Sermon: Do Not Destroy
A few days ago as I was driving home from the store, I looked up and saw the sky glowing pink and orange. It was so beautiful, but I was also keenly aware that its beauty was caused by the destructive haze of wildfires across the country. The wildfires blazing along the west coast are putting human lives, wildlife, and property in serious danger. The smoke alone is forcing many at risk people to stay indoors, assuming the fires are not driving them from their homes.
According to an article published earlier this month by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Since 2015, wildfires in the United States have increased, on average, by roughly 100 large wildfires each year.” These scientists say they are “seeing more wildfires, more acres burned, and longer, more intense fire seasons.” They warn that “as the forests burn, they release carbon dioxide and other global warming gases, worsening climate change.” More emissions leads to more fires and more fires lead to more emissions. We are stuck in a bit of a destructive loop, and the people living there are desperate for a solution. These scientists attest that “climate action is the best tool we have. When we reduce global warming emissions, we slow the growth of climate risks, including wildfire. Until then, summers will continue getting hotter, forests will get drier, and more and more people will face the threat of wildfire.”
Each new year, we read the story of creation from the beginning of the Torah in the book of Genesis. In the first two chapters, God creates day and night, land, sky and water... vegetation, wildlife, and humans. Almost immediately over the next three chapters, the people begin to “misbehave.” A serpent convinced Eve to eat the forbidden apple from the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, and to feed a bite of it to Adam. They gain a new perspective of what it means to be human. This makes God angry, so God curses Eve and banishes them from the Garden of Eden. Eve goes on to have two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain becomes jealous of Abel and kills him in a field. This makes God angry, so God cursed Cain to become a ceaseless wanderer of the earth. However God protected Cain from a death sentence and allowed him to go on to be fruitful and multiply. Several generations later, at the beginning of chapter six, the people increase and become numerous. They begin to display wickedness, and God becomes displeased with their actions. Adonai regretted creating humans and decided to blot us out of existence. Luckily, Noah was around to convince God to save some people and animals in order to re-populate the earth after wiping out the rest of the living and breathing beings…
This happens a lot in Genesis. Humans make mistakes, or choices that God disagrees with. God gets angry with humans and threatens to destroy all living beings. However in chapter 8 God promises “to never again doom the earth because of humans.”
Later in the book of Deuteronomy God instructs “When you are at war against a city and you have to besiege it, you must not destroy its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down.” In the Talmud, this passage from Deuteronomy is understood as the commandment to not destroy the earth. It is very clear. Even in times of war, you must not sacrifice plants that provide essential resources like food and oxygen which sustain human life.
While the God of Torah is often portrayed as a vengeful, punishing force, as modern Reform Jews we tend to place less focus on God’s potential reaction, and more on our individual and collective responsibility. Rather than saying climate change is God's response to humanity's failures, we focus on our own behaviors. Climate change, then, is nature's response to our rapidly increasing emissions output, and if we want to live by the instruction to not destroy the Earth, each of us must change our behavior.
In Psychology Today article titled, Individual vs. Collective Trauma: Lessons from the California Fires, the author writes a first hand account of the trauma she and her community experienced during the fires in 2017. She shared how traumatizing it was to flee with just her dog, a bag, and computer… then return to nothing. It was her first and only experience with communal trauma. She said everyone suffered the same symptoms- they were all prepared with evacuation bags at the door, they coordinated community “fire watch” schedules, and most of them experienced recurrent episodes of PTSD. Each person experienced their own individual traumas after losing their belongings, and in some cases their pets or loved ones. But the community also experienced a trauma, one that would bond them to each other, for better or worse.
Collective trauma should lead to collective action. This story is important because while we need to care about the Earth and the quality of the air we are breathing, we also must consider the lasting impact these fires have on the lives of millions of Americans. As citizens of this country, and as Jewish people we should be concerned, and we should participate in creating the change we hope to see.
According to the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), “Carbon dioxide is the climate’s worst enemy. It’s released when oil, coal, and other fossil fuels are burned for energy—the energy we use to power our homes, cars, and smartphones. By using less of it, we can curb our own contribution to climate change.” They suggest a variety of ways we can reduce our emissions outputs including using appliances and driving cars that use renewable energy, using energy efficient light bulbs, unplugging things you are not using, taking shorter showers, keeping the oil and the filters in your car clean, eating the food you buy, and walking as often as possible. You can make an impact. Just like voting, each person’s contribution matters. We must work together, as a global community to reduce emissions and ensure a safe and healthy earth.
Rabbi Abraham Joshuah Heschel taught, “...morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Seeing the haze from wildfires in the sky halfway across the country makes it impossible to look away. Hearing the stories of collective trauma in communities directly affected by the fires ought to move us to collective action. The Torah is clear, as Jew’s we are instructed “do not destroy,” and from this we learn to protect the earth and all of its living beings. Heschel reminds us that we can not remain indifferent to the suffering of others, and that in our free society, we are each responsible for maintaining a safe and healthy environment.
As we continue moving through this new year, may we remember the commandment “do not destroy,” and may we act collectively to clear the air we breathe and preserve our planet for generations to come.