Community Blog Our Response to Climate Change: A Word for Neilah

By Rabbi Brian Besser
Rabbi Brian Besser

The Rabbis fixed the Book of Jonah as the last scriptural reading for the High Holidays, because they wanted to leave it as the lingering taste in our mouths (maybe I shouldn’t use that metaphor at this particular moment in the day ☺). In its final chapter, a single word faintly alludes to the next Jewish festival: “Now Jonah left the city of Ninevah and found a place outside the city to see what would happen to it. There he built for himself a booth, a sukkah, and sat underneath it in the shade.” The prevailing commentary is that this reference serves as a reminder for us to pound the first stake in the ground for our own sukkah as soon as Neilah services have concluded. To my mind, there must be greater significance.

A central message of Sukkot can be summed up by Ecclesiastes, recited publicly on Sukkot: “One generation goes and another generation comes, but the earth abides forever.” In other words, everything constructed by human hands eventually crumbles; only God’s creation endures. That’s why for seven days we dwell in impermanent structures, to symbolize that no matter how hard we attempt to tame the environment and manipulate it to extort resources for personal gain, ultimately, we cannot control what happens to us and nature has a way of reasserting its dominance.

The second paragraph of the Shema reads: “If you obey the commandments in the land that you are about to enter, then I will grant rain for your land in their proper seasons… but take care not to be lured away to serve other gods, or the rains will not come in their proper seasons and the ground will not yield its produce…” There is a geographical dimension to this divine warning. Egypt did not depend upon the weather’s caprice to sustain crops; it had the Nile, whose advanced system of irrigation, unparalleled in the ancient world, immunized Egypt from droughts. Technology enabled Pharaoh to “play God,” controlling his subjects by administering their supply of grain. (We see this dynamic operating in the Joseph story.)

On the other hand, the Land of Israel lacked (and to this day still lacks) a perennial water source, forcing the Israelites to look to the heavens for sustenance. Farmers relied directly upon “the rains in their proper seasons,” inhibiting a ruler’s ability to oppress them by means of restricting the food supply. The underlying ethical message associates control over natural resources with oppressive treatment of human beings. The parallel theological message connects freedom to reliance upon God alone.

In an opinion piece after Hurricane Dorian wreaked unprecedented damage (“what we have seen in the past few days has been sublime in its horror”), a Bahamian lamented that countries like his with the tiniest carbon footprints carry the burden of being ground zero for climate change. Vulnerable populations throughout the globe are most at risk: the indigent live disproportionally in coastal areas prone to flooding due to rising sea levels, three out of four living in poverty worldwide rely directly on subsistence farming and cannot cope with shifting and unreliable weather patterns, and millions annually are displaced and turned into refugees by natural disasters, loss of livelihood, and violent conflict intensified by increased competition for natural resources. For these reasons, climate change is not only an environmental predicament; it’s a central issue of social justice.

It’s also of theological import. The contempt for the effects of climate change is a form of idolatry (let alone to deny the problem altogether). Why do we persist in consuming resources and enacting governmental policies that despoil the environment for our children and grandchildren? For the moment, let’s set aside the cynical and perhaps more obvious reply: that we are selfish and greedy, looking to personal comfort with disregard for future generations. Rather, let’s say that we believe in our own power to make the natural environment serve our needs indefinitely by means of continually advancing technology. In short, like Pharaoh, we think we can “play God.” If so, then the second paragraph of the Shema admonishes us directly: “take care not to be lured away to serve other gods, or the rains will not come in their proper seasons and the ground will not yield its produce…” Which is to say, nature will always have the last word.

The ethical and religious obligations inherent in combatting climate change—number one, our responsibility toward our fellow human beings by serving future generations as well as the poor in our own generation, and number two, our submission to God’s sovereignty by relinquishing claims to dominate the globe—are both constituent themes of Sukkot, as well as the Book of Jonah. We open wide our sukkah to newcomers and guests in order to fulfill the commandment to receive and embrace all members of the community, even and especially the marginalized, and we open our sukkah to the elements to drive home the point that lasting security arises from living in harmony with nature as opposed to subduing it.

“Now Jonah left the city of Ninevah and found a place outside the city to see what would happen to it. There he built for himself a sukkah and sat underneath it in the shade.” What are we, in the final hours of Yom Kippur, supposed to walk with? The Book of Jonah combines many interlocking ethical and theological teachings: that we humans may not escape from God nor thwart the divine will for long, that no matter how far down the scale of self-destruction we have gone, teshuvah, a change of heart, and healing are always possible, and that God’s concern for the fate of the living extends to all of God’s creatures. (It is noteworthy that the very last phrase of the Book of Jonah mentions animals: “Adonai said: shall I not care about the great city, with more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons, and, besides, many beasts?” The final reference to living creatures other than humans is not a throwaway.)

Of course, these lessons—about submitting to a Power (or powers) greater than ourselves, about the ever-present possibility of changing our ways before it’s too late, about our responsibility to other living beings—apply to our response to climate change. My prayer as the final Shofar blast summons us from the sanctuary back into the world: may we retain the humility to acknowledge our interdependence with each other and with the natural world; may this recognition energize us to serve others, not just ourselves; and may our circle of responsibility extend to all life forms, upon whose survival our own ultimately depends.

Brian Besser, ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010, serves Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, Indiana.

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