As we approached Rosh Hashanah last week, we read the double Torah portion called Nitzavim–Vayelekh, which includes the verse, “Life and death I set before you, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, in order that you and your seed will live!” (Deut. 30:19) The next day, four hundred thousand people, from across the country and continent, marched in New York City to pray and demand that our governments choose life. Among the contingent of religious groups, there were thousands of Jews (from all varieties of Judaism, from Orthodox to humanistic), and many thousands more were marching in groups under other banners. It was an awesome and inspiring experience, a feeling of awakening from deep slumber.
Yet for many Jews, climate change is still not seen as a “Jewish issue”. Now, to me it seems obvious that the decimation of life on our planet is as fundamentally important to Jews and Judaism as any explicitly Jewish issue. And the possible extent of impoverishment, disaster, and famine that could be brought on by climate change must be a Jewish issue if justice is a Jewish issue, which it surely is. But in case that simple logic doesn’t work for you, let’s be absolutely clear about what the specific Jewish implications might be.
According to a Ben Gurion University study, if we enter an era of what scientists consider extreme climate change – meaning an increase in average global temperature of more than 2 degrees – the Negev desert will expand 200 km northward. That means the desert will stretch far beyond Beersheva, beyond Raanana and Haifa, all the way into Lebanon. Almost all of the sh’feilah – the agriculturally productive lowlands – could be gone. On top of that, Tel Aviv will be under water due to rising sea levels. If that’s not an existential threat to Israel than nothing is.
So if you’re a Zionist or you care about the Jewish people and you think that the issue of climate change is not as important as “energy independence”, you have your values upside down. If you think the natural gas boom caused by fracking is good for Israel, or tar sands oil is good for Israel, then your picture of the world is missing some essential facts. Protecting Israel doesn’t just mean getting off of Arab petroleum, it means getting off of all petroleum. If you’re not advocating for that, you might as well be calling for the destruction of the state.
This week we will be praying for another year of life. We will blow the shofar to recall God’s original act of creation, and to herald the yearly renewal of Creation. This week we will also be ushering in the next Sabbatical year, the Shmita, when debts are canceled, the land is released, and the power that comes from possessing the land is lifted. And yet we still live in a world where mountains, along with all their ecosystems, are torn off in order to tear out coal. We still live in a land where polluted water is not considered too high a price to pay in order to extract oil and gas that will pollute our atmosphere. Where the debt to nature we incur will be paid by future generations, or, to use the Torah’s expression, where “we eat the flesh of our sons and daughters”. (Lev. 26:29)
Let’s make this Rosh Hashanah, and this Shmita, the year when all of that changes. Let’s get our institutions and portfolios to divest from Big Oil. Let’s get our synagogues and communities to stand up for the Earth. Let’s repay our debt to the planet with blessings and gratitude and right actions. Let us listen to the wake up call of the shofar and respond: “Hayom harat olam!” – “today, a new world is conceived!”
Rabbi David Seidenberg is the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World, published by Cambridge University Press, and the creator and director of neohasid.org. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.