by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
Throughout the history of Jewish thought human beings have been deemed the very pinnacle of creation. The first chapter of the book of Genesis declares that the first human was fashioned in the very image of God. The Talmudic rabbis believed that people were co-partners—collaborators with God in the work of the creation. This might be interpreted to mean that the innate creativity of human beings contributes to the ongoing advancement of the universe. The medieval kabbalists went even further, teaching that tikkun olam, the restoration of our broken world, depends fully on human intent and action.
But Judaism is realistic about the human capacity for destructive behavior. Early in the Torah, in the second and third chapters of Genesis, we have Eve and Adam being tempted by the serpent, who goads them to eat from the Tree of Good and Evil so that they may become gods. And they do eat, and God punishes them, expelling them from the Garden of Eden, and cutting them off from the natural world. This is exactly where we find ourselves today. The eating from the Tree of Good and Evil symbolizes the origin of the human condition. Of all the animal species that evolved on earth, humans are the most dangerous and destructive. As the British writer, Ivo Mosely wrote over twenty years ago:
The earth’s riches are plundered for greed, then turned to garbage. Human domination of the earth is all but complete, and some would say almost over.
In the midst of all this, it’s hard to feel good about being human. The bright visions of our ancestors have turned to dust or worse in our hands. The question is not “Is nature worth preserving?” but “Is humanity worth preserving?”
I am by nature a pessimistic person. Having lived during the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and the Cold War nuclear arms race, I now wonder if we have a chance at continuity. Part of my attraction to Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of 18th-century Hasidism, has to do with his optimism. Through the years his presence in my life has acted as a counterbalance to my own dark view of the human world. I now tell myself that history is not fully predictable, and if there is even a small amount of truth at the heart the Ba’al Shem’s positive view of human potential, we might just have a chance.
Where does my hope come from? Scientists worldwide have joined together to warn humanity of what awaits us if we do not radically change our relationship to the earth—and stop the destruction wrought by our fossil fuel-dependent economy and lifestyle. Spiritual leaders of every faith tradition are calling for a change of attitude and behavior in our relation to the environment.
Every generation brings forth valiant individuals who are willing to take up the vast challenges that present themselves to the world. The accomplishments of these women and men further the repair and healing that must take place for the world to continue. I see new leaders among the youth who are taking on the current climate challenges in a courageous way.
Last month, the youth-led global climate strike brought 7 million students and their allies onto the streets of cities around the world. Buzzfeed News reported,
People—mainly young people—across the world walked out of school and work in a massive youth-led movement to draw attention to the climate crisis. There were more than 3,600 events planned, according to the main organizing group #Fridays for Future. The third global youth-run climate strike of the year, Friday’s event was poised to be the biggest yet and it seemed to deliver: streets in major cities around the world were shuttered with throngs of determined people holding clever signs and chanting . . .
The climate strike movement is just over a year old. It started with 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who began striking alone every Friday in August last year outside of the Swedish Parliament building in Stockholm to call attention to climate change. In the year since, the movement has spurred hundreds to thousands of kids to strike regularly.
I found myself sobbing as I listened to Greta Thunberg as she berated world leaders at the 2019 U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York:
My message is that we’ll be watching you.
This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!
You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! . . .
You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal.
The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you.
We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up. And change is coming, whether you like it or not.
Hearing her speak, I felt that Greta Thunberg was directly chastising me about my own failure to act in more radical ways to preserve the earth.
One of the speakers at the rally on September 20th in San Francisco was Sam Saxe-Taller, a sixteen-year old high school student and a member of our own congregation, Kehilla Community Synagogue. Sam is the son of Kehilla’s Executive Director, Michael Saxe-Taller, and his mother is Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller. Sam is also affiliated with the organizations Youth vs. Apocalypse and Jewish Youth for Community Action.
Sam told the reporter that young people are driven by idealism. “We don’t feel as hopeless as adults do . . . The way adults walk around the world, it’s so defeating so much of the time. I personally believe—actually I’m very strongly sure—this is not what the world has to look like.”
I hope that Sam is right, despite all of my personal doubts and fears. And that Greta Thunberg’s powerful leadership, along with that of other young trailblazers, will lead to a revolutionary mass change of heart and a call to action.
Reading an early draft of this article, Jeffrey Hoffman, a climate activist and a former member of Kehilla’s Greening Committee wrote to me that
People need to get off their butts and become activists, contributing in whatever way their situations allow. The activism rule of numbers and participation is when 3.5% of a population becomes actively engaged in a cause, real progress can be made. This means we need ten million Americans on board, actively working every day. This bubbling up of youth activism in the last couple of years has stimulated the formation of all kinds of organizations, from groups for elementary school students to seniors, from artists to software coders. The Bay Area, along with London and New York and a few other cities, is one of the epicenters of activity.
One thing I wanted to bring to your attention is that it’s not just youth becoming active. Actually, there’s a barbell structure with teenagers on one end and retirees on the other. The kids want to ensure their own survival and futures; their grandparents feel an obligation to help them. Thus, all across the country people sixty to eighty or even older are forming and joining climate action groups. The most apathy can be found among people in the middle, ages thirty to sixty, and those are the people we need to motivate. If they can’t actively participate, they can donate to climate resistance organizations.
The Kehilla Greening Committee works on environmental issues in our congregation, in our homes, and in the wider political arena. Several Greening Committee members represent Kehilla on the Oakland Climate Action Coalition, actively participating in its Clean & Renewable Energy and Food Justice & Land Access subcommittees. To find out about the committee’s activities, go to https://kehillasynagogue.org/greening-committee/ You can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Some 1,500 years ago an anonymous rabbi described the human capacity for rapaciousness. Reading his warning it seems to me that he must have somehow anticipated the climate crisis we are facing today.
In the hour when the blessed Holy One created the first human being, the Holy One showed the human all the trees of the garden of Eden, and then said, “See my creations, how fine an excellent they are! All this I have created for you. Reflect on this, and do not corrupt and destroy my world, for if you corrupt it, there is no one to set it right after you.” (Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:28)