Blog Archives

“The good land that the Lord your God has given you”: Will it still be good for our children?

Image result for tikkun olam

I recently came across a real estate prospectus offering, “Good land with streams, springs and fountains; ideal for planting wheat, barley, grapevines, fig and olive trees, date palms and pomegranates.  If you want a great place to live a farm-to-table lifestyle where you can eat your own bounty without stint and lack nothing, this is the place for you!”

A confession: the foregoing was no prospectus, but a paraphrase of the beginning of chapter 8 of Deuteronomy, a passage that concludes with the famous words, “וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֖ וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבֵֽרַכְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ עַל־הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ — And you shall eat, be satisfied, and give thanks to the Lord your God for the good land which God has given you” (8:10).

The original passage refers to the land of Israel, but that final verse partakes of a universal character.  Serving as the source of the commandment to recite Birkat Ha-mazon, (Grace after Meals), we give thanks to God for food grown anywhere in the world; our gratitude is no less in Jacksonville than Jerusalem, for  הָאָ֥רֶץ הַטֹּבָ֖ה — the good land — is all places capable of nourishing and nurturing life.

Now let’s fast forward to the year 2050.  If God blesses with me longevity, I’ll be 87 years old; my children will be in their late forties and early fifties.  My grandchildren may range in age from 10 to 20 years old.  To put it in different terms: I will be close to the age my mother is now, and my kids will have reached my stage in life.  It’s really not that far off.  In 2050, however, a real estate prospectus is far likelier to read something like this:  “Great land offer!  Located in a formerly fertile area, prolonged multi-year drought ensures that flooding will never be a concern.”  Another ad might say, “New impressive inland ocean view due to coastal flooding of previous years.  Houses on reinforced concrete stilts afford peace of mind during all but the most severe storms.  Second floor boat mooring allows for quick evacuations when needed.”

Image result for global warmingOceanic acidity.  Extinction of species.  Coastal sea rise.  Drought.  Flooding.  More disruptive weather patterns.  Migration of invasive flora and dangerous fauna to new regions.  And if the foregoing sounds like the ten plagues we enumerate at the Seder, the association is hardly accidental — both represent examples of environmental disruption and devastation.  That one was caused by God, and the other is being inflicted by humankind upon itself offers little comfort, especially when we consider that, in a very real sense, the Egyptians brought disaster upon themselves through their own stubbornness.  Are we any less willful than they were?

This past week, 13 federal agencies, working under the aegis of the National Academy of Sciences, completed a draft report regarding climate assessment as mandated every four years by Congress.  One of the most comprehensive climate science studies ever completed, its preface states that, “Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the ocean.”  It concludes the United States is already palpably warmer than it was fifty years ago, with fewer cold extremes and more extreme heat; hurricanes are likely to be more intense; California, the most populous state, is heading in the direction of perpetual drought;  in other places, such as the Northeast, rain is falling more heavily than ever before; flooding related to sea-level rise is already occurring in Miami, and by the end of the 21st century, Charleston, South Carolina will flood at every high tide.  The most important finding? “It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid 20th century . . . there are no convincing alternative explanations supported by the observational evidence.”

Image result for jewish protection of environmentClimate is a Jewish issue. The Torah sees the world as God’s crowning creation; “וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים כִּי־טֽוֹב — And God saw it was good” (Genesis 1:12) is more than an editorial comment; it is nothing less than a theological statement.  Preserving the environment is a Jewish issue as we learn from a midrash in which God warns Adam: “ראה מעשי כמה נאים ומשובחין הן — Consider My works, how beautiful and commendable they are! תן דעתך שלא תקלקל ותחריב את עולמי  — Take care not to corrupt and destroy My world; שאם קלקלת אין מי שתיקן אחריךfor if you destroy it there shall be no one to repair it after you” (Kohelet Rabbah 7:13 §I).  We cannot admire an artist, yet trash her body of work; we  cannot respect our Creator while ruining creation.

We also know that climate is important to Judaism from the role it plays in our liturgy:  prayers for rain and dew during the Amidah; the ritual of hoshannot during the festival of Sukkot; indeed, there is an entire tractate of Talmud, Masekhet Ta’anit, devoted to ritual and liturgical responses to disasters, primarily those related to drought and other weather-related phenomena.  There are blessings recited when one sees the grandeur of great mountains or deserts, smells the blossoms of trees in bloom, witnesses shooting stars, or marvels at the majesty of the ocean.

Judaism sees truth as God’s own seal, rejecting falsehood and despising prevarication.  Once upon a time there were scientists whose souls were bought by the tobacco companies; their job was to find as many ways as possible to explain away the addictive character of nicotine and the deadly nature of smoking.  When evidence of tobacco’s dangers became irrefutable, the industry changed gears.  They could no longer blatantly deny the facts.  Instead, they chose to fudge as much as possible, seeking to promote as much ambiguity and uncertainty as possible by claiming that the studies failed to demonstrate the extent of tobacco’s damage, or promoting lower tar cigarettes as “healthier” alternatives.

In some ways, the tactics of climate-deniers and their so-called scientific research are reminiscent of the big lie that once was perpetuated by the tobacco industry.  In a disturbing article published by Scientific American last July, the fossil fuel industry was shown to use many of the same researchers, tactics, and studies of big tobacco.  But why should anyone be surprised?  As an old Yiddish saying has it, “A nai-er melekh mit na-yeh gezayres, a nay yor mit alte aveyres — A new king with new decrees, a new year with old misdeeds.”

With America’s withdrawal from the Paris accord, the current administration has sent a disturbing message about its stance on global warming.  There is reason to be concerned that President Trump may be inclined to dismiss the National Academy of Sciences report on climate change.  But it would be a terrible mistake for us to label this a partisan issue.  The National Academy of Sciences is not a partisan front, any more than the dozens of other reputable and distinguished academicians and scientists whose work have demonstrated the reality of global warming over and over.  The threat to our planet is non-partisan and equal opportunity; its resolution will require bi-partisanship and a willingness to face the threat, not deny its existence.  It was President Nixon, who signed the Clean Air Act, and created the Environmental Protection Agency; it was President George H. Bush who signed legislation instituting a cap-and-trade system for industry to curtail acid rain.  And it was Ronald Reagan who once said, “What is a conservative, after all, but one who conserves?”

There are no panaceas.  To make a difference as individuals we will need to buy less stuff, drive fewer miles, purchase fuel-efficient cars, eat less meat, plant more trees and cut fewer down.  Even something as simple as unplugging our devices can help — US. citizens spend more money on electricity to power devices when they’re off than when on! Because televisions, stereo equipment, computers, battery chargers and a host of other gadgets and appliances consume energy when seemingly switched off, unplug them instead.  On the larger front, we have to actively campaign for legislation to support renewable sources of energy and ways to make them cost-effective.  And rather than prop up a dirty and dying industry like coal mining, whose long and inevitable decline over the past decades wasn’t caused by environmentalists, but by automation and cheaper forms of energy, we need to invest in places like West Virginia and Kentucky as they transition to a post-coal world.

The second paragraph of the Sh’ma, part of Judaism’s most fundamental credo, warn us of the steep price we will pay for our self-serving hubris should we dismiss the reality of climate change.  Should we serve the false god of expedience, “The Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is giving to you” (Deuteronomy 11:17).

There is still time to make a difference; we can still bequeath a sustainable world to our children.  And if we believe that we have the capacity to hurt our world, we must also believe that we possess the capacity to heal her.  This is what Judaism teaches; this is what God asks us to do — not for our sake, but for our children’s.

Leave a comment

August 14, 2017 · 5:40 pm


The last serpent we encountered in the Torah was the rather clever snake who befriended Eve back in Genesis . . . until this past week.  The Israelites speak out (yet again!) against Moses and complain of God: “לָמָ֤ה הֶֽעֱלִיתֻ֨נוּ֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לָמ֖וּת בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לֶ֨חֶם֙ וְאֵ֣ין מַ֔יִם וְנַפְשֵׁ֣נוּ קָ֔צָה בַּלֶּ֖חֶם הַקְּלֹקֵֽל — Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food” (Numbers 21:5). The Holy One punishes Israel’s stunning ingratitude with a plague of nehasim s’rafim, perhaps best rendered as “fiery serpents” whose bite, according to the commentator Rashi, inflamed the skin.

When the people acknowledge their transgression, God relents, but then prescribes a strange antidote to the infestation, telling Moses to fashion a a copper serpent and place it on a pole. Those bitten by a snake would look at the copper image and be healed.

Strange . . . Why would God, especially after the incident of the Golden Calf, instruct Moses to build a graven image? And why of all creatures would God choose to heal the Israelites with a replica of that which afflicted them?

The rabbis themselves grappled with these questions. As we read in the Mishnah of the tractate Rosh Hashanah: “Could the serpent really slay or the serpent keep alive? Rather it’s existence comes to teach that when the Israelites directed their thoughts toward God they were healed, and when they did not they perished” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 3:8). In other words, when they looked upward toward the serpent, they were actually looking toward God — it was this that occasioned their healing.  The Mishnah’s response, however, sidesteps the question. Indeed, we know from the Hebrew Bible that centuries later the people would come to venerate and adore the very serpent-entwined rod that God had ordered Moshe to make, so much so King Hezekiah of the late 8th century B.C.E. felt complelled to destroy it (II Kings 18:4).

This narrative reminds us how deeply we need symbols.  Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, once observed: “Symbols point beyond themselves to something else, for it is only through them that we give expression to our ultimate hopes . . .” and sometives, even our deepest fears. Yet therein lies the danger — like Moses’ snake rod, symbols can be transformed into idols; from stairways to heaven they become paths to idolatry.

Which makes me think of the extensive media coverage regarding the Confederate flag that flies on state property across from the Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, especially in the wake of the racially motivated crime that left nine innocent African Americans dead.

There are some who will tell you that the Confederate flag symbolizes for them the bravery of their ancestors who fought for their country as they then conceived it. I have no reason to doubt their sincerity . . . only their sensitivity. The Civil War was a clash between states rights and federalism, between regional disparities of culture and demographics, but it was also unavoidably and inescapably a conflict about the acceptability of human bondage. The Confederate flag cannot escape its own history as a symbol of human bondage and degradation.  Marred by the blood of the enslaved, this banner cannot be cleansed or redeemed without disfiguring and distorting history.

Imagine if Germany were to pass legislation allowing municipalities to fly the flag of the Third Reich, but only at war memorials. Imagine if we heard a government spokesperson tell us that the display of such flags was by no means intended to honor the values of Nazi Germany, or even the soldiers of the SS, but only to pay tribute to the “ordinary Joes” of the Wehrmacht, the simple foot soldiers who fought patriotically and honorably for their homeland. Can you imagine the outcry that would be heard! Parenthetically, according to section 86a of the Strafgesetzbuch, Germany’s Criminal Code, the public display of a Nazi flag is punishable by imprisonment of up to three years!

In 2015, however, there is simply no excuse for a Confederate flag to fly on any piece of public property in any state for any reason. This is not about being politically correct, but about human decency.  The First Amendment of the Constitution certainly protects the right of individuals from government intrusion so that they may engage in free speech, from the unthinkingly insensitive to the maliciously hateful, but affords no such protection to government itself.

Still, let’s not be naive.  When the Stars-and-Bars is removed from the grounds of the Palmetto State’s Capitol, it would be foolish to believe we have solved the problem of racism in America.  Dylann Roof’s demented act of racial hate would have taken place whether or not a Confederate flag flew over a southern statehouse. The Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, the Reverend DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons weren’t killed because of a banner. Racism is a Hydra-headed monster, which won’t be stilled by a single blow. There may well be other haters who lie in wait; would to God that it were the last act of violence born of bigotry, but we know the likelihood of this is small.

Jewish organizations from across the religious and political spectrum have called for rabbis around the nation to declare this Shabbat one of solidarity with the African-American community.  Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis across the country, along with the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as well as the Republican Jewish Coalition and The National Jewish Democratic Council mourn the senseless murder of those who died at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.

To alter the mind of the haters is beyond our control, but the power to reshape the reality in which we live is well within our grasp. Let me share two brief stories.  Just yesterday on NPR I heard a story about an African-American demonstrator, who also happens to be a college professor, talking to several other young Black men. A white police officer approached them and said, “You had better move along because I smell marijuana. And if you don’t make tracks immediately, you will be going to jail.” The police officer then repeated his threat, to which one of the men answered, “How can you smell it if we don’t have any?” At that moment, all of them smelled the pot . . . which wafted down the street from a group of white teenagers standing at the other end of the block.” The policeman looked relieved and said, “Well, I told you I smelled something.”

Indeed, he had. But when he looked across the street and saw a group of white teenagers and a group of African American men he automatically made a prejudiced assumption without looking. It is one thing to hold a Shabbat of Solidarity in the wake of a terrible tragedy like the Emanuel Church shooting, but the story I have shared with you is the reality that truly needs changing; the “ordinary” racism that marks the everyday rhythm of life in our country.

The second story is a personal one . . . On my way back from Camp Ramah this week I stopped in Atlanta, and had a wonderful kosher shwarma sandwich at Pita Palace in the Toco Hills neighborhood of the city. While sitting at a table eating my spicy fries and enjoying my shwarma, a customer and the server behind the counter — an amiable fellow with a kippah — discussed the craziness of drivers in Atlanta.  During their exchange the fellow behind the counter observed, “What makes it worse is that those shvartzes don’t know how to drive.” The words were not said with malice or in anger; they were expressed in a matter-of-fact tone,” much in the same way that I once overheard a woman talking about a plumber who tried to jew her over the price of his services.

So what did I do? Not a blessed thing. I finished eating as quickly as I could and got out of there. But when I did, I realized that, in some small way, my silence was a missed opportunity to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. I should have spoken up courteously, but firmly, and challenged not the server’s silly assertions — if pressed, even he would have had to admit that his blanket statement was ridiculous — but rather the unthinking ease with which he infused bigotry into polite conversation.  The word shvatze is coarse.  Defenders of the term insist it means nothing more than “black” in Yiddish, but then again, the root of the “N word” means nothing more than “black” in Latin.  Let’s not play word games here: it is always used in a derogatory context, which makes it a form of bigoted speech. Period.

If we hear something but say nothing, we perpetuate the notion that the expression of prejudice doesn’t matter: which is why I have decided that when I return to Atlanta to pick up my children from Camp Ramah, I will go back to the Pita Palace and give the man a copy of these reflections. Can I change the world? Yes, because I am part of this world, and as I work on myself, I am changing the world in which I live. All of us can change the world by beginning with ourselves.

We possess something more powerful than copper serpents to ward off the fiery bites of that snake-in-the-grass called prejudice: a God-given conscience; a tradition that teaches God created a single human being to remind us we are of one Parent; a Torah which commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. As witnesses to God’s Presence in history and as victims of prejudice ourselves, it is incumbent upon us as Jews to call for the removal of slavery’s symbols from the public arena; above all, it is our task to remove the shackles of insensitivity from our own souls.

Leave a comment

June 29, 2015 · 4:51 pm