This morning’s Torah portion is taken from parshat Nitzavim, a famous passage from almost the very end of the Book of Deuteronomy, extracts from Chapter 29 and 30.
And as I said a couple of weeks ago, when we read this as our weekly portion, in 2019 Moses exhorting the children of Israel – from the bourgeois elders and officials to the lowliest wood-chopper and water-carrier – encouraging them to Choose Life! – in 2019 this takes on an unmistakably green tinge, as we look ahead to the catastrophe we are creating on our planet.
In the Torah it is written that refusing to listen to God’s commands and going astray will lead to the destruction of the land of Israel. This a viewpoint that is well-supported throughout our books of Prophets. In 2019 we move to universalism from particularism and it is a different type of prophet who is forewarning the perishing of the planet.
In the Torah, “Later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases the Lord has inflicted upon that land, all its soil devastated by sulphur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it… all nations will ask, “Why…?”
At the UN last month – in the same week we read this Torah portion, Greta Thunberg gave her “How dare you?” speech to the world leaders who were gathered there. Her passionate words pleaded with them to work together to reduce climate change.
"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! …
"You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
"We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
While Moses begs the Israelites to remember their obligation to God; Greta begs the leaders of the United Nations not to forget their obligation to her entire generation and all the generations that follow.
In our Torah portion, the Israelites are reminded that the mitzvah – the commandment – is not beyond us, it is not so remote that we need to cross a sea in order to do it. Nor is it so far we off that we need the impossible air miles of a journey to heaven. As Greta Thunberg also says,
“"This is all wrong. I shouldn't be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!”
Preventing climate change may seem beyond us, but by making small changes to our lives we can make big differences, even if as individuals we seem like a drop in the ocean against the power. One such difference we could make is to become vegetarian or at least to make steps towards eating less meat. Another is to use less plastic – and this is something as a community we must consider – whether to make a decision to ban plastic kiddish glasses and the convenience of disposable cutlery and plates. Another is to try to travel less – and I would say that as an ex-pat community we risk being terrible offenders who take many more flights than the average Jew, let alone the average human being.
It is unlikely that our grandchildren or the next generation in fifty years’ time will be acting the same we as we do, and sharing our decadent, unthinkingly unenvironmental lifestyles. While the original mitzvah of the Torah is not about climate change, it is firmly linked that the outcomes of our choices have a cosmic significance and can lead to the life and death of our land and, taken more widely, our planet. We can choose whether to be a blessing or a curse, and heaven and earth are our witnesses. In affirming that we choose life, we must resolve to change our ways this Yom Kippur.
For those of you who think that making these changes and becoming a bit greener is for other people, and what you do doesn’t matter, let’s recall the midrash from Leviticus Rabbah – that reminds us we are all in the same boat:
“Once upon a time there was a man in a boat. This man began to bore a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. ‘What concern is it of yours?’ he responded, ‘I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will drown.’”
This is another story from a time seemingly before there was much awareness of climate change. But the lesson of the individual and their responsibility to the collective has never changed. Let our children lead the way – let us learn from the sensitivities of younger generations, even when they remind us that they will have to live with the consequences far longer than we will.
Greta Thunberg is not Jewish, but she comes from a long activist tradition where many young people, both Jews and non-Jews, have tried to change the world. In the late nineteenth century, Emma Goldman was at the forefront of a rebel movement fighting in the United States for women’s suffrage, free speech, birth control and worker’s rights. There are similarities between that anarchic movement and Extinction Rebellion today. Vera Figner and Fanya Kaplan are also infamous for their revolutionary roles in Russia at the same time, more than one hundred years ago. Judaism is a religion of protest and rebellion, of questioning and subverting the status quo. But in this need for environmental revolution, we are really all in the same boat.
Let’s read now our liferaft, our Etz Chayim, the Torah itself!