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Preventing a New World Flood, Sustaining the Web of Life

October 15, 2009 By:
Rabbi Arthur Waskow
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Rabbi Arthur Waskow

An old Southern black song cries out: "God gave Noah the rainbow sign; No more water, the fire next time." Long before that, the ancient rabbis spoke of a mabul eysh -- a "flood of fire." In their days, they were fantasies. But in our generation, the flood of fire has come upon us in the form of global scorching and the rising of the seas.

The time has come to heal our Earth, and there is no better time to heed the call than as we approach Shabbat Noach, when Jews around the world read the Torah portion about the flood, Noah and his ark, and then the rainbow -- God's covenantal sign not to destroy the world again.

Shabbat Noach comes this year on Oct. 23-24. By accident (or God's design), it is also the day when a number of experts on the global climate crisis have called for worldwide actions to protect our planet from climate disaster.

This Torah passage lends itself to focusing on the danger of destruction of life on our planet, as well as the actions we must take to prevent destruction and to preserve the web of life.

Dozens of leaders of both national and grass-roots Jewish organizations are joining the call to observe the week before and after Shabbat Noach as a "Climate Healing Shabbat." We are urging special prayers, sermons, panels, nature walks -- anything that will inspire Jewish commitment to help heal the planet.

This is an important step forward. The organized Jewish community has only recently begun to act seriously on the climate/energy issue. Indeed, the official alliance of the major Jewish organizations on these issues -- COEJL, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life -- is far weaker now than it was five years ago.

On the other hand, there have arisen grass-roots organizations -- such as Hazon, the Teva Learning Center, the Adamah Fellowship at Isabella Freedman retreat center, the Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia -- that are doing vital educational work.

Yet while progress has been made in certain areas, there's a long way to go. Yes, we hear more symbols and sermons about the environment, and festivals such as Sukkot and Tu B'Shevat have become increasingly environmentally focused. And yes, there are efforts aimed at "greening" our synagogues, community centers, retirement homes and other institutions, but the efforts don't always translate into sustained action.

But it's the area of social-political action where Jews have failed most. Much needs to be done to forcefully and swiftly change public policy away from burning fossil fuels, and toward the use of solar and wind energy in transportation, food production, housing and other areas of society.

The observance of the Global Climate Healing Shabbat is a prelude to the U.N. conference on the climate crisis, which is scheduled to take place in Copenhagen in December.

Almost daily reports of widespread droughts, floods, storms, wildfires, melting polar ice caps, and the forced migration of invasive species and diseases into new territories all cry out to us for action.

Passage after passage of the Torah and of other Jewish writings cry out to us as Jews to act more vigorously -- not only in private and communal households, but in shaping public policy -- to celebrate and heal the web of life. The time has come.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow directs the Shalom Center, which initiated the Call for Climate Healing Shabbat. Information for programming is available at: www.shalomcenter.org/taxonomy/68.

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