Saturday, September 3, 2016

Earth Etude for Elul 1: Saving the Earth to Save Our Children

by Andy Oram

The traditional Torah readings on Rosh HaShanah cover two of Abraham’s most difficult trials, calling on him to relinquish his two sons. The troublesome stories can tell us a lot about how to make room in our lives for our children--and also a lot about how to save the Earth from the devastation of climate change and ecological destruction.

In the first story, read traditionally on the first day of the holiday, Sarah abruptly demands that Ishmael be thrown out with his mother into the desert, and God backs her up. Abraham reluctantly goes along. God’s approval suggests that Sarah had an understanding not visible on the surface. Abraham is prosperous and can easily support two sons. But for some reason, keeping them in the same tent would not be a long-term solution.

The mythic aspect of this apparently cruel abandonment is revealed through in details. Hagar, Ishmael’s mother, carries him like a small child even though we know from previous passages that he is a teenager. The literal expulsion into the desert probably did not actually happen. What we do know is that Ishmael survived, because Abraham provisioned him for his journey and because he discovers (despite Hagar’s despair) that the desert can sustain him. Ishmael becomes a great nation, returns to honor Abraham at his burial, and even furnishes a wife for one of Abraham’s grandchildren.

The progression from the banishment of Ishmael to the binding of Isaac illustrates some sort of evolution in the world around them. Perhaps overpopulation had complicated the process of going out to make one’s fortune. Canny readers have questions about exactly what God told Abraham to do when it was time to send out Isaac into the world, but it seems that Abraham interpreted the mandate in some horribly distorted way.

My own guess is that God asked Abraham to set up Isaac so he could support himself, and that Abraham did so in a way that could destroy the environment. The modern equivalent is to set up belching factory furnaces that darken the sky with carbon emissions, or to sweep down whole forests in order to plant commercial crops. These are the activities that destroy the Earth and our children’s future with it. Abraham was doing something, even if done out of love and concern, that would rob Isaac of life.

God realizes Abraham’s mistake, in which God may also share some of the blame. So God gives Abraham a lesson, showing him an alternative way to meet the goal. The ram found by Abraham was on its way to death, caught in a thicket it could not escape. Instead of acting destructively, Abraham carried out what we nowadays would call recycling. He turned the doomed ram into a blessing before God, and Isaac was saved.

Thus, our High Holiday readings warn us to think of the consequences of acts we take on behalf of our children. Events often do not turn out as one would think. Like Abraham, we need divine guidance to come out right in the end.

Andy Oram is a writer and editor at O'Reilly Media, a technology publisher and conference provider. He is currently interim secretary of the Jewish Climate Action Network and participates often in their activities in the Boston area. Some of his other writings can be found at and

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