This summer, a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem spoke to my cohort of rabbis about Jews … and climate change. She stated very simply to me and to my colleagues that our role right now is to be hospice rabbis for our entire congregations. The destruction of our planet is inevitable and there will be unimaginable suffering, death, destruction, and loss. And rabbis are called to care for people when they are suffering. So we must now prepare for an extremely difficult future of shock and grief.
In some ways, I knew she was right. It is true that climate change has caused, and will continue to cause, suffering around the world. It is true that it will get worse. And the havoc it will wreak will cause harm to not just our bodies, but to our mind and spirit. Therapists have already reported that people are experiencing anxiety and depression due to the fear of what climate change will bring. Young adults have told me that they are not planning to have children because they don’t want to bring people into a world that is falling apart. And teenagers are deeply angry about the world they will inherit from the irresponsible generations that came before them.
My teacher was also right that rabbis are called to be pastors and comforters for people who are grieving. So manuals are now being written for rabbis on how to comfort people who will watch untold suffering on a massive scale in the years to come.
I believe, however, that she is not completely right. So this morning I want to talk to you about Jews…and hope. Not naive optimism, but hope. The kind of hope that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about in his book The Dignity of Difference. He writes:
One of the most important distinctions I have learned in the course of reflection on Jewish history is the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the belief that, together, we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope. Knowing what we do of our past, no Jew can be an optimist. But Jews have never — despite a history of sometimes awesome suffering — given up hope.
On Rosh Hashanah, hope should come naturally. HaYom Harat Olam — today is the birthday of our world and we celebrate the start of a new year. Although Rosh Hashanah is also Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, we are reminded that while God sits as a judge, God is merciful and tshuvah is possible. And it is Yom HaZikaron — the Day of Remembrance. We read texts that remind us that the impossible can become reality. Sarah, at 90 years old, after a lifetime of infertility and disappointment, has a baby. Hagar, cast into the wilderness, runs out of water and thinks her son is going to die, but they both survive. We are reminded to hope.
But unfortunately, today there is a lot that is painful to remember. Not only is our planet facing mass extinction and death, in the past year alone, we have witnessed tragedies including more people dying from a global pandemic, children murdered in school, attacks on women’s bodily autonomy, the further polarization of our country, the continued horrors of systemic racism, the further dissolotion of a shared narrative of our country’s history or even what constitutes a fact. And the list could keep going. We are understandably sad, angry, and worried.
And, perhaps also, traumatized. Not only have we mourned unspeakable loss of life in the past 2.5 years, as Rabbi Sacks points out, Jews cannot really be optimists. Jews have been traumatized for thousands of years. Study after study has shown that trauma can be inherited, encoded in our bodies regardless of our own experience. And Jewish practice will not let us forget. We joke that Jewish holidays can often be summed up by “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” We eat and drink, sometimes a lot, in part to comfort ourselves. A historical narrative of persecution is not just in our books but in our observances of Purim, and Passover, and Tisha B’Av, and of course Yom HaShoah. The unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust are with us whether we lived through them or not. We must not forget what happened in Jewish history and we must honor the memories of those who were murdered. And as living beings, we must be concerned for our own safety and survival. The trouble is that when someone says that the world is going to end and we are all going to suffer, a part of me just believes it.
And our fears about climate change in particular are also rooted in memory. Deep within our bones is Judaism’s connection to the land. Our holidays are tied to the agricultural cycles. We believe in the oneness of the world and every morning and evening our liturgy reminds us of the sanctity of creation. We think of ourselves as repairers, not destroyers, of the world.
And we are historically connected to a place across the globe that has very little fresh water. This summer at the Hartman Institute we also got to learn with Alon Tal, a Member of the Israeli Knesset, Chair of the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University, and a leading expert on environmental policy in Israel. He spoke of how the North Pole and the Middle East will witness some of the most extreme examples of climate change. He also reminded us that this is not just about policy. We often understandably make choices out of ease. But, he said, “The problem is everytime we make these decisions we’re saying we prefer our lives to those of our grandchildren.” We are part of a tradition that values continuity from one generation to the next. Will future generations question the choices we made, and will we remember them with regret?
We know that to address this climate crisis would require massive change and it is hard to believe it can happen. But as we look around the world today, frankly, to be a pessimist is just as naive as being an optimist. If you think that unimaginable change on a massive scale cannot occur, you are also failing to remember.
After returning from Israel I went with my children to an exhibit at the Michigan Science Center called POPnology. In it there is a room filled to the brim with historical artifacts from … 1983. It contained items from my childhood that were unrecognizable to my daughter. Unrecognizable because of course they have all been replaced by something that fits in my pocket. There were VCRs and Betamax tapes, records and cassettes, a compass, a wall phone, an answering machine, a rolodex, a tv, an alarm clock, a map, a wall calendar, a set of encyclopedias, a dictionary, and a bookshelf full of other books, which could have included every volume of the Talmud, chumashim in every language, siddurim, and clearly countless other books and tools. I told my daughter about going to Blockbuster when we wanted to watch a movie and waiting for tv shows to air on certain days and times and she looked at me with confusion. The first generation iPhone hit the US market in 2007. Engineers developed a product that was unimaginable to children in my generation. And smartphones turned my childhood into something unimaginable to kids today.
And if a few decades seems like too long of a timeframe for change, please remember what happened at the start of this decade when a global pandemic started to ruthlessly claim lives. The first COVID-19 cases were reported in China in late December 2019. As the disease spread around the world, we were told that the typical timeline for vaccine development is seven years. Seven years! Maybe, if we’re lucky, scientists could speed up the timeline and have one done in three years. Instead, the first COVID vaccine was administered in December 2020. When smart and motivated people started working together, using what they knew and forming partnerships across the globe, these human beings did the seemingly impossible. And they saved millions of lives.
They also used decades of prior research. Developments in computing preceded smart phones and research on mRNA vaccines preceded the COVID vaccine. And to address the climate crisis we can use decades of development in the technology of renewable energy. Twenty years ago, before I went to rabbinical school, I worked on climate change policy and education in Washington DC, including in the Global Warming and Energy department of the Sierra Club, and for the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. Although it would have been better if we had succeeded in making massive changes back then, in the meantime, the technology to address this crisis has changed dramatically. In the last decade, there has been a 90% decrease in the cost of solar electricity, making it now one of the most affordable sources of energy. Gina McCarthy, the outgoing national climate adviser and a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency wrote a piece in the New York Times last week in which she stated what was previously thought impossible, even to her. The United States is now on track to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, and zero them out by 2050.
The technology exists to do so, but of course, we need to actually do it. Will we implement these technologies, will people make decisions that will make us proud when we remember them? To be honest, I don’t know. I am afraid to hope. So I have been thinking a lot about not just Sarah and Hagar, but about Mordecai and Miriam.
In the Book of Esther, Mordecai, upon hearing that the Jews are on the brink of mass destruction, sends a message to Esther, in which he says “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.” And then Mordecai concludes: U’mi Yodea im l’eit ca-zot hi-ga-at la-mal-chut.
And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis. (Esther 4:13-14)
Mordecai, facing annihilation of Jews, and trying to convince Esther to act, is brave enough to say, U’mi Yodea? “And who knows?” Mordecai does not give a command, he asks a question. And by doing so he opens for us a window of possibility. He does not pretend that the crisis isn’t real. He recognizes that perhaps only by first being open to the question can we feel empowered to act. I don’t know what will happen in the future, and neither do you. And within that not knowing we can discover the possibility of hope.
And Miriam? As we know, after crossing the Sea of Reeds Miriam and the women got out their timbrels. Rashi points out that timbrels are an odd packing item when you are fleeing for your life. But he asserts the women brought them planning to celebrate if they survived. I can imagine a woman hurriedly gathering her children and a few belongings and then looking at her timbrel and thinking, Who knows? Maybe we’ll make it.
Once we place ourselves in the space of Who knows?, we can, like Esther, place ourselves in the larger story and recognize our own agency. Esther was more powerful than she thought — and so are we. Hazon is working tirelessly to mobilize the Jewish community to address climate change and has pointed out that while the Jewish community is small, our climate impact is significant. If the North American Jewish community were a country, our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would be larger than the emissions of 162 countries. Hazon has formed the Jewish Climate Leadership Coalition which is a partnership of the major national and international Jewish organizations including the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. You can go to hazon.org to learn more, and support steps the synagogue can take to be more involved.
And we can pack our own timbrels. Electric cars are now going to become more affordable than ever, and as President Biden announced at the Detroit Auto Show, there will soon be over 500,000 charging stations across the country. Between these chargers and tax credits, Consumer Reports confirms that electric vehicles will be cheaper to own over the first 5 years than an equivalent internal combustion engine, and by mid-decade they will be cheaper when you go to the dealership. We can begin now to research the electric car we want to buy when our current car needs to be replaced. If we own a home, we can do the same with our furnace. If we are investing for the future, we can invest in climate friendly funds, which year after year do just as well, if not better, than ones that are dominated by fossil fuels.
And me? I am committing to you to do my part professionally and personally. I am a member of the Wexner Foundation’s Summit on Climate Change, bringing together Jewish professionals from around the world and I will bring that learning back to you. I will work within the synagogue’s budget to find more ways we can be a model on sustainability. And my family and I will continue to make sustainable choices at home.
U’Mi Yodea? And who knows? There is a lot in our world right now that is broken. It is possible that our dreams will not be realized and we will in fact be facing massive grief and loss. And if that happens, I will be there to comfort you. But Mi Yodea? Who knows? It is possible we will use the technology we have to change the world.
I am not asking you to just be optimistic. There have certainly been days when I have lost a sense of optimism. But I have never, and I will never, give up hope. And neither should you.
Together, we will never give up hope.