Fifty years ago, the sleeping giant of America’s religious communities shook off their sleep and rose to change the country in a crisis over whether democracy would grow or falter.
Today we face a crisis over the very fabric of life – human and more-than-human – on our planet. Is there anything the religious communities, now yawning their way just beginning to awake, can bring to dealing with that crisis?
There is. Much of it comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call “the Old Testament.” It reaches a climax in the Exodus story, recalled each year in the Jewish festival of Passover and to some extent in the Holy Week that in Christian tradition is rooted in Passover. But it pervades the Hebrew Bible.
For that is the record of the spiritual struggles of an indigenous people of shepherds and farmers in their relationship with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Holy One Who breathes all life. They centered their God connection in sacred relationship with their land, especially through the foods they grew and then offered on the altar.
Our own generation, facing a catastrophic crisis in the Earth-earthling relationship, must go back to the Bible for guidance on how to apply indigenous wisdom to the planet as a whole.
From this perspective, the Eden story is a powerful parable. It begins with the birth of adam (Hebrew for “human being”) from adamah (“Mother Earth”). In English, only if our ordinary word for “human being” were “earthling” might we learn the same wisdom from the words themselves..
Then God speaks on behalf of reality, saying to the human race: “Before you is great abundance. Eat in joy! And eat with self-restraint: there is one tree whose fruit you should abstain from."
But the human race does not restrain itself, and the result is that the abundance vanishes. History unfolds in scarcity, as human beings work every day with the sweat pouring down their faces, in order to wring barely enough food from an Earth that gives forth thorns and thistles.
The story presages and prophesies our history. It is, for example, the story of the Gulf of Mexico, when BP refused to restrain itself and brought death upon its workers and disaster for the abundance of the Gulf.
Yet the Bible teaches us to see beyond disaster, even when it tells a story that opens with disaster. In this story, a Pharaoh oppresses human beings and pours plagues upon the Earth: disaster – locusts, hail, mad cow disease – upon the food supply.
But then comes a great healing of human history. Pharaoh’s tyranny dissolves into the sea, and then — only then — comes the first reversal of Eden's disaster.
When the people bellyache about the scarcity of food in the Wilderness, YHWH / Breath of Life brings forth astonishing abundance. There falls a flaky food the people have never seen. They call it mahn-hu — “what’s that?" — and we know it as “manna.” And it comes with the Sabbath, one day of utter restfulness that is the first hint that toilsome labor need not govern all the future.
This story is also a parable. The people learn to restrain themselves not sullenly or ascetically, but with Sabbatical joy. As they do so, abundance continues to pour forth.
But this is a story in wild wilderness. How can this teaching be of use when the people cross the Jordan and begin to cultivate a land?
And here we come to an entire Year of Sabbath and Release. Farmers learn that the Earth belongs to God, and therefore they must let the entire land lie fallow every seventh year. Mother Earth herself, says Leviticus 25, is entitled to a restful Shabbat.
In the very next chapter, we are warned that if we refuse to let the Earth rest for this Year of Sabbath, the Earth will rest, regardless. It will rest upon our heads: There will be famines, plagues, floods, drought, and the people will become refugees in exile.
That warning is echoed by our modern ecologists. For about 200 years, the most powerful institutions and cultures of the human species have refused to let the Earth make Sabbath. By pouring carbon dioxide and methane into our planet's air, these institutions have disturbed the sacred balance in which we breathe in what the trees breathe out, and the trees breathe in what we breathe out. The upshot: global scorching.
So now we must let our planet rest from overwork. For biblical Israel, this was the central question in our relationship to the Holy One.
And for us and for our children and their children, this is once again the central question of our lives and of our God.
It comes alive especially at Passover and in the Holy Week that in Christian tradition is rooted in Passover. For that is when we not only remember ancient Pharaohs and Caesars but remind ourselves, as the Passover Haggadah teaches: “In every generation, every human being must look upon himself, herself, as if we ourselves go forth from slavery to freedom.” From plagues to a society of shared, sustainable abundance.
To renew our freedom and our shared abundance in this generation, we must challenge the modern Pharaohs of top-down, unaccountable power that for the sake of their high profits and great power are not only bringing plagues upon us all, but using their great wealth to interfere with the democratic processes that could actually heal our world.
In the Eden story, when our ancestors failed to restrain themselves, the failure was an act of over-eating food. Today we “eat” coal and oil. Can we restrain our appetites? Our churches, synagogues, and mosques must at every level seek to move our money from spending that helps these modern pharaohs burn our planet to spending that helps to heal it. For example, what sources of energy, coal, or wind, do we buy to power our houses? Where do we bank? Where do we invest? Does our tax money go to subsidizing Big Oil, the richest corporations in the world?
And as the Exodus story reminds us, we must not only weaken these pharaohs but also create the alternative worlds of shared and sustainable abundance that our forebears called the Promised Land. Today we might say, “The Promised Earth.”
The wisdom for change lies in our ancient teachings; the power to change lies in our hands today.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Ph.D., founded (1983) and directs The Shalom Center. In 2014 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award as Human Rights Hero from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. In 2015 the Forward named him one of the “most inspiring” Rabbis. His most recent book of 22 is Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia, co-authored with Rabbi Phyllis Berman (Jewish Lights Publ., 2011). His most recent arrest of about 22 was in an interfaith climate action at the White House before Passover & Palm Sunday, 2013. See also Waskow, “Jewish Environmental Ethics: Adam and Adamah,” in Oxford Handbook of Jewish Ethics (Dorff and Crane, eds.; Oxford Univ. Press, 2013).
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