Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 12/2/2004
One of the key moments of the Biblical story of the Exodus comes after seven eco-disasters. Pharaoh's own advisers shriek at him: "Do you not know that Egypt is destroyed?" (Exodus 10:7).
In case you thought this was a sardonic elaboration on a mythic tale, much the same story actually took place in Washington in our own generation, and President Bush responded much like Pharaoh.
First, you recall, came the "plagues" - environmental disasters. The rivers became poisonous, undrinkable. Frogs swarmed everywhere and then died in stinking heaps. Vermin swarmed. Venomous, bloodsucking flies followed. Mad cow disease descended. Airborne infections raised boils on everyone. Unprecedented hailstorms signaled radical climate change, shattering grass, trees, and animals.
There were in Egypt some experts on the ecological balance. As a result of caring for sheep, drawing water from wellsprings, and walking in naked feet on the desert rocks near a blazing bush, they had learned to take to heart the Unity of the universe. Their warnings had been borne out again and again as these plagues struck, and now they warned that the ecosystem was so ruined that a monstrous plague of locusts was about to strike.
And Pharaoh's own advisers shrieked at him: "These people deeply understand YHWH, the Breath of Life that holds all life together! Let them go forth to serve this Breath of Life" - and that's when they added: "Do you not know that Egypt is destroyed?"
But Pharaoh hardened his heart once more, and the locusts came. And after that, so darkened were the eyes of the people that the land itself was darkened as a thick dust swallowed up all vision. And then came an illness that left no house untouched by death.
Now let us turn to our own lives, our own generation. On June 3, 2002, the New York Times reported that the United States had submitted to the United Nations, as required by treaty, a report on the expected impact of global scorching on the United States. The report was written not by radical outsiders, but by the President's own advisers.
The Times continued: "The report says the United States will be substantially changed in the next few decades - 'very likely' seeing the disruption of snow-fed water supplies, more stifling heat waves and the permanent disappearance of Rocky Mountain meadows and coastal marshes, for example."
The report does stress that global warming carries potential benefits for the nation, including increased agricultural and forest growth from longer growing seasons, and from more rainfall and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.
But in summary, the Times concluded that the report says environmental havoc is coming as well: "Some of the goods and services lost through the disappearance or fragmentation of natural ecosystems are likely to be costly or impossible to replace. Other ecosystems, such as Southeastern forests, are likely to experience major species shifts or break up into a mosaic of grasslands, woodlands and forests."
And how did our Pharaonic President respond? The usually staid British press agency, Reuters, put this headline on its report: BUSH: GLOBAL CLIMATE REPORT IS BUREAUCRATIC HOT AIR.
Welcome to Egypt, friends.
Hearken to the warnings of those who focus on the Breath of Life that intertwines us all. And if you think they are doom-besotted radicals, listen to the Pharaoh's own advisers.
Time to bethink ourselves - What should we be doing?
Should we be introducing prayers for the earth into every service in all our synagogues and churches, all our mosques and temples?
[For example, our synagogues could focus attention on the 2d paragraph of the Sh'ma and its eco-teaching, rather than dropping it out entirely or mumbling thru it, as we often do.]
Should we be radically reducing our own households' use of fossil fuels? Is it "kosher" to drive an SUV?
What would happen if our rabbis said in sermons that an SUV is no more kosher than a ham sandwich, and a lot more destructive to the earth & humankind? Would people storm out - or change?
Or should our next car be a fuel-saving hybrid?
Should we insist on using products that are certified as "climate -neutral"? And choosing where we invest our money by such criteria?
Should we be replacing the thick-headed, hard-hearted, pharaonic politicians - who will not turn to mass transit and encourage bike paths and apply fuel-efficiency standards to Detroit's chariots?
Do our tikkun-olam committees take these issues to heart, organize letter-writing campaigns about them and vigils for Amtrak??
Should our congregations be teaching eco-truth to our teens and adults, as an integrated part of religious studies?
What adult-education courses on eco-Judaism are being given in our own synagogues?
Does this century of human and planetary history need to be different from every other century?
What matzah, what bitter herb, are we introducing into our lives to remind us that this century IS different from all other centuries?
I hope many of us will draw on this or other approaches to talk with rabbis and congregational committee chairs, to write letters to the editor - Jewish and general - about what needs to be done - ranging from: —
supporting mass transit,
to getting rid of SUV's,
to supporting the Friends of the Earth campaign for an International Right to Know Act, requiring global corporations to report in detail the impact of their operations on the earth,
to supporting organizations like The Shalom Center, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), the National Religious Partnership on the Environment, and Religious Witness for Peace in their/our efforts to raise these issues.
In particular, I think we need to look beyond only the specific issues of environmental policy to the question of DECISION-MAKING POWER as it affects the earth —
To how we address the basic shape of the institutions that are wrecking the planetary web of life.
There is what we might call a "Pharaoh's Alliance" (I do not mean a planned conspiracy, but ad hoc cooperation and interlocking agendas) made up of governments like the Bush Administration, institutions like the World Bank and World Trade Organization, and global corporations like Big Oil.
Unless we can work out ways to make that kind of power democratically accountable, we will always be losing ground to them. Losing Earth to them.
The International Right to Know Act sponsored by Friends of the Earth would require global corporations to reveal what they are doing to the Earth, as domestic ones must. See <www.irtk.org/what_is_irtk.html>
This bill has supporters in Congress, and could be the basis for a first step toward accountability. (The Torah's ultimate "solution" for Pharaonic power was making a king accountable and restricting his power; see Deut. 17: 14-20)
Until now, Jewish organizations - even or especially the mainstream environmental group, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL) have rarely if ever addressed these questions of power and accountability as aspects of eco-Judaism or environmental policy. Instead, they have addressed specific issues as if they were the issue. We need to go beyond that: The real issue is power.