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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

The Power of One

On Yom Kippur we examine our actions.  The scrupulous review of our deeds that the day calls for teaches us that everything we do, however small it may seem matters a great deal, often far more than we can even imagine.

Maimonides writes in The Laws of Teshuvah:

Therefore a person should see himself throughout the year as if his life is half good and half bad and likewise see the whole world equally poised in the same way.  One bad deed can tip himself and the whole world towards destruction. One good deed can tip himself and the whole world towards salvation….therefore all Jews have the custom of doing as much Tzdakah and as many Mitzvot as possible between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4.

Global climate change is caused by billions of everyday actions of hundred of millions of people. It is so tempting to say, “what difference will it make if I change my lightbulbs/drive a Prius/….I’m only an infinitesimal part of the problem.  My actions won’t make a difference.”

Billions of people telling themselves this are tipping the world towards destruction.  The power of Teshuvah is the power of one; the knowledge that each of our lives and our deeds matter and can have incalculable significance.

Sir John Houghton, one of the world’s leading climate scientists put it very beautifully when I asked him why individuals should feel that their puny actions can  make a difference to the climate:

First Sir John quoted Edmund Burke, the British Enlightenment thinker who declared: “No man ever made a greater error than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Then after a moment’s reflection he added,

“But I think there’s a deeper answer than Burke’s. You know, I live overlooking the estuary of the river Dovey. Once a year, the sky above my house becomes a staging post for migrating starling. They create the most spectacular formations, tens of thousands of them, banking ,wheeling, whirling, swirling around a vortex , and separating and regathering while replicating the same order; I don’t think anyone really understands how they do it; certainly not the starlings themselves, yet out of the actions of all of those many individual birds come coherent and beautiful patterns of organization. We’re like that too, though mostly we don’t realize it; we view our acts and choice as individuals as if we lived in a vacuum, we don’t understand how we are participating in much larger social organisms.”

Yom Kippur is the time to make a commitment to small but real changes. When each of us decides that we are going to make changes and walk more gently on the planet –  we start to tip the world in the direction of salvation.

Jonah and Loving a Tree

At Minchah on Yom Kippur we read the book of Jonah. It marks a shift in the day from a mood of solemnity towards mercy and also from Jewish particularism towards universalism.

God tells Jonah that He will bring destruction on the city of Nineveh and commands Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh to change its ways. Jonah refuses to accept the task and flees from God.  God catches up with him, Jonah prophesies to Nineveh and the city repents and is saved. At the end of the book Jonah is still resentful. God sends him a Kikayon tree and Jonah gratefully enjoys its shade. The tree dies and Jonah is very aggrieved.  To which God says:

You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow; and should not I care about Nineveh, that great city…” Jonah 4: 10-11.

Many of us switch off and close down when we hear prophecies of impending climate change destruction. They may be scientifically well-grounded, but apocalypticism can be paralyzing. Like Jonah, we turn away and try not to listen.  It is often a tree that we love, a landscape, a beautiful butterfly which is endangered that awaken in us an inkling of how much God loves creation and arouse us too to have compassion for the world.  The inspiration we need to make the changes we must, need not come not from fear but can well up from love and gratitude.

gmar hatimah tovah.
Sign the pledge: www.JewishClimateCampaign.org

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By Yannai Kranzler

I was a bit late to Beit Knesset, synagogue, last Thursday morning, on the Ninth of Av.  By the time I arrived, it was already full of men and women praying quietly.  A Jerusalem community known for singing and loud, lively davening, on this day, everyone was solemn, contemplative.  Some sat glumly on the floor. Some stood. Some broke the silence by sniffling in tears.

On the ninth, or Tisha of the month of Av, we mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of Divine Presence, tragedies that befell the Jewish People, hatred between brothers, and the fact that we haven’t yet figured out how to make things good in the world.

I realized almost immediately what was so weird about what I was seeing: Modern people aren’t supposed to be sad. We hide sadness, or try to make it go away. Even at funerals, we wear sunglasses and hide from others seeing our being sad.

In private, too, sadness is not really allowed. If a friend of mine is sad, my upbringing says, “Fix it.” Convince them to “live life with a smile,” and to “look on the bright side.”

But nobody was wearing sunglasses at shul on Tisha B’Av, and nobody was trying to fix anything. Observing the customs of Tisha B’Av, we did not even say hello to one another. Nobody showered, brushed their teeth, or wore deodorant. Like we were disobeying, one by one, the most basic rules of social etiquette. Keeping tradition, we sat the morning on the floor reading Kinot, poems of mourning.

And then, we reached afternoon. Something magical happens when Tisha B’Av reaches the afternoon. We get up off the floor. Stretch. Put on Tefillin. We go home. Eventually, we begin to cook for the end of the fast.

And literally from that point on, the Jewish People enters a nonstop whirlwind adventure of repentance and celebration and the Highest, most intimate and joyous Holidays of the year.

It begins with Tu B’Av, kind of a national matchmaking day- there’s room for relationship when people are not ashamed of having sadness, and are open to holding others’ sadness, too. Two weeks later begins a month of hard work to improve ourselves in Elul, then comes crowning God King on Rosh Hashanah, saying an integrity-filled sorry on Yom Kippur, and leaving the stability of concrete, to live in comfy little houses of straw on Sukkot, in order to celebrate our vulnerability, and to appreciate That which sustains us.

I think about our collective trek towards confronting, and hopefully reversing the effects of climate change, and I wonder what it would be like were we to make space for mourning the destruction we’ve caused the world.

Could we enter our own whirlwind adventure of fixing and celebration? Could we have a Tu B’Av, where our honesty allows us to recognize the potential for Peoples to complement, and not compete with one another? An Elul, where we wake up at the crack of dawn every morning to search our every action and vow to change those that aren’t okay? A Rosh Hashanah, where we acknowledge our awe of the forces in the world that are more powerful than we are, a Yom Kippur where we look to those forces and to one other and sincerely apologize for thinking we were so above it all? Could we culminate with a Sukkot, where we dance and sing to modest living spaces and interdependence with Nature, where it is so obvious that there’s plenty of room for everybody when nobody feels the need to control everything?

I wonder, because in all of the discourse surrounding climate change, we are not allowed to be negative. What began with doom-laden predictions, has now evolved, in order to avoid being paralyzing, into a discussion on the opportunities embedded in responding to climate change. Along the way, we skipped feeling sad for those suffering because of climate change, and for the fact that we were the ones who caused it. If the president is now going to talk about climate change, he best focus on green jobs; how climate change is the economic opportunity of our lifetimes. I find myself routinely looking at scathing environmentalist documents and shaking my head saying, “Don’t you know? Being critical never works with the environment. It offends people, and people don’t like to be offended.”

Now, I pray for green jobs, and believe us entitled to a healthy economy. And I think it’s obnoxious to offend people. But like the Rabbis say, if we don’t mourn destruction, we won’t really live rebuilding. If we don’t acknowledge our mistakes, understand them, accept our own culpability in the greed which broke our economy’s back and our ecosystem’s balance, if we don’t look plainly at the faces across the world that suffer because of our unwillingness to make changes in our daily lives, will we chase green jobs with the same passion as if we did? Will we rush to work at those green jobs with the same energy, dedication and pride? Will we be willing to say that if our economy is abusive of other Peoples or generations, then we don’t want that economy? On the most basic level, will we be as willing to share?

Tisha B’Av challenges us to be real. If there’s more than just a bright side, we can’t just look for the bright side. If we do, we won’t know it when it hits us.

I hope we can accept the challenge to be sad over our actions. I hope we have the strength to admit we were wrong. I hope that we mourn the weakness of denying vulnerability, and then dance to the integrity in embracing it. I hope that we drink to interdependence. That we are entirely overcome and enchanted with the weight, the pain, and the perfect, seamless joy of life when we lift our glass, take a deep breath, and quietly say, “L’Chaim.”

Based on the teachings of Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz, from Tisha B’Av in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. Read more from Rav Aaron at www.ravaaron.wordpress.com.

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Hi Everyone,

In the following video, Dr. Eilon Schwartz, founder of Israel’s Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership challenges us to own up to our own implications in causing climate change, as well as our reservations in fighting it, and makes important suggestions as to what we can do, at Jewish Climate Initiative/Hazon’s Vayehi Or: Values and Vision in Energy and Climate Change Workshop in Jerusalem.

Enjoy!

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2033606&dest=-1]

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

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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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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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In the following video, Jewish Climate Initiative Co-Founder, Dr. Michael Kagan, discusses the significance of the recent Blessing of the Sun and introduces The Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability, at the Vayehi Or: Values and Vision in Energy and Climate Change Workshop in Jerusalem. (More videos from the event on the way). Enjoy!

[blip.tv ?posts_id=2024089&dest=-1]

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

And Dr. Kagan’s Accompanying Presentation:

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

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Here’s a short quiz. Read the following quote and then answer the simple question below.

This country, with God’s help, can be self-sufficient in energy. The problem lies in the failure to utilize God’s gifts to their fullest…  There is one energy source which can be made available in a very short time. Solar energy is non-polluting, cheap, and inexhaustible…it can power individual homes as well as giant factories. The United States has been blessed with plentiful sunshine, especially in the south… God has blessed this country richly, and it is our duty to use those riches to their fullest.”

Who said this, and when? Was it:

a)Al Gore in 2006.
b)Barack Obama in 2008.
c)Nigel Savage in 2009.
d)Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, in 1981?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The answer is d). Rabbi Schneerson spoke at length about the imperative for the United States to move over to solar energy at a gathering of Chabad Hassidim in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, on April 11th 1981.

Incredible, no? Seven years before Professor Jim Hansen first alerted the world to the threat of global climate change in his testimony to the US Senate, a Hassidic Rebbe (albeit one with a degree in engineering) was informing his followers that America needed to go solar.

There are, of course, those who will tell you that the Lubavitcher Rebbe was a prophet and a genius, and that that’s why he was able to anticipate global leaders and experts on this issue by a quarter of a century.

Maybe. The Rebbe was certainly a great Jewish leader. I don’t want to pronounce on the nature of his powers. My point, however, is that he didn’t need to be a prophet or a genius to figure out in 1981 that there was something very wrong with the way that the United States was acquiring and using energy.

America was in the middle of a recession triggered by the second big oil price spike and was just recovering from the Iran hostage debacle when the newly born Islamic Republic had held the United States, literally, over a barrel. (Or more accurately, over tens of millions of barrels.) At that moment, there was something very clearly crazy about leaving our economies dependent on a fuel whose price was incredibly volatile and which was located mostly under the land of authoritarian regimes that despised us. There had to be a better way.

So why did Rabbi Schneerson get it twenty eight years ago, when so many other smart people didn’t? The date of his utterance, April 11th, 1981 provides us with a clue. The Lubavitcher Rebbe gave his speech on solar power three days after the last Birkhat Hahama celebration.

Once every twenty eight years, this rarest of Jewish holidays gives us the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the blessings of the sun.  As the key Talmud source on Birkhat Hahama describes it:

“One who sees the sun at the beginning of its cycle…should say. ‘Blessed are You who makes the works of creation.’ And when does it happen that the sun is at the beginning of its cycle? Abbaye says, ‘every twenty eight years, the cycle begins again and the Nissan equinox falls in the hour of Saturn, on the evening of the third day, the night before the fourth day (of the week.)’” Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot, 59b.

Birkhat Hahama is a once in a generation chance to give thanks for the source of the energy that feeds all of life, that makes plants grow and which, in fossilized form, drives our cars, heats our homes and powers our industries. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out, it is also an occasion on which to ask, “Has our generation used these gifts wisely?”

Speaking days after the last Birkhat Hahama, Rabbi Schneerson was doing just that. He was challenging his listeners to use that day, an obscure but precious resource from our tradition, to think about whether their generation was using the sun’s blessings wisely.

The next Birkhat Hahama will be in five weeks time, at sunrise on April 8th, 2009. What have we done with the sun’s gifts in these last twenty eight years?

We have used them to wreck the biosphere.  Combustion of billion year old fossilized sunlight in the form of oil, coal and gas emits greenhouse gases. Our unabated addiction to burning fossil fuels in our cars, homes and factories is causing famine and drought in Sub-Saharan Africa, flooding Bangladeshi peasants out of their homes and rates of species extinction that haven’t been seen on Earth for tens of thousands of years.  If we don’t change course soon, unprecedented weather extremes threaten to wreak havoc on our children’s lives.

If the economic and geopolitical foolishness of continuing to depend on fossil fuels was dawning on a few people twenty eight years ago it is as clear as daylight today.

Unlike the sun, which is good for at least another billion years, oil, gas and coal are finite. We need, really soon, to develop renewable energy sources that will be in place and ready to power the world the day after oil. Otherwise, the catastrophic consequences of that moment on the global economy will make the current recession look puny.

America has fought three Middle Eastern wars since 1991, at the cost of thousands of lives.  Iran has used decades of petrodollar income to reach the threshold of building a nuclear bomb. The idiocy of forking over trillions of dollars in oil revenues to oppressive terror-funding regimes has at last become too egregious for anyone to avoid.

Last Birkhat hahama, the Lubavitcher Rebbe was one of the only people to seriously confront the question “Are we using the blessings of the sun wisely?” This time around, we all must.

We need to ask ourselves, our communities and our leaders: Are we using energy as efficiently as we could be? Are we making every effort to switch to clean, renewable fuel sources derived directly from the sun’s energy? Are we doing everything we could be to persuade our governments and industries to invest in solar and wind power?

Will we continue to encourage regimes that happen to be sitting on top of stocks of fossil fuels to concentrate vast wealth in a few hands, while abusing their populations and neglecting to develop their human potential?  Will we continue to fight bloody wars over the right to control the land beneath which the dwindling supplies of fossilized sun are stored? Will we continue to actively cause global climate change?

Or will we choose a path towards energy that will be widely distributed, non-polluting and eventually, almost free. Will we invest in the development of the sophisticated technologies and learning organizations that can harness an inexhaustible plenitude of sunlight and the related, sun-driven, natural processes of wind and waves?

If we can give honest answers to these questions this April 8th and act on them, then, God willing, next Birkhat Hahama in 2037 we’ll be able to look back and say that we used the blessings of the sun to help bring peace, prosperity and healing to the Earth.

For more on Birkhat Hahama, visit www.blessthesun.org.

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