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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 Rabbi Julian Sinclair, as published on www.GreenProphet.com

Twenty years, ago, Sally Bingham went to her local bishop and announced that she wanted to be ordained so that she could become the world’s first priest for the environment.

She was received with some skepticism. Undeterred, she embarked on almost a decade of study and became an Episcopalian minister in 1998. She went on to found Interfaith Power and Light (what a great name for an organization). Today IPL has some 2000 affiliated congregations in 26 states of the US.

In her recent book “Love God, Heal the Earth”, Bingham has brought together 21 leading voices speaking out about the about the religious duty to protect the environment. All are doers in the field, not just thinkers. Some are inspirational leaders. There a couple each of Muslims, Buddhists and Jews, and 15 Christians of all stripes and persuasions.

The tone of the essays is personal, often confessional. Each tells of a personal journey towards placing creation at the center of his or her faith and activism.

Some tell of mystical experiences in nature, others of a progression from a passion for feminism or civil rights to environmentalism.

Among the most interesting are the accounts of Richard Cizik and Joel Hunter, leaders of the Evangelical Climate Initiative for whom accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change and the urgency of doing something about it was a struggle, and ultimately, a conversion.

Their stories vividly document the suspicion of science, of government and the mainstream media in the evangelical movement.

They show just how counter-cultural acceptance of climate change was within their churches. (This is what makes the Evangelical response to global warming politically very significant. It removes climate change from the leftish pigeon hole in which it was in danger of becoming stuck and elevates it to the status of an ethical issue that transcends party lines.)

One of the common themes of all the essays is that, as Bingham puts it,

The contributors all in different ways trace the transformation that begins with spiritual stirrings of love and reverence for God’s world and eventuates in action.

Rev. Sally Bingham, Author of Love God, Heal the Earth

Sally Bingham, Author of Love God, Heal Earth

As Pastor Clare Butterfield writes:

What we are trying to do is not to change light bulbs. We are trying to change people – with the assumption that they will then be the kind of people who will change their own light bulbs.

This heart-light bulb nexus touches on the unique and necessary contribution that religions can make in the struggle to avert climate change. Environmentalists are realizing that knowing what we must do may not be enough. We also need to find the moral passion to do it and the strength to overcome inner obstacles.

In the words of Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment, quoted in the book by Richard Cizik:

“Thirty years ago, I thought that with enough good science, we would be able to solve the environmental crisis. I was wrong. I used to think the greatest problems threatening the planet were species extinction, pollution and climate change. I was wrong there too. I now believe that the greatest problems are pride, apathy and greed.”

“Love God, Heal the World” is an impressive and sometimes moving collection of testimonies from leaders of the environmental religious movement. It sheds light on the actions and the souls of people who are not only bringing new life and hope to environmentalism, but are also rethinking their religious faith and traditions in the light of the challenges environmentalism levels.

To be sure, the authors present their views in engagingly broad strokes that raise a lot of questions. As many of the writers acknowledge, the world’s religions have arrived late to this issue.

As the book shows, they are catching up fast.

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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!

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

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In the following video, from the Vayehi Or Workshop, Nigel Savage, founder of Hazon, discusses Hazon, Jews, food and Climate Change. Nigel and Hazon have been working with JCI on the Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability, and in this piece, Nigel offers some hopeful and practical tips towards how the Seven Year Plan can be most effective. Enjoy! (And feel welcome, as always, to leave your comments and feedback).

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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!

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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This past Sunday, 53 of Israel’s top scientists, business people, environmentalists, policy makers, Rabbis and educators met in Jerusalem, to develop a “Seven Year Plan for the Jewish People on Climate Change and Sustainability.” The plan, commissioned by the United Nations-affiliated Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC), will be presented at Windsor Castle this coming November, along with like-plans from 11 other world faiths. The meeting was held this week, to honor the Birkat Hahama, the once-in-twenty-eight years Blessing of the Sun, which we said this (Wednesday) morning.

Jewish Climate Initiative‘s Rabbi Julian Sinclair and Hazon‘s Nigel Savage put together the first draft of “the plan,” and Sunday’s meeting presented the first opportunity for feedback, and the furthering of ideas. Among the participants were Green Movement-Meimad’s Alon Tal, Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem, Naomi Tsur, founder of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership, Dr. Eilon Schwartz and Professor Pinhas Alpert, head of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies.

It was a fantastic day- incredible to be in a room full of so many talented people, all who’ve accomplished so much in their respective fields. We’ll be posting some great videos of the day’s events in the near future. JCI and Hazon hope to “Kick-Off” the Seven Year Plan, at an international conference this coming Tu B’Shevat, with the help of Sunday’s guests- We’ll keep you posted on our progress!

Until then, Jewish Climate Initiative and Climate of Change wish you a Pesach full of happiness, peace, family and freedom- Chag Sameach… and a happy Birkat Hahama!

For us, Birkat Hahama has been a process of thinking about how we have used, and how we will use, the blessings of Creation. We hope your Birkat Hahama is/was meaningful, as well.

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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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