‘The Earth is the Lord’s’


Those of us who celebrated Thanksgiving here in Rhode Island do not need to be reminded that despite the warmth of family and friends around our holiday tables, the weather outside was record-breaking cold.  The big chill was also felt in New York City, where both marchers and spectators at the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade braved the lowest temperatures ever experienced at that event.  

It did not take long for the bitter but brief cold snap to bring out the usual suspects who have been building their careers by denying climate change. Like the crazed congressman who a couple of winters ago brought a snowball into the Capitol to prove to his colleagues that global warming is a hoax, our current climate-change deniers can’t seem to grasp that one day’s weather in one small corner of planet Earth fails to contradict the undeniable fact of the dangerous rise in global temperatures over the past several years.

As Bill McKibben, a founder of the climate campaign 350.org and a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, pointed out in his article, “Life on a Shrinking Planet,” in the Nov. 26 issue of The New Yorker: “Nine of the ten deadliest heat waves in human history have occurred since 2000.”

McKibben argues that our planet is shrinking in that we human beings are finding less and less space upon which to live.  Global warming is already causing our oceans to rise, pushing back our coastlines, while the interiors of our temperate and tropical land masses are becoming too hot to inhabit. 

In many places, “The summer of 2018 was the hottest ever measured …. For a couple of days in June, temperatures in cities in Pakistan and Iran peaked at slightly over a hundred and twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit … the highest reliably recorded temperatures ever measured …. In July, a heat wave in Montreal killed more than seventy people, and Death Valley … registered the hottest month ever seen on our planet.”

McKibben’s article is grim reading for those who care about the fate of Earth. All the facts he presents, along with the catastrophic consequences of our continuing failure to confront climate change full throttle, are totally consistent with this past October’s special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a collaborative effort of 91 scientists from 41 nations.

This past Black Friday, the frenzied shopping day after Thanksgiving, the U.S. government issued an equally stern warning in the form of Volume Two of the National Climate Assessment, a 1,656-page document reflecting the work of 13 federal agencies.

The damage from climate change is already upon us, the report tells us: rising tides flooding our coastal cities, widespread drought in our Western states, crop failures in our country’s bread basket, superstorms like Sandy and hurricane Michael, the obliteration by wildfire of Paradise, California.

And it will only get worse!

Sadly, the White House has greeted this report, as well as the IPCC’s October report, with a shrug.

To continue to insist that climate change is a hoax is to threaten not only the well-being of our own country but to put our entire planet in peril.  As McKibben writes, to our nation’s everlasting shame, “the particular politics of one country for one-half century will have changed the geological history of the earth.”

It seems to me that our need to mitigate the most dire consequences of global warming/climate change is a religious imperative.  As our TANAKH, our Hebrew Bible, reminds us time after time, we human beings are not the measure of all things.  While it cannot be denied that a hyper-literalist reading of the first chapter of Genesis places us – created b’tselem Elohim, in the image of God – at the very center of the universe, other Biblical texts greatly expand our perspective on what it means to be a creature of God, Creator supreme.

Consider, for example the words of Second Isaiah, prophet of the Babylonian exile, who reminds us that we are but a small part of the Divine cosmos: “Lift up your eyes and see! Who created these?” (40.26) In a very real sense, we are nothing more and nothing less than the dust from the stars in the heavens above.         

Or consider the opening verse of Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, in all its fullness, the world and those who dwell in it.” While we are part of God’s creation, the world does not belong to us, but to God.  Our sacred task, then, is to treat our planet with loving respect. We are privileged to live out our short lives as sojourners on God’s earth, and bidden to preserve it for our children and our children’s children.

The Book of Job, more than any other book in the Hebrew Bible, emphasizes that ultimately the world is not about us.  Beginning with Chapter 38, God, addressing Job from out of the whirlwind, begins to show him how the world appears through Divine eyes, as it were: “Take a look, Job, at all these animals living their lives without ever coming into contact with a single human being: lion, mountain goat, ostrich, eagle. They are part of My world, Job, just as you are.” 

Finally, as if to add a celestial exclamation point, God shows Job two of his most wondrous creatures: Behemoth, a hippopotamus-like giant with a tail as tall as a cedar; and Leviathan, a fearsome combination of crocodile and fire-breathing dragon. “The world is not about you, Job.” 

The world is not about us. The purpose of the natural world is not to serve the needs of homo sapiens; rather, we exist to serve our natural world – not to exploit it, but to mend it. 

Our species could do far worse than to turn to the Book of Job for inspiration and direction as we take on the burdensome but necessary task of saving our planet from the consequences of unchecked global warming, from the ravages of climate change.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.