Over the past month I have watched with horror as one of the largest environmental disasters unfolds before our eyes. Every day for the past few weeks the news of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to get worse and worse as the story develops: Oil gushing out of the ground at tremendous rates, the estimated amount larger than originally thought, underwater plumes miles long found in addition to the surface sheen, continued failed attempts at containing the spill (some of which involved the injection of chemicals and garbage into the area — as if the oil wasn’t enough), oil making its way to land, the potential to threaten fragile coastline and ecosystems across several states, and the impact to be felt for years to come. We even forget that this disaster already claimed the lives of 11 workers.
As this was happening, we had the opportunity to read in the Torah from the end of Leviticus, parashat Behukkotai: “And if, for all that you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.” (26:18-20)
So often in the Torah, the punishment for falling away from God is put in terms relating to the natural world and our relationship to it through agriculture: Do the right thing, you will have your rain and be able to grow all you need. Don’t do the right thing, you will not have rain, the land will suffer, and you will not be able to provide for your needs.
This idea is repeated every day in our liturgy in the second paragraph in the shema, and it is found here in this Leviticus text. It’s tempting to add in “and your seas like oil” following that litany in verse 19, for it is as if we are seeing this passage come to fruition.
With the looming impact on the shoreline and fish habitats, we see that “our land will not yield its produce.” Whether or not we align ourselves with the theology of the Torah — that is, whether or not we see our actions as being directly rewarded or punished by God — we can all agree to the essence of the lesson: Our actions have consequences, and too often a negative action will lead to a negative result.
In this case the parallel is close, as the Torah speaks of an environmental impact and we are seeing an environmental impact. So what is the “sin” of which we are guilty? The answer is found in the same Leviticus passage: “Proud glory.” Our hubris and egotism, which allow us to believe everything on earth is ours for the taking without any regard to the environment, the ecosystem, and the other life with which we share this planet is becoming our downfall. It is vain to think we can take what we want, when we want, from the earth.
Our sin is not remembering that we are part of a larger whole of Creation, and that we must approach this world from a place of humility. We have a gift in that we have land, sea and air that give us what we need to survive and thrive in life. It is our responsibility to see that we use it wisely, in a way that is sustainable for all life both now and in the future. This is the meaning of one of the first commandments in Genesis: “le’avdah u’le’shamrah” — “to work the earth and to guard it.”
The full impact of this spill on the environment may not be known for some time. But we should be able to measure the full impact of it on us immediately. We must reduce consumption, find better ways to generate the energy we need, and be mindful of our role in God’s Creation.
The other day, as my son and I sat in the car at a red light on our way to school, we were treated to an amazing sight. Pulling through the intersection on the main road from the Port of Olympia toward the interstate was a lead car with the “wide load” sign. Then, following, was the load itself: a turbine blade for a windmill, on its way from the port to a wind farm in Eastern Washington. It was amazing not only for its sheer size and its sleek engineering, but also because there before us was the future of energy. A better energy future is possible, and it is our obligation as Jews to help shape it.