Sustainability

You may recall, if you were here last year on Kol Nidrei night, that we read and talked about the three paragraphs of the sh’ma. Among other things, we saw that Reform Judaism had pulled a Seinfeldian “yada, yada” move back in the nineteenth century, removing fully half of the text for ideological reasons. I proposed then that reading the three paragraphs of the sh’ma, in their entirety, is a powerful spiritual practice, an antidote against self-centeredness and the dulling of the spirit. These were my words then:

I recommend, as a spiritual practice, a thoughtful, careful reading of those words each day. They are, in the original Hebrew, two hundred forty-eight words, though the less economical English translation comes out at a bit over 400. Either way, in as much time as it takes to read the lead story from your favorite morning paper, you can review the themes of God’s unity and sovereignty, the importance of the commandments, faithfulness, and holiness. Words that have been the heartbeat of Jewish life for three thousand years can work their way into your life as well, and the results can be surprisingly good.

So here we are, a year later. We’ve just sung the first paragraph – the familiar one, the “v’ahavta,” – and so we’re in just the right place in our service to take up the one that’s gone completely missing from our liturgy. You’ll find it restored in the handout, on pages ten and eleven. Let’s read together:

And if you in fact hearken to My mitzvot, to which I am calling you today, to love the Eternal your God and to serve God with all your heart and soul –then I will give your land rain in due season, early and late, and you will gather your grain and wine and oil. I will provide grass for your cattle to graze, and you shall eat your fill. Be careful, lest your hearts turn and you turn aside to serve other gods and bow down to them. God’s anger will flare at you, and God will stop up the skies, and there will be no dew, and the land will not produce. You will quickly disappear from the good land that the Eternal One is giving you. So keep these words of mine in mind, with you always. Bind them as a sign upon your hands, and make them a symbol between your eyes. Teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your home, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you stand up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. That your days and your children’s days may be many on the land that the Eternal One swore to your ancestors, to give to them, for as long as the heavens are over the earth.

Now, the words we’ve just read were dismissed from our Reform liturgy because of what early Reformers deemed the primitive, even offensive, notion that the weather is affected by our behavior. Rationalists to the core, these thinkers could not bring themselves to express ideas that seemed so irrational.

But here’s the thing: the words of the second paragraph of the sh’ma are not irrational, or at least they aren’t any longer. We now have ample evidence, and a near unanimity of opinion in the scientific community, that human behavior does affect the weather. Far from being primitive and outmoded, these words may well be the most terrifyingly relevant words in our siddur.

To better understand the lesson that these words are teaching us, we need to understand them in their historical context. They are part of a long speech, given by Moses to the people just before his death and their crossing over to the Promised Land. That speech, which constitutes the bulk of the fifth book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, is a masterful weaving of narrative history and sermonizing, and a restatement and expansion of the laws of our people. When God, speaking through Moses, says, “My Mitzvot, to which I am calling you today,” the intent is set our minds on the laws which were spoken that very day – namely, the rules that fill the middle chapters of Deuteronomy. And reading those rules, and taking them to heart, we discover something quite interesting, and again, quite relevant: they are a prescription for long-term abundance, while their abrogation is a prescription for short-term gain followed by long-term pain.

A few examples:

The famous law about shooing away a mother bird before taking her eggs is given in Deuteronomy. What’s the point of this law? Many commentators see it as a matter of compassion, but others sense a wise teaching about sustainability. If you shoo away the mother bird before eating her eggs, she will probably lay more eggs. But, if you eat the eggs even as you eat the mother, you’ve removed eggs from a little corner of the universe. Do it often enough, and the species disappears forever. Is it any wonder that this particular law concludes with a specific promise of reward, namely, “that it may go well for you, and that you may live long on the land”? Without rejecting the law’s compassionate aspect, we can see that at its heart is an economic principle, and a lesson in wildlife management and species conservation. I can eat more now if I take bird and eggs together…but what will I eat tomorrow?

Another example: there’s a set of rules in Deuteronomy that have to do with mixing species. They are called the rules of kilayim, “two kinds.” Don’t sow a field with two kinds of seed. Don’t plow a field with an ox and a donkey tethered together. Don’t wear a garment made of linen and wool. The last one feels particularly out of place in our modern world, and I’d wager that a few wool-linen blends adorn some of us this evening. The second one seems to be yet another guard against living without compassion, as an ox and a donkey plowing together are inevitably going to struggle against each other to set a pace, leading both to suffer. But all the rules of kilayim, taken together and mined for their connections and their deeper meaning, seem to be teaching us something about living a bit closer to the source of our sustenance. This is clearest in the first admonition, against sowing with two kinds of seed.

Sowing with two kinds of seed was understood in ancient times to be a way to “blend” the properties of plants through cross-pollination. Of course, we have much higher tech forms of kilayim now, including the capacity to genetically alter crops and animals, “breeding” as it were, new creations that have not and cannot come into being in the world. And while I’m not a Luddite by any means, and I do believe that using our God-given talents to co-create with God is a mitzvah – more about that tomorrow morning – I am nevertheless troubled by the possibilities, the law of unintended consequences. Will genetically modified crops crowd out natural ones? Will they prove nutritionally unhealthy over time? Will they fail to address world food needs and instead exacerbate the gap between those of us who eat so well and the billion or so people who live with constant hunger? Will they mutate into sentient beings and revolt against their human overlords? OK, that last one is just a movie, but short of an “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” the rest of the questions are legitimate, and the answers are troubling.

One more example of a rule that has sustainability at its heart: the rules of warfare as described in Deuteronomy allow for the cutting down of non-fruit bearing trees to create siege works. Trees that bear fruit, however, must not be harmed. Again, there’s an element of compassion here, but also good hard-nosed economic conservatism. What will you eat during peacetime, if you’ve uprooted all the fruit trees to win the war?

“Fields, fruit trees, birds and eggs…c’mon rabbi, the market’s tanking, Iran’s working on the bomb, we’re at war in Iraq and Afghanistan….is this really relevant?”

I think it is. The beauty of being non-fundamentalist readers of Torah is that we can learn by analogy, and make our timeless texts timely. The laws of Deuteronomy may be bound by time, but the spirit that lives within them is most definitely not. Drawing on the lessons of kilayim, of fruit trees during wartime, of the mother bird and her eggs, we may come to some conclusions. Here are three:

Number one: We must move quickly away from the practice of pumping carbon dioxide into the air, lest our short-term comfort lead to the shortening of our days on the good land we’ve been given. We are in fact changing the weather as we change the composition of our atmosphere, and the curses of Deuteronomy may indeed come to pass.

Conclusion number two: We must use our capacity for innovation to build up the greater good, instead of directing it toward the creation of ever-more complicated and unnatural hybrid species of financial instruments – a striking and timely example of kilayim gone horribly wrong.

Conclusion number three: We must learn to live closer to home, closer to our means, weaning ourselves of the practice of buying our happiness with our children’s sustenance. The bill is coming due for our unwillingness to live a bit more simply, a bit more gratefully. And the bill is taking a pretty biblical form, as the rain of cheap money blowing across the Pacific from Asia dries up. What happened earlier today on Wall Street ought to be enough to make us take a second look at Deuteronomy, and to think about how we can live more richly even as some of our riches vanish.

What, then, would a people living in consonance with the world and with the covenant look like? I imagine we’d see less fossil fuel being burned, and more money being invested in sustainable forms of energy. We’d probably see a burst of interest in eating healthy food grown closer to home, not only because it saves energy but also because there’s something absolutely bless-ed about enjoying local, seasonal foods. We’d do a better job of sustaining our resources by reducing, reusing and recycling. There’d be a market for money and debt, of course, but it would have some controls in place to make sure that it wouldn’t collapse upon itself like a house of cards. In this future, some people might have a bit less luxury than they do now, and some people would have a bit more cushion from the edge of a cliff than they do now, but our shared prosperity would lift us, collectively, to a better and more sustainable place. And our children, instead of being in hock for our short-sightedness, would be given what we were given, and what so many other generations have been given: a healthy starting point from which they could do a little bit better than their parents, instead of a whole lot worse.

Shared prosperity” is an idea that deserves a quick exploration before we wrap up and continue with the service. One thing about the second paragraph of the sh’ma that doesn’t translate too well into English is that it is spoken in the second person, plural. Atem. Ustedes. Y’all. Read with that knowledge, we can further appreciate the good sense and the rationalism of the passage. If I’m personally a jerk, and my neighbor is a saint, Deuteronomy doesn’t contemplate a quenching rain hovering over his field while mine goes to dust. Atem. Ustedes. Y’all. The message of shared responsibility, and shared prosperity, is one that we desperately need to hear, especially on a day when our political leaders – and I use the term “leaders” very loosely – chose to let finger-pointing, blame-assigning, and parochialism get in the way of passing important legislation. And so our shared prosperity is a bit smaller. Seven percent smaller than it was when we woke up this morning, to be precise. Yes, some of us lived more responsibly, and others are more responsible for the mess. But rain doesn’t pick which field it falls on. We are all in this thing together.

It’s important to remember as well that one does not need to subscribe to the notion of a God who punishes his creatures with drought in order to see the applicability, and the wisdom, of the second paragraph of the sh’ma. In fact, I don’t subscribe to that view of the Divine, and yet here I am teaching the value of reading the words. In truth, as is the case with so much within Judaism, deeds and misdeeds bring their own rewards or punishments. Let’s be honest with ourselves. In a world of abundance, we’ve allowed for too much scarcity; in a world of blessing, we’ve been too prone to inviting curse; in a world so rich with the spiritual, we’ve focused on the material. Is it any wonder that we’re left wondering about our future?

My friend Pini Kachel shared a lovely teaching at our Religious School faculty meeting last month, about the etymology of the word shanah, as in “Rosh Hashanah.” Shanah can be seen as coming from the root meaning “to change” – l’shanot – and it can be seen as coming from the root meaning “to repeat” – l’shanen. As a new year begins, we stand at a crossroads. Will we continue down the same path that’s brought us to this point…or will we do teshuvah, turning in the direction that we know is healthier over the long haul. Will we change, or just repeat the same mistakes?

The possibility of change – real change, fundamental change – is at the heart of Judaism. For while we know that the astronomer is right about the earth being swallowed by the sun in a couple of billion years, we also know that the Torah is right about the capacity for us to redeem the world, once and for all, by living in consonance with its Way. May that redemption come speedily, and soon, and let us say, Amen.

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