Climate Change

Climate Change

Good morning, happy New Year.
It’s such an honor be your rabbi. And it’s such pleasure to wish you all a joyful Jewish new year on this fine morning.

But imagine my shock when I woke up to discover that I never heard my alarm this morning. That’s right, I overslept.

Now imagine my horror when I realized that I hadn’t just overslept by a few minutes, or even an hour or two…or three.

No, I had overslept by a dreadful margin. Somehow I went to bed last night and woke up 70 years later.

I know only one precedent for such rabbinical oversleeping.

Long ago, during the Roman Empire, there lived a Torah sage known as Choni. One time, Choni drew a circle in the dust, stepped inside it, and vowed he would stand there inside his circle until G-d ended a terrible drought and brought the rain back to Israel.  Like a grandmother indulging a petulant favorite grandchild, G-d granted his request. Ever since, he’s been known as Choni ha-ma’a’geil, Choni the circle-drawer.

Another time, Choni saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him a snarky question: what made him think he would live to enjoy the fruit the tree would someday bear? Choni must have been satisfied with the man’s answer. He ate his lunch and lay down for a nap.

When this Jewish “rip van winkle” woke up he realized that the tree was now laden with carob. A man passing by turned out to be the grandson of the man who planted it. Choni had slept a full 70 years.

Something similar has happened to me.

So I wish you a happy Jewish new year, 5843, or, by the common reckoning, happy 2082.
(hey, you look kind of like Monty Karol… what? Dr. Karol was your grandfather? …oh, man…
What? …no, wise guy, I don’t own any primo real estate or stocks that gained huge value overnight.)

Please forgive me if I seem a little disoriented. Imagine how you’d feel if you suddenly saw the future.  So much has changed: for Quincy, Illinois, for the United States, and for our world.

Fortunately, some things never change, like our torah portion. Just like generations before, and we pray, generations to come, so, too, do we read genesis, chapter 22, the binding of Isaac, akeidat yitzchak, on Rosh ha-Shanah.

Our story begins when G-d tests Abraham’s faith by telling Abraham to give his son Isaac as a burnt offering on an unknown hilltop. Abraham and Isaac travel three days by the time Genesis 22:4 says, in Hebrew, va-yisa avraham et einav va-yar et ha-makom mei-rachok; literally, “Abraham looked up and saw the place from afar.” But I think Genesis 22:4 really means “Abraham raised his consciousness and caught a prophet’s glimpse of the future.” Prophets were not fortune-tellers. They warned about what might happen if people did not repent their evil ways.

Our story reaches its stark climax on that hilltop in verses 9-10: “…there Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood, bound his son Isaac and placed him on the altar over the wood.  Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife for slaughtering his son.” (Genesis 22:9-10)

Of course, Isaac is spared the knife. For the second time: “va-yisa avraham et einav va-yar, v’hineh…” again, Abraham raises his conciousness. At the very last second it dawns on him that G-d has indeed provided the ram for the burnt offering.

But did we raise our own consciousness? Were our eyes open wide enough to become aware of the firewood in our story?  Why does the word “wood” appear twice in verse 9? The text could have said, “Abraham built an altar, arranged the wood under it, bound his son Isaac and placed him on top of the altar”? Dayyeinu – it “would” have been enough.

From generation to generation, rabbis have taught that if something is in the Torah, it must be there for a reason.

This firewood – Abraham chopped it himself and hauled it all the way from Be’er Sheva.  Was it twice as much as they needed? Was it from a tree that should not have been cut down, like the tree of life in the Garden of Eden?

What if it came from the Amazon rain forest, or the jungles of Indonesia or the delicate cloud forests of the Andes?

I read Genesis 22 as if I’m having a nightmare. I dream that I am Abraham but I’m binding…
Not Isaac…but my own two sons, Eli and Danny.  I watch as my fellow parents tie their children up until their whole generation, our future, and even our planet’s, is bound to
the altar of industrialization and the internal combustion engine.

The demand of these modern idols for burnt hydrocarbons is insatiable.  I struggle to wake but we keep burning more and more wood, and oil, natural gas, coal and uranium. Recklessly we accomplish complete global deforestation just to light up the offerings. Our jealous gods call for more and more drilling, fracking, and burning until the carbon dioxide and other noxious gases we release turn our planet into one giant greenhouse.

Just as Abraham raises his consciousness and becomes aware first of a holy place and then of a miracle in that holy place, so, too, must we lift our consciousness to awareness of the serious threat global warming poses to our entire world. We may need to be the miracle that rescues our future from going up in smoke.

By that long-ago September 2012 when I was writing this sermon, there was clear scientific consensus that rapid global warming due to human activity was reality, and that its consequences were both predictable and catastrophic.

During that long ago summer of 2012, arctic ice reached record lows. Scientists observed 97%, or virtually the entire Greenland ice sheet melting. Wildfires raged across the west. Drought in the Midwest killed crops. We barely noticed food prices increasing. Even rainfall and nightfall did not bring relief from searing heat like they used to. A thunderstorm rolled in to needles, California one 115° afternoon, breaking the record set at 109 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, just weeks before.

According to the national oceanic and atmospheric administration (NOAA), July 2012 was the 329th consecutive month, since February 1985, with global temperatures warmer than the 20th century average. Satellites measured near-record temperatures for the lower 8 km of the atmosphere. According to the NOAA the first nine months of 2012 was the most extreme for drought, temperature, and precipitation since record-keeping began in 1910, and more than double the average value of the climate extreme index.

In the arctic, temperature had increased at twice the rate as the rest of the globe by 2012.

But beyond the peer-reviewed scientific arena, we the people, our news media, and our leaders were flummoxed. Government by fight to the death in the political arena could not reach any consensus. Powerful energy industry lobbies defended their vested interests as fiercely as the tobacco industry once did, and with similar tactics. People ignored the facts as if we believed we could forever enjoy the benefits of the industrial age without accepting its consequences.

You know what those consequences were, but I’m still shocked at how deserts expanded, sea levels rose, storms blew more frequent and more violent, environments and species faced extinction, and disease and conflict killed millions.

First, climate change meant expanding deserts. From Phoenix to Las Vegas to Albuquerque the cities of the southwest are ghost towns. The peaks of the Rockies and the alps are as barren as the atlas mountains of morocco. Average temperatures in the southwestern United States in 2082 are hotter than death valley was in 2012.

Second, climate change meant storms. The warming atmosphere along with new weather pattern extremes caused arctic sea ice to melt at such an alarming rate that the arctic was ice-free by 2030.

As the sea levels and ocean temperatures of the planet rose and rose, hurricanes, typhoons, and tropical storms became more frequent and more violent. We used to give hurricanes individual names. How quaint. Hurricanes became so common that meteorologists began identifying them by year and number.

With sea levels a meter higher from the loss of the polar ice cap storm surges engulfed whole cities. The big apple never recovered from “the big storm,” aka hurricane eight of 2042 which shut down power and emergency services for days and even toppled the statue of liberty. New Orleans, Louisiana had to be abandoned when hurricane nine of 2048 left the big easy under seven feet of water. No little dutch boy’s finger could save Rotterdam, Holland, when north atlantic storm one of 2052 raised a surge in the north sea that was higher than the engineers of its massive sea gates ever conceived possible. Thousands drowned. Europe’s busiest port was sunk forever. Across the world, governments, banks, insurance underwriters, builders, and people everywhere lost confidence in coastal civilization and fled inland.

For what it’s worth, the Mississippi bustles with commerce once again. In fact, it’s hard to believe that quincy, illinois was once a tiny congregation with a visiting rabbi. Thanks to so many people who fled from the south, the west, and the coasts, quincy has become a boom town.

These people locked their doors one last time, left their keys in the mailbox and abandoned their homes. Whatever the banks said, the properties were worthless when there was no more snow melt from the Rockies to fill Lake Powell, Utah, and generate the hydroelectricity for their lights and air conditioning. Big peach Atlanta, Georgia withered once it had drunk Lake Lanier dry. The story is the same in formerly arid climates everywhere.

Third, climate change meant extinction. I remember visiting the Athabasca glacier in the Canadian Rockies with my wife hope on our honeymoon trip in 1998 before Eli was born. This frozen river of gleaming white and blue ice was cut by crevasses that could be miles deep. We could not see it move. Yet in 1998 we could see that it had retreated more than a mile from a visitors’ center the Canadians built at its very edge in the 1920s. A whole mile! Now, in 2082, the mighty Athabasca has retreated into extinction, along with every glacier on every continent.

Once upon a time, I loved snorkeling over coral reefs in Key Largo, Florida; Xel-ha, Mexico; Eilat, Israel; and Dahab, Egypt. The reefs and their tropical fish were some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. I’m the only living person who can say so today: these natural marvels of biodiversity are extinct. So are the species of marine life and even the human civilizations that depended on coral reefs like the pacific island nation of Tuvalu that vanished beneath the waves.

Finally, the great 21st century warming meant death. On or about October 31, 2011, the seven-billionth human being was born. Today, the earth’s population is about 3 billion.
Heat stress itself was a major cause of death, especially among the elderly and young children in climates that were already warm.

Starvation, malnutrition, and illness killed millions more, especially in desperately poor places like Bangladesh. As crops and commercial fishing catches failed, and as cattle ranching became unsustainable, food grew scarce. People fled in search of livable temperatures, food, and water. Some countries expelled their foreign residents, frequently where rich and poor nations shared a common border such as between the United States and Mexico. Epidemics like typhus and cholera broke out in the squalid camps of the climate refugees.

Finally, climate change meant armed conflict. Israel claimed another great victory against its Arab neighbors in the Four Days war of 2028.   But severe overpopulation and decades of unsustainable water management led to famine. Both sides wished they had at least established open communications channels when a massive earthquake rocked the Syrio-African rift. The temblor shifted the flow of the Jordan river from south to north, which finally and truly killed the Dead Sea, which had been slowly dying anyway.  It also sent the intensely saline water of the Dead Sea flowing north into Yam Kinneret, poisoning both Israel and Palestine’s key source of fresh water. By the way, the earthquake also reduced the Temple Mount to rubble and dust.  Neither side had trusted the other enough to shore up the foundations of the holy sites of Judaism and Islam in time. Everyone who could emigrate did, years ago.  The only Jews left are a handful of fervently religious people, learning Talmud all day and subsisting on charity from abroad. The long-awaited dream of peace in the Middle East is finally reality. The Jewish and Arab populations of this once-promising twice-promised land have simply nothing left to fight about.

In operation maple leaf of 2046 the United States invaded and occupied Canada in order to seize control of the zone suitable for growing wheat. The Canadian armed forces fought a brave but doomed defense of Ottawa. The Canadian insurrection lasted decades.

But worst of all, India and Pakistan clashed over the bread basket of the subcontinent, that long disputed region called the Punjab. One hundred fifty million died in the fourth Indo-Pakistani war, the nuclear conflagration that began on April 14, 2050.

What will I say to my own grandchildren when I meet them?

And what will they say to me?

Even the word genocide doesn’t quite describe the calamity. The word “geocide” has been

Choni the circle-drawing wonder worker never returned to his own time.  So I don’t know whether G-d will be merciful enough to return me to 2012, but I pray that the words of this sermon will somehow be heard in 2012.

If only I could talk to my generation one more time. I would beg us to heed the warnings.
I would tell my generation not to rely on miracles like Abraham did, but to rely on ourselves like choni the circle-drawer.

I would urge them to deal with bogus denials of climate change, just as we once handled the tobacco industry’s denial of the health hazards of cigarettes.

I would beg all of us to reach out more respectfully to the political opposition to persuade, find common ground, and use market-based solutions like “cap & trade” to externalities like pollution and carbon emissions.

I would urge us to reduce carbon emissions, protect delicate natural ecosystems and restore damaged habitats; use more efficient and sustainable farming and food distribution methods; stabilize human population growth through increased access to education; and even if all else failed, develop the technology to capture excess carbon emissions.
We could still make other futures possible for generations to come.

Choni ha-ma’agel asked the man planting a carob tree (rather rudely) why he would plant something he would probably never live to enjoy.

I bet the man with the tree knew that carob is a sustainable crop native to the land of Israel.

But what the man with the tree said to Choni was, “as my grandfathers planted trees for me, so do I plant trees for my grandchildren.”

May we celebrate the world’s birthday in the Jewish year 5773, which is 2012 by the common reckoning, with compassion for god’s creation instead of lust, so that when 5843 does come generation after generation will continue to find the carob trees lovingly planted by their grandparents for them.

Keyn y’hi ratzon,

So may it be G-d’s will.

Photo Credit

1. Rosh Ha-Shanah always makes us wonder what glimpse of the future we might catch. As a traveler to you this morning from the past, from the year 2012, from 70 years, 7 whole decades ago, I feel I must warn you that I might be setting you up for a terrible present.  Pun intended.
2. Naturally we who read the Torah – from those Talmudic sages who preserved the story of Choni the circle-drawer, to the medieval commentators, to our grandparents, parents, and to us, the Jewish people, modern and post-modern alike, have struggled with the meaning of this tale.
3. But are we supposed to take at face value Abraham’s willingness to bind his son, his only son by his marriage to Sarah, to the altar as his greatest deed, as the proof of his faith?  Jewish authorities of the distant and recent past are split on this question. Some scholars of Torah say so, but other Jewish commentators hold that Abraham failed his test.  This morning, despite my upset at my lapse of 70 years, I feel strangely vindicated. I was right. Not that it makes me feel any better.
4. Could it be? Could it really be that just as Abraham bound his son Isaac to an altar, fully intending to sacrifice him to his G1d, horribly prepared to go through with the plan until that angel finally intervened to show him the ram for an alternate sacrifice; so, too, were we in 2012 binding our own children – all of you who are here today 70 years later — to the altar of fossil fuels? Together with every parent and grandparent of my generation, were we really ready, willing, and all-too-terribly able to sacrifice our own future to this merciless, industrial God– just to keep on offering up endless burnt-offerings of oil, gas, coal, and wood, pouring endless carbon-dioxide into a troposphere already saturated with it?Are we counting on our God to save us in the nick of time with a Deus Ex Machina like Isaac’s Ram?
5. Sure, Israel today remains militarily powerful. It re-occupied and even annexed the West Bank of the Jordan River.  But those iconic kibbutzim and moshavim in the Negev that the early Zionist pioneers were so proud to make bloom
6. We American Jews are grateful to the government of the United States for keeping Israel militarily strong – yet we are nervous about our government, too.  The same government that stands firmly with Israel abrogated the bill of rights in order to expel Mexican immigrants and even American citizens of Mexican descent.  It is respectful of Judaism due to its fundamentalist Christian character, but hostile to Islam-baiting quasi-fascist government.

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