Drash on Parashat B'har Bechukotai 2023

Drash on Parashat B'har Bechukotai    
Rabbi Dean Shapiro
Beth Shalom, Auckland, New Zealand

Phoenix, Arizona is hell in summer. In 2020, temperatures soared to 43 C or more for 53 days. Fifty-three days. Nearly 200 people died from the extreme heat that year. (The Guardian, 27 January, 2022) It used to cool down at night, but sundown doesn’t bring much relief now that now that the city is a concrete island in the middle of a desert. And it’s getting worse: the number of extreme heat days grows each year. I lived there for a decade. July and August were like living in an oven – but, hey – it’s a dry heat.

That’s in addition to the ongoing drought.

Other places have the opposite problem: too much water. Australia knows all about flooding, as do Pakistan, Germany, Nigeria, Vietnam, and many others. Auckland, my home now, experienced two substantial storms a few months ago. Some members of my synagogue, Beth Shalom, were displaced and are still in temporary accommodation.

This isn’t weather. It’s climate.

B’chukotai, one of this week’s two Torah portions, spells it out clearly: obey God, and God “will grant your rains in their season so that the earth may yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit … You shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land” (Leviticus 26:4-5).  Disobey, and God “will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever … and your foes shall dominate you.  …  Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit” (Leviticus 26:16-17,20). The dichotomy could not be starker. In this week’s parsha, God is the God of the natural world. What’s more, the land’s health – and our own – is inextricably linked with following God’s laws.

Contemporary, liberal Jews don’t generally hold that God visits natural disaster on rule-breakers.  Earthquakes, floods, and outbreaks of disease are naturally occurring phenomenon, not punishments.

But we can sense that something in our environment is shifting and, scientists tell us, human beings are responsible. There are too many of us consuming too much, spewing too much. It can’t be right to throw nature off balance by taking more than can be sustained, destroying habitat, and by failing to clean up after ourselves. It’s not healthy to satiate every immediate whim. Our culture worships the NOW: buy now, eat now, fast fashion, snap elections. We make countless quick decisions every day that privilege the present moment at the expense of what is to come. 

We are out of sync with the natural world, its systems and seasons, its needs and its rhythms. It’s no wonder our planet isn’t healthy.

In his book Becoming a Good Ancestor, Australian philosopher Roman Krznaric asks us to think about the future that our descendants, familial and communal, will inhabit. The choices we make influence their lives as surely as our ancestors’ choices influenced ours.

Creating a healthy, more prosperous future requires us to expand our time horizon. We need to think generationally if generations to come are to enjoy the blessings we take for granted.

I believe synagogues can help us develop the capacity for long-range thinking. 

The synagogue has, for nearly two millennia, been understood as Beit Midrash, Beit Tfilah, and Beit Knesset – a place of Study, Prayer, and Gathering. Now’s the time to add a fourth pillar, turning our holy communities into Batei Atid – Places for the Future.

As I describe in my essay in the forthcoming Sacred Earth (CCAR Press), synagogues can play a meaningful and transformative role for families and neighbourhoods. They can become laboratories for the ideas that can sustain us as the climate worsens. They can influence behaviour in ways that support our values, especially chesed (lovingkindness) and shalom (peace, integrity). And they can train us to think long term.

Synagogue leaders – lay and professional – ought to keep grandchildren top of mind as they make decisions and budgets. What stories, songs, and skills can we teach now that they’ll need in 75 years? How might we evolve the bnei mitzvah process to inculcate such learning? How can we prepare facilities now to support our communities when natural disasters inevitably strike? How would our grandchildren’s families want us to landscape our buildings? What can we do to give clergy and senior staff time to contemplate the future meaningfully? Imagine how we might govern if our boards and key committees tasked a delegate with speaking up for our grandchildren’s children. Imagine what decisions we would take.

Synagogues can volunteer at habitat restoration events. They can learn about the reality of climate where they live, including who holds the power to make key decisions. They can re-centre the wonder of the natural world in all they do, taking hikes, noticing the seasons, and praying outdoors. All these bring us life.

Synagogues function as seeders, allowing good ideas to spread into the wider community. When we make future-forward decisions and communicate them to our family, we encourage such behaviour in society.

Our tradition asks us to think m’dor la’dor – beyond the present moment, from generation to generation. Our holidays challenge us to understand the deep past as eternally relevant.  Zionism reminds us that hopes held for centuries can eventually come true. Judaism asks us to understand ourselves to be a link in an enduring chain. As Jews, future generations are real and relevant to us, and should be considered whenever we make substantial decisions.

If you are a communal leader, member, or employee, consider how your organisation can actively include long-range thinking in your process, making it a regular part of your thinking. In all we do, let us ask ourselves: “how will this choice impact our grandchildren?” Challenge yourselves to become good ancestors.

To obey God is to think as God does – not in hours or years, but in generations and centuries. When we do, we become God’s partners in sustaining a healthy earth for all.

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