Saturday, January 26, 2013

Shabbat Shira, Tu BiShvat, Climate Change

Here is a dvar Torah I gave at my synagogue today.

Parshat Beshalach: Shabbat Shira,
Tu BiShvat 5773,
January 26, 2013

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Tu’Bishvat

Today’s Parsha is B’Shalach. Let me start by giving a synopsis of the Parsha.
The Parsha opens with Pharaoh sending the Israelites away from Egypt. God decides to take them by a roundabout way, to avoid having to fight the Philistines who block the most direct route to the Promised Land. Curiously the Torah adds at this point that the Israelites are well armed.

God sends a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud to guide and protect the Israelites. After the Israelites venture a few days into the desert, God orders them to turn around and march back, and to camp at Baal-Zephon on the shore of the Reed Sea. This, it is explained, is a ruse to lure Pharaoh into thinking that the Israelites are wavering and are lost, and to encourage Pharaoh to come after them in an attempt to re-enslave them. Pharaoh, of course, falls into God’s trap, and pursues the Israelites with 600 “superior” chariots as well as with the rest of his army.

The Israelites, trapped between the sea and the advancing Egyptian army, despair. They cry out to Moses “Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die in the desert?”

Moses replies. “Fear not, be still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which God will work for you to-day … The LORD will fight for you, and you shall remain quiet.”

And then God intervenes. God miraculously parts the Reed Sea allowing the Israelites to “cross over on dry land”, and then, when the Egyptian army follows them onto the dry sea bed, God allows the waters to return. The entire Egyptian army is drowned. And indeed the text tells us “ not so much as one of them survived.”

The Israelites are duly impressed. The Torah says “ Israel saw the great work which the LORD did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the LORD; and they believed in the LORD, and in His servant Moses.”

The Parsha then goes on to recount the glorious song of the sea which the people recited, and then tell of how Miriam and the women sang their own song and danced with timbrels.

The point is quite clearly, that the people were mightily impressed and experienced the glory and power of God as never before – and presumably never since. The parting of the Reed Sea is such an important event in Jewish consiousness that in the Passover Seder the rabbis debate if it is 10 or 20 or 25 times more impressive than the Plagues. The traditional daily sharachit service includes a complete recitation of the song of the sea. And even our Reconstructionist Shabbat prayer book recounts the parting of the sea when we sing “Mi Khalmocha Ba'elim Adonai”. The parting of the sea and the people's reaction to it are meant to be a supreme moment in the relationship between God and the Jewish people. The Mechilta tell us that, "at the crossing of the Red Sea a simple maid saw more wonders than Ezekiel saw in his vision of the chariot."

And then at the precise mid point of the parsha (after 58 verses out of 116) in chapter 15 verse 22 the Parsha turns on a dime. The story and the mood shift 180 degrees. We are suddenly told that there was no fresh water. The people complain to Moses. Moses complains to God, and God shows Moses a stick that, when thrown into the bitter water, makes it potable.

A week or so later, there is no food. Again the people complain to Moses – echoing their previous cry on the shores of the Reed Sea – “Better we would have died at the hands of God in Egypt – for you have brought us in to this desert to kill this whole assembly by starvation.” Again God intervenes. He sends a huge flock of quail, and then follows that up, for the next 40 years, the Manna.

A few days later, once again there is no water. Again the people complain again echoing the theme that they were better off in Egypt as they are dying there of thirst. Moses complains to God, and again God intervenes – this time by telling Moses to strike a rock and bring forth water. Which he does, and everybody drinks

The final episode of the Parsha tells of the war with the Amalekites. The Amalekites attack Israel with no provocation. Moses orders a counter attack, assuring Joshua that he will deploy the “rod of God” – the same one he used to strike the rock, instigate the plagues and part of the sea. Moses stand on a hill overlooking the battle field and raises the “rod of God” – and the Israelites advance. But when Moses hands tire he lowers the rod and the Amalekites advance. Finally Aaron and Hur help Moses to hold up the rod continuously, and the Israelites route the Amalekites. The Parsha ends with God promising that God personally will wipe out the Amalekites.

What is the point of the Parsha as a whole – with its two distinct halves. To the authors, I think, the point is to show how wonderfully powerful God is. How he controls both mighty armies and nature. And it is also to show that - when he wants to - God totally takes care of all of the Jewish Peoples needs, and that the People don’t have to take any initiative whatsoever – beyond, perhaps, complaining.

* * *
What are we as Reconstructionist supposed to make of this? Reconstructionism famously rejects God’s ability to work supernatural wonders. And it strongly disavows human passivity in the face of real problems.

I think that one of the positive lessons that Reconstructionists can take from the Parsha is hinted at in the complete difference between the first part of the Parsha – the parting of the sea – and the second part – the series of travails and Godly interventions that follow, and in the equal weight of these two parts within the Parsha. The Parsha, taken as a whole then, can teach us something about the proper function of religion and of God in a Reconstructionist world-view. Not only must religion meet our need for wonder, for awe and for elevating experiences – like the parting of the sea. It must also help us to meet our real and material needs – food, water, and physical security in the case of our Parsha’s second half. This was a point that Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, was adamant about. If religion does not help people meet the real challenges and real needs in their lives – then it has no useful function, and it will wither away.

* * *
But today is not just Shabbat Shira, it is also Tu BiShvat: the “New Year of Trees.” And Tu BiShvat also, must help us address both our need for wonder, awe and elevating experiences, as well as our real and material challenges.

Tu BiShvat is a very Reconstructionist holiday. Its existence, and function have changed markedly over time. It did not exist at all in Biblical times. The first mention of Tu BiShvat is in the Mishnah – compiled about 200 AD. In the Mishnah of Tractate Rosh Hashanah we read:

"There are four dates for New Year: - The first of Nisan – is New Year for kings and festival; the first of Elul is the New Year for animal tithes. ... The first of Tishrei is the New Year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, and the first of Shevat is the New Year for planting and sowing of produce and fruit - this according to the school of Shamai, but the school of Hillel say: its is the fifteenth of Shevat" [Rosh Hashana 2A]

Thus Tu BiShvat started out as no more than the end of the fiscal year for the tithing of produce and fruits.

In the Middle Ages, Tu BiShvat began to be celebrated as a feast in keeping with the Mishnaic description of the holiday as a "New Year." In the midst of winter Jews would augment their Tu BiShvat meal with hard to get fruits. There were no special prayers or ceremonies with this meal, just a time to have a good meal with fruit in the middle of winter. As a fresh fruit was hard to come by in winter – especially in northern Europe – dried fruits, if possible from Israel, including dried carob – called “boxer” in Yiddish – was often used.

In the 16th century, the kabbalist Issac Luria and his disciples in Tsfat instituted a Tu BiShvat “Seder.” In this ceremony the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning. The idea was that eating ten specific fruits and drinking four cups of wine in a specific order while reciting the appropriate blessings would bring human beings and the natural world closer together and thus closer to spiritual perfection. This linking of the spiritual well being of humans with the natural world is perhaps the first real spark of environmental consciousness introduced into Tu BiShvat.

The next development of Tu BiShvat occurs in 1890. On Tu BiShvat that year, Rabbi Ze'ev Yafetz, a teacher at the proto-Zionist colony of Zichron Yaakov, took his students to plant trees as a marker of the day, and also of course, because the young settlement needed more trees. He continued this custom in subsequent years. The custom was officially adopted in 1908 by the Jewish Teachers Union in the Land Of Israel as a prescribed way to teach their students a love of the Land of Israel, and of nature, and of the Zionist imperative to re-build The Land. Soon after, Tu BiShvat was adopted by the Jewish National Fund as a fund raising and consciousness raising tool re the reclamation of land and of reforestation in Palestine. If you are old enough, I am sure you remember being urged to buy “leaves’ for Israel on or around Tu’Bishvat.

Starting in the 1970s – with the growth of the world wide environmental movement – Tu’Bishvat began to add to its narrow focus on trees and on the Land of Israel, and to become a day of celebrating nature in general. This trend has accelerated more recently and especially in the Diaspora, where the Kabbalistic Tu BiShvat Seder has been rediscovered and re-interpreted to emphasize general environmental consciousness. Many Diaspora communities now use Tu BiShvat to plant trees locally or to engage in other local environmental activities, rather than raise money to plant trees in Israel.

* * *
In analyzing the Parsha I came to one of Kaplan’s main conclusion about religion: If religion does not help people meet the real challenges and needs in their lives – then it has no useful function and it will wither away. So what real needs and challenges should Tu BiShvat help us meet today? What essential lessons can we take from Tu BiShvat in 2013? How can we use Tu BiShvat as a spring board to address important issues in our lives? And by important, I don’t mean merely the aesthetics of a nice walk in the woods.

Friends, ... what is the most important issue facing the Jewish People today?

The answer is simple. It is Global Climate Change. Climate change is real, and it is imminent, and it will affect every person, every nation and every country on the planet, including Jews, the Jewish People, and the State of Israel.
And climate change is happening now, and its serious effects are beginning to be felt now – though, of course, they will get much worse in the future.

This past Wednesday, Environment Canada updated its once a decade climate profile of Canada. The average temperature measured over a rolling 40 year window in now ¾ of a degree higher than it was 10 years ago. The temperature in 2013 – on average across Canada – is 3.5 degrees higher than it was 60 years ago. But of course that is an average. In some place, Fort St John British Columbia for instance, it is 6 degrees warmer than it was in 1953.

Just twelve days ago, the temperature in Toronto was 15 degrees. A friend told me the daffodils around her home had sprouted. Three nights ago it was 21 below zero. We can expect no daffodils in that neighbourhood this spring. Last year a similar phenomenon wiped out the Ontario apple harvest. The damage was in the tens of millions of dollars. Extreme weather fluctuations is one of the hallmarks of climate change. And it will only get worse.

Earlier this month heat records were broken all over Australia. In Sydney, Australia’s largest city, the temperature reached 46 degrees. In usually temperate Melbourne, the temperature was above 39 degrees for 3 days in a row. In that period there were 300 more deaths recorded than in the same period in an average year. Wild fires currently are raging all over Australia. Increased heat is one of the hallmarks of climate change. And it will only get worse.

In November, super-storm Sandy hit New York,and New Jersey. The insurable losses – those that will have to be paid out by insurance companies – are over 60 billion dollars. The real material damage is several times that. The cost in lost economic activity is in the 100’s of millions. It is safe to say that that single storm cost Americans close to half a trillion dollars. Governor Cuomo of New York has proposed a program of preparations for future similar events. The proposed cost to tax payers - 50 billion dollars. More frequent and larger storms are a hallmark of climate change. And these will only get worse.
Last summer drought ravaged much of North America – the bread basket of the world. Corn production was devastated. Corn prices world-wide soared, as did the world-wide price of meat and of tortillas. The year before, in 2011, there was flooding in the U.S. and Canada, and drought in Russia. Wheat prices went up dramatically driving up food prices around the world. More frequent and more severe droughts and floods are a hallmarks of climate change. And these will only get worse.

Rising food prices was one of the triggers of the “Arab Spring”. It was not just magically triggered by Twitter. A decade long drought in the Sahel region of Africa – stretching from Mali to Somalia - has slashed food production in those countries and increased their need to import food, just as world food prices are rising due to the other climate induced disasters I noted. Rising food prices are one of the major drivers of mass migration within, and out of, the Sahel. That there is a rising wave of instability in this region is not due to Al Qaeda alone. That Israel has struggled to deal with 60,000 Sahelian refugees in that past six years, is also not unrelated to drought and rising food prices. Rising food prices, mass migration and political turmoil are all hallmarks of climate change. And these will only get worse.

I could go on in this vein for a lot longer. And I haven’t even mentioned rising sea levels. But I hopefully we all get the point. Climate change is real. Its effects will be serious. And we are starting to see them now.

How fast will these effects worsen? Of course we don’t know for sure. But it’s probably safe to say faster than most of us imagine. Until recently scientists had predicted the total loss of summer ice coverage in the Arctic Ocean would occur sometime between 2050 and 2100. Now they are predicting it will happen by 2020. That is in seven years. Open water in the Arctic Ocean, in the summer, absorbs more heat than ice covered water does. Ice reflects most of the heat back. So the more the ice melts, the faster the water warms up, which in turn melts the ice faster. It’s a positive feedback loop. And in this case it is working very efficiently. This will drive climate change at an even faster pace than we have seen in the past decade.

I am not going to focus here what can be done to slow or even stop climate change. We all know the answers to that – use less energy and when we use energy to use less carbon based energy.

What I do want to ask today – and I certainly don’t have the answers – is what religion – in particular our religion and our religious community – should do about it. I have a few tentative ideas which I will throw out. But I really want this to be the start of a long term and serious conversation in our community about this most important challenge facing all of us - individually, as families and as a Jewish community.

So what should we do?

First, we can make ourselves aware of what is happening and what is likely to happen in the future. And I guess this dvar Torah is an example of that.

Second, we must try to create a deep, value based understanding – a theology if you will: an understanding that the environment, and the web of life that ties us to all living things is real and it is I important to us both spiritually and physically. We should not, and cannot, view all our interactions with the physical world solely through a lens of utility, efficiency and economics. God gave us this world to care for, not to despoil at our pleasure. 

Historically, Judaism’s emphasis on history as opposed to nature has made us somewhat insensitive to this. We need to re-emphasis nature. Historically Judaism has emphasized mankind’s dominance over other all other species. We must re-balance this relationship.

Thirdly, we have to de-emphasize wealth and material comfort. This is hard. But the truth is, most of us have more than enough stuff. We must give up some of it to support those who really do have too little. The solution to human want cannot be based on never-ending economic growth. It must include radical redistribution. And even after that, we must give up some more of our stuff, because the urge for too much stuff is what drives excessive resource usage - and excessive energy usage in particular. And our accumulation has more than direct affects. It has a multiplier effect, as what we do influences our friends and neighbours. We need to educate ourselves and our friends to expect less comforts and less stuff. We need to learn to live materially simpler lives.

On a political level, this means, on the one hand creating social safety nets, so that people don’t feel the need to accumulate as an insurance policy. On the other hand we need to actively support more expensive energy – a carbon tax perhaps . We must do this even if that means a lower standard of living.

On a day to day personal level we must be sensitive to our carbon footprint. This means thing likes paying for energy efficient options even if there is no direct economic payback; vacationing closer to home; owning one car instead of two; taking more trips on public transit; buying a new car every 10 or 15 years instead of every 3 or 4. And a host of other things.

We must encourage more low carbon living. As individual and as a religious community, we need to educate ourselves and others to live more ecologically. And we need to support and celebrate those of us who do so.

Fourth, we need to deal with population growth. This is very difficult. We all want kids and grandkids. But maybe we need to seriously consider having more adoptions and fewer births as the proper way to fulfill or parenting urges and our desire to leave a living legacy and to be remembered.

Fifth, we need to prepare ourselves to deal humanely, ethically and effectively with the inevitable result of what has already been put in motion. Climate change has started, and if we stopped all carbon emission today it would still continue for several decades. So the world will see more climate related catastrophes like the flooding in Pakistan. How will we encourage our government to increase, not decrease aid? The world will inevitably see more climate refugees in the years ahead. How will Canada welcome them? We must certainly be more open than we have been lately. What will we do to influence our government in this regard? And what about internal Canadian climate refugees? If droughts persist, how much longer can farmers and ranchers hold out? If sea levels rise, what happens to Richmond BC – population 190,000; average elevation 1 metre above sea level. And how will we support people hit by more, and more frequent, climate disasters? Insurance rates have already begun to rise? Is private insurance the complete answer? Do we need more socialized insurance? Do we need to be more generous to disaster relief organizations? Do we need to expand the scope of our own mutual support and Chesed efforts and planning?

Religion is about the creation and transmission of values and influencing human behaviour. Slowing or stopping climate change will require great changes in all of our behaviour. Dealing with its effects will greatly challenge our values. Judaism has lots to say about how we should live our lives, and Jewish communities have long tried to model how we want the larger society to function. It is time we openly and honestly addressed the most pressing human challenge of our times – climate change.

And just as in today’s Parsha – on Tu BiShvat (and throughout the year) we must elevate our souls in order to face a scary future, but we must also deal with the practical material and societal matters that will allow us to better survive that future..
Let’s start the conversation. I welcome your comments.

Shabbat Shalom.

[After giving the dvar, I came home and found this article, on climate change, at the Guardian]

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