Friday, November 2, 2012

Climbing the Sefirotic Tree: God, Climate Change, and Sandy

This Shabbat is Global Hunger Shabbat, an annual program hosted by the American Jewish World Service. Temple Israel is officially participating in Global Hunger Shabbat for the third year running.  I was planning to speak this morning about hunger, and to study with you some texts from Jewish tradition about world hunger and about the challenges raised in bringing aid to those who are hungry around the world.

And then came the storm. As I began to write this sermon on Tuesday evening, 90% of Long Island households were without electricity, seven tunnels leading to Manhattan were filled with water, members of this community and had been forced to leave their uninhabitable homes, and the world was still reeling from news of Hurricane / Superstorm Sandy’s devastation. 

So as important as it is for us to speak about hunger, the aftermath of the storm and its implications in a Jewish context are more pressing at the moment.

Ladies and gentlemen, whenever there is a natural disaster such as this, when people lose their homes and livelihoods and even their lives, we look for answers. Many of us naturally turn to God, and there will always be preachers -- rabbis, ministers, priests, imams -- who will cite our violation of God’s word as the reason behind the disaster.  For example, some blamed the Haitian earthquake on the depravity of the citizens of Haiti, or Hurricane Katrina on the homosexual community of New Orleans. A quick Google search will reveal that there are already online statements by religious folks pointing to similar reasons for Sandy. (For example, Rabbi Noson Leiter of “Torah Jews for Decency.”)

I am not that kind of rabbi. I don’t believe in that kind of God. My God is a good God, a source of blessing, who bestows upon us daily miracles of life and love and stability in times of trouble. My God is the God that works through us, that enables us to help others and ourselves. My God is a positive force for all that makes this world function: the laws of physics that ensure that, for example, the Earth continues to rotate on its axis, and that the sun continues to provide us with energy, and that all of the biological principles that allow us to function as individuals as well as part of the larger ecosystem continue to apply.

And most importantly, God gives us the ability to raise ourselves up through our intellect.

God gave us the power to understand the laws of science that make this both an orderly and a chaotic world. As humanity moves forward in its understanding of the natural forces that make, more to the point, hazardous tropical storms unleash their dangerous winds on big population centers, we gain a greater understanding of God’s Creation. And as the amassed scientific knowledge of humanity increases, we grow, in some sense, closer to the God who gave us this ability.

The medieval kabbalists envisioned God as a tree of ten sefirot / spheres of Divine emanation, arrayed in a pattern similar to a hopscotch course. 

The lowest sefirot are the ones that we are most familiar with - the Shekhinah, God’s presence, is the one that is said to have dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem when it was standing, 2,000 years ago.  The sefirot at the top, like the elusive Keter, just below the infinite Ein Sof, are so far removed from us that we are unable to discern anything about them.

And yet, as the collected body of human knowledge of science grows, as our awareness of the principles that guide God’s creation increases, we ascend in our understanding of God.  We “climb,” as it were, that sefirotic tree and are better able to grasp God’s higher, more spiritual aspects.  We will never reach the top, but we continue to move upwards toward Keter, the crown of God’s glory.

Those preachers who like to pin storms on God are in effect denying that God gave us the ability to discern between natural and metaphysical forces, denying that the pursuit of scientific knowledge and climatic patterns and modeling is a Divine gift. They are not giving the credit that humanity deserves in reaching higher, toward the more elusive sefirot.

Aha! you might say. What about what the Torah teaches us about Sodom and Gomorrah? What about the story of Jonah? What about the second paragraph of the Shema, which we read this morning, the one that says that if you fulfill the mitzvot / God’s commandments, you will receive blessings and that if you don’t, you will be cursed?

Yes, those stories and black-and-white ideologies appealed to our ancestors. But we are blessed with a much more thorough and nuanced understanding of how our world works. Yes, in our daily tefillot / prayers between Sukkot and Pesah we say after the first paragraph of the Amidah,

 מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמורִיד הַגָּשֶּׁם
Mashiv haruah umorid hagashem
You, God, are the one who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.
And yet, at the same time, we concede that wind and rain are both meteorological phenomena that are the result of weather patterns that can be (somewhat) predicted by computer models. So why should we continue to say mashiv haruah umorid hagashem?

Tefillah is not meant to be understood literally. It is a poetic blueprint for the ideal, for what could be. We pray to remind ourselves that we should strive to create the world that is more perfect, even though we know that life is itself imperfect.

Likewise, during birkat hamazon / the blessings after eating, when we say, 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יי. הַזָּן אֶת הַכּל
Barukh atah Adonai, hazan et hakol.
Praised are You, God, who feeds everybody.
we seem to be stating that there is food for all.  And yet we all know that we live in an imperfect world, in which food is not evenly distributed. (And, by the way, a new book by Frederick Kaufman reveals that there is, in fact, more than enough food to feed the world; people starve because they cannot afford it, not due to shortages. Hence the need for Global Hunger Shabbat.)

Back to Sandy. This storm must be seen in the context of the growing number of natural disasters around the world, storms that are increasing in frequency and intensity.

Ladies and gentlemen, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a press conference on Tuesday in the storm’s wake, he recalled his days as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, when he visited multiple disaster sites, and went on to say that “we have a 100-year flood every two years now.” And he also said this:

“There have been a series of extreme weather events. That is not a political statement; that is a factual statement. Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality.”

The governor did not use the words “climate change” or “global warming,” but he did concede that we are facing a new meteorological reality, one in which it is not unreasonable to expect that New York’s subway tunnels will flood, that the power will be out for a week, and that lives will be lost more frequently.

Nobody can deny that the Earth’s temperature has risen 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century, a substantially greater and faster rise than has historically occurred, and that this is causing havoc with our meteorological patterns. There is no denying that ocean levels have risen 9"-10" in the last 100 years. There is no denying that these catastrophic storms and floods are happening more often. There is no denying that the polar ice caps are melting. And there is no denying that we humans are playing a role in these events: by favoring cars over public transit; by eating far more meat and dairy than we need to (methane produced by animal farming accounts for 70% of global warming effects); by being generally profligate with our energy consumption.

Of course, no climatologist will state conclusively that any single weather event is the direct result of climate change. This can only be demonstrated within the context of years of careful research. (There was a New York Times post on their “Green” blog about this). But that is what makes them scientists and not charlatans. The principles of academic rigor prevent such statements. But all of the trends I just listed are unimpeachable.

Meanwhile, there is a way out. The Talmud teaches us that among the first mitzvot that a rabbi should teach a convert to Judaism about are the obligations to leave sections of your fields un-harvested, so that hungry people with no resources can come and take food for themselves. We learn from this that one of the essential teachings of Judaism is that we are all responsible for the welfare of our fellow people, regardless of their status.

Climate change, and the more frequent large storms that it has yielded, is not God’s work. It is ours. We got ourselves into this, and we can get ourselves out. And ultimately the only way to do so will be by working together - by taking responsibility for the mess that we have created.

We will continue to climb the sefirotic tree, learning more and more about Creation and how to manipulate it for our benefit. But until we put our God-given intellect into cooperating for the betterment of all humanity, the ideal blueprint that we invoke when we step into a synagogue to join our voices together in prayer will remain only a blueprint, and not reality.

Rabbi Seth Adelson 

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