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Archive for May, 2009

By Dr. Michael Kagan

In the opening verses of the Creation story we read about the daily work load of the Almighty as She creates everything from nothing.    A true birthing process requiring a lot of rest at the end.  Each period of creative burst concludes with the well known phrase “And it was evening and it was morning the nth epoch (lit.: day)” where n is an integral number from 1-6.  The actual count-up reads: day one, second day, third day, fourth day, fifth day, THE sixth day.  And the question is asked: why the use of the definitive article for the last creative push?  The answer that Rashi brings from midrash is that THE sixth day is a reference to a particular six day namely THE six day of Sivan – Shavuot.  The idea being that the process of creation actually finally concluded with the giving of the Torah on Sinai.

I like to think of it slightly differently.

Shavuot is the bridge back to the time of the Garden, to the time that animals were not killed for their meat or skins; to the time that relationships in all directions were straight forward, true, and gentle; to a time when the Earth was freely gave of her fruit and humans planted and sowed with care and respect; to a time of greater innocence and joy.

How does this play out on Shavuot?

Traditionally the festival is particular in that it is a milk festival with an emphasis on cheese cake.  On Shavuot the synagogues are decorated with greenery. These are both reminders of the Garden.  We stay up all night trying to remember the original knowledge (Torah) that we forgot so long ago. And we read the Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth? What has this slim volume got to do with the bridge across forever?  The Book of Ruth has within it every (or almost every) relationship that we are likely to have in our lives.  Look for them yourself. Between the rich and the poor; the insiders and the outsiders; parents and children; in-laws and out-laws; land owners and serfs; managers and workers; lovers and loved; friends and family; life and death; past, present and future; old and young; between nature and humans; humans and God; and finally to the hint of the Healing (Mashiach ben David) that will repair the Great Damage.

And one more piece to hold this bridge in place – Shavuot means Weeks referring to the counting of seven weeks from Pesach to now.  This is the period of the Omer in which we count seven times seven plus one Shavuot being on the fiftieth.  Eight is the number for beyond, beyond the bounds of normal life where we can reach back to the beginning and reach forwards to the end, in which the end is in the beginning and the beginning is in the end – the Great Spiral of Life ∞.
Hence Shavuot – the Festival of the Great Giving – is the quintessential Green Festival.

Wishing you all a wonder-filled Shavuot.

Michael

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

On Shavuot morning next Friday, in synagogues around the world, we will read the Ten Commandments. It’s remarkable, when you think about it, what a success they’ve been. Over the past 3000 years the Jewish people has done an extraordinary marketing job on conveying these basic ethical and spiritual laws. Across the Western world today they are acknowledged as axioms of civilized life.

Well, mostly. My friend (Hazon Rabbinical Scholar) Steve Greenberg likes to qualify that success as follows.

We Jews have done a pretty good job in delivering nine and a half out of the Ten Commandments to the world. The half that we have delivered is the side of Shabbat that is about employment; the universal right to have one day off work each week.  The half that we haven’t is the part of Shabbat that is about refraining from shopping, driving, flying – the part that deals with our relationship to the created world. We need to deliver that half of the Shabbat commandment to the world now.”

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Rabbi Steve makes an important and timely point. Shabbat is a precious spiritual and ecological resource. It contains wisdom that is profoundly needed today by everyone about how to place limits on the untrammeled pursuit of wealth that is one of the drivers of ecological destruction.

However, reading through the big 10 this year, I realized that at best we can only claim to have delivered eight and a half. The last commandment, “lo tahmod” usually translated as “Thou shalt not covet” (your neighbor’s house, wife and property etc.) has been a hard sell. I would suggest “do not acquisitively desire” as a contemporary rendering.

Now, you’d have to agree that this one has not flown at all in the contemporary West. It’s not just that the commandment is ignored. Our economic system is built on the systemic violation of lo tahmod. A crucial driver of growth has been the mass engineering of desire for things that we don’t have. As the marketing guru Victor Lebow wrote over 50 years ago:

Our enormously productive economy…demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption…We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced and discarded at an every increasing rate.”

One way to create desire for a consumer product is to persuade someone that what he desires is an absolute necessity of life. This isn’t always a very convincing strategy when we’re talking about chewing gum, laser hair removal, a private yacht and other non-essentials. Another route is to persuade the person to want it because someone else has it.  And that is inciting the consumer to flout lo tahmod.

(At least according to many commentators. There’s a fascinating argument in the sources about whether some acquisitive action must eventuate from the desire in order for it to count as a violation lo tahmod. According to Maimonides, it must. (Laws of Theft 1:9.) In his view the command is transgressed, only if the desire culminates in theft, murder, extortion or an aggressive campaign of persuasion leading to the sale of the object. But others including Ibn Ezra and Malbim, disagree. In their view the desire itself is enough to count as a violation.)

The lo Tahmod economy worked brilliantly. Until it didn’t. Today we can see that at least two of our biggest and most intractable problems have to a large extent, been driven by it.

Global climate change, which threatens to wreak havoc on the world’s weather within our life times is worsened by fanning the insatiable need for more stuff. Consider that in 2006, Americans spent over $3 billion on deodorants and $1 billion on chewing gum. The emission of greenhouse gases caused by manufacturing, transporting, marketing, managing and storing so many barely distinguishable items is immense.

More obviously still, the financial crisis was stoked by the same spiritual passions. The universal American dream of owning your very own sprawling suburban mansion with a 100% upfront mortgage undid the buyers, the banks, and very nearly the whole economy. Blame the Fed, the regulators, the investment bank managers, the mortgage lenders, or the poor suckers who lost their shirts and homes. In a sense it doesn’t matter. All colluded in seducing, cajoling and enabling people to borrow money they didn’t have to buy houses they couldn’t afford but felt they absolutely had to have.

Our leaders have been reluctant to speak about the stratum of our economic and ecological crises that is grounded in values. It’s been left to rock singers and occasional rabbis to articulate people’s inchoate sense that something deep is awry with our economy – something that even throwing three trillion dollars at the banks won’t fix. As Bono

Bono

Bono

from U2 wrote in the New York Times, “Is it me, Lord, people are starting to ask, across the US and Europe… Yes, it’s us.” The bank rescue plan, the stimulus, green jobs – they are all necessary and important, but without addressing the lo tahmod roots of the crisis, we’re just stumbling towards the next one.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch almost said it, 150 years ago at the dawn of the industrial age. In his commentary on the Ten

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch

Commandments he wrote that lo tahmod is God’s seal on the Decalogue. A human law giver could perfectly well command “do not kill” and “do not steal.” But only God, who knows our most intimate thoughts and desires would say “do not covet.”  As Hirsh puts it:

Men can only forbid crimes, and where necessary, bring committed crimes before their tribunals. But…the real breeding place and birthplace of crimes keeps beyond their cognition.

Consumerism isn’t an easy issue for American Jews. By dint of being relatively affluent, the conspicuous consumption that tends towards envious acquisitiveness is common in our communities. But it’s an issue that has to be addressed.

In previous eras, Jewish leaders imposed limits on public ostentation. This rule was enacted in Italy during the 15th Century: “In order that we may carry ourselves in modesty and humbleness before the Lord our God …no one may possess cloaks of any other color than black, sleeves may not have silk linings … so too cloaks of sable or ermine or expensively dyed material are forbidden.” In 1728, the community of Furth prohibited serving coffee or tea as they were very expensive.” (See Meir Tamari, “Sins of the Marketplace,” 1996.)

The reason usually given for these “Sumptuary Laws” was to avoid inviting the hostility of goyim. You could make that argument today too. (Did you see the astonishing survey reported in the Boston Review which found that 24.6% of Americans blame Jews for the financial crisis “a moderate amount” or “a great deal?)

But I think that’s the wrong argument to make. The right argument today for Jewish leaders to enact voluntary norms limitingIMG_1297 excessive, conspicuous consumption is that we should be striving to be part of the solution. We are starting to recognize the corrosive effects of consumerism on our families, our economy and our planet. The mitzvah of lo tahmod helps us to identify and act on the roots of the problem. Now is the time to deliver on the last of the ten commandments.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

This was one of the most exciting and original talks at JCI‘s April conference. In it, Rabbi Dov Berkovitz asks what the 3000 years of Jewish tradition, “one of the most remarkable human creations on the planet”, can contribute to helping humanity grapple with global climate change (video of Rabbi Berkowitz’s speech below).

Among other points, Rabbi Berkovitz suggested that today, the whole world finds itself in the basic situation that has always characterized the Land of Israel. “Israel in 2009 is a microcosm of the planet.” The country is perched on the border between a temperate Mediterranean climate and the desert, ” as an existential reality.” It is poised between desert and the availability of water.

The Bible pointedly declares that Eretz Yisrael is “not like the Land of Egypt,” (Devarim, 11:10) where the Nile guarantees continuous fertility to the surrounding region; Israel, in contrast is dependent for its livability on the continuous blessing of rainfall.

Today, increasing areas of the world are experiencing stressed water supplies. More and more people are aware of the fragile conditions that keep their climate livable. This consciousness, which was intrinsic to the spiritual worldview of the Jewish people in Israel, is now shared by most of humanity.

Elie Wiesel has a line that these days everyone in the world is Jewish. He means, (according to Rabbi Michael Melchior who quoted it to me) that many people today experience the precariousness and vulnerability which has always marked Jewish life. In the vein of Rabbi Berkovitz’s talk, you could say that today the whole world is the Land of Israel.

This gives an interesting twist to Alon Tal’s environmental history of Israel that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Tal shows how the tragic-comic environmental history of Israel with all of its good intentions, big mistakes and heroic efforts to learn from them, is also the history of Zionism. It’s the story of the Jewish people learning once again to live in the physical and ecological reality of this land.

Following Rabbi Berkovitz, the opportunity we have been given to do this is very timely.  If, with God’s help, we can use our technology, wisdom and ingenuity to create a good life in this hot and crowded strip of land, it will be a blessing not just for Israel but for many other peoples.

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2048073&dest=-1]

If you can’t watch the video from this page, click here.

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Arnold Goldman has been impacting the evolution of solar power for three decades. His company, Brightsource Industries, is currently working on a solar field in California that will nearly double America’s solar energy output. Brightsource’s Solar Energy Development Center (SEDC) at the Rotem Industrial Park in Israel is the largest solar energy facility in the Middle East.

Mr. Goldman is also a serious Kabbalist- a student of Jewish mysticism. In the following video, he explains his vision for the future of human energy usage: a policy inspired by the belief in the infinite power the world’s resources offer us, if only we use them properly. Mr. Goldman calls the his plan, “Fuel for Life.”

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2029901&dest=-1]

If you can’t view the video from this page, click here.

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In the following video, Dr. Pinhas Alpert, head of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School for Environmental Studies, speaks about his research as a climatologist, his life as an observant Jew, and how climatology and Judaism can join forces in confronting climate change. Enjoy!

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2025910&dest=-1]

If you can’t watch the video from this page, click here.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Here in Israel we celebrated Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, last week; fireworks, barbecues, mutual congratulations on how much we’ve achieved in 61 years (absorbing millions of immigrants, sustaining a vibrant democracy, building a dynamic economy, etc.), and a certain amount of soul-searching about how much we still haven’t: (peace, intra-Jewish harmony, a national soccer team that qualifies for the World Cup finals etc etc.).

In honor of Yom Haatzmaut, I read a brilliant 500 page book; (rather sad, I know, but that’s the kind of kid I’ve always been…). Professor Alon Tal‘s “Pollution in a Promised Land: an Environmental History of Israel” is the definitive work on the subject. In retrospect it was also the perfect read for the day.

Tal’s book does much more than its subtitle claims. As you would expect it tells the story of how Israel’s rapid economic development has come at a high environmental price; it traces the roots of Israel’s current water crisis to bad planning and short sightedness in the early years of the State; one chapter relates the staggering success, or disastrous stupidity (depending on your perspective) of the JNF’s forestry policies. (The JNF planted over 200 million trees in Israel making it the only country in the world with a net positive tree balance over the last century; the only problem was that the fir trees that were mostly planted while perfect for Northern Europe, were inappropriate to the local environment and have caused great damage to local ecosystems.)

Tal recounts the haphazardness of Israel’s urban growth, the lack of coherent transport policies and the adoption of car-based suburban development models which, today, people see are wrong for the United States, and all the more wrong for Israel, a country the size of New Jersey. And he tells the inspiring story of the Israeli Environmental movement

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

Professor Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land

(in which he has played a key role), which has worked with growing success over the past two decades to set the country on more sustainable paths.

But even more than chronicling Israel’s environmental journey, PIAPL is a history of Zionism – the dream of the Jewish people’s return to its ancient homeland – told from an unusual but critically important standpoint. For Tal brings out how the early Zionist pioneers were in love with the romance of the Land of Israel, but largely clueless as to its physical reality. Intoxicated by biblical accounts of the landscape, the actual mountains, rivers, flora, fauna and diarrhoea -inducing diet were initially strange and alien to the early pioneers. Among many literary testimonies, Tal quotes Amos Oz’s description of his grandfather:

My grandfather lived in the land of Israel forty-five years and never was in the Galilee or went south to the Negev. … But the land of Israel he loved with all his soul, and he wrote love poems in her honor (in Russian).”

In this framing, the history of Zionism has been a tragic-comic epic of the Jewish people re-learning how to live in the topographical and ecological reality of the homeland that it barely knew for nearly two millennia. The drive for economic growth successfully added six million to the population rolls over the course of a century and catapulted living standards into the ranks of the world’s richest nations. But it was accomplished with scant regard to the carrying capacity of the country. Today, environmental awareness in Israel is flowering. There are still immense and urgent problems yet there are also signs of hope that the country is learning to live with the actual rivers, deserts, verdant planes, crowded cities and diminishing open spaces that constitute its physical heritage.

It all strikes me as a little bit like inheriting your grandparents’ house. All your life you’ve heard about this wonderful home, the beautiful gardens, the rolling views, the high ceilings. You’ve heard stories about it. You’ve dreamed of living there, but you’ve never actually set foot in the place. And then, one day, you find yourself living there. It’s just like everything you were always told and at the same time you have no idea how anything actually works. The toilets flood, the garden becomes overgrown and you accidentally ruin half of the appliances. Yet gradually after a few decades of living there, you begin to figure things out.

Tal is optimistic that we’ll figure it out in time. As he concludes his book:

The same Zionist zeal that allowed an ancient nation to defy all odds for an entire century can be harnessed to confront the newest national challenge. More than any of their ancestors, the present generation stands at an ecological crossroads—offered the choice of life and good, or death and evil. This “last chance” to preserve a healthy Promised Land for posterity is a weighty privilege indeed. Surely as it writes the next chapters in its environmental history, Israel will once again choose life.

What’s your experience of Israel and the environment? What are the key issues? How do you think we should be solving them? Click Here to leave your thoughts.

And Click Here to order a copy of Pollution in a Promised Land from Amazon.com.

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