While the world was burning

Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)
May 7, 2014

Do you remember Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop Art portrait of an anguished woman, her hand over her face, tears falling from her eyes and a speech balloon above her head saying, “I can’t believe it. I forgot to have children!” The implication was that this woman was so busy ticking off career achievements that she had been deaf to the sounds of her biological clock. 

I imagine an updated version of that painting: the same woman, older and with evidence of her worldly success in the background — children, a home, her computer, maybe even a shattered glass ceiling. This time her speech balloon announces, “I can’t believe it. I forgot to save the planet!” 

As we hover at the tipping points of environmental degradation, how many of us are distracted by our own ambitions, racking up earthly accomplishments while ignoring the imperatives on behalf of the earth? 

The environmental and economic policies offered in this week’s Torah portion, Behar, provide correctives that might help us avoid the impending ecological horrors. Behar offers agricultural guidelines to protect the land from depletion and fiscal strategies to prevent the economic inequities that characterize our society and privilege corporation over commonweal. 

Behar introduces the Sabbatical year, which provides the land with a year of rest and renewal every seventh year. It also mandates the Sabbatical release of slaves and the reversion of all property to its original owner. Behar promulgates the value asserted in Psalm 24:1: “The earth belongs to YHVH along with all the world and those who dwell upon it.” As Vivian B. Skolnick says in her Torah commentary, “The Biblical Path to Psychological Maturity,” “All possessions, whether land, humans or wealth are on loan for a certain length of time, but everything ultimately returns to the creator.” 

 Before my life was blindsided by grief, which led me to write about bereavement, I worked for the Ecology Center for Louisiana in the early 1970s. The issues were not so different. Grief counseling and environmental activism encounter the same stumbling block: denial. The denial of death obscures acknowledgement of the state of the planet. When we don’t confront our own death, we fail to reverence the fragility of all life. Believing we will live forever, we assume that the earth will eternally absorb the byproducts of our overconsumption. 

But this blazing hot day at the beginning of May shines light on the facts: The first decade of the century was the hottest in recorded history. The Arctic sea ice has melted to one of the lowest documented levels. The level of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere, for which 350 parts per million is considered a tipping point by many, has reached 400 parts per million. Plant and animal species are disappearing at an alarming rate. What about the crazy weather? And the threat of wildfires when we have little water to extinguish them?

Many of these facts were reported by Daniel Smith in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It … and He Feels Fine.” Smith wrote about Paul Kingsnorth, a former environmental activist in the UK and a founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which approaches the ecological crisis with “mourning, grief and despair.” 

“We are living,” he told Smith, “through the ‘age of ecocide,’ and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss.” 

Kingsnorth, as reported by Smith, believes that “human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — [is] driving the planet toward a ‘mass extinction’ event, something that has occurred only five times since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.” He sees “no chance of stopping climate change.”  

This is bleak. But it needs to be. Denial does not shatter easily. In Judaism we do not deny death. We wash dead bodies to prepare them for burial. We hear the thump of earth as it is shoveled onto the coffin. We encourage mourners to take the time they need to give full expression to the range of emotions that accompany grief. 

We need to be that blunt about the state of our planet. 

I know how bad it is. In Louisiana I have seen firsthand the consequences of human activity on the environment. I visited after both Hurricane Katrina and the BP/Deep Horizon oil spill. Everything we feared in the ’70s has come to pass. 

But I’m not ready to concede the effort. I have a daughter. She may have children. I am married to the earth. But I know that taking short showers, recycling, composting and driving a Prius is not enough. This is a catastrophe of biblical proportions, and heeding the words of this biblical portion will inspire us to support broad political and social responses to avert the disaster. 

The liturgy gives us a daily opportunity to align with ultimate values, embody them and walk them into the world. Each day we pray for “blessing upon the face of the earth.” Be that blessing. Break through the denial. Get to work. 

The biological clock of the planet is ticking. Can you hear it? If not now, when? 

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