There’s an article in the current Washington Jewish Week, of DC not the state, that addresses this week’s parasha, specifically those sticky parts we say in the daily Sh’ma. You know, the passage about God rewarding us or punishing us by manipulating the rain.
We are turning away from God’s command
by Joelle Novey
Special to WJW
I’ve been having a hard time with a passage in Ekev, this week’s Torah portion. Unfortunately, I’ll be reading it again soon, because the words appear in our daily liturgy, after the Sh’ma:
“If you heed my commandments, then I’ll grant your land’s rain in its season, that you might gather your grain, wine and oil. I’ll grant grass in your fields for your cattle, that you might eat and be satisfied.
“Take care that you not be seduced and turn away to serve other gods. Then God’s fury will turn against you. God will block the sky. There will be no rain. The earth will not grant its produce. You will quickly perish from the good land that God grants you” (Deuteronomy, 11:13-17).
It’s harsh, and some prayer books have omitted it, uncomfortable with divine judgment. But that’s not what concerns me.
For me, it’s hard not to notice that the threatened curse itself seems to be coming true.
The global average temperature has risen 1.4 degrees in the past 150 years, and is rising faster and faster. Spring is coming one to two weeks earlier across the Northern Hemisphere. We have just lived through the hottest April, May and June ever recorded.
Around the world, rain isn’t coming in its season. Draught and other climactic changes have caused $5 billion in crop losses annually for three decades. Many are finding it more difficult to eat or to be satisfied.
Why is this happening? We have blocked the sky. Coal-fired power plants, airplanes, cars and agriculture are generating greenhouse gases. They accumulate and trap the sun’s heat, causing the Earth to warm. The safe carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million. We’re near 400 already, and rising.
“Isn’t the weather God’s department?” writes Rabbi Julian Sinclair of the Jewish Climate Initiative. “In traditional Jewish theology, climactic conditions are part of the divine prerogative.” But now, “the natural climactic systems are responding to human actions … [that] are creating their own retribution.”
Some teachers of Jewish ecology have suggested that we understand “turning away” to describe people polluting. Then, the climactic punishment fits our crime. The text, at least, is fulfilled.
Unfortunately, what’s really happening isn’t anywhere near that fair. We have turned away, but it is others who find that there is no rain, and the earth won’t grant its produce. Those perishing from the good land have done least to contribute to the problem. Already, the World Health Organization estimates that 300,000 people around the world are dying from direct effects of climate change, most of them in developing countries.
In the weeks following Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish year, we seek consolation.
In this, what is our consolation? Maybe Americans will call on Congress to pass strong climate legislation. Maybe in our homes and communities, we will find ways to reduce our carbon emissions. Our society may yet come together to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. Maybe this work will leave us ultimately with a better world.
But today, as I anticipate hearing that threat read from the Torah, I don’t feel ready for consolation. I’m just too sad to be living in a time when human beings have managed to cause, for ourselves, the most terrifying divine punishment our biblical forebears could imagine.
It’s lonely to be in uncharted territory, beyond even the harshest rebuke from nature that the Torah describes.
Who are we in this story? We are both those who heed the Torah and those who interfere with rain in its season.
No matter what we do next, we’re already partly too late. I grieve that even those of us who say the Sh’ma — who call on our people to hear, three times daily, about the unity of all — I grieve that we, of all people, haven’t been listening.
Joelle Novey directs Greater Washington Interfaith Power & Light, which works with local congregations to respond to climate change.