Friday, May 30, 2014

Parashat Nasso: Counting our Numbers, Then and Now

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

At first glance, our Torah portion, Nasso, begins mildly: “The Lord spoke to Moses: Take a census of the Gershonites.”

Take a census. Count the number of people in your community. Simple enough. A continuation of what was happening in last week’s parashah, BaMidbar.

But let’s look a little deeper.

How many were the Israelites at that time? All the peoples of the Ancient Near East? Of the Earth? How many are we now?

The Atlas of World Population History estimates the world population in 2000 BCE was 27 million and in 1000 BC 50 million, the time period when the Israelites were counting their numbers.

Today’s world Jewish population is about half the entire world population 4000 years ago – something more than 13 million. The entire human population today is well over 7 billion, about 275 times what it was at that time.

Imagine if there were suddenly 275 times more dandelions, or 275 times more mosquitoes in your yard. Something tells me there would be an impact on your yard and on you.

We humans have an impact on planet Earth. We cannot help but do so, for we inhabit nearly every nook and cranny of it. We impact the soil, the water, the air, the lakes, the mountains, the glaciers, the oceans. And we are feeling the impact of our impact. We worry if the water we drink is safe. We worry about super storms. We worry about the air we breathe and the food we eat.

In April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth report on the status of climate change, including widespread observed current impacts. In early May, the US Climate Change Research Program released the Third National Climate Assessment, which details the current impact of climate change on each region of the US.

Our nation’s and our globe’s scientists are telling us that climate change is real and it is happening now. It is scary. It is, in fact, so scary that it is easier to look the other way and to go about our lives. We don’t want to think about famine and drought and flood and wildfires. We don’t want to experience them, see them on TV, think about them, or consider their impact. We want to go about our lives.

But our lives as individuals and as a society are dependent on all that is causing the problems. We need fossil fuels to heat and cool our homes, to travel, to transport food and clothing, to build plastics, and so much more. As a result, each of us unwittingly becomes a player in causing the destruction of the planet. 

At the end of the instructions about census taking, our Torah portion continues:

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.

Are we, in the words of our Torah portion, committing wrongs against one another each time we get into our car or turn on the heat or air conditioning, putting more CO2 into the air? Are we committing wrongs against one another when we eat foods grown with the use of pesticides, some of which ran off into surrounding land and water? Are we committing wrong each time we buy a product produced in a way that pollutes the rivers or air of Bangladesh or China?

These are powerful words – “commit wrong.” But the hard reality is that there is an invisible and lasting negative impact of many of our personal actions, on other people as well as on the rest of G!d’s creation.

And so, in the words of our Parashah, we must, as individuals and as a society, confess our sins – in other words, to acknowledge our actions – and make restitution, not through payments to each other, but through deeds – to mitigate our impact and to move our society to living differently, more harmoniously in tune with the rest of creation.

We want to go about our lives, and we need to do that. But we also need to look our impact on the Earth and each other squarely in the face, and say, we must do something.

Trying to make restitution – to do something – alone can feel at times both lonely and futile – we are so small in terms of the overwhelming nature of the problems. Doing something with our family may feel somewhat more empowering and less alone. And doing something with our community can feel even more empowering. That is why the Jewish Climate Action Network came into being. Together with Eli Gerzon, now working for Better Future Project/350MA, I helped this nascent organization come into being. Those of us involved in JCAN are members of the Jewish community who are passionate about the Earth and its inhabitants and the critical need for action. We are diverse in our backgrounds and in the kinds of action we believe are important, but we are united by our care and concern for the world around us.

JCAN is focused on tikkun tevel – healing of the Earth. Our objectives include promoting awareness and understanding of environmental problems, in particular, climate change, supporting political advocacy and action for better climate and environmental policies, encouraging personal and communal change, and providing support to those working to preserve the environment.

What we cannot do alone, we can do together. And there are many things we can do, there are answers and there are ways to build a more resilient and vibrant world.

But we need to do something else, too – alone, with our families, and in our communities. We need to take care of ourselves and be gentle on ourselves, to maintain our souls and to find the strength and the courage to do the work we must do.

One of the ways that I began to take care of myself some years ago was to pray outdoors. It is currently my practice to step outside my back door every morning and every evening, and to briefly daven beneath the sky.

I am not the first to think of this. Rebbi Nachman of Bratslav prayed, “May it be my custom to go outdoors each day, among the trees and grass, among all living things. And there may I be alone, and enter into prayer, to talk with the One to whom I belong.”

And Bereshit 24:63 states, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening,” and from this the rabbis derived our daily mincha service. Our roots are in outdoor prayer, and we can rediscover those roots. About seven years ago, I began regularly taking other people outdoors to pray, too.

During these years of praying outdoors, something has happened to me. I have always loved the out of-doors, but I have noticed that my love for the Earth has significantly grown and deepened. And as my relationship to the world around me has strengthened, so, too, has the pain I feel when I see this love of mine being trampled and transgressed, damaged and destroyed. My grief at the sight of a denuded hillside or a new building where there was once a woodland is profound. My fear for my grandchildren’s future is at times overwhelming.

I am reminded of a recent experience in the hospital where I serve as a chaplain. I sat with an elderly woman who was nearing the end of life, and I watched in awe the gentle and loving care her daughter provided, despite her mother’s confusion and vastly weakened state. I thought of words my brother said to me as our vibrant relationships with our aging mother dissolved into something very different as her brilliant mind began to slip away – “we are left with the love.”

We are left with the love.

And so, as we do for those we love who are in trouble, I must speak, and I must act. And so I am here. I am here to invite you to share with me your fears, your despair, your grief, and to tell me about the actions you are taking to conserve resources or to act communally or politically. I am here to invite you to join JCAN and other members of the Jewish community as we explore ways to act together. I am here to let you know that JCAN and its members would like to be a resource for your community in whatever way might be helpful. And I am also here to invite you to step outside and pray, and to allow that action to change you. I invite you to do this on your own, outside your own door, and I also invite you to join others from the Jewish community at this year’s third Metrowest Shabbat Retreat in Nature, a weekend of outdoor tefillah, and eating and sleeping, being and doing Jewish, and renewing our connection and commitment to the natural world. I invite you to enroll your children in the Interfaith nature camp I organized at Open Spirit in Framingham, a time for kids to explore the natural world in playful and respectful ways. I invite you to find your own new ways of connecting your spiritual and religious life with the world outside your door, winter, spring, summer, and fall.

I leave you today with two quotes from Jewish tradition. The first, from Kohelet Rabbah (on Eccl. 7:13):

In the time that the Holy One created the first human, he took him to all the trees of Gan Eden and said to him, ‘See my works, how lovely and praiseworthy they are, and all that I created, for your sake I created it.  Put your mind [to this], that you don’t ruin or destroy my world, for if you ruin it there is no one who will repair after you.” 

And from the Haskalah poet Saul Tchernikovsky:

And if you ask me of G!d, my G!d.
'Where is G!d that in joy we may worship?'
Here on Earth too G!d lives, not in Heaven alone.
A striking fir, a rich furrow, in them you will find G!d's likeness.
Divine image incarnate in every high mountain.
Wherever the breath of life flows, you will find G!d embodied.
And G!d's household?
All being: the gazelle, the turtle, the shrub, the cloud pregnant with thunder.
G!d in creation is G!d's eternal name.

And lastly, if you suddenly find 275 times more dandelions in your yard, don’t worry – if your yard is chemical free, you can eat those yellow flowers, and they make absolutely delicious fritters!

Todah rabbah and Shabbat shalom.

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