The words of Northern California poet Robert Hass:
Now the rain is falling, freshly, in the intervals between sunlight,
a Pacific squall started no one knows where, drawn east as the drifts of
warm air make a channel;
it moves its own way, like water or the mind,
and spills this rain passing over. The Sierras will catch it as last snow
flurries before summer, observed only by the wakened marmots at ten
and we will come across it again as larkspur and penstemon sprouting
along a creek above Sonora Pass next August,
where the snowmelt will have trickled into Dead Man’s Creek and the
creek spilled into the Stanislaus and the Stanislaus into the San Joaquin
and the San Joaquin into the slow salt marshes of the bay.
That’s not the end of it: the gray jays of the mountains eat larkspur seeds,
which cannot propagate otherwise.
To simulate the process, you have to soak gathered seeds all night in the
acids of coffee
and then score them gently with a very sharp knife before you plant them
in the garden.
You might use what was left of the coffee we drank in Lisa’s kitchen
There were orange poppies on the table in a clear glass vase, stained
near the bottom to the color of sunrise;
the unstated theme was the blessedness of gathering and the blessing of
it made you glad for beauty like that, casual and intense, lasting as long as the poppies last.
-- from Human Wishes [The Ecco Press, 1989]
The poet captures with vivid immediacy what it is to exist within an ecosystem. Atmospheric channels that move moisture through the air, the squall that drops rain over the mountains, the flow of water from the High Sierras through the San Joaquin River to San Francisco Bay, the flowers that propagate only when the birds do their part – all are part of the intricate network of life that contains and sustains us.
The last image in the poem – vivid poppies in a clear glass vase on the table – reminds us poignantly of the beauty and fragility of the natural world. For life is a constant process of building up and breaking down, gathering and dispersal, in which elements cohere briefly, blossom and flourish, then dissolve, decay and die, only to regenerate in another form. Human beings are spectators as well as participants in this cosmic process. But we are more than that. Since our first emergence on the planet, human activity has been transformative in its impact on the natural world. It is time for us to take responsibility for the damage we’ve done and to do our part to protect life.
21 years ago this month, the Central Conference of American Rabbis called on our government to address the challenge of climate change. The CCAR cited important Jewish teachings and values that summon us to this cause.
First is our compelling obligation to future generations. We all know the words from Deuteronomy that are read aloud in synagogues each year on Yom Kippur morning and are inscribed on the Ark curtain at Beth Am: “Choose life, that you and your descendants may live” [30:20]. Jewish living requires that we make decisions, mindful always of their impact on those who will come after us. It requires a long-term perspective – what geologist Marcia Bjornerud calls “thinking like a mountain” – a constant awareness that future generations depend on us to act wisely on their behalf, improving the earth so as not to compromise the security of those who will inherit it.
Second is our Jewish responsibility to other beings who share this planet with us. Early in Genesis the human role in the natural world is clearly defined: “God placed the human being in the Garden to tend it and guard it” [Gen.2:15]. Our duty is to be responsible guardians and protectors of animals and plants, as well as the natural systems that support their life. Exploitation of the earth’s resources for short-term profit is anathema to Jewish thought. From the Torah’s earliest legislation on the protection of fruit trees to rabbinic strictures on wasting or destroying resources, our tradition mandates that we practice long-term stewardship of the earth and its creatures. Desertification, extreme heat and ravaging fires, the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of coral reefs all testify to our collective failure to uphold this principle.
“Open your hand to the poor and the needy…” [Dt.15:11]. Third is our special Jewish responsibility to the vulnerable – the poor; minorities who live in communities jeopardized by environmental and health hazards; those who earn their living through subsistence agriculture; migrants and refugees, many displaced by environmental stress and climate change. In our own country, those who live in coastal areas -- including urban areas with large Jewish populations and many Jewish cemeteries – are especially threatened.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert argues that human beings are wired to respond to immediate problems, such as terrorism, but respond poorly to problems perceived as distant, such as climate change, though the odds of a bomb going off on a plane are much smaller than the chance that parts of Manhattan will be engulfed by the ocean. Faced with problems of overwhelming magnitude, we tend to retreat into apathy and despair. But Judaism teaches us to view problems as calls to action, to believe in our capacity to make change, and to hold on to hope.
I am delighted that a Beth Am Green Team has formed, focused on educating our congregation and mobilizing us to face the challenge of climate change. Please email me if you’re interested in taking part in this crucial effort. To learn more, visit the websites of:
And for an immediate action suggestion, visit https://citizensclimatelobby.org/energy-innovation-and-carbon-dividend-act.