Ancient Torah Speaks to the Climate Crisis: From Eden to Manna to Sabbatical Year to Now

04/29/2015 02:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 29, 2015

On the Shabbat of May 15-16, the Torah reading (Leviticus 25-27) sets forth the Torah's most explicit and most powerful regimen for healing the Earth from human over-use.

It is a regimen and rhythm of making sure the Earth gets to rest in every seventh year -- a teaching that should speak to us today, as we move deeper into the planetary climate crisis that has been caused by human overworking of the Earth.

The Torah calls this year Shabbat Shabbaton -- Shabbat to the exponential power of Shabbat - and Shmita -- Release -- for in that year both the Earth and human communities are released from economic coercion.

This year, reading this Torah portion is especially powerful, since we are living in the midst of precisely the Sabbatical Year the Torah calls for. And this is the first Sabbatical Year in which there is broad public concern about the threat posed by the climate crisis to the whole web of life on Earth -- including human communities.

This passage is the flowering of a focus on relationships with the land that pervades the entire Hebrew Bible. It arises from an indigenous people of shepherds and farmers who understood their relationship with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Holy One Who breathes all life, as centered on their sacred relationship with their land, especially through the foods they grew and then offered on the Altar.

Rabbinic Judaism, bereft of physical or political connection with any land, turned its attention to words of prayer and midrash as ways of getting in touch with God, and to shaping a decent community of adam (human earthlings) with but little relationship to adamah (earth).

Our own generation, facing a catastrophic crisis in the Earth-earthling relationship, can wisely go back to Biblical Judaism for guidance on how to apply an indigenous people's wisdom to the planet as a whole.

Torah first signals this perspective in a powerful parable -- the Eden story is. It begins with the birth of adam from adamah, the human earthling from Mother Earth. Then God speaks on behalf of reality, saying to the human race: "Before you is great abundance. Eat in joy! And eat with self-restraint: there is one tree whose fruit you should abstain from."

But the human race does not restrain itself, and the result is that the abundance vanishes. History unfolds in scarcity, as human beings work every day with the sweat pouring down their faces, in order to wring barely enough food from an Earth that gives forth thorns and thistles.

The story presages and prophesies our history. It is, for example, the story of the Gulf of Mexico five years ago, when BP refused to restrain itself and brought death upon its workers and disaster for the abundance of the Gulf.

Yet the Torah teaches us to see beyond disaster, even when it tells a story that opens with disaster. In one of its most powerful stories, a Pharaoh oppresses human beings and pours Plagues upon the Earth.

But then comes the great tikkun of human history. Pharaoh's tyranny dissolves into the Sea, and then - only then --comes the first reversal of Eden's disaster.

When the people belly-ache about the scarcity of food in the Wilderness, YHWH / Breath of Life brings forth astonishing abundance. There falls a flaky food the people have never seen. They call it mahn-hu--"what's that" - - and we know it as "manna." And it comes with Shabbat, one day of utter restfulness that is the first hint that toilsome labor need not govern all the future.

This story is also a parable. The people learn to restrain themselves not sullenly or ascetically, but with the joy that pervades Shabbat. As they do so, abundance continues to pour forth.

But this story takes place in wild wilderness. How can this teaching be of use when the people cross the Jordan and begin to cultivate a land?

And here we come to the Sabbatical Year of Release -- Shmita. Shepherds quickly learn that they must rhythmically move their flocks to new pastures, for otherwise the sheep will gobble up the grass, destroy it and themselves. Self-restraint: they move the sheep.

The farmers cannot move in space. So they learn, perhaps through generations of experience, to move in time. They let the entire land lie fallow for one year of every seven. Mother Earth herself, says Leviticus 25, is entitled to a restful Shabbat. And the teaching goes out of its way to say that it comes straight from Sinai.

In the very next chapter, we are warned what will happen if we refuse to let the Earth make Shabbat. The Earth will rest, regardless. It will rest upon our heads: There will be famines, plagues, floods, drought, and the people will become refugees in exile.

That warning is echoed by our modern ecologists. For about 200 years, the most powerful institutions and cultures of the human species have refused to let the Earth make Shabbat. By pouring carbon dioxide and methane into our planet's air, these institutions have disturbed the sacred balance in which we breathe in what the trees breathe out, and the trees breathe in what we breathe out. The upshot: global scorching.

So now we must let our planet rest from overwork. For Biblical Israel, this was the central question in our relationship to the Holy One.

And for us and for our children and their children, this is once again the central question of our lives and of our God. HOW? -- is the question we must answer.

So here we turn from inherited wisdom to action in our present and our future.

Our congregations should be healing the hearts and souls of those of us -- almost all -- who have become addicted to the kind of consumerism that is contributing to the Climate Crisis.

• Reenlivening Shabbat as a time of restfulness, reflection, celebration.
• Renewing those of our prayers and reawakening the language of our Psalms and other texts that celebrate the more-than-human life around us.
• Saving some time for our congregations to go outdoors to pray, commune, and meditate amongst the trees and grasses who breathe us into life.
• Encouraging our congregants to form groups we might call "Carbolics Not-so-Anonymous," in which together we help each other live beyond the social addictions to fossil fuel that are endangering our societies.
• Taking seriously the call of Malachi, the last of the Prophets whose last words we read just before Pesach - "I," says the Holy One, "will send you Elijah the Prophet to turn the hearts of parents to the children and the hearts of the children to the parents, lest I come and smite the Earth with utter destruction."

How do we create the forms of intergenerational education and liturgy that can bring the hearts of the elders and the young together to address the climate crisis?

At the same time, we must recognize that as with other addictions, there are powerful "Drug Lords" in some major institutions -- whether illegal drug cartels or legal Tobacco Lords - and we must create the public action that weakens their power to addict us, as did with the tobacco industry. .

We must challenge the modern Pharaohs of top-down, unaccountable power that for the sake of their high profits and great power are not only bringing Plagues upon us all, but using their great wealth to interfere with the democratic processes that could actually heal our world.

As the Exodus story reminds us, we must not only weaken these pharaohs but also create the alternative worlds of shared and sustainable abundance that our forebears called the Promised Land.

So we must at every level - households, congregations, denominations, federations, political action --seek to Move Our Money from spending that helps these modern pharaohs burn our planet to spending that helps to heal it:

• Purchasing wind-born rather than coal-fired electricity to light our homes and synagogues and community centers;

• Organizing our great Federations to offer grants and loans to every Jewish organization in their regions to solarize their buildings;

• Shifting our bank accounts from banks that invest in deadly carbon-burning to community banks and credit unions that invest in local neighborhoods, especially those of poor, Black, and Hispanic communities;

• Moving our endowment funds from supporting deadly Carbon to supporting stable, profitable, life-giving enterprises;

• Insisting that our tax money go no longer to subsidizing enormously profitable Big Oil but instead to subsidizing the swift deployment of renewable energy -- as quickly in this emergency as our government moved in the emergency of the early 1940s to shift from manufacturing cars to making tanks.

• Convincing our legislators to institute a system of carbon fees and public dividends that rewards our society for moving beyond the Carbon economy.

These are the vivid hopes and callings-forth of a world made whole. As one of the Rabbis living under the boot of Imperial Rome taught, "We may not be able to finish the task of making whole our broken world. But we must not turn away from the work."