Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

When we became the weather

Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

I am fortunate to have survived several flash floods. I ran for my life up a hill in northern India when floodwaters swept through. I watched the village where I had just been getting washed away. And last year in New Jersey, I was on the main boulevard that suddenly became a river.

While public and media attention on Israeli and U.S. elections has eclipsed climate reporting, many parts of Israel have flooded repeatedly this winter and last winter, killing over 20 people. According to the Israel Meteorological Service, torrential downpours have broken records going back 76 years.

Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

One year ago, “a strong storm pummeled Israel, which flooded a stream near the Hatzor Air Base near Ashdod, sending huge amounts of rainwater into the underground hangars where a number of F-16 fighter jets were being stored, damaging eight of them.” The damage from these floods to the Israeli Air Force was worse than any inflicted by Hamas or Hezbollah.  In the U.S., at a major air force base in Nebraska in 2019, “About 700 airmen filled 235,000 sandbags in a valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to hold the waters back. About one-third of the base, including 3,000 feet of runway, was flooded by 720 million gallons of water infested with raw sewage,” as Air Force Times reported. Of course, climate-caused flooding impacts not just military hardware and personnel, but the homes and lives of an ever-increasing number of civilians worldwide.

Poignant news photos and footage capture massive flood destruction, and individual accounts reveal the personal and even emotional devastation. After Hurricane Harvey in 2017, The New York Times quoted Maya Wadler, a teenager in Houston, Texas, as she recalled the moments her family’s home flooded. “I usually just trust my parents that everything is going to be okay. But I looked up, and I saw that my dad was closing his eyes, the water was getting in his eyes. And I just thought: He has absolutely no idea where we are going to go.” In 2019, Houston flooded again—for the third time in three years. Many flood events worldwide are arriving sooner and more intensely than predicted, and their frequency and impact are mounting.

One of the human activities contributing to this environmental threat is more and more road paving, which prevents rainfall from being absorbed into the earth, and increases rainfall runoff and flooding. With unceasing global urbanization, land that once soaked up massive amounts of rainwater is covered with nonporous pavement. Such human-made obstruction prevents the rainwater from reaching and replenishing underground aquifers (also referred to as groundwater, or the water table). In Israel, aquifers have traditionally provided a key source of fresh water. In the U.S, aquifers directly provide more than one-third of America’s drinking water and contribute, in part, to all its drinking water sources. In some places, such as Florida, aquifers provide 100 percent of the drinking water as well as the majority of clean water for industrial and agricultural use.

The volume of freshwater lost to the ocean in the U.S. each year would provide sufficient water for tens of millions of people.  Atlanta, while suffering major droughts, leads American cities in uncaptured rainwater– with up to 132.8 billion gallons per year. Large amounts of water flow off of pavement and drainage systems to the sea in Los Angeles, San Diego and Phoenix, at the same time that these cities experience water shortages. According to geoscientist and urban planner Dr. Xuecao Li of Iowa State University, the amount of U.S. land covered by sprawling urban development will likely increase by up to 20 percent from 2013 to 2050, and up to 50 percent by the end of the century.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

In Israel and Gaza, which experience water shortages and drought, by 2040 a near-continuous urban settlement will stretch from the northern coast to the southern coast, from Nahariya to Tel Aviv to Ashkelon to Gaza. Another urban belt extends for miles from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to Ramallah. Travel to any population center in Israel today, and you will see the massive infrastructure work being done on roads and highways, adding more impervious paving to a land already living at the edge of a water crisis. Israel’s water resources are so limited (and disputed) that we cannot afford to deprive the coastal and mountain aquifers of precious rainwater.

More pavement also increases rainfall runoff and flooding. In the northern Israeli city of Nahariya, they changed the way a river flows to build a mall and an underground parking lot. And the city has flooded many times since, and several people have died. The Mayor said this week, “We will not be able to go through a flood of this magnitude every two weeks,” as has been occurring. To put it differently, he is talking about the viability and sustainability of his imperiled city. In recent years, Tel Aviv and Gaza City have flooded due to extreme storms. Nature knows no boundaries.

Rain is the ultimate symbol of giving in the natural world, since it reaches us and the earth as a gift from the heavens. Commenting on Leviticus 24:4, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban) notes how beneficial rain improves human health and increases produce. He calls this blessing of the rains “the greatest of all blessings.” But the Bible’s promise of abundant rains and prosperity is followed by a warning that, should Israel ignore the Torah, God will “make your skies like iron”—cease all rains and bring drought, according to the Midrash, a Jewish text from 1,500 years ago. So rain, both in its excess and its absence, can also be a symbol of judgment.

As I wrote in this article for Canfei Nesharim, now a part of Grow Torah, praying for rain is a key part of Jewish spiritual life. For almost half the year, Jewish daily prayers include praise of God as the One who “makes the wind blow and the rain descend” and a request that God will “give dew and rain for a blessing on the face of the earth.” Yet in a number of instances in the Bible, God sent rain that was a curse, not a blessing. As I note in the recently published Eco Bible: Volume One: An Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus, the Flood punished a generation for transgressing against God’s will. Rashi explains that the rains of blessing became a destructive flood only when the people refused to repent. In the time of the prophet Samuel, God brought thunder and rain to chastise the people.

The Torah teaches that our actions affect rain as well (Leviticus 26:4-6). Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi Ashlag, a leading kabbalist of the twentieth century, wrote that God established the laws of nature in the world, so a person or society that transgresses against one of these laws will be punished by nature. He likens nature to a judge God appointed to punish those who violate the laws of nature.

Meanwhile scientific models project that climate change may increase precipitation by 7 to 15 percent at high latitudes, causing stronger and potentially more destructive storms in these areas. A consensus of scientists has concluded that by burning fossil fuels in our cars, homes, factories, and planes, we are increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, causing a greenhouse effect which alters the climate. On a hotter planet there is more water vapor in the atmosphere. When storms come, they are able to pack a stronger punch by unloading greater amounts of rain, hail, and snow.

Paving more and more of Earth’s surface plus overheating our planet, with little thought to destructive flood outcomes, throws our environment—and our survival—out of balance. We need to be mindful of the connection between our actions and the physical conditions that surround us. One practical thing we can do is promote the use of permeable pavement, both for our own homes and in the cities or towns where we live. Permeable pavement is a porous urban surface, which catches rainwater and runoff and then slowly allows it to seep into the soil below. A second thing we can do is make curbing climate change a top priority for the leaders we choose.

We are connected with rain for survival; the way the rain comes down and how it meets the earth are reflections of our spiritual awareness and proper living. It is not surprising to find that the Hebrew word for rain, geshem, is the same root as the word for physicality, our very existence. God has created the world in a way that only by our living in balance and moderation, will the natural world also be healthy and in balance. May we merit to live such lives.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a global environmental focus , and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Israel and the U.S. He is the lead author and general editor of three books on Jewish environmental ethics, including Eco Bible, a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle categories. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
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