I once was hiking in the Sahara desert and arrived at a mountaintop Berber village. A little boy approached me and opened his palm to show me something he had found in a cave in the upper reaches of the desert: to my wonder, it was a fossilized shell completely crystallized within. It had survived hundreds of millions of years since the time that this desert was an ocean. I keep that shell on my rabbi's desk. I show it to children to remind them of the Noah story and how we are on this earth to protect all life -- the interconnected life of every other species and our own.
The recently released film Noah likewise is a call to all viewers to tread gently on the earth and to treat our environment with care, raising a moral parallel between the flood and the continuing onslaught of climate change on our earth. One of the most powerful moments in the film for me as a rabbi was when all the world's species were racing toward the ark. Each group of animals came with its own kind, from slithering reptiles, to amphibians and larger mammals and ultimately Noah and his family, representing the last people on earth. Witnessing this unity represents to me what we must do -- people of different backgrounds must all move swiftly. Together, we must make of our daily actions and choices an ark.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), along with some of the world's eminent climate scientists are warning us of the dire consequences we all face as a result of the currently shifting climate. All continents are now experiencing extremely unusual weather from droughts to arctic conditions to record rainfall. Consequently, we are in the midst of a silent genocide of the world's species, from coral to polar bear, North Atlantic Cod to quiver trees. Species that have been resilient, even thriving, for thousands of years cannot cope with climactic disruptions. Among all assessed animal groups, 37 percent of freshwater fish species, 35 percent of invertebrates, 30 percent of amphibians, and 28 percent of reptiles are gravely threatened by climate change and the loss of their habitats. In addition, 21 percent percent of known mammals and 12 percent of known birds live under that same threat. For some, like the golden toad, it is too late; but for so many others, we still have a chance to preserve their lives. E.O. Wilson calls this die-off "the sixth extinction" -- such a crisis, he explains, has occurred only five other times in the last half billion years. Nonetheless, he urges: "It is not too late to stem and then halt the extinction of species and the ecosystem they compose. We are certainly too late to save some of them, but global action now can keep the final loss to a minimum."
Ecologist Paul Ehrlich reminds us of our intricate interconnectedness on this earth: "In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches." Wilson notes the epic and unforeseen potential losses: "Vast potential biological wealth will be destroyed. Still undeveloped medicines, crops, pharmaceuticals, timber fibers, pulp, soil-restoring vegetation, petroleum substitutes, and other products and amenities will never come to light." Indeed, the tiniest creatures, so readily forgotten, are precious. Wilson tells of "the rosy periwinkle that provided the cure for Hodgkin's disease and childhood lymphocytic leukemia, and the bark of the Pacific yew offer[ing] hope for victims of ovarian and breast cancer." These creatures are also precious in and of themselves, separate from human use. In an article this week in the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit asks us to "just picture the tiny bivalves: scallops, oysters, Arctic sea snails that can't form shells in acidifying oceans right now." In a poem called "Prayer," the masterful poet Jorie Graham insists on our close seeing, decentering the human self: "Over a dock railing, I watch the minnows, thousands, swirl/ themselves each a miniscule muscle."
During this festive season when Jews celebrate Passover and Christians celebrate Easter, let me share an ancient Passover Seder ritual that reminds us of our commitment to the natural world. It is traditional to say a blessing over greens in honor of spring. After the blessing, the greens are dipped into salt waters. This salt water is a catalyst for life: it is like the water of our oceans, from which all being emerged. It is also a catalyst for change: symbolizing tears to remind us of our responsibility to alleviate suffering in our world.
Faith communities around our world deeply believe we are all connected in a web of Creation. It is time to use our righteous anger to ensure that our world leaders hear us and catalyze governments to work more diligently to protect life as we know it. We must each do our part and speak up to protect our fragile planet. The desert sand, where once water rushed, sieves through our fingers. We hold in our hands artifacts of loss and change. Like that shell, I offer this prayer, these lines from Jorie Graham:
"More and more by
each glistening minute, through which infinity threads itself,
also oblivion, of course, the aftershocks of something
at sea. Here, hands full of sand, letting it sift through
in the wind, I look in and say take this, this is
what I have saved, take this, hurry."