Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Barbara Breitman - Parashat Vayeshev and Climate Change

Dvar Torah:  Parashat Vayeshev   
Bobbi Breitman, Minyan Dorshei Derekh   November 23, 2013

Today’s parasha begins:  “Now Jacob settled in the land where his father had sojourned…”  Gen 37:1.  Va yeshev Yaackov b’eretz m’gori aviv…   You might be surprised that with this narratively rich parasha, I am going to focus here….but I am. 
            From Aviva Zornberg, I learned that this short phrase was the focus of microscopic attention by the earliest midrashic commentators who offered some rather troubling interpretations of this seemingly innocuous verse. Rashi, for example, comments:  “Jacob wished to live at ease, but there leapt upon him the troubles of Joseph”.   It seems likely that Rashi noticed that Chapter 37, which begins with Va’yeshev, ends with Joseph being sold into slavery as Jacob mourns for the beloved son he believed had been ripped apart by a wild beast.  After his tumultuous life, Jacob sought, finally, to live in peace, but this desire of his old age was, at least emotionally, savaged. 
            Zornberg guides us to what she believes is the source midrash for Rashi’s commentary on this verse:  Quoting Bereshit Rabba: “When the righteous settle in peace….. (that is) seek to settle in peace in this world, Satan comes to accuse them.”  What a strange aphorism to the contemporary ear!  Isn’t peace a high value toward which the righteous should aspire?  Apparently not.  The rabbis seem to be asserting that the righteous make themselves vulnerable to Satan’s attack by their over-weaning desire to live at ease, to settle in peace, in this world.  Peace is for the world to come.  It is a grievous error, according to Chazal, to desire to see history resolved, sojourning over, in one’s lifetime, and in this world. 
            Zornberg comments further:  When Jacob tries to ‘settle in peace’, he looses vengeful furies not because his is a moral offense, but because it constitutes a wrong understanding of the human condition.  The wicked may seek to gain quick release from angst; but the righteous are asked to suffer it, not to turn away from it.  “To seek peace prematurely is to beg off from reality.”  To face it, and to act wisely, is the responsibility of the righteous.
            This morning, standing on the scaffolding provided by Zornberg, I want to emphasize the second part of this short verse “to settle in the land where his father sojourned, and hear how the Torah might be addressing us today.  Standing of the shoulders of my ancestors, I interpret the verse:  When we seek to settle with ease in our current world, as if we are living in the same world where our parents lived, we loose vengeful furies on generations to come.  It is a wrong understanding of our current condition to think we are living on the same earth on which our parents sojourned.
            Bill McKibben, the head of, has been warning for years:  “Global warming is no longer a philosophical threat, no longer a future threat, no longer a threat at all.  It is our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways…The world as we know it has ended.  We imagine we still live back on that old planet, that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind.  But they’re not.  Earth is a different place.  A different planet.” (from Eaarth:  Making a Life on a Tough New Planet)  While humans have been the cause for the sudden surge in greenhouse gases and hence the rise in global temperatures, the heat we’ve caused now triggers ominous, systemic feedback effects so that the earth is changing much more rapidly on its own than scientists ever anticipated. 
            We are all aware of the catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines and that Naderev Sano, representative of the Philippines to the 2013 UN Conference on Climate Change which has been meeting in Warsaw these past two weeks, put himself on a hunger strike out of desperation.  His protest came at a moment when the negotiations were at a deadlock. The world community has not been able to agree on either a timeline for cutting greenhouse gas emissions or providing financing to developing countries for loss and damage, adaptation to the severe climate impacts of climate change and the transition towards renewable energies.  As of last night, it appears there may be a bit more agreement on a few points; the US joined the EU on backing a time-table, but it is still not clear what will finally emerge.  The science is clear that we cannot wait any longer to make drastic cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. 
            For a number of years I’ve been part of a small of group who’ve been studying and discussing climate change as we support each other to make personal lifestyle changes and engage in a variety of public actions against fracking, the XL pipeline, and prepare for the possibility, even likelihood of engaging in non-violent civil disobedience if President Obama approves the XL Pipeline.  It is now emerging that we may well need to become active over the mile-long trains that have started coming through Philadelphia carrying crude oil.   Just over a year ago, the 140-year-old Sunoco refinery near the airport was on the verge of closing its doors. Now, the facility has become a key player in America’s energy boom as the single largest consumer of crude oil from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. These are the same kind of trains that derailed and exploded on Friday, November 8th in Alabama, sending flames hundreds of feet into the air. The train carried the same fracked fossil fuel which killed 47 people this summer when a similar train derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Canada.  It is the same fracked contents in the mile-long trains that are now coming through central Philadelphia twice a day, every day.
            Over these years, I’ve learned a lot and it has become increasingly clear to me how climate change results from the interlocking systems of the earth’s ecology, our economic system, and our spiritual/religious world view.  In an act of collective insanity, I participate in a civilization that depends on non-sustainable fossil fuel extraction that works in direct defiance and opposition to the natural structure of the biosphere. 
            The radical and extreme extraction of fossil fuels through fracking, drilling deep in the ocean, and exploiting the petroleum deposits known as Tar sands are the logical outcome of the industrial growth society we live in. And though I am addicted to a life-style I’ve become accustomed to in this society, I see ever more clearly how it is based on a system of values and beliefs that I, and most people in this room, do not believe in:
·         Human beings are separate from each other and from the ecological system that we are part of, rather than part of an interconnected and fragile web of life. 
·         The earth is a storehouse of resources that can be extracted at will for human consumption with no regard for non-human life and ecosystems
·         Profit and money is valued over people and Life itself
·         Individual survival is possible when communal survival is threatened
·         It is most profitable to focus on the needs of the present and not on future generations.
·         Survival of the fittest, rather than cooperation and partnership, is the best strategy for life.
Many religious and inter-faith organizations and communities have been publically declaring an alternative vision like the
            Interreligious Eco-Justice Network  &  Connecticut Interfaith Power & Light

Who wrote
And Which has been circulated to interfaith communities around the United States .This letter states, in part:
As members of the faith community, we have a deep obligation to understand the full dimensions of this growing problem, which the scientific community has documented with overwhelming consensus in the past few decades.
  • Safeguarding all creation on earth is a sacred trust that is placed upon us – to love, to care for and to nurture. We accept this trust as a universal moral imperative, one that we share across all human societies, religious faiths and cultural traditions. 
  • Given the urgency of the current situation, we solemnly pledge to:  
    • Foster a reflective and prayerful response to the threat of global climate change.
    • Work together as people of many religions and cultures to live sustainably on planet Earth.
    • Encourage members of our faith to develop and implement energy conservation plans and to use safe, clean, renewable energy.
    • Be an authentic witness for action on climate change and environmental justice through teaching, preaching and by letting our voices be heard in the public sphere.
    • Advocate for local, state, national and international policies and regulations that enable a swift transition from dependence on fossil fuels to safe, clean, renewable energy.
As far as I know (and I humbly admit, I may well be wrong because I have not been a regular attender at this minyan), we have not, as a minyan and Shabbat community, spoken together about climate change, though I know we’ve made changes in getting rid of disposable dishes in favor of washing plastic ones.  I imagine people have been making changes on their own and in other contexts, today’s parasha called me to bring the conversation here this morning.
              Before opening up for discussion, I want to share something from an article I read recently that describes a workshop led by a complex systems researcher, named Brad Werner,  at the 2012 Fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, titled “Is Earth Fucked?:  Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism”.  Guiding a conference group through the advanced computer model he was using to answer this question, his bottom line was that the global industrial growth economy has made the depletion of resources so rapid, convenient and barrier-free that earth-human systems have become dangerously unstable.  He explained, however, that there is one dynamic in his model that offers some hope:  ‘movements of people or groups of people’ who ‘adopt a certain set of dynamics’ that does not fit within the industrial growth culture, which could represent a source of friction to slow down an economic machine that is careening out of control.  Werner made his argument not as a matter of political opinion, but as a geophysical reality, by including human resistance as part of the great ecosystem that is the earth.
            Thomas Berry wrote:  “The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments…when their story of the universe and the human role in the universe becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of a present situation.  We live at such a moment”….. Connecticut Power and Light declared this week:
There comes a time in every generation when a matter of great urgency requires that we, who belong to a diverse faith community, express our concerns with moral clarity and with a unified voice. That pivotal moment has arrived. We can no longer ignore the plain facts of climate change.”
             I felt called by Chazal’s words….’ When the righteous settle in peace….. Satan comes to accuse them” to bring these issues to this faith community, so we might listen deeply and see where we are.  
  • How do you think about climate change?  
  • How do you hold your day to day life and the ominous realities of what is happening on our planet?  
  • Where and how do you find inspiration, support, and hope?  
  • What kinds of activism are you engaged in and what would you like others here to know about what you are doing and who you are working with? 
  • How can we as a community at GJC continue to come together around these issues?
Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light is a community of congregations, faith-based organizations,and individuals of faith responding to climate change as a moral issue, through advocacy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, and the use of clean, renewable energy.

1 comment:

Arthur Waskow said...

WOW! -- Is that a comment? Does it need to be in Hebrew or Yiddish? Is "yashar kocheych" enough?


With thanks to Bobbi for the teaching & Betsy for the posting -- With admiration & blessings of shalom -- Arthur