Judaism and Environmental Sustainability

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.

When the teacher asked her class to share with her what they wanted to be when they grow up, she naturally heard the normal panoply of professions called out by the kids – doctor lawyer, teacher, policeman, fireman, everyone in the class that is, except little Tommy who sat quietly in the back of the room saying nothing.

So, being a good teacher she went back to Tommy and asked, “Tommy, what you do you want to be when you grow up?” “Possible,” answered Tommy. “Possible?” the teacher asked. “Yeah, my mom is always saying, “Tommy you’re impossible!” so when I grow up I want to be possible.”

Well, we recently celebrated the secular New Year of 2012, and last week the Chinese New Year of the Dragon, and in just 5 days we have a special Jewish New Year called, TU BESHVAT – THE NEW YEAR OF TREES. And with all that we human beings have done to wreak havoc upon our environment year in and year out, with all the pollution, toxins we constantly pour into the air we breathe and the water we drink, perhaps it’s time for us as a human species to stop and commit ourselves to the possibility of creating a sustainable world not only for us, but for all the generations that will follow us as well.

When you read the wisdom of the ancient Jewish sages, it looks as though even our ancestors thousands of years ago knew better than we the profound nature of our responsibility to the earth and all that dwells upon it. After all, look at how far astray we have wandered from the simple wisdom that our sages taught us over two thousand years ago in the Midrash when the rabbi’s told their version of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

“God led Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden,” the rabbis taught, “and said, ‘Look at all I have created. See how beautiful it is, how remarkable. Make sure that you don’t spoil or destroy My world—for if you do, there will be no one to repair it after you.’” – (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)

And here we are two thousand years later and what have we done to God’s world? It reminds me that one of the greatest scenes in the Torah is when Jacob is running away in the dead of night, afraid that his brother Esau is going to kill him for stealing his blessings. Exhausted, he lies down in the middle of the wilderness with a rock as a pillow and falls asleep. He dreams of a ladder stretching from earth to heaven with angels going up and down and God standing right next to him, talking to him, promising him that God will watch over and protect him.

The next morning Jacob wakes up and looks around in awe and says to himself, “Wow! God was in this very place all along and I didn’t even realize it.” “God was in this very place all along and I didn’t even realize it.”

I don’t know about you, but that is me in a nutshell too many days of my life. Walking sightless through the everyday miracles that surround my life.

The great rabbinic commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (whom Jewish tradition called, Rashi) lived in France 800 years ago. Rashi taught that what Jacob really meant was, “If I had known that God was right here, I wouldn’t have gone to sleep in the first place.”

We have all been sleeping for way too long and we somehow missed that God was right here all along – in this very place, in every rain forest, in every ocean, in every flower, in the song of every bird, in this very Earth of ours that is, or was our Garden of Eden.

And as the rabbis taught so long ago – if we destroy it there will be no one coming after us to make it right again.

Humanity’s relationship with energy has always been complicated. I remember vividly that intense scene from the movie, “Quest for Fire” when human beings were shown realizing for the first time the awesome power of fire itself and the power they would have if they could control the fire. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In fact, one could make a compelling case that all of human history has been marked by the ongoing quest to discover ever-larger quantities of energy in ever more effective ways. Today, energy impacts every aspect of our lives, seen and unseen. It may very well be the linchpin upon which our entire future depends. Our search for energy affects our economy, our foreign policy, the diplomatic alliances we create, the wars we wage.

And yet we Americans are undoubtedly the most energy-illiterate people on the planet. Few of us understand – or up until now, have cared to understand – what really happens when we flick a light switch or turn on the ignition. Most of us have never even thought about how much energy we consume in the course of a day, let alone the larger consequences of our consumption.

Well, when you look into it you find out that only about 10% of the energy used by a regular, incandescent light bulb is actually turned into light. Less than a quarter of the energy used in a conventional stove actually reaches our food and barely 15% of the energy in a gallon of gasoline ever reaches the wheels of our cars. In the world we are creating today, each of us has a responsibility to learn how energy works, where it comes from and how it impacts on our world.

What it is, where it comes from, how much we consume - these things are absent from our radar screens. We have always just expected energy to be there when we need it. It is for us, largely an invisible commodity.

So it comes as no surprise to discover that Americans are also the most extravagant consumers of energy in the history of the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, America uses 25% of the world’s energy. Yes, of course it’s true that our economy is larger than any other country and requires more energy to sustain it. But it is also true that our lifestyle is twice as energy-intensive as that of any other affluent country – and about ten times the average globally.

What better time to talk about this than on the eve of Tu Beshvat which reminds us each year that in Jewish tradition energy conservation and the sustainability of our planet is a spiritual value. The Torah teaches Bal Tashchit (“do not destroy”) – a mitzvah explicitly forbidding us from wasting the earth’s resources, and specifically fuel. For example, the Talmud teaches we are forbidden to cover an oil lamp because it speeds up fuel consumption and increases waste.

In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud were so conscious of the preciousness of our natural resources, especially trees that they said, “If not for the trees, human life could not exist.” (Midrash Sifre). The great Hassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught, “If a person kills a tree before its time, it is as though a soul has been murdered.” I remember how disturbing it was to watch Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and to witness the horror of the world’s forests shrinking right before my eyes. What would Rabbi Nachman think of us?

Without question the rabbinic conception of Bal Tashchit, the mitzvah of preventing unnecessary destruction of our world, is emerging as perhaps the spiritual imperative of our time. The rabbis of the Talmud were prescient to say the least.

In the 13th century a famous rabbinic text entitled Sefer Hahinuh explained the difference between one who is righteous and one who is wicked with the following example:

Tzadikim - righteous people of good deeds…do not waste in this world even a mustard seed. They become sorrowful with every wasteful and destructive act that they see, and if they can they use all their strength to save everything possible from destruction. But the rasha’im – the wicked are not thus; they are like demons who rejoice in the destruction of the world, even as they destroy themselves.” –and that was written in the 13th Century!

The Bible proclaims, “Without vision the people perish.” So today we share a vision of a sustainable world that we can create together – the world that we can save together, the world whose destruction we can prevent together – one day at a time, one step at a time, one person at a time, one mitzvah at a time.

At KI we have our own Green Committee composed of congregants who are committed to constantly searching for ways the synagogue and our community as a whole can create a more sustainable institution, and a more sustainable world. From energy audits to the personal commitments we have made to eliminate plastic bottles from our lives, creating a sustainable world is a moral imperative that Judaism has championed literally for thousands of years. How can we do less?

In the Torah God says, “I put before you today good and evil, life and death, blessing and curse, therefore choose life.”

It is really as simple and as powerful as that. Choosing life. We can no longer ignore the crushing reality of the environmental crisis that we by our action and our inaction have created. We have a sacred obligation to recognize our responsibility as stewards of the earth. You all have heard my favorite lesson from the Talmud many times. It is the story of the two men in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. One takes out a drill and begins drilling a hole in the bottom of the boat. The other man starts screaming at the first – “What are you doing? What are you doing?” To which the man with the drill replies, “What business is it of yours? After all, I’m only drilling under my seat.”

My favorite story from the Talmud for sure. “I’m only drilling under my seat.” Obviously, there is no “my seat.” There is only one small boat, one small planet and we are all in it together. We all sink or survive, together.

Yet the evidence is overwhelming that our climate is changing. Over the past few years regardless of the season we seem to hear over and over again, “Worst______(fill in the blank) in recorded history.” Worst flooding, worst hurricane, worst tornado, worst… everything. And clearly the emissions from our fossil-fuel energy consumption – air and water pollution, poisonous mercury, smog-forming ozone, and carbon dioxide – endanger all of Creation, and threaten to push more and more overstressed species over the brink to extinction.

One of the most powerful teachings in all of Jewish tradition is that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander. The Torah says, lo ta’amod al dam reyeha, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbors.”

Our sages taught that “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” means that each of us is responsible for the very life of one another. There is no such thing as an “innocent bystander,” because in Jewish life if you are standing by and allowing harm to come to another human being you are not innocent. You are guilty.

Guilty of turning a blind eye to the pain of the world. Guilty of pretending that you are powerless to make a difference. Guilty of forgetting that you are made in the image of God and as such have the moral obligation to act as God’s representative on earth.

Since 1980 we have experienced 19 of the 20 hottest years on record. Global greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase average temperatures up to 10 degrees Fahrenheit in this century — bringing rising seas, major weather and agricultural disruptions, environmental refugees, migrating diseases, and other dangers which most harm the planet’s poor and vulnerable.

In 1997, a melting Greenland dumped about 22 cubic miles of water into the sea. Today it's melting twice as fast. This means that every single month Greenland is dumping into the ocean an amount of water 54 times greater than the city of Los Angeles uses in an entire year. Not since Noah and the ark has our earth and all its inhabitants been in greater danger.

So here are three ways we have consistently championed at KI and hope everyone will pledge to embrace as well as we move our personal lives and the life of our community toward a sustainable future:

1. Become Food Conscious
Eat less meat. Producing 1 kg of beef causes the same amount of greenhouse emissions as driving 250 kilometers in a car. A pound of wheat can be grown from 60 pounds of water – a pound of meat takes up to 6,000 pounds. With the energy needed to produce a single hamburger you could drive a small car 20 miles. Reducing meat production in the U.S. by just 10% would free enough grain to feed 60 million people.

2. Become Energy Efficient
If every Californian replaced an old air conditioner with an energy efficient one it would be the equivalent of taking 275,000 cars off the road.
Replace incandescent bulbs with Compact Florescent Lights. They cost 75% less to operate and last 10 times longer. If every Californian changed just 5 bulbs to CFLs it would be the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road.

3, Be Waste Conscious
Buy less of everything and keep stuff longer. Remove your name from unwanted catalogs and mailing lists. 100 million trees are cut down each year to create the 4.5 million tons of junk mail in the United States.

Most of you know that Didi and I go to Costa Rica every year on vacation (among other things). Last year as we were driving through lush rain forests, walking along spectacular, pristine beaches and marveling at the stunning natural beauty that surrounded us at every turn, we drove through a tunnel and I saw a rare display of Costa Rican graffiti. And what did it say? OTRO MUNDO ES POSIBLE. OTRO MUNDO ES POSIBLE. “Another world is possible.”

That is the faith that all of us must share – that another world is possible – a sustainable world to leave as our gift to generations yet to come.