Our Imperative: Clinging to life, to Values of Sustainability

Some people believe that the challenges, dilemmas and hopes that engage humanity are permanent and eternal, that “what was, will be” and that “there is nothing new under the sun”. This perspective is especially prevalent in the traditional world. The search for spiritual intentionality through the regular reading of the weekly portion, even through the lens of creative commentaries, can contribute to the sense of continuity and meaning but it might also paper over the burning issues that are present, the ones that are found outside of the traditional text.

At this moment, we find ourselves in the midst of a second year of a global pandemic. We still don’t know how it is connected to issues of overpopulation, climate change, dietary habits, the massive population migrations between continents at any given moment and more. A few years ago, climate change and global warming were concepts that were the concern of experts, futurists and environmental social activists. Mainstream politicians denied the very existence of a climate change crisis and completely refused to see its connection to human behavior and our ability to effect it through education and legislation. Today no one doubts that there is a crisis. We are talking about a multifaceted reality that reveals itself anew every day in diverse parts of the planet through heat waves or extreme cold, huge fires, prolonged droughts, melting glaciers, floods and more.

These extreme climactic phenomena damage vegetation, wildlife and, of course, human lives. The most basic human rights, security and physical conditions that allow reasonable life, are in danger. Those who live in weak and poor countries are the most vulnerable.

We are facing a situation that confounds our ability to understand its scope, its force and its meaning. We must change our priorities, our perspectives as to what is worthy, what is right, how we should act and conduct ourselves. None of these are simple on an intellectual or a practical level. It’s not easy to understand that a belief that we held as positive and worthy turns out to be dangerous.

Re’eh, the fourth portion in the book of Deuteronomy, deals with the mitzvot that the people must fulfil when they arrive in Israel. It opens with an unequivocal demand on the people: See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse— the blessing if you obey the commands of Adonai your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of Adonai your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known. (11.26-28).

Some of the commandments detailed here are still relevant and can serve as a moral compass- like those that demand that we act decently and generously towards the poor and the weak in our society, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Some of the mitzvot in this portion are unacceptable to us and conflict with our 21st century values; like the command to destroy houses of worship and ritual objects of the residents of the land of Israel whose beliefs differed from ours. Some of the mitzvot are completely irrelevant because they relate to a reality so different from ours that no longer exists, like the laws concerning slavery or Temple ritual. In reality, things are constantly changing. Even with the best of intentions there is no way we can fulfil the simple command: Everything that I command you- you must keep it and do it; do not add or detract from it (Deuteronomy 13.1).

But if we can’t cleave to these verses in the literal sense how will know what is the best, the correct, the blessed right path for today? What principle will guide us as we choose a values system to help us deal with contemporary reality?

In the portion of Netzavim, once again the people are given a choice. This time it is phrased a little differently: See, I place before you today life and good and death and evil. In this equation “blessing and curse” in the portion of Re-eh re replaced by “life and death” in the verse from Nitzavim.

Apparently, this is the basic principle that we should be aspiring to and it is more relevant than ever. Clinging to life, to values of sustainability – is the best way to cleave to this principle beyond the strictures of time. We are in a most fateful period. We must internalize the changing situation and raise, to the top of our priorities, concepts, laws, values and customs that will protect and preserve our lives on planet earth.

Rabbi Orna Pilz, a bibliotherapist (M.A.A.T) a writer and a rabbi. A graduate of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and holds a Masters’ degree in Comparative Literature (magna cum laude) from Tel Aviv University. Author of You and I Together: Making Your Daughter’s Bat Mitzvah Meaningful (Kineret Press); Miriam, Tell Me Your Story (Kineret Press) and In the Beginning, She Birthed: Reestablishing the Centrality of Birth (Pardes Press).

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