Friday September 17, 2021 – י”א תשרי תשפ”ב
הַאֲזִ֥ינוּ הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וַאֲדַבֵּ֑רָה וְתִשְׁמַ֥ע הָאָ֖רֶץ אִמְרֵי־פִֽי׃ (דברים לב:א)
Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter! (Deuteronomy 32:1)
Yom Kippur is my favorite day in Israel. It’s a day that’s only possible in a Jewish State – as everything literally stops. The streets are bereft of all motorized traffic; all businesses are closed; the radio and television networks sign off, and there is a palpable sense of quiet. The streets are filled with Jews walking on their way to and from prayer, as well as with bike riders, skateboarders, scooters, and people coming out of the woodwork in a pilgrimage fashion to schmooze, see, and be seen.
Besides the silent streets and almost no car accidents, the most substantial impact of the Jewish holiday is one that cannot be seen with the naked eye: The air is cleaner. On Yom Kippur, ambient air pollution across the nation drops to an all-year minimum, and Israel experiences better air quality than on any other day.
Israel has set an ambitious climate target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 85 percent by 2050 compared to 2015 levels, and an immediate target of a 27 percent emissions reduction by 2030. This is an effort that cannot be achieved if solely championed by the Ministry for the Environment. This resolution was jointly introduced by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Energy Minister Karin Elharar, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai, and Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked – making this a multi-partisan effort of the new government.
Coming off a summer in which we saw extreme heatwaves, forest fires in the Jerusalem Hills, and other climate change-related issues, this should be a clarion call for us all. In May 2020, an unprecedented early heat wave claimed the lives of 157 people. Extreme heat during the spring is much more dangerous than the same high temperatures in the summer: In early spring the body has yet to acclimate to the heat.
“No less important than the mortality they cause directly, heatwaves cause illness and death in indirect ways: an uptick in the number of hospitalizations that puts pressure on the health care system; the harm to agriculture and thus to healthy food; harm to the economy and more,” says Maya Negev, a researcher at the University of Haifa’s School of Public Health.
Israeli authorities were so focused on the coronavirus pandemic in the spring of 2020 that a link between the high death toll and the climate crisis wasn’t investigated. Government bodies are now seeing the light.
Israel is a microcosm for the rest of the world, as many of us in North America felt the physical manifestation of the all-too-true words that we chanted yesterday as part of the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer:
“Who by fire, and who by water…”
From Tahoe to New Orleans to Brooklyn we dealt with out-of-control fires, hurricanes, and floods that plagued us and sent people to evacuate to safety.
Let this be a wake-up call.
As we transition from Yom Kippur to Sukkot, we are afforded the perfect opportunity to reconnect. Sukkot compels us to leave the confines of our four walls and connect with the elements of nature. We live in temporary structures for a week, eat our meals, and sleep outside, reminding us of our connectedness with and dependence upon nature.
Dr. Jeremy Benstein explained:
“Zionism is the modern Jewish response to that historical alienation from nature. It is commonplace that for Jews, Zionism means the return to the Land of Israel. Until now, we have generally thought of that statement in sociopolitical terms – a polity with a Jewish majority, and a renewed national sovereignty. But a reunion of a people with a landscape is first and foremost an environmental phenomenon: not only a much-acclaimed ’return to history,’ but a return to nature as well. The predominantly secular Zionist revolution of Jewish life rejected the myth of the Wandering Diaspora Jew, the ’desiccated’ bookish shtetl culture, and the subsequent alienation from the body and the natural world. For the first time in two thousand years, the Jewish people have assumed responsibility for a piece of the Creation. The renewed Jewish presence in Israel means reestablishing our historic and natural ‘sense of place.’ It means, ideally, coming home in an environmental sense, reuniting Culture and Nature, and healing a schizophrenic split as old as the Diaspora.”
Now, it’s important to note that Zionism’s track record regarding environmental quality is not spotless: alongside A.D. Gordon’s vision of rural well-being based on working the land, there is a strong modernizing tendency which in the name of ‘development’ pushes unchecked economic growth, widespread industrialization, and under-planned urbanization. Which has wreaked havoc on the Land of Milk and Honey.
Zionism is about the restoration of Jewish indigeneity – a rootedness in the Land and the concomitant responsibility for it. Zionism can and should be the most relevant and authentic expression of Judaism’s concern for, and commitment to the earth as we can and should be leading the way.
As we move into Sukkot, it is an ideal time for us to connect to nature not only through the bounty of our fields but also through sleeping under the stars. It is a time for us to take a step back from our busy, fast-paced, technology-filled lives and to reconnect with ourselves, our community, and our natural world (and ideal holiday for outdoor socializing during a pandemic).
I invite you to take time this Sukkot to think about what it means to be living in a time of global climate change and uncertainty. I invite you to be reminded that we, the Jewish people, have an inherent connection to the Land. This Sukkot may we connect to ourselves, our environment, and our community.
Shabbat Shalom and Sukkot Sameach!
*This is Part I of a three-part series on Judaism, Zionism, and the Environment in a time of climate and ecological crisis.