David Lerner

Wherever You Go, The Weather is There

The first time I went camping, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  Sharon and I were invited to spend a Shabbat at Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin with friends, and I had never slept outdoors in the wilderness before.  Friday consisted of hiking, rock climbing, and setting up the campsite. As the sun set, we welcomed Shabbat with song, prayer, and a delicious Shabbat dinner that we had cooked that afternoon.  

I absolutely loved it.

Then, we headed into our borrowed tent for the night.  Around 2 AM, it started to rain – and then it rained harder and harder.  A small rivulet started to flow through the middle of our tent. It became a stream and then a small river.  We tried to make adjustments to stem the tide of water, but it was to no avail. After a few hours of no sleep, becoming colder and wetter, I developed a fever and gave up on the experience.  

I headed to our car which was parked nearby, reclined the front seat all the way back and spent the rest of Shabbat in my man-made bubble.

While camping turned out not to be my forte that Shabbat, I do love being in nature: hiking, kayaking, cycling, they are all soul-sustaining.  So, it was from a profound love of nature and the environment that I started reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book: We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.

Foer, a master storyteller, author of Everything is Illuminated, begins by describing the impending climate disaster that has already begun to take shape: the continued warming of the planet, our climate radically changing, rising sea levels, massive crop failures, ….

It is unclear what will happen to civilization as we know it….

The book paints a pretty grim picture.

And unlike others, he does not sugar coat anything. Even if we are able to take radical action in the coming years, it is most likely, way too late to prevent many of these profound changes to our world. 

You don’t have to be a lover of camping to appreciate what we are facing.  It is unlike anything that humanity has ever confronted before.

I have to say it’s been a tough read, even tougher to digest….

*         *         *

Interestingly, our tradition has something to say on this issue; ours is one of the first traditions in human history to understand the implications of our actions on the world.

Parashat Ki Teitzei contains 72 of the 613 commandments or mitzvot – the most of any portion.

It’s hard to see a theme through all the various laws that are enumerated, but there is a thread that weaves its way through the text – we are invited to cultivate a sense of compassion, of rahamim.

President Barak Obama with the First Dog, Bo (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) Obama White House P051209PS-0438

Some examples include: do not show favoritism among your children, return lost objects, treat animals with kindness, be compassionate in how you collect a debt, treat others’ property with respect, pay someone you hire promptly, leave your leftovers for those in need and on and on.

It’s interesting that many of these laws – both in this week’s portion and last week’s portion, take place in the context of war.  Not the first place that comes to mind when you think of cultivating compassion. 

But, I think it is deliberate.  

It is a kal v’homer – an a fortiori argument.  If you can develop kindness and compassion and hold onto that even in the context of war, then how much more so should we have that approach at other times. 

This parashah opens with the phrase that is also found in last week’s portion – ki teitzei l’milhamah – when you go out to war.  If you must go out to war, and the tradition over time clarifies that this must be a just war, a defensive war, then you need to bring a sense of morality and rules even into warfare. 

In one of these sections, we are taught that it is forbidden to destroy an enemy’s fruit trees during the siege of a city.  The rabbis then extrapolated from this a more general idea: if you cannot chop down an enemy’s trees during a war, a violent, destructive time, how much more so that you cannot destroy trees during a time of peace.

Known as “Ba’al tashheet” (we may not waste), this principle is expanded in the Talmud to include any natural resources from water to oil.  The rabbis criticize King Hezkiah for stopping up water sources in Jerusalem and they insisted upon fuel-efficient oil lamps.

The Sefer HaHinukh – a 13th century Spanish work that explains all of the 613 commandments, understands this mitzvah about not wasting or destroying our world as being about training us to be good.  Treating the planet with kindness can not only save the world, but it can also transform our souls.  

As the Sefer HaHinukh states, “it moves us well away from destructiveness.  This is the way of kindly people and those who are conscientiously observant; they love peace and are happy at the good fortune of people, and bring them near the Torah.  They will not destroy even a mustard seed in the world, and they are distressed at every ruination and spoilage that they see; and if they are able to do any rescuing, they will save anything from destruction, with all their power.”

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In the background: Upper and lower Yosemite Falls. (Copyright 1906)
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g04698.

Long before John Muir a century ago advanced the modern environmental movement, our tradition was aware that we cannot hurt or abuse the planet.

But we have… 

*         *         *

So, the situation calls for us to do everything in our power to change that reality and our tradition mandates that we act.  This is a mitzvah no less important than honoring our parents, Shabbat or not murdering.  In fact, we could argue that it is more important – since the lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions depend on us.

So, as in most areas, we begin with ourselves.  We must consider how we act in our homes, how we drive, how we eat, how we travel, how we consume and explore significant changes.

Thanks to our Shomrei Adamah (Compost) Committee, we as a shul community are making a difference.  We are removing plastic from our regular usage and moving to our glass plates and compostables.  

Temple Emunah Kiddush Bussing Line

Thank you to our committee and our Shabbat captains, Joelle Gunther, Gila Appleby and Annette Koren.  Each week, we are a part of this endeavor when we bus our plates as well as help others and guests with their composting. 

In order to harness the energy of the sun, we are exploring creating a large solar field above our parking lot.

We must all reduce our usage, reuse, and recycle lots more.

And we must create new policies and regulations that incentivize changing our energy consumption.  

While I may be passionate about many issues that have major impacts on our lives, this one may be THE ISSUE of our century, if not all human history, impacting billions.

While it may not shift the balance of the globe to drive a more fuel efficient car or to compost, each step moves the needle and encourages others to follow suit.  

Jonathan Safran Foer

Foer convincingly argues that we can do something significant.  The largest human activity that contributes to global warming that we can alter most easily is changing what we eat.  Since animal agriculture is quite destructive to the planet, if we limit our consumption of meat, dairy and eggs, we can actually change the trajectory of this impending disaster.  It might be hard to change our habits, but if we eat vegan for two meals a day, we can make a difference.

Given the magnitude of this moment, I think we should consider this. I am moving toward a more plant-based diet and I hope we can all consider this.

We should cultivate the same compassion and kindness that we are asked to have toward other people and animals, for the planet itself.

Image by GooKingSword
About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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