On the Climate Crisis and in honor of Earth Day

Dear Haverim,

In honor of Earth Day, I was invited to participate in an interfaith press conference, sharing our Jewish perspective on caring for our Earth. The gathering on Zoom was sponsored by Sacramento Area Congregations Together addressing the climate crisis we are confronting. I share with you my words below and you can also choose to watch the video of the presentation here. My part comes around minute 5. I hope you will watch all of the inspiring speakers. In particular, I encourage you to also listen to an amazing young State Senator, Henry Stern, speaking about an important bill he is sponsoring, senate bill 582, to preserve and protect our fragile environment.

Today we gather with a sense of urgency to mark Earth Day, as the polar ice caps are melting, the globe is warming, carbon emissions are rising, natural habitats are disappearing at alarming rates, and time is running out. But we all know that we cannot celebrate the Earth for just one day a year. Rather, every day must be Earth day! Every day we must renew our responsibilities and commitments to care for our home, planet Earth!

From the very beginning, in the Book of Genesis, God places the first humans into the Garden of Eden, with only one simple but crucial task: l’ovdah u’l’shomrah, typically translated as, to till and to tend the Garden, our Earth. The Hebrew word used here, meaning to tend, comes from the Hebrew Lishmor, which actually contains a deeper imperative, meaning to guard and protect. This is the human covenant that we have inherited since time immemorial: a sacred responsibility to watch over this beautiful Garden of ours and do everything in our power to preserve it.

I would like to share two brief stories from our Jewish tradition which teach us about our important human role in taking care of our environment and can guide us in the right direction, suggesting possible ways we can impact the future by our actions today. The first is the well-known tale of Choni The Circle Maker, who meets an old man planting a carob tree, which takes 70 years to bear fruit. Choni asks the elderly man, “Why are you planting this tree? Do you really expect to live to enjoy its fruits?” The old man replies: “The world was filled with great beauty and lush trees bearing fruit when I came into it because my parents and grandparents had planted for me. So, too, am I planting for those who will come after me.” Choni, the original Rip Van Winkle, then lies down to take a nap and wakes up 70 years later. He once again sees an old man who is now gathering in the fruit from the carob tree. Surprised, he inquires, “Are you the same man who planted this tree?” The man responds, “No, this tree was planted by my grandfather 70 years ago!” The aged grandfather, reaped no benefits from his actions personally, but planted for those whom he would never know, providing gifts and blessings for the future generations who would harvest the fruits of his labor.

Another tale relates a cautionary rabbinic legend: God takes Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden for an orientation, as it were, to the realm of nature. “See how beautiful all My creations are”, says God in this legend. “All has been created for your sake. So reflect on this, and take care not to destroy my world. For if you do, there will be none to repair it after you.” The lesson is clear: God does not have a planet B waiting in the wings. This is the only Earth we will ever have and we have been given the holy responsibility to see that it is not degraded or destroyed. Generally, this familiar story ends here; but there is an ominous coda in the full legend in the collection entitled, Kohelet Rabbah, where God warns Adam, “And what is worse, if you do not care for my world, you will bring death even to righteous people in the future.” The same legend then goes on to explain this dire warning through the following parable: A woman committed a crime and went to prison, and bore a child there. The child grew up in jail, and one day petitioned the king, asking why he was there, since he had not committed any crime. The king, however, responded matter-of-factly that he was there not because of his own crime, but because of his mother’s. (Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 7:13) In this case, the mother’s gift to her child is not one of bounty and blessings, as was that gift of the grandfather who planted the carob tree for his descendants, but a stifled life of limitations, bitterness and suffering.

In both stories, however, the future generations inherit from their parents and grandparents a world not of their own making. Each story imparts a sobering lesson: The way we treat the world and our natural resources is less about us today than it is about the fate of humanity as a whole in the future. Our actions today have serious consequences tomorrow for our children, grandchildren and beyond. Our religious traditions challenge us to consider every day:

What will be our legacy to them? What kind of world are we planting for them? Will they discover the same bounty that we have enjoyed or will the world we hand down to them be as sterile and barren as a prison cell? The choice is ours! We must act! The time is now! The fate of our Garden hangs in the balance

I close with these words of blessing: For the sake of those alive today and for the sake of generations yet to come; for those who hunger for the beauty of clear, starry skies and snow-capped peaks and for the sake of those who thirst for quiet moments of solitude embraced by the glory of nature. For one another and for the sake of our own souls. For the sake of this blue-green planet that we call home, for the water, sea and sky, and for the sake of all the living creatures that share our world. May You bless us, O God, Source of Life, with the wisdom and courage to collaborate creatively to protect and restore, and always enhance, the integrity of Your creation, which is ever in our care.

— Blessings, Rabbi Greg