Thousands will gather on April 29 in Washington, D.C., and around the country to mobilize for action on climate change. We believe it is vital for Jews to demonstrate our concern as a community. Local marches will take place in San Jose, Oakland, San Rafael and other cities, and some congregations will be focusing on climate action during Shabbat.
Jewish tradition offers us many reasons why climate change matters. For example, on the sixth day of the Creation narrative, the first human beings are told they should wield control over other creatures sharing the Earth, marine life, the birds and the animals inhabiting the land. In the second chapter of Genesis (2:15), their mandate is defined more fully:
“The Lord God took Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.”
The verbs in Hebrew containing the directives for the first person, “l’ovda u’l’shomra,” are tantalizingly ambiguous. “L’ovda” does mean “to work it,” but that very word in biblical language also means “to serve.” An “eved” was the servant or slave of a master. Frequently the root “avod” is used to teach service of God. The rituals in the central sanctuary in the desert and later in the Temple in Jerusalem became known as the “avodah” service. Now the “mitzvah” for Adam takes on a new meaning: to serve the Earth and to preserve it. Human control meant taking responsibility for the preciousness of what was given.
Just a few verses later, we find perhaps a further elaboration of what serving in the garden might mean.
“The Lord God created every creature of the field and every bird of the sky and brought [them] before Adam to see what he would call them, and whatever Adam would call each living being that would be its name” (Genesis 2:19).
Ever since, we have been naming every other creature, animals, plants, bodies of water, contours of the land. As soon as we recognize and come to know the other, we tend to search for a name. Naming is in our DNA, and it is a way of declaring that he/she/it is important to us. To give a name is to announce that we care. We notice those who share our ecosystem, not only living beings but also mountains, valleys, water, air and soil.
We know that every other living or silent partner on the fragile vessel we inhabit has a vital niche. We know that we can cause irreparable harm, but we also know that we can bring healing, help others to thrive and assure a safe passage for future generations. We can “serve and guard” our garden.
Unfortunately, we humans have not been heeding God’s instruction to serve the garden. We have exploited natural resources, overdrawn aquifers, dumped toxic pollution into our soils, air and water and despoiled natural habitats, pushing many species to the brink of extinction. The biggest threat caused by humans is the disruption to our climate system from burning fossil fuels and forests and from agricultural practices that deplete top soil and release methane. We know how to design our food and energy systems to work in harmony with nature, build top soil, preserve water resources and power our buildings, cars and factories with renewable energy. Yet, we seem to lack a sense of urgency about the peril we are creating by not making a rapid transition to sustainable practices.
In fact, communities around the world are already contending with rising seas, fiercer storms, deeper droughts, raging wildfires and floods. Scientific models of climate change show that these consequences will only grow more severe over time unless real change is made. We believe that it is time to heed God’s directive to serve the garden. We owe it to all the species we have named and to our own children and grandchildren.
Many people around the nation will be marching on behalf of the climate on Shabbat April 29. We urge you to bring focus to this important topic in your Shabbat services; by marching within your community’s eruv or joining local marches; and by taking action in your daily lives. For more information, check out the Jewish Hub for Climate Mobilization at jewishclimate.org/pcm_2017 and the Climate Mobilization sister marches at peoplesclimate.org/sister-marches.
Rabbi Sheldon Lewis is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto and the author of “Torah of Reconciliation.” Marianna Grossman is the founder and managing partner of Minerva Ventures in Mountain View.