07/13/2012 07:18 am ET Updated Sep 12, 2012

Why Is Colorado Burning?

The last few days of July will bring together times and events that share grief and mourning for the destruction of Holy Temples.

One is the Jewish holy day called Tisha B'Av that laments the destruction (twice) of the ancient Holy Temples in Jerusalem.

The other is a protest action in Washington DC called "Stop the Frack Attack." The Washington action will lament and resist the destruction of Earth, the universal Temple of all Humanity and all life-forms on this planet. Now.

About the title of this piece: "WHY is Colorado burning?"

We know why the ancient Temples burned: At the obvious and material level, they were burned by Imperial armies bent on conquest -- one by the Babylonian Empire, one by the Roman Empire. At a deeper level, the rabbis taught that spiritual failings within the Jewish community itself -- idolatry and senseless hatred -- brought on the disasters.

As with many events in the world where Earth and human earthlings intertwine, it is hard to pin a specific disaster on a specific human action. But when Colorado and Texas and Russia and central Africa and Australia all experience unprecedented droughts and fires in a few years' span -- and when those burnings (and also unprecedented floods in Pakistan and Vermont) fit perfectly into the scientists' predictions of the effects of global scorching -- then we would be wise to connect the dots.

Burning fossil fuel burns our planet. Today the role of Imperial Babylon and Imperial Rome is played by Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Gas. And for us too, internal spiritual failings contribute to their power: greed; idolatry of the Automobile and other destructive luxuries; contempt for the non-human life-forms of our planet; cynicism, hopelessness and sloth in the face of the Imperial Corporation.

If we reexamine Tisha B'Av, we discover that ancient rabbis saw universal exile and alienation as an aspect of its meaning, not only the particularly Jewish painful memories of exile from Jerusalem. When those rabbis asked when was the first Eicha (the opening word in Hebrew of the Book of Lamentations, bewailing the destruction of the Temple), some of them answered it was a word with the same consonants but different vowels: Ayekka, God's outcry, "Where are you?" to Eve and Adam in Eden, the Garden of Delight (MIdrash Eicha Rabbah, Proems IV).

There the exile of all Humankind came from a crisis: the choice between greed and self-restraint. God, speaking on behalf of reality, pointed to the amazing abundance of the Earth, and invited the Humans to eat -- with but one caution, one call for self-restraint: "Of one tree you shall not eat." But the humans' greed outran their self-restraint, and so the abundance vanished. The Earth thenceforward would give forth only thorns and thistles, and the human beings would have to work every day of their lives with sweat pouring down their faces, in order just to stave off hunger.

This archetypal tale echoes in the oil-blowout disaster in the gulf of Mexico, in the looming disaster being wrought by fracking, in the droughts and floods already besetting our planet from our refusal to restrain ourselves from over-burning fossil fuels.

This month, the connection between Tisha B'Av and Stop the Frack Attack in both dates and deep meaning (accidental? Providential?) is calling us to enrich the connection even more, through prayerful action.

From Thursday, July 26, through Saturday, July 28, thousands of people will gather in Washington DC, for various aspects of "Stop the Frack Attack."

After many local, state and regional actions against fracking, this will be the first national action. The Shalom Center is one of many co-sponsors.

  • Thursday -- Lobbying
  • Friday -- Training in various forms of effective social action, followed by a strategy discussion and "town meeting"
  • Saturday -- Multi-religious service at the U.S. Capitol,followed by rally and then march to Big Gas corporate HQ.
I want to call special attention to the multi-religious service that will be held at the Capitol at 1:30 Saturday afternoon. Tisha B'Av this year begins that very night and goes from Saturday night into Sunday.

The service at the Capitol will draw on and go beyond Tisha B'Av. In Jewish tradition, besides lamenting the destruction, the day also bespeaks hope that from this disaster will emerge the great transformative coming of the days of peace and justice.

The "Stop the Frack Attack" multi-religious service on July 28 is being organized by The Shalom Center and Interfaith Moral Action on Climate. It will lament the danger we face today of destruction of the Holy Temple of the Earth itself.

Among religious leaders taking part in the service will be Rev. Bob Edgar, former head of the National Council of Churches, now head of Common Cause, and Rev. Richard Cizik, co-founder of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Others have been invited from the Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist communities.

What is fracking, and why is it a danger?

Hydro-fracturing (hence "fracking") is the process of forcing tons of chemicalized water under very high pressure into shale rock that is suffused with natural gas. The gas thus forced out can be collected and piped to be sold as energy. Major shale rock regions include the Green River deposits in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah, and the Marcellus region in large parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York State.

There are three problems:

1) Multiplying reports that where fracking is done high amounts of methane and unknown other chemicals in the fracking water poison nearby wells, turning drinking water flammable and carcinogenic. (Touch a match to the kitchen faucet: a torch!) If the number of fracking wells rises from thousands to tens or hundreds of thousands, as the Big Gas corporations want, the drinking water of great cities like Philadelphia and New York will be imperilled.

2) The very process of fracking releases so much methane into the air that methane, a very powerful planet-heating gas, becomes an enormous contributor to global scorching and the climate crisis that is already causing unprecedented droughts and fires in Texas, Colorado, the U.S. corn-growing states, central Africa, and Russia, and unprecedented floods in Pakistan and Vermont.

3) Fracking companies and their allies have used their enormous corporate profits to grasp even greater political power in national and state governments, and thereby to grab even greater subsidies and profits. Nationally, they won the Halliburton Loophole (spurred by Vice President Dick Cheney) exempting the oil and gas industry from reporting and regulations under the Clean Water Act. In Pennsylvania, they won a law forbidding towns and cities from regulating where and how fracking could happen, nullifying even local rules forbidding fracking near schools where it could endanger the health and lives of vulnerable children.

This increased political power makes it even harder to get Congress and state legislatures to focus on the need for sustainable non-fossil-fuel sources of energy, like wind and solar power.

All three of these results of fracking violate the Holy Unity that is the Interbreathing of all life.

For Jews, the One is "bespoken" in the Holy Name "YHWH," which can only be pronounced (without vowels) by breathing. The sacred Breath is also celebrated in many other traditions and cultures, from the Holy Spirit of Christian tradition (spiritus itself is the Latin word for Breath or Wind) to the spiritual breathing exercises of yoga and meditation.

And the central wisdom of Jewish tradition (powerful also in Christianity, Islam and many secular movements) is the story that Pharaoh, through arrogance and greed, brought plagues of ecological destruction upon his own society. Today it is Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Coal, that are the pharaohs bringing destruction on the Earth.

So I hope you will join with us to make holy this space and time in Washington. I invite you to forward this letter to your friends, congregants and co-workers. And since this work, along with our work to stand with the nuns who are working for social justice, puts a strain on our "shoestring" finances, please give a tax-deductible gift to The Shalom Center by clicking here.

Let us, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said after marching almost 50 years ago for racial justice in Selma, Ala., pray with our legs.