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Vayera: Revisiting Sinai and Environmental Obligation

11/28/2022 03:26:00 PM


Rabbi Ezray

I spent my Junior Year of college in Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. During that year something significant occurred: Israel returned the entire Sinai Peninsula to Egypt as part of a peace treaty. I witnessed what must be sacrificed for potential peace. It meant dismantling settlements amidst opposition, leaving a place that had important strategic value, a place where oil had been discovered. The Israelis and Egyptians each sacrificed for an elusive and uncertain peace that has endured for 40 years. While it is a fragile peace, it is peace. I learned about the risks you take for a higher value.

Because Sinai was in Israel’s sovereignty most of that year, it was easy to travel there. Fellow students and I discovered the wonders of this place. I remember feeling a sense of awe as we explored the high, shifting sand dunes along the Mediterranean Sea, snorkeling amidst amazing coral reefs and beautiful fish. There is something about the desert, jagged limestone cliffs and mountains with rocky plateaus soaring into the sky; tall granite mountains, valleys and gorges eroded from the melt of winter rains and snow. I marvel! I felt so small, in a good way, amidst the grandeur of our world.

Looking back, it was a trip with seeds of spiritual awakening and growing insight to Torah stories that suddenly felt much closer than they had before. Looking at the magnificence of those mountains filled me with awe. Wonder is one of the most basic of religious experiences. Is that what the Israelites felt looking up at Mt. Sinai? Did awe prepare them to receive Torah? 

Being in Sinai provided glimpses of what desolation is. It was so cold at night and hot in the day. I got a small glimpse of how desolate and dangerous the desert could be; how vulnerable and interdependent we all are. Might this have forged us into a people? The story of this morning’s portion of Hagar and Ishmael near death in the desert felt real in a different way. Lack of food and water; precarious daily struggle is the reality of the wilderness.

We climbed up what we were told was Mt. Sinai. While no one knows where Mt. Sinai really is, ascending above the clouds, looking out to a vast mountain range on most sides, I imagined the mystery and magic of that moment so long ago. 

Personal experiences like that have a way of connecting us with that which is bigger than us. Which is exactly what I want to focus on today. Particularly, through the lens of a book I’m finding highly relevant and inspiring: The Eco Bible by Rabbi Yonaton Neril. It lays out the Jewish imperative regarding the environment.

Rabbi Yonaton Neril is the founding director of The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and teaches that “obligations” to care for nature and the environment are deeply rooted in our spiritual traditions. Those obligations, he writes, call for activism. The Interfaith Center is actually going to Mount Sinai on   November 13th, as part of the UN Summit on Climate Change. As I reflected on the trip to Sinai, all the moments I just described about my connection to Sinai came flooding into my heart.

The UN Climate Summit is taking place this week in the Sinai Peninsula, in the city on the southern tip, Sharm el Sheik. Just a gathering may be the only way to move toward meaningful activism; all of us gathering. That Rabbi Neril and so many other faith leaders will use this coming together to travel to Mt. Sinai, that shared place of awe, mystery, history, and revelation to unite in a spiritual call to mobilize, to defend and protect that which is bigger than us, our shared home is moving! They are initiating the Sinai Climate Partnership to heighten the awareness and activism required as we work together on behalf of that which our future depends on, environmental sustainability. The underlying premise is that real change comes from being willing to transcend both personal boundaries and political boundaries, inspired by shared faith messages on behalf of that which is bigger than all of us. I am picturing standing together with them, sharing in their passion and call to activism.

This morning we read the haunting story of the binding of Isaac.  Throughout the story Abraham responds to the Divine call with the word Hineni, Here I Am three times. When you read the story carefully, Abraham’s understanding of what he is saying Hineni to changes as the story progresses. At first, he says Hineni to God to what he understands as the Divine call to take the boy to the place God will show him and bind him on the altar. Then Abraham says Hineni to Isaac as they ascend the mountain. Isaac asks where the offering is, and Abraham turns to Isaac saying, “Hineni, Here I Am.” Might that second Hineni have opened his heart to hear God’s call in a different way through our relationship to a fellow human whom he loves? When we are present to fellow humans, often our understanding of what we say Hineni to when it comes to God changes. And then he hears another call and answers Hineni, saying he won’t touch the boy, that is not what God wants. God wants to preserve life; nothing could be more important.

Rabbi Neril and other faith leaders are going to Mt. Sinai to say Hineni; to tend to what they and I recognize as one of the most important imperatives of our time. To preserve life! 

To take care of the Earth we have been entrusted with. 

To repent and change how we have been acting. 

Our Hineni, like Abraham’s final Hineni, is to safeguard and protect life on this Earth, for us and for our children and theirs and onward.

My Hineni is to share my passionate conviction that we, as inheritors of this big, beautiful, precious, and fragile Earth, must mobilize with one another and with other people of faith to inspire and unleash the power of an interfaith movement as a sorely needed change agent on behalf of our vulnerability and interdependence and the need to create sustainability when it comes to our Earth.

How exactly we do that involves debate and discussion with thoughtful listening and respect. Ultimately, we act, individually and collectively. The power of the Climate Summit is witnessing the finding of common ground with people and countries with whom we profoundly and fundamentally disagree; for the greater good because this issue transcends borders and politics. In coming together, we might begin to shift how we see one another.

Bret Stephens wrote an interesting article in the Opinion section of the New York Times about a visit to Greenland, where he witnessed the impact of a world that is warming. What made the article so compelling to me is that Stephens is a conservative columnist who, in the past, wrote that too often this issue gets exaggerated or responded to in narrow ways. In response to that point of view, a scientist invited Stephens to join him on a trip to Greenland. Stephens’s trip to Greenland changed him. Seeing the large amount of meltwater and the rapid dissolving of glaciers jolted him and he looked at the issues again, studying, listening, reflecting.  

He demanded thoughtful reflection and cautioned that, while evidence overwhelmingly points to there being a connection between carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere and global warming and a rise in seal level, we need to be careful not to exaggerate, or to rely on intellectual self-certainty that is not rooted in careful analysis. 

He began with the uncertainty of quantifying the rate of what he observed. He considered thinkers who saw the melting glaciers as a reflection of “natural cycles,” and then came to his own conclusion, in many ways influenced by his experience of the pandemic, that this is real, and requires immediate response. He analyzed his thoughts through the prism of risk, arguing that when faced with “unpredictable risk,” you must act, even if you are not completely certain of the nature of the risk and how to achieve the best outcome.  

He concluded that every possible solution comes with risks and with uncertainty. As he assessed possible solutions in all their nuances, possibilities and policies emerged. His bottom line that I found compelling is that inaction is not an option!

Some of his take aways speak to the Climate Partnership that might emerge from the Interfaith Partnership and the UN Climate Summit. He urges us all to actively engage with critics who see things differently. He teaches that we must separate facts from predictions, and predictions from policy, so that we can identify a universally shared good, driven by common interest, allowing the economy to be an ally in the fight against climate change.

Stephens’s ultimate conclusion is that this is a moral problem. It brought me back to being in the Sinai wilderness, feeling awe in the face of a world we are obligated to safeguard. It allows me to stand at this pulpit and passionately state that we have a religious obligation driven by Jewish values and law to honor our connection with the Earth as we appreciate and protect the world that God demands we safeguard.

We can act. We can leave the world a better place for our children. We can be emboldened by progress. In the past few days regional Middle East solutions have been reinforced. Israeli President Isaac Herzog met with his United Arab Emirates’ counterpart and Jordanian King Abdullah II to discuss trilateral cooperation on energy and water projects. It is so exciting to watch these countries collaborate on solar energy and clean water as a regional vision of a renewable Middle East emerges.   

In Eco Torah, Rabbi Neril notes that at the end of our portion, Abraham makes a peace treaty with Abimelech, King of Gerar, today’s Gaza, which they conclude by planting fruit trees. This represents the importance of envisioning a peace based on a shared vision, a joint hope for a better future. As we cross borders and engage with those we may have avoided or with whom we have profound disagreements in the past, hope emerges. Solutions reveal themselves.

Our shared sense of the “awe” which nature inspires within us, and our shared desire for peace, allows us to envision a sustainable future. We may disagree on how to get there, but as we stay in conversation, our shared desire to safeguard the Earth and the knowledge that we must act will allow us to find a path forward. All of this is uncharted territory. When Abraham left Haran he also had no idea where he was going, only that it was an imperative that he go. Today we stand before another imperative. It’s time to get going. Right now.

Sat, February 4 2023 13 Shevat 5783