A friend just returned from Cape Town, South Africa which is in the middle of a fierce drought. People are forced to buy water and what is available is not sufficient to meet people’s needs. The winter in North America is one of the coldest in a long time. In Australia and elsewhere coral is dying at unprecedented rates largely due to rising ocean temperatures. Yam Kineret - the Sea of Galilee in Israel - is so low that it is in danger of becoming salty. All around us the climate is changing in ways that impact everyone.
What is more, a changing climate impacts people’s traditions and livelihoods. The poor tend to live in the most vulnerable areas. As climate change alters the patterns on which we depend, people are beginning to flee the areas in which they have lived. They move to cities and other areas perceived to offer more, to have better coping mechanisms. Among the first climate refugees were Pacific islanders who are being flooded out by rising sea levels. They were turned away when they tried to claim asylum in Australia. In all likelihood, the displacement of people from areas where the impact of climate change is greatest, will only increase.
We are also altering nature in other ways. There is an island of plastic trash in the Pacific and plastics are entering the food chain via fish and other animals that consume them. Waste disposal is an increasing challenge. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, roughly one third of food produced globally for human consumption— approximately 1.3 billion tons — gets lost or wasted each year. That is true in both industrialized and developing countries.
On 31 January we will be celebrating Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the Trees. Like Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it is an opportunity for us as individuals, communities and nations to take stock of what and how we are doing. Tu Bishvat encourages us to think about our impact on our planet and our environment. What can we do to reduce the waste we generate? To minimize our contribution to climate change? How can we help protect the environment?
In the secular calendar, Earth Day on 22 April 2018 is another moment in which we are invited to engage in a similar course of introspection, self-reflection and action. If anyone is interested in helping to organize an Earth Day event, I look forward to hearing from you. We have services that weekend.
These are big questions. We can address them in small and big ways. We are invited to do teshuvah, to return to a way of living that enables us to be good, effective stewards of our planet. These can be simple things like switching to LED lightbulbs, turning down the heat when we leave on holiday or while we sleep. We all recycle when required to, but what about the extra things that may not be as convenient? How can we reduce our use of plastics? Increase our use of post-consumer recycled materials and goods? Recycle old mobile phones, printer cartridges and consumer electronics? There are of course policy issues and laws that can help as well. We can each influence these on a local, national and European level. Everything that we do, no matter the size, makes a difference. Not only to us, but literally to people all over the globe.
In Bereshit, the creation story, the Torah tells us that after human beings are created, we are blessed with stewardship of the world. We now know how literal that is and how much we live in symbiosis with the Earth. Consider planting trees for Tu Bishvat. Also do some teshuvah- some deep thinking about your habits as a consumer and your impact on the environment. Then make changes.
Rabbi Ira Goldberg