Once again, Hanukkah candles provide us warm oases of light in the winter darkness, leading us into enjoyable Jewish spaces — and into our yiddishe neshamot (Jewish souls).
“The idea of struggling with God defines us,” says Rabbi Anson Laytner of Seattle congregation Kol HaNeshamah. “People of other faiths might look askance at the idea, but it is our destiny. And, according to our tradition, as Jacob wrestled with the Angel, even if we end up wounded in some way, we are blessed for having wrestled with the divine, rather than meekly accepting all we have been taught as ‘God’s truth.’ What a unique idea!”
Jews have survived for centuries using this idea. We have pushed beyond what others told us is possible, because we know that our present situations may not work out, and a new future must be created. We must forge ahead, envisioning new possibilities, thinking and acting “outside the box.” It’s that idea we must apply to today’s environmental challenges.
I once saw a poster of the Earth, with the caption, “Where else do you plan to live?” With nowhere else to go, faced with overwhelming greenhouse gas emissions, and air, land and water pollution; with climate change deniers, the comfortably ignorant and the overwhelmed on all sides, how can we work ourselves out of this jam?
Our own people are stuck with the crowd, for example:
• The wealthy Jewish businessman who erects a 17,000-square-foot house that’s “bigger than his brother’s,” rather than conserve resources and build green,
• The Lubavitcher rabbi who’s less interested in eliminating food-service waste at his numerous, weekly Chabad House meals than in finding a kosher sandwich supplier for Jewish students,
• The young Jewish mother who drives her children five blocks from home to the bus stop, rather than let them walk in fresh morning air, free of exhaust fumes from her car.
Biblically, one could view these examples as another in the Almighty’s cycles of hardening hearts before great historical shifts: Hardening Pharaoh’s before the Exodus; Sodom and Gemorah’s before their destruction; the Hebrews’ before their return to Zion from Babylonian diaspora. Usually, great resistance builds before great change occurs, for good, and for ill. Malcolm Gladwell gives wonderful secular examples in his book, The Tipping Point.
Each of our example people could get what they wanted without so burdening the planet: kosher food and waste-free foodservice; a big house and “greener than his brother’s”; mobility and fresh air. The questions are, where is our “earth-friendly” behavioral tipping point, and how do we reach it?
Do we push people to change behavior, through education, incentives and policymaking? Do we force people to adjust, by building changes into their daily lives, through product manufacture and regulations? Or do both?
“We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed,” says American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger. As Pirke Avot (1:17) says, “It is not the study that is essential, but rather the action.”
With this column, I complete my first year of writing “Jewish on Earth.” In this past year, I wonder how many of you have changed your behavior, or taken some new “green” step? What incentive(s) would prompt you to take one, or many more? Something financial, something ethical, something exciting, punitive and/or emotional?
I wouldn’t ask these questions, or write this column, if we all lived in harmony with nature, and built sustainability into everything we do and use. But we don’t. So here I write and ask.
There are two places where science and religion intersect:
1. Guessing how the world began, and
2. Guessing how it will end.
Since the dawn of history, humans have created myths to explain the unknown, generally centered around the actions of all-powerful beings. These myths coalesce into God-centered belief systems and religions. You can find an enjoyable survey of them in Kenneth C. Davis’ Don’t Know Much About Mythology, including the conjecture that the Hebrews’ singular god originated with Pharaoh Akhnaten in the 1320s BCE.
It is a tribute to our resilience that over the intervening three millenia, as Hebrews, then Israelites, then Jews, we have developed Yiddishe koppen (brains) and neshamot that rarely take things at face value, and strive to change them for the better. And we have been blessed for our efforts.
Now, as we warm our souls with Hanukkah and Shabbos lights, I suggest asking ourselves a new question: What can make being “green” effortless? How can we, as Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”? Sometimes, you can get the hard things done by making it easy for yourself.