Pesach and Climate Change
David Miron Wapner Teaching
March 31, 2018
This presentation is from David Wapner (yes, his father was Judge Wapner from the People’s Court), presented in Atlanta, GA last week, and he is the Chairman of the Board for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, the non-profit organization in Jerusalem, that created Jewish Eco Seminar.
Climate change, my friends, is not a distant threat. It is a current reality. You here in Virginia and the Southeast witnessed the increased storm intensity during this past hurricane season. According to the EPA, as temperatures rise, Virginia’s rivers are likely to experience decreased flows, perhaps in turn lowering water levels other reservoirs, with major impacts on municipal water supplies.
Our mission at The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, or ICSD for short, is audacious; to catalyze a transition to a peaceful, ecologically balanced and sustainable future for human society through the active engagement of faith communities.
Developed societies like Israel and the US may be more resilient and have greater resources to rebuild after extreme weather events. Not so in many places in the developing world. Africa has contributed the least to the global ecological crises, in particular climate change. Yet it suffers its impacts far more acutely.
Our response at ICSD is to partner with a Jerusalem-based solar energy company, Gigawatt Global, to deployment renewable energy in faith communities in Africa. We are currently working with Anglican bishops in southern and central Africa and are developing similar programs with the Catholic Church. You can learn much more about our mission and programs on our website.
Last night, we began the celebration of Pesach. I offer you an eco-spiritual message that the story of Pharaoh and our liberation from Egypt parallels the situation facing humanity today in confronting the climate crisis.
Humanity only recently has acquired the G-d-like power to disrupt the Earth’s natural systems. By extracting and burning fossil fuels that have stayed inside the earth for hundreds of millions of years, we are now changing the climate. We are impacting systems of interactive and mutually re-enforcing feedback loops, like the methane stored in the Artic tundra. These earth systems were created over the eons for a purpose - to support Life. Not just human life. Not just now. All life, for eons to come, in all its glorious, wondrous, diverse and awesome forms.
Pharaoh, the human embodiment of divine power, repeatedly refused Moses’ entreaties in spite of mounting and devastating evidence of a greater power. G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Like Pharaoh, we have heard the scientific evidence, the real facts. We are bringing Plagues upon ourselves with every particle, ounce and every ton of CO2 we emit; drought, wildfires, floods, melting ice sheets, acidification of oceans, massive coral reef bleaching, loss of biodiversity, scorching heat, intense hurricanes, an ice free Arctic in summer. We are the ones frozen. Hardened, feeling powerless, when indeed liberation is in our own hands.
While “hardened” is the popular English translation, in a revealing passage, Deuteronomy 10:15 uses the same Hebrew word in speaking of the heart being covered, trapped and impenetrable, literally “uncircumcised.”
Today’s overwhelming scientific evidence has not fully penetrated humanity’s heart. Like Pharaoh, we have refused to heed the evidence in front of us that continuing our conveniently wasteful practices is perilous. Humanity today is enslaved by its addiction to fossil fuels. Though possessing knowledge of its harm to us and the Earth’s ability to maintain a comfortable climate, we continue to drill, frack, and extract every last drop of ancient sunlight trapped below the surface.
In my telling of the story, Pharaoh is the one addicted, both to the free labor of the Israelite slaves and to his own image as all-powerful. The Haggadah instructs us to place ourselves in the narrative, to feel it as a living story for our times. We need to see both the Pharaoh and the Moses within, both the oppressor and the liberator. We can envision ourselves being freed from Mitzrayim, the narrow place, the place of constriction, the place of addiction. At the same time we need to look at ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge that we too each carry inside the arrogant oppressor.
Today, ours are the hearts encased. Enslaved by an illusion of separateness, from one another, from other species, from the Earth itself. How do we remove the covering on our hearts and help others do so as well? Once opened, freed of its outer shell, how do we soften our hearts, especially men, and prevent reverting to old patterns of abusing our power?
Pesach is the story of one people, B’nei Israel, a large clan at the western edge of the Fertile Crescent in the heart and cradle of the agricultural revolution.
At some point the clan’s own agrarian economy is decimated by a persistent drought. Springs, streams and reservoirs are dry. Life in Canaan is no longer sustainable for B’nei Israel. They had not prepared. They did not see it coming. Maybe they were in denial.
As befits a powerful mythic story, Joseph a beloved son of the tribe’s patriarch, rises from the pit into which he is cast by jealous brothers. Stunningly he ascends to the pinnacle of power because his shepherding experience allows him alone to interpret the evidence hidden in Pharaoh’s dreams. With his unique abilities, he is put in charge of organizing resilience to the changing regional climatic conditions. Joseph therefore is in a position to offer his refugee family asylum.
As a traditional people in an imperial backwater, B’nei Israel lived on a smaller scale than the far greater, urbanized civilization of Pharaoh’s Egypt. Their culture, in tune with the fragile ecology between the desert and the sea, revolved around the land and its seasons.
Similar dramas of drought and floods, are playing out today in front of our eyes. Strong evidence suggests that the chaos, brutality and refugee crises in Syria stem from a 2006-2010 drought of a magnitude not seen for over 900 years. Seeking refuge from the failed agrarian economy, in the already overcrowded cities of a collapsing state; then, in Europe, where the iconic image of a lifeless boy on a Greek beach aroused universal compassion, but far too little action, too slowly delivered.
For some period of time all was harmonious for B’nei Israel in Egypt, everyone prospered, the economy grew, especially with a new source of productive labor and entrepreneurship. By the time the drought was over, the clan had re-settled amidst its hosts.
At some point power and greed, feeding off one another in a deathly spiral of “more, bigger and grander,” lead to a completely unbalanced relationship. B’nei Israel is now trapped in “Mitzrayim” exploited, oppressed and enslaved, yet still clinging to its original identity. They seek liberation.
B’nei Israel returned from its wanderings in the crucible of the Sinai wilderness, as a united Jewish people of 12 tribes, to the Land of Israel, then as now without permanent borders. The early Zionists first re-established a relationship to the land and to agriculture that had been totally severed in our Diaspora wanderings, as it had been severed in Egypt. Renewed, then as now, we are again an integral part of the ecology of the holy land.
As with “Mitzrayim”, Israel, America, really all of humanity today is addicted to the illusion of endless growth and development, that we can ignore Earth’s ecological limits with impunity. B’nei Israel needed to escape the bondage of constriction they themselves were building brick by brick, to celebrate wilderness wandering and get back to tending their own gardens.
At the Seder table, food is central. Symbolic blessings call upon us to deepen our awareness of the sources and real costs of what we consume; of the impact of pesticides and herbicides on human and environmental health; and of industrialized agri-business on soil and water. We can demand and purchase fresher, local food alternatives. We can reduce waste. We can consume less meat. We can compost, as individuals and as communities. All of it is in our power.
The Pesach story wisely teaches an inter-generational perspective. It is a story of hope, liberation and redemption. What we do matters, here and now, and to countless generations of our people to follow. An eco-spiritual perspective offers hope and empowers our own redemption and renewal.
Let us resolve this Pesach to adopt new ways of living as an integral part of the ecology surrounding us. Let us seek new ways of being in harmony with the source of all life, Shechinat makor chai’inu,; the side of liberation; the side of nurturing; the side of Mother Earth. May we be blessed this Pesach with the capacity to open ourselves, to soften, to repent, to become more receptive, turning towards a new balance in our relationship to others and to the only home we know.
Now, let's look at ways the Torah teaches us to deal with these issues.