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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Recently I was asked an interesting question by an Israel environmental leader.

“I was a bit surprised and somewhat dismayed,” he began, “to find out that the date chosen for the Copenhagen Planning Seminar was also Tisha B’Av.”

A bit of background for the uninitiated:

1.    The Copenhagen Summit in December is a gathering of world leaders that aims to bash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol that will limit CO2 emissions going forward. It is widely seen as a critical moment in the global effort to address climate change.

2.    The particular Seminar spoken about here is a gathering of Israeli environmental NGO’s that will propose an Israeli position

Gilad Erdan, Israels Minister of Environmental Protection

Gilad Erdan, Israel's Minister of Environmental Protection

for the Copenhagen Summit. Israel has not so far taken an official line on global warming. That is probably about to change. The new environment minister, Gilad Erdan, is one of the very few in recent years not to see the appointment as a consolation prize for not receiving a “real” ministerial job.” Erdan gets it. He understands that the environment really matters. The Tisha B’Av seminar includes a meeting with him.

3.    Tisha B’Av is the saddest date of the Jewish year. It is a fast day marked by deep mourning for the destruction of both Temples, the massacres and dispersions that followed and the ensuing 1800 years of exile from our country.
My environmental leader friend (who is himself Jewishly observant) was troubled by the choice of date for this meeting. While he knew that the decision was made in good faith, with good will, and certainly without any intention to inconvenience observant Jews, he wondered whether it might not be “singularly inappropriate to have the meeting on that day?” Or possibly, he continued, there was a “meaningful connection that could be made between Tisha B’Av and climate change?”

“It’s an interesting one”, I wrote back to him.

“On the one hand, holding the event on Tisha B’av certainly makes it hard for anyone who is halakhically observant to come, at least in the morning. It’s prohibited to do work until noon on Tisha B’Av and even to greet anyone as a sign of our utter desolation on that day (which would pose problems for how to behave in a meeting). There’s a strong custom of spending the whole morning in synagogue. That’s before you even start thinking about the effects of not eating and drinking all day in the middle of summer in Tel Aviv. So, on grounds of inclusiveness it’s not exactly an ideal choice of date.”

“On the other hand”, I mused, “maybe there was something singularly appropriate about the choice of date…” Talking with people about this since, I realize that it might in fact be true in more ways than I thought.

Firstly, some have drawn an analogy between the burning of the Temple and the ecological threats of today. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes,

“This memory of the burning of the Temple comes when scorching winds blow across the Middle East, when forest fires blaze, when grassy savannahs shrivel in the drought brought on — in our generation —  by global heating.  It is as if the burning of the Temple is a miniature version of the scorching of our planet.”

Waskow calls for people to fast on Tisha B’Av this year, or at least to fast from consuming gasoline and beef, (two of the biggest causes of greenhouse gas emissions)– a call we strongly endorse.

Secondly, as Dr. Michael Kagan of Jewish Climate Initiative pointed out, Tisha B’Av is the day on which it was decreed that the Jews would wander in the desert for 40 years of exile as a punishment for the sin of the spies, who shunned the goodness of the Land of Israel. In the terrible words of the Talmud:

“Rabbi Yochanan said that day (when the decree was made) was the eve of Tisha B’Av. The Holy One said, “you have wept for no reason. I will fix on this day weeping throughout the generations.” (Talmud 29a).

According to Rabbi Yochanan, the people’s acceptance of the spies’ slanders and their groundless weeping about the problems they anticipated in the Land of Israel was a kind of original sin. Because that generation refused the challenge of entering the land and implicitly preferred exile, Tisha B’Av was marked out forever as a day of weeping for exile from our land.

Only now are we starting to repair the effects of our longest exile. We in Israel are painstakingly learning how to live here once again. We have made many mistakes, in water use, forestry and city planning, but through the remarkable efforts of Israel’s environmental movement we are relearning how to bear responsibility for our natural environment.  How uncannily appropriate that a meeting at which the reborn State of Israel’s Minister of the Environment will be asked to rise and take some responsibility for the earth’s greatest environmental challenge should be inadvertently scheduled for Tisha B’Av.

And there is another level to this too. To appreciate it, let’s first note that Tisha B’av is one of several fast days in the Jewish calendar. In their purpose, these days fall on a spectrum between Teshuva repentance, and mourning. These purposes are not the same. Teshuva is about examining our lives individually and communally asking ourselves what needs to change and resolving to be better from now on.

Mourning is about experiencing and grieving for a loss. These purposes may overlap but they are not the same. Yom Kippur is a fast of Teshuvah but not a day of mourning. On the other hand if someone close to us dies, our main response is one of mourning, not of Teshuva.

As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik points out, Tisha B’Av itself is a fast of mourning and not of repentance. We don’t try to fix anything on Tisha Bav, but to experience the magnitude of the catastrophe that befell us. We sit on the floor and read tragic elergies for Jewish suffering. We weep, cry out and come face to face with the horrors of the destruction and everything that followed from it; the blood running knee deep in the streets of Jerusalem, the massacres of the exiles, the expulsions, the inquisitions, the pogroms and the gas chambers. We remember that we are a people that has seen the worst; we have been in the deepest pits of hell and on Tisha B’av we revisit those places.

And we’ve also come out of the deepest pits of hell, with a fierce commitment to love and to cherish life. On Tisha B’Av, the Midrash says, the Messiah will be born.

This Tisha B’Av, it is to be hoped, the State of Israel will be take a significant step towards loving and cherishing all of life on earth.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

The Copenhagen Summit in December is a gathering of world leaders that aims to bash out a successor agreement to the Kyoto protocol that will limit CO2 emissions going forward. It is widely seen as a critical moment in the global effort to address the threat of climate change.

There is a remarkable groundswell of concern and activism in the world that is building in advance of this event. People everywhere are raising their voices, demanding that, this time, our leaders do right by the earth and by our children. In the Jewish community too, there is an awakening of passion and activism around this issue. The Shabbat of Parshat Noach, October 23rd-4th has been declared Global Climate Healing Shabbat and Hazon and Jewish Climate Initiative will shortly be going public with a Seven Year Plan for the Jewish people to address climate change and sustainability.

How can the current period in the Jewish calendar help us to understand what’s going on and what’s at stake?

We are in the middle of the three weeks that are bounded by the fasts of the 17th Tammuz until Tisha B’Av. Let’s first note they are two out of several fast days in the Jewish calendar. In their purpose, these days fall on a spectrum between Teshuva, repentance, and mourning. These purposes are not the same. Teshuva is about examining our lives individually and communally asking ourselves what needs to change and resolving to be better from now on.

Mourning is about experiencing and grieving for a loss. These purposes may overlap but they are not the same. Yom Kippur is a fast of Teshuvah but not a day of mourning. On the other hand if someone close to us dies, our main response is one of mourning, not of Teshuva.

The Mishnah (Taanit 26a-b) teaches that on the 17th Tammuz the process of destruction began. Specifically, the offering of the daily sacrifice was suspended in the first temple, the wall of the city was breached in the time of the second temple, Apustamus the wicked burned the Torah during the time of the second temple, and an idol was placed in the sanctuary.

Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim points out that these events were warning signs. They were portents of much worse things to come that could still have been averted. So too with the environment Evonne teaches. We are seeing massive levels of species extinction, melting of the polar ice caps and increasingly lethal floods and droughts worldwide. These are warning signs of potentially far worse consequences to come that we ignore at our peril. So these three weeks are a very apt time to examine our lives and make changes that reflect the warning signs that confront us.

And then there’s another level of connection too. The framework of Jewish fast days was developed in response to climate disasters, in particular the absence of rain in the Land of Israel. In Masechet Ta’anit the Talmud devotes most of a tractate to exploring the interaction of human and Divine influence in producing the weather that is needed to sustain human life.

The Mishnah begins by describing the prayers for rain that are said daily throughout the winter (1:1), goes on to prescribe a series of public fast days of increasing severity in the eventuality that the rains fail, (1:4-6) and outlines in detail the rituals of communal fasting, prayer and penitence to be followed in the event of full-blown climate catastrophe (Chapter 2).

It is clear to the Talmud that, through Divine mediation, the weather is profoundly sensitive to human action. Not only can our fasting and prayer help end drought, but our actions may cause drought. Withholding support to the poor and the Levites, slander, gossip and neglect of Torah study are among the sins that the rabbis identify as causing the Heavens to shut up. (Ta’anit 7b).

In a fascinating unpublished article, Eilon Schwartz of the Heschel Centre for Environmental Learning and Leadership calls Climate Change, “the first post-modern disaster. . . At its core sits the reintegration of nature and human beings, and the blurring of the modernist divide between the “is” and the “ought.”

In climate change, the physical consequences of ethically problematic human behavior (burning too much fossil fuel without

The Heschel Centers Dr. Eilon Schwartz

The Heschel Center's Dr. Eilon Schwartz

heed for its effects on the natural world, the poor and future generations) have become part of “nature.” Is climate change a “natural” or “man-made” disaster? It’s both. Are its causes primarily scientific or spiritual? The two categories have become intertwined.

Schwartz calls it “the Return of Biblical Cosmology” – with a difference. As in the Bible, climactic disasters are a consequence of human misdeeds. (Schwartz does not shrink from using the word “sin.”).

But unlike the way we always understood the Bible, nature today doesn’t seem to be a mere tool in the hands of the Divine, exacting punishment for human acts that are independent of it. The natural climactic systems are responding to trillions of human actions (driving, flying, overheating, overeating, wasting, etc.) that we are coming to understand as deeply harmful. These actions are creating their own retribution.

Yet the Talmud offers us hope that just as we humans may be responsible for disrupting the weather, so too we can be part of repairing it. For those of us with a traditional theology it holds out hope that those same practices of prayer and penitence can help. For others who don’t think in those terms, penitence of a more naturalistic kind; massive shifts in human behavior and in our relationship with the planet that sustains us, can still prevent the direst consequences.

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