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March 16, 2017 by

Where Were You When the World Was Ravaged?

pollutionThe river was always there, down the street, icy in winter, rapidly flowing after the snowmelt in spring, calm and still in the summer, reflecting in its waters the overhanging trees whose colors magnificently changed in the autumn. During my childhood in a small Upstate New York town, summers would stretch into long days outdoors, as I played in fresh, sweet air. This is the Earth I knew, the Earth I took for granted.

But now I know better. I know that taking anything for granted will break one’s heart when it is threatened beyond repair. Perhaps it was my simple pleasure in being outdoors for hours on end that led to my commitment to environmentalism. Studying and teaching Torah made that commitment a Jewish imperative.

Have you been caught in some of the heaviest rains in memory, rains that produce severe flooding all over our planet? Have you noticed that each summer is hotter than the prior? How about the rising waters or the fires that recently raged in California and are now, as I write, raging in Florida? We are living with the consequences of global warming. The Union of Concerned Scientists, an essential organization with a user-friendly website, explains why:

We are overloading our atmosphere with carbon dioxide, which traps heat and steadily drives up the planet’s temperature. Where does all this carbon come from? The fossil fuels we burn for energy—coal, natural gas and oil—plus the loss of       forests due to deforestation, especially in the tropics.

A New York Times heading from January 18, 2017 announces our new reality: “Earth Sets a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year.” Other recent NYTimes headlines include: “E.P.A. Chief Says He Doubts Carbon Dioxide’s Role in Global Warming” and “E.P.A. Head Stacks Agency with Climate Change Skeptics.”

Environmental Protection Agency now sounds ironic. There will be little left to protect once Scott Pruitt, the E.P.A.’s new head, methodically dismantles President Obama’s regulations to protect the environment and therefore all of us. According to the Washington Post, the new President, who selected Pruitt, proposes to slash the department’s budget by 24 percent and eliminate 38 of its programs. Those cuts would be deep enough to effectively kill environmental policies that would otherwise be difficult to overturn.

If the declared intentions of the Republican majority in Congress succeed, coal fired plants will operate with far fewer regulations, streams will once again be dumping places for coal mining waste, and regulations targeting methane, even more dangerous than carbon since longer lasting, will be minimized. Car emissions will again become a major cause of global warming. Protection? The E.P.A. should be renamed the Environmental Destruction Agency (to the dismay and public protests of many of its superb professional staffers). I can barely contain my anguish and rage in the face of such shortsighted attacks on protections aiming to ensure clean air and water for our children and their children. The current crisis confirms God’s warning that the sins of the parents will reverberate upon their children and their children’s children (Exodus 34: 7).

Astonishing poetry in the book of Job reminds us that the Earth and its creatures are not created primarily for the use of human beings. Powerful forces in the natural world violently defy human attempts to subdue and control them. God confronts Job with the limits of human knowledge.           

Who is this who darkens counsel
In words without knowledge?
…Where were you when I founded the earth?  
Job 38: 2, 4a

The divine words invite us to seriously ponder our reckless attempts to exploit the earth in light of our shortsightedness. Storehouses of hail, east winds whipping over the earth, and sheets of rain leave Job overwhelmed. In our day, it is precisely these kinds of severe weather events, triggered by human activity, that signal the dangers our planet already faces.

Paradoxically, God needs us to care for the planet. We are the only living creatures who can do so. Our relationship to the earth runs deep. Genesis 1: 27 reminds us that we are in God’s image. Genesis 2: 15 defines what that means by commanding us “to serve and preserve,” our earth in a translation offered by Jeremy Bernstein in his book, The Way in Judaism and the Environment. Putting those two verses together, Gene Tucker argues, in his article “Rain on a land where no one lives: The Hebrew Bible on the Environment,” that “human beings are created as royal stewards of a good creation. To be identified as ‘image of God’ entails both the freedom and the responsibility to act on God’s behalf, consistent with that God’s will, which will is the good of the creation.” Throughout the Torah, God relies on human beings to serve as God’s agents in the world. Just as we are called to protect the poor, the hungry and the stranger, we are called upon to protect our Earth, whose vulnerability to human recklessness and indifference is all too apparent. 

How can we take seriously the religious call to be stewards of the earth?  Here are three immediate steps.

First, educate yourself both about the consequences of climate change and the plans of this new administration to undue regulations to mitigate those consequences, actions that will sharply increase the risk to our health and our planet.

Second, join an environmental group. Hazon and the Jewish Climate Action Network NYC are eager for your participation.

Third, march on April 29 in the Second National People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C. If you take our roles as God’s agents on this planet seriously, march. If you are losing sleep because of the world in which our children and our children’s children must live, march. March against those who should know better. March for common sense.  We can stop this! You can get more information and sign up through this Hazon link.

Abraham Joshua Heschel famously remarked:

For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.

This time our legs have to pray for the Earth.


Dr. Adriane Leveen is senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the Hebrew Union College. She is a proud member of the Jewish Climate Action Network, NY.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.