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The ice is melting

11/03/2021 12:54:55 PM


In his magisterial, challenging and controversial book, The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes an extraordinary statement of an Eskimo from Greenland at a world global peace conference:

“About 10 years ago now, one of my people came back to our village and reported a strange phenomenon. ‘There is a trickle of water coming down the glacier. I think that the ice is melting.’ Today that trickle has become a stream. So I say to you, while we sit here sharing words of peace: The ice is melting… The ice is melting”.

The speech was given some 20 years ago and since then the stream has become a river. The glaciers are melting, the environment is deteriorating, the security of our children and grandchildren is dissolving before our eyes.

Our fragile blue planet is under threat, not only from global warming, but from our global wastefulness and complacency. The pandemic may have accentuated our sense of vulnerability, it may have temporarily led to a reduction of carbon emissions, but it doesn’t appear to have really changed our global fight for a healthier and better world.

I use the words ‘better world’ advisedly for our response to the critical environmental challenge is ultimately a moral, religious and spiritual challenge. I sometimes despair my religious world is so indifferent, if not hostile, to the idea of climate change and challenge. I understand that the issue has become acutely politicised, that there are fanatical warriors on both side of the debate. I am no scientist but do recognise that some of the climate evidence is debatable. I don’t however understand how you can deny facts in front of your eyes, I don’t get how you can’t champion better environmental practices even if you’re a climate change sceptic.

If you see yourself as religious, how can you not be one of the guardians and protectors of this planet that God has gifted us? How do you understand the Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah):

“When the Holy One created the first man, he took him and led him round all the trees of the garden of Eden and said to him: ‘Behold my works, how beautiful, how splendid they are. All that I’ve created, I created for you. Take care, therefore, that you do not destroy my world, for if you do, there will be no one left to repair what you have destroyed”.

How do you interpret the verse in Genesis 2 in which Adam is instructed “to work it and take care of it?” And how do you interpret the Halacha, Biblical law of bal tashchit, the imperative against wasteful practices - especially relevant as Pesach approaches with its huge consumption of one-off disposable plastics. And of special relevance today with an enormous amount of PPE waste finding its way into our environment.

In the mid-19th century, the great Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch gave a startling interpretation of the well-known verse in Genesis: “Let us make man in our image”. He suggests the “us” refers, to the natural world. Nature itself was being consulted as to whether it approved of a humanity that would have the capacity to change and even endanger it. Imagine the response of Nature today as it sees its pristine beaches awash with plastics, its waterways clogged with disposable masks, its sea and land creatures choking on human waste, its forests denuded, its biodiversity devastated...

We do not own nature; we look after it for God. Part of God’s scheme for a just world is to treat the natural world with justice through environmental protection and sustainable practices. The rules of the Torah which legislate for the integrity of the environment (such as Shmitta or resting the land every seventh year) are instructive. Says Hirsch:

“They ask you to regard all living things as God’s property. Destroy none; abuse none; waste nothing; employ all things wisely… look upon all creatures as servants in the household of creation.”

It’s not too late to create a better world for coming generations. That’s always been part of the Jewish vision – we believe in the future. If we see the ice melting, the forests burning and creatures suffering we need to react and respond. Whether it’s as simple as using a reusable mask or binning disposable masks (and not putting them in recycling) in order to save our future generations from the still unknown effects of micro plastics (they are now appearing in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time); whether it’s using less throw-away plastics at our kiddushim and better energy savers at our Shules; whether it’s ensuring a Jewish voice in climate issues...

This year at our home we will be placing a block of ice next to our seder plate so that it will stimulate our children and grandchildren (and ourselves!) to ask some important questions about the future of our Judaism and our world (see the JCN posters in this newsletter).

One day Choni was travelling and saw an old man planting a carob tree. He asked him how long it takes for a carob tree to bear fruit. The man told him it takes 70 years. Choni asked if he could possibly think he would live another 70 years to which the man replied: “I found carob trees when I arrived in the world. As my ancestors planted them for me, so too will I plant them for my children”.

Let us too plant for the future ...

Shabbat Shalom 

Rabbi Ralph


Wed, 20 October 2021 14 Cheshvan 5782