Commandments to act on climate change

The following d'var was delivered by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen, president pro tem of JCAN-MA, at Temple Ohabei Shalom, Brookline, MA, on Friday, February 15.

Erev tov (good evening), and thank you for having me here with you this Shabbat evening.

This week's parasha, Tetzaveh, begins with the following words:

וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל׃

You shall instruct the Israelites...

But the word translated as “instruct” is from the same root as mitzvah, commandment. More accurately, the parasha begins, “You shall command the Israelites.”

You shall command [them] to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.

What does it mean to be commanded? The answer is different for each of us. For me, I experience it as a feeling that I have to do something, even if it is difficult, that I really have no choice. I needed a place to work on environmental issues, in particular, and I needed to be able to do it in a Jewish context. I needed that because of how much I feel that my Judaism is inextricably linked to my deep need to act in response to what is happening to this amazing Earth upon which we are blessed to live, but no such organization existed, so, I co-founded the Jewish Climate Action Network, and serve as its president pro tem. On some level, I had to do this. For me, this is what it means to be commanded.

What does it mean to you? How does it feel for you? Have you experienced it? When? In what regard?

Given my role at JCAN, it will not surprise you that I am going to speak to you about climate change this evening. To begin, I'd like to describe stages of grief related to climate change. I assume you are familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's famous stages of grief outlined many decades ago. Psychologists have learned much more about how we process grief in the years since then, and we understand that grief isn't linear, it is complex, a veritable mosaic of emotions and connections and responses to others. But the idea remains useful for us as a reminder that grief is multi-faceted and healing is possible.

In regard to climate, as in impending death, the stages begin with denial with their own set of stages. There are many kinds of climate denial, which have been outlined by award-winning climate scientist Michael E. Mann and others.

Five Stages of Climate Denial:

  1. Deny the problem exists

  2. Deny that we're the cause

  3. Deny it's a problem

  4. Deny we can solve it

  5. Or say it's too late so why bother

Denial, especially Stage 1, can be quite comfortable. Beyond denial, there are also the stages of grief that we can experience, as originally outlined by Nobel Laureate Steve W. Running.

The second stage — anger —can be all encompassing. We may be angry at all the people who are talking about climate change. Anger at all the people who are saying we have to drastically change how we live on this planet if we want to keep on living it. Anger, at everything.

Then comes bargaining, when we begin to acknowledge that global temperatures are indeed rising, but claim it’s due to natural causes. Or they taking stance like ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s — admitting climate change is a major, man-made problem, but claiming that the answer is to “adapt” to it instead of changing our behavior.

Once awakening about climate disruption begins for real, depression can become a too familiar state of being. The problem is so huge and so overwhelming and so frightening, that one might wish once more for being in denial. The awakening process continues every time we absorb more bad news about the climate.

Acceptance is the hardest stage, because the reality of what is happening and what is coming is so incredibly frightening. We are surpassing all of scientists’ worst-case scenarios and all those record droughts, floods, storms, and forest fires are beginning to be “the new normal.” Acceptance doesn't mean accepting it as OK, as acceptable, rather accepting that it is real.

Yet, acceptance is critical to appropriate action. But acceptance does not mean that all is lost. There is another stage beyond acceptance, what Daphne Wysham calls doing The Work. As she writes, doing the Work means “taking courage from each other as we look this monster in the eye and fight side-by-side in the battle of a lifetime. Systemic change — not just light-bulb change — is what’s required now. This must include everything from replacing the GDP as an outdated measure of progress to getting schools to teach climate science and arm the next generation with the facts.”

Doing the work is a powerful antidote to depression, to eco-despair. Someone I recently spoke with mentioned exactly this to me, that starting to do work she had felt she didn't have time for has helped her to feel more at peace. Doing the Work doesn't protect us from feeling the pain and the grief, but it can act as an antidote and get us going again.

And no matter where we are, as in grieving a loved one, we circle back to the other stages. It isn't linear.

Do any of these ring true for you? All of us live in denial much of the time, on some level, because it is such a huge problem and because we usually can't think about it 24/7. I often hover between 4 and 5, believing it is too large to be solved and it really is too late. And I certainly experience the grief on a regular basis. But I keep doing the work, because the HOW matters to me as much as the WHY, and the work does help give meaning to life, no matter what the future may bring.

I give you all of this as background, as we begin to look at the messages from this weeks Torah portion. Fittingly, our parasha begins with kindling lights, finding a source of energy to kindle the lamps of the Tabernacle in the desert. Harnessing the energy of olives to make a holy light.

That holiness is inherent in the whole process described here, of building the Tabernacle and making it functional. We read next that the priests are involved—people with a special task of serving G!d in a way that is different from others. Anointed, they lead the rituals and help to connect the rest of the people to G!d. G!d says to Moses:

You shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar, the sons of Aaron.

For every sacred task, there are leaders. Parents are leaders in raising their families. Teachers are leaders in preparing our children to go out into the world. The head of your ritual committee is a leader in helping to make decisions about the ritual life of your community. Who are the people you know, in this community or beyond, who are leaders in regard to preserving our planet? What leadership role have you played? What leadership role might you play?

All of the work of the Tabernacle requires not just priests, but all kinds of skilled people.

וְאַתָּ֗ה תְּדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־כָּל־חַכְמֵי־לֵ֔ב אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִלֵּאתִ֖יו ר֣וּחַ חָכְמָ֑ה

Next you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill

Those also called to service to G!d are those with the gift of skill—in this case to make Aaron's garments.

In this effort to confront climate change, people with many kinds of skills and many passions are needed: Perhaps you have engineering skills or understand buildings and can work toward reducing energy consumption; perhaps you have people skills and are good at talking to others and helping to get them on board; perhaps you have leadership skills and can lead a contingent to the State House to advocate for just and equitable renewable energy laws; perhaps you love to cook, and can help transform your kitchen and kiddush into environmentally friendly places and times. There are so many opportunities for all of us with gifts of different kinds of wisdom and skill.

Part of the instruction regarding making the priestly garments is to

take two lazuli stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the remaining six on the other stone, in the order of their birth. On the two stones you shall make seal engravings—the work of a lapidary—of the names of the sons of Israel. Having bordered them with frames of gold

In other words, the priests do not do their holy work independently and separately. They carry with them into their holy ritual work all of the community. The names of the tribes are a reminder that they are serving not just G!d, but all of the people, too. Their role in relation to other people is as important as their role in relation to G!d.

So, too, each of us who works for our planet does not work alone. We work in community, supported by each other, challenged by each other, strengthened by each other. This is holy work, and in our tradition, we rarely do such work alone. Even on Yom Kippur, when we do that holiest of work of self-transformation, we gather together in community, supported by the knowledge that we are not alone in having sinned.

The parasha continues with many more details of what the workers are to do. For example:

You shall make a breastpiece of decision, worked into a design; make it in the style of the ephod: make it of gold, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and of fine twisted linen. It shall be square and doubled, a span in length and a span in width.

Nothing is left to discretion. All is spelled out, clear, exact. No questions need be asked.

And yet...we read:

Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron’s heart when he comes before the LORD. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the LORD at all times.

There are decisions that have to be made. Not everything is spelled out, clear, and exact. Life is messy. Life is full of decisions, from morning to night, we make decisions, all of us. But Aaron carries with him a special instrument—lost now, no longer available to us—that made the process of decision making easier, that clearly brought G!d into the process.

So, too, are there many decisions for us. Many pathways forward are clearly spelled out by those with knowledge of them. But we must decide to take those pathways. We must decide which forks in the road to follow. Constantly we must decide. We no longer have the Urim and Thummim to help us decide, but we do have in our communities many people with much knowledge and experience. They can help us decide. They, with their holy knowledge, can help us decide.

And the text tells us that:

Aaron shall wear [the instrument of decision] while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the LORD and when he goes out—that he may not die.

That he may not die!?

Coming so close to G!d, making a critical decision – these are dangerous moments. Their intensity is high, the stakes are high, and the risk is great.

We read this not just once, but twice.

The [instruments of decision] shall be worn by Aaron and his sons when they enter the Tent of Meeting or when they approach the altar to officiate in the sanctuary, so that they do not incur punishment and die. It shall be a law for all time for him and for his offspring to come.

The stakes of climate change are high. They are real. They are happening today. You know about them. You read about them—fires, floods, drought, extreme cold, extreme heat, rising seas. They touch people far away, and they touch people nearby. People die because of these. And we humans are responsible for the growing number of climate disasters.

The long-term and more-than-human consequences of climate disruption are even greater. Species are going extinct daily at a frightening rate; insect populations and diversity are plummeting. We are in what has been called the Sixth Great Extinction, the previous ones having occurred long before our existence here on this earth. There are even concerns about the ability of the human species to survive this global threat. That we may not die, we must do the work.

What else in this parasha is pertinent to today and our current state of climate change?

We read:

This is what you shall do to them in consecrating them to serve Me as priests: Take a young bull of the herd and two rams without blemish; also unleavened bread, unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, and unleavened wafers spread with oil—make these of choice wheat flour. Place these in one basket and present them in the basket, along with the bull and the two rams.

Again and again, we are told in the Torah, and once again in this parasha: you shall make sacrifices to G!d. You shall give up the best of your herds and flocks, your grains, your oils, and you shall give them to G!d. Not just the old worn out clothes in the back of the closet, but the best of what you have.

And in regard to all that good food—and maybe you are hungry, or maybe you are poor—we are taught:

And if any of the flesh of ordination, or any of the bread, is left until morning, you shall put what is left to the fire; it shall not be eaten, for it is holy.

It is holy.

It is special.

It is set apart.

It is not for regular usage.

Do not eat it.

And this is not just for ancient times, but an offering, as the text tells us

throughout the generations, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting before the LORD.

Throughout the generations—for always, now. You. Me. We are commanded to make sacrifices. We are commanded to give up the best of our “herds” and our “flocks” and our “wheat.” Yes, it is true that after the destruction of the second Temple and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, we turned away from sacrifice as a way to be in communication with G!d, and turned toward prayer and study. But the messages are still there. We read them many weeks of the year. Let them not fall on deaf ears. Let us not think that these rituals that feel so foreign and perhaps barbaric to us, that they do not have a message for us today.

We who are comfortable in life live in a world of plenty, of excess, of a sense of our right to all that we have. What would it mean for me to truly sacrifice to G!d? What would it mean for you?

When we figure it out, and when we do all this—when we work with skill and dedication, when we offer up the best of what we have, when we sacrifice something we think we need, then

there I will meet with you, and there I will speak with you,

Then,

I will abide among the Israelites, and I will be their God.

And, when we do all of this, we will know that we are not alone; we will remember our history, and that we were once slaves, but were redeemed from bondage:

They shall know that I the LORD am their God, who brought them out from the land of Egypt that I might abide among them, I the LORD their God.

We are currently in bondage. We are slaves to fossil fuels, to having everything we wanted, to believing that comfort and possessions and travel lead us to the best possible life, to thinking that the world outside our doors is not holy. But our tradition teaches that redemption is possible. And in our parasha, we find that when we move toward freedom, when we do this work and make these sacrifices and

Place them in front of the curtain that is over the Ark of the Pact—in front of the cover that is over the Pact—[there G!d] will meet with you [us].

G!d will meet us. G!d will be with us, in a place and time of transformation. As Daphne Wysham concludes: “Together, we can get a glimpse, beyond despair, of a world of transformation and rebirth that is possible if we’re courageous enough to fight for it."

To help find the courage, and the community, for Doing the Work, join me at the Second Jewish Climate Change Conference: The Time Is Short, the Task is Great, at Temple Reyim in Newton, MA, Sunday, March 24, from 12:30 PM - 7:30 PM.

May each of us find the courage to hear and understand how we are commanded. May we accept that command, do the work we are skilled to do, and make the sacrifices we must. May we meet G!d in that space and time, and may we act in time and with enough energy to save our planet and its inhabitants.

Thank you. Shabbat shalom.