the holiday of Shavuot.  As an agricultural holiday, Shavuot marks the beginning of the barley harvest.  Barley is the first of the major cereal grains to ripen.  Wheat comes later on during the summer.  As we are getting excited to start bringing in the grain, the Torah repeats its instruction to leave the corners of the fields unharvested for the poor and the strangers in our communities.

Ramban and Rashbam offer a different explanation.  They say that it has to do with the description of the Omer a few verses earlier.  The Torah describes what is going to happen when the Israelites enter the Promised Land.  They are going to plant their crops and reap the harvest.  Before they can consume any of that crop themselves, they have to bring the first sheaf, the omer, to the Priest.  He will then wave it around as an elevation offering before God.  This is going to take place, at the earliest, on the second day of Passover.  None of the new crop may be consumed until this omer waving presentation has taken place.

This is where Ramban and Rashbam’s explanation comes in.  The Torah is warning us that the mitzvah of gathering the first of the crop as a presentation to God does not override the requirement to leave the corners of the field untrimmed for the poor and the strangers.

Put another way, the ritual obligation does not take precedence over the moral obligation.

There are several important lessons here.

First, that we cannot own the land outright.  Ultimately, the earth and everything in it belongs to God.  We are given permission to use and enjoy it, but not without certain qualifications.  L’ovdah u-l’shomrah, “to work it and to protect it,” God instructs the first human in the Garden of Eden.

Here, in the context of describing sacred time, we are told that we must both acknowledge God as the Creator of the earth and the One who makes it possible for us to cause it to produce food, and to provide for those who are less fortunate.  Only then may we enjoy it ourselves.  To consume the grain before both these steps have been taken is tantamount to theft.

The second lesson is that our dedication to religious ritual does not obviate our obligation to other human beings who need us.  This is the message of Prophets like Isaiah.  Don’t think that God wants your sacrifices while you let the weakest among you starve, he reiterates over and over again.

For us to do our part as Jews in our covenantal relationship with God means both that we acknowledge God’s Presence in our lives through ritual, and that we affirm God’s presence in other human beings through serving them.

In an agricultural society, the requirement to leave the corners of the fields untrimmed was public.  Everybody could see that a farmer had done his duty.  Not just the hungry who relied on it, but also fellow farmers and members of the community.  If someone shirked his or her responsibilities, everyone would know it.

Today, we are so far removed from from the most vulnerable members of society.  We can pretend that human suffering does not exist without suffering any consequences.

But suffering certainly exists among us.

Homelessness in our community is a human tragedy in our backyard. Santa Clara County has the fifth-largest unsheltered population in the country with the highest percentage of homeless veterans anywhere.  More than 7,500 people are homeless on any given night, with almost three quarters of that number unsheltered.

The tent city that has grown up along the Guadalupe River by Story Road is the largest homeless encampment in the country.

The numbers have ballooned in recent years, due by a significant degree to the high cost of housing in the Bay Area.  The reasons for homelessness are complicated, and solutions are elusive.

But if our tradition teaches us anything, it is that we have an obligation to care for the strangers who live among us because of our experience as strangers in the land of Egypt.

The lesson of leaving the corners of our fields unharvested and bringing the omer to God are that we cannot take the blessings in our lives for granted.  Our tradition offers us specific ways to acknowledge that gratitude: offering thanks to God, and being generous to our fellow human beings.

Rashi adds an additional commentary on the appearance of the mitzvah of leaving the corners of the fields in the middle of the sacred calendar.

Why does the text teach this in between the festivals, with Passover and Shavuot on one side and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot on the other?  To teach you that everyone who leaves gleanings for the poor is rewarded as if he had built the Temple and offered sacrifices there.  (Rashi on Leviticus 23:22)

As we struggle in our broader  community to address the challenges of /homelessness, may we open our eyes to the human suffering around us.  Through our actions, let us build a Temple of compassion and generosity as we recognize that so many of the blessings in our lives come from the Ultimate Source of compassion and generosity.