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Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
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A moonshot for Planet Earth

New US legislation that provides massive investment for tackling climate change has launched humankind on a profoundly spiritual rescue mission
Flooding in Kentucky 2022. (via Twitter)
Flooding in Kentucky 2022. (via Twitter)

The most consequential climate change legislation ever, designed to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent and solidify America’s position as the world leader in the fight to save our planet, is being called the “Inflation Reduction Act.”

Come again?

We should be shouting from the rooftops the pending enactment of the “One Earth Act,” or the “Planet Fitness Act,” or even the “Al-Gore-Was-Right-All-Along Act.”  But no. Reducing inflation is important, no doubt, as are the bill’s other features. But an earth-shaking $370 billion for climate change shouldn’t be slipped through the back door.

Saving our planet is this generation’s moonshot, and we have finally achieved liftoff. The decade-long journey from Mercury to Apollo was much shorter than the five decade odyssey to this moment from the first warnings of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “the carbon dioxide problem,” back in 1969, two months after the moon landing.

So here we go. This week’s liftoff was horizontal, not vertical, and the focus must turn now from outer space to inner space, from the planets and stars to the overflowing rivers and parched forests. But there is much that the prior moonshot can teach the current one.

Ron Howard’s new film, “13 Lives,” brings us back to the tense early summer of 2018, when an international team of experts and volunteers joined forces to rescue a boys’ soccer team stranded in a flooded cave in Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but note the similarities to one of Howard’s prior films, “Apollo 13,” where, using teamwork, ingenuity, and outside-the-box thinking, another skilled team was able to bring home three astronauts from an equally dire predicament. In one case, adults were rescued from an infinite void, with no atmosphere, no climate, and no possibility of sustaining life. In the other, the rescued children were imperiled by a supercharged atmosphere driven by a changing climate.

The boys were trapped as the Chiang Rai cave was flooded very early, in what turned out to be a particularly extreme monsoon season throughout eastern Asia that year. The rescue of the 13 was cause for celebration, but it was a Pyrrhic victory when we consider the deaths of so many climate change victims before and since, including those who died these past few weeks in rain-drenched Kentucky, fire-torched California, and sunbaked Europe.

There is a sense that the Earth itself is angry at our hubris and is sending us one final, ferocious warning before it all goes up in flames. In Howard’s new film, the wrathful rains are personified by the mythical princess Jao Mae Nang Non, also known as the “reclining goddess,” whose image looms over the mountain and cave (that both share her name) where the boys were trapped. Legend has it that her ill-fated love met a tragic demise in that spot. Villagers make offerings to appeal to her for mercy, while the rains fall like tears from her grieving eyes. She is a constant, visible reminder that we have made a mess of our relationship with nature, and now we are paying the price.

Recalling last year’s metaphoric climate change film, “Don’t Look Up,” the message of “Thirteen Lives” is that we need to look down, into the darkest fissures of the earth, the caves and sinkholes, the submerged rice paddies and gushing tributaries. Look down into the eyes of the princess — and look around — and follow the advice of the Psalm 115:16: “The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth God gave over to us.” We need to fix what is in our backyard and not be distracted by the shinier objects above.

Both of Howard’s rescue films have the number 13 in the title, which points to another shared lesson, that both the celestial and earthbound moonshots are profoundly spiritual missions, boosted by a fusion of humility and hope. “Who knows 13?” Jews sing at the conclusion of the Passover seder. “Thirteen are the attributes of God,” referring to the 13 qualities of mercy through which God governs the cosmos. Through these attributes, we can sense God’s presence and the unity of all creation.

This summer, the James Webb telescope enabled us to see galaxies being born and dying and light that was generated at the dawn of time, just after the Big Bang, 13 (yes, 13) billion years ago. In the Israeli media, the Hebrew word used for this Webb’s eye view of the universe was Ein Sof, which in the secular context means “infinity,” but it is also well-known kabbalistic name for God’s most mysterious and unknowable essence. When we gaze back through those 13 billion years, and slip the surly bonds of time and space, we approach the Face of God. The closer we come to seeing the Beginning — and touching God — the more we recognize that we are not God, and the smaller we feel.

That stunning vision from the heavens should fortify us with humility for the struggle that awaits; for back here on earth, the reclining goddess is growing impatient. In the Talmud, 13 is also the age of responsibility. And what greater responsibility do we have than to take those God-like qualities of mercy and apply them to sustaining life here on our home planet? For while we look up and our Webb-enhanced view gets clearer and sharper, we look down and our view of what lies beneath us becomes muddier and murkier. And as more sinkholes start to appear, the ground gives way and the waters rush in. The princess is begging us to act.

“Chiang Rai,” the princess of the cave cries, “we have a problem!”

We need to summon the same dogged determination of Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell and flight director Gene Kranz, as we grapple with humankind’s most intractable predicament. “From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon,” said Lovell. “And it’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.”

And from now on, this generation’s moonshot will be to protect our own little livable orb. We can gaze up there, but only in as much as it inspires us to change things down here. For we have no choice.

Kranz put it best as he wrestled with the unmanageable challenge of bringing the boys home:

“Failure is not an option.”

Now the work can begin, at long last, thanks to the “Inconvenient Truth Act” of 2022.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2019, he received first-prize from the Religion News Association, for excellence in commentary. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Cobie, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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