Rabbi Katy Allen, president pro-tem of the Jewish Climate Action Network in Boston, delivered this d'var on the portion Korach on Friday evening, June 23, 2017 at Temple Tiferet Shalom in Peabody, Massachusetts.
As happens so often in the cycle of the Jewish year, this Shabbat occurs at an intersection of two cycles: the Jewish cycle of our Torah reading, and universal cycles of the physical world – the alignment of the Sun, and the Moon, and the Earth.
This week, we are reading Parashat Korach, in the Book of Numbers. And tonight begins Rosh Chodesh, the new moon, when the moon appears to us dark, almost as though it weren't there. If you happened to be standing in a meadow or on a beach, far from cities and towns lit up with the lights of buildings and cars, you would see a night sky awash with stars, even more of them visible at this time of the dark new moon. As you gaze at the sky, you might wonder at the vastness of the Universe and the insignificance of your place in it.
And if you were to sit in synagogue tomorrow to listen to the reading of the weekly Torah portion, you would hear a painful story of rebellion and repression. You would read of Korach and his followers challenging Moses's and Aaron's leadership – and by proxy, God's leadership – and you would hear how in response, God angrily opened up the Earth to swallow Korach and his followers.
You might come away wondering whether one should never challenge authority. And if you were, this night of the new moon, to look up at the sky in the midst of an urban area, filled with cars and homes and businesses all brightly lit up in protest against the darkness of night, you might not see even a single star. And you might come away wondering if you should be vehemently protesting the way we live on this planet.
Jewish tradition does not teach us not to question. The Talmud is a veritable treasure trove of questions – questions debated, questions answered, questions left unanswered, questions unanswerable. It is filled with minority opinions preserved for posterity as sacred and holy. It is filled with arguments, disagreements – machlechot – but all of them l'shem shamayyim, in the name of Heaven, in the name of the Holy One. They are sacred conversations about sacred issues, from the seemingly mundane to the most esoteric.
There are sacred conversations about the Sun and the Moon and the stars and the Earth, about breakfast, lunch, and dinner, about sleeping, about praying, about going to the bathroom, about holidays and planting and reaping and tzedakah, and so much more. And the Earth, and the Moon, and the Sun? They know of no machlechot other than those that are l'shem shamayyim, for the Universe and all it contains are, as Rabbi David Seidenberg so articulately teaches us, everything – everything, both living and non-living – is created b'tzelem elohim, in God's image. The rocks, the water, the leaping gazelle, the gnawing beaver, the bluest of butterflies, and the reddest of flowers, the most annoying of mosquitoes, the mountains, the valleys, the ocean depths, the farthest upon farthest galaxies and stars – all bear the imprint of the Holy One of Blessing, the Infinite One, the Unknowable One, the power behind all that is.
And if you were to read the entirety of this week's Torah portion, you would also come across another story, after Korach's rebellion, after the Israelites continued to complain, not stopped by God's aggressive show of authority. In this vignette, God demonstrates the importance of Aaron's status in a very different way, by asking for a staff from the chieftain of each tribe. Behind the curtain of the Tabernacle, Aaron's staff turns into a flowering and fruit-bearing almond tree – what a different way of teaching a message about leadership than opening up the Earth to swallow rebellious ones!
And so I ask you, this Shabbat, what does all this mean for you? How do you ensure that every act you question is not with the arrogance of Korach, but with the humility of a speck in the Universe? How do you ensure that your words and your deeds are sacred enough to be written onto the scroll of your life? How do you ensure that your every act, every deed, every intention, is one that helps to ensure the future of our children, our people, our species in a world dominated more and more by the destructive impact of homo sapiens? How do you bring together Parashat Korach and Rosh Chodesh, the new moon?
The answers are not easy to find, but the search is one in which we must, must, engage, as children and as parents, as families, as Jews, as communities, as human beings. These are the machlechot l'shem shamayyim of our time, and they are vital conversations and acts.
Exploring these questions in terms of communal involvement, the Jewish Climate Action Network launched its Bentshmarking Campaign in 2015/5776. Our focus is on energy usage and reduction, but our approach is holistic. The reason for the focus is that we are a small group of volunteers with limited resources and time. But the reasons for the broader approach are many.
Remember the question that came up in response to standing on a city street and not being able to see a single star, even on the darkest of dark nights – should we be vehemently protesting the way we live on this planet? That question is behind the holistic approach to examining our communities. By the way we live on this planet, we humans, like Korach and his followers are in essence challenging God's authority. Instead we should be challenging our own authority, our human ideas about how to live in relation to the planet.
Consider for a moment how closely you feel a part of the non-human world. Take a moment and let your imagination take you out of the doors to consider this question. (pause)
Despite Jewish tradition being rooted in the Earth in so many ways (remember the readings of our service; think, "In the beginning, God created..."), we, like so many of our species, have lost our sense of truly being a part of the created world. We regularly come indoors, where we easily forget all that exists outside, and our total dependence upon and interdependence with the rest of Creation.
How do we return? How do we do teshuvah and re-turn toward the Earth? This is a process that must, I believe, be multifaceted and complex, and must include each of us in whatever way works best for us, given our personal gifts and our personal limitations. This process is best done both as individuals, alone, and as a community, together, and leads into the concept of holistic bentshmarking.
I will outline for you the eight areas we currently touch upon, and as I do, I invite you to consider: Where in this mosaic of approaches do you fit best? Where could you make your mark?
Energy usage: Our addiction to the wonders energy's benefits is deep, but modern technologies are making it easier to radically reduce our institutions' carbon footprint – the amount of energy used and the resulting amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere – while maintaining our creature comforts. We can do this. And it helps to keep in mind Rabbi Zutra's Talmudic saying that one who covers an oil lamp infringes the prohibition of wasteful destruction. (BT Shabbat 67b) We are all wasting so very much.
Finances: What does money have to do with whether or not we can see the stars at night and whether or not there is enough oxygen in the air to keep our bodies healthy? Finding the connections requires thinking about where our assets are invested. Our communities' funds (including our own bank accounts) aren't just sitting somewhere, they are actively supporting some activity. The question for you is, are they expressing your values of caring for the planet and its inhabitants? Are your funds invested in the past – the fossil fuel industry – or the future, the green energy revolution and community projects of resiliency?
Other areas to consider are the food and waste stream and the transportation systems of the community. What is the carbon footprint of your community's food consumption and waste production? How close to zero waste production is your institution? How do people get to and from your synagogue? How widespread is carpooling? What encouragement is given to using public transportation, walking, and bicycling?
Eating lower on the food chain uses less energy, and getting to zero waste production also lowers your human interference with the rest of Creation. Clearly, the less we drive and the more we slow down and walk or bicycle or join with others to get somewhere, the more we re-turn toward the Earth and are sensitive to its needs.
Do you like to garden? We can also do our best to walk in God's footsteps and co-create with God as we consider how we treat the land for which we are responsible. Your community can ask itself, how viable and diverse is the ecosystem surrounding our building? To what extent does our property provide a carbon sink to offset our carbon usage? To what extent does it contribute to our sustainability by producing oxygen, enriching the soil, and even providing food?
Our responsibilities don't end at the edge of the synagogue property. Do we as a community advocate for our planet with our elected officials? Do we vote with the future of the planet in mind? Do we support local initiatives to preserve land, encourage conservation and renewable energy, and fight climate change? There are many ways to come together, even in today's divided political climate. By searching out and finding the ways that you agree, you bring peace into the community and the world.
Our tradition demands no less of us, as the Talmud says:
"All who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing] and does not protest, is held accountable for their family.
"[All who can protest against something wrong that] a citizen of their city [is doing and does not protest], is held accountable for all citizens of the city.
"[All who can protest against something wrong that is being done] in the whole world, is accountable together with all citizens of the world." (BT Shabbat 54b)
We are all accountable for our inability to see the stars on Rosh Chodesh when we stand on a city street corner.
There are many actions that we can take. But underlying these actions must be a solid foundation, based on increasing our knowledge and understanding and maintaining and growing our spiritual strength and well-being.
And so you can ask yourself: How knowledgeable is our community as a whole about the climate crisis? How often are our place in the natural world and our resulting responsibility discussed within our community? What connections can community members make between Jewish teachings and climate change? Our spiritual wellbeing depends upon us being in right relationship not only with God, but also with God's creation – with the planet, with the air, the water, the land, with all the creatures that call this amazing Earth home, and with each other.
It is easy to be in denial about climate change – we all are to one extent or another, because the issue is so incredibly complex and hugely overwhelming. It is also easy, when we start thinking seriously about the problem, to fall into depression and eco-despair. So, let us remember that "All of Israel are responsible for each other," (BT Shevuot 39a); let us remember to take care of each other, that we may work together as a community to change how we relate to the Earth, for the reality is that this is not work that can be done alone.
But let us also remember that we humans are not alone, and that, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav teaches us, "Know that when a person prays in a field, all of the plants together come into the prayer, and they help the person and give the person strength within the prayer." We are not alone. The plants are with us. And God is with us. And we are with each other. We do not know what the future brings.
Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai taught about a group of passengers on a ship, one of whom took a borer and began boring beneath his own seat. The travelers said: "What are you doing?" He replied, "What does it matter to you - am I not boring under my own seat?" You know how they responded, of course, just as each of us would respond: "[It matters to us] because the water will come up and flood the ship for all of us." (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6)
When the stars cannot be seen in the city, the ship is flooding all of us. When the amount of oxygen in the air in the city is half what it is in the middle of the White Mountains, and one quarter of what it was millennia ago, the ship is flooding all of us. When one out of seven people on the planet does not have access to clean water, the ship is flooding all of us.
God is opening up a hole in the Earth and it is about to swallow us all up. But we have the power to change the story. Let us instead gather together and redefine and rebuild our communities. Let us instead, as a community, be the holders of a staff that can sprout almond blossoms. Let us instead, work together so that when we go out to count three stars in the sky at the end of Shabbat, no matter where we stand, we will be able to find three stars. Let us work together, for the good of God's creation, and for the future of our people and all people. That is the message we receive when Korach and Rosh Chodesh come together.