Sunday, February 12, 2012

Torah Thoughts: Parashat Yitro. Environmental and Spiritual Sustainability

Parashat Yitro 2012

In the presidential heat of an election year, we listen to the debates. Two particular controversial ideas, for example, are the debt crisis and the unemployment rate. Regarding the debt crisis candidates challenges us to consider what we shall leave behind to our grandchildren with regard to the out of control debt that our country incurs each day. The same idea of what we leave behind to our future resonates when we hear about preserving the environment at the cost of sacrificing old and new jobs. The debate over the recent pipeline proposal from Canada to Texas that the Administration put a hold on is a classic example of pitting jobs against preserving the environment.
This idea of being aware of what we owe our progeny resonates for us in Judaism. In particular this week we observed the holiday of Tu B’shevat which is the 15th of the month of Shevat. It is a holiday that is growing in Jewish consciousness because it was established long ago to celebrate the trees and the benefit they provide us. Needless to say this little known holiday gives us a new perspective on the environment. We are all especially sensitive to global warming, air pollution and spoiling of the nation’s waterways. Again this holiday reminds us of the moral imperative that Jews should embrace as part of our stewardship to the planet to work for repairing the physical world –tikkun olam.
What is the key term today in the culture that responds to these issues? It is sustainability. Moral sustainability and economic sustainability and spiritual sustainability are all interconnected to the political and cultural climate of our country and to the world. Congregation Beth Yam can contribute to environmental sustainability by doing what we can inside our house of worship as well as for the community at large to contribute to preserving our pristine Hilton Head and Bluffton area.  On a broader scale Jews we have worked to support the Jewish National Fund which grows trees in Israel. Trees still need to be planted in Israel and the environment is still at risk in Israel with regard to water issues and particularly the drying up of the Dead Sea. Our children and grandchildren are growing up with the responsibility that environmental sustainability is essential for our future.
The underlying point is that we and our progeny will have to accept that in order to achieve sustainability for our economy, our environment and our spirituality that we will impose limitations on our desires to pursue our pleasures, conveniences and our way of life. That is the challenge we face as humans when we are also supposed to be caretakers of the world that God gave us. We have to do more with less is the ethos of our age.
I want to share with you a Talmudic story (BTa’anit 23a) about a man who lived in the first century of the Common Era. His name was Honi and he was a respected sage. Rabbi Yohanan asked whether it was possible for a man to doze off and dream continuously for 70 years. One day, as he was walking on the road, he saw a man planting a carob tree.  He asked him, “How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?”  The man replied, “Seventy years.”  He asked, “Are you quite sure you will live another seventy years to eat its fruit?  The man replied, “I myself found fully grown carob trees in the world; as my forebears planted for me, so I am planting for my children.
Are there not a lot of things that we do and work for in our life that is not for us alone but is for those who come after us? How many of us, for example, have addressed with experts the importance of proper estate planning? We all want our assets to go to our descendents and we want to know that our wishes and our values will be respected so that the assets are channeled to our loved ones. Our work, the product of our labor, is not just about us. The benefit is for those who we care about besides us alone. That is partly what sustainability is all about. We need to plant a future, like Honi, for our progeny that our economic, spiritual and physical environment will be fruitful for them as it was for us.
In this week’s parasha Yitro, God gives us the Ten Commandments. There is no mention per se about the physical environment in the Ten Commandments.  But idolatry and creating idols reminds us that when we think we can do whatever we want with our world and with our environment that we are subtly turning ourselves into an idol. In other words when human desires and human needs have no check upon them then we have built a Tower of Babel, an idol to ourselves.
When forget to respect the Shabbat then, for example, we have lost touch to let the land remain fallow and regain its resources to grow crops in the future. We have threatened our spiritual heritage of the Sabbath and our economic interests to preserve sustainability for the earth. 
When we forget to adhere to not coveting our neighbors’ possessions do we not risk unleashing unrestrained desires to acquire anything and to use any resources from our land for anything so long as it satisfies our consumption desires? Is that not coveting our neighbor’s possessions? When that happens have we sacrificed sustainability for unbridled consumption and, therefore, the future that Honi wanted for his forbears.
What is so important to realize in the connection between the Ten Commandments and the environmental sustainability issues is that our survival and our ethical standing requires us to impose limitations upon our wishes and desires.  The Ten Commandments are about God saying to us that we must accept boundaries upon our behavior. We are not totally free to live the way we want. For a society to sustain itself it must create and identify moral and immoral behaviors. That is what the Ten Commandments are about and what the rest of the mitzvoth demand from us. They teach us what God wants from us and they teach us how we can live as a community in a way that honors humankind and God who created us.

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