The First & Last Generation
Delivered at Adas Israel in Washington, D.C., on the eve of the People's Climate March, April 29, 2017
At family holidays and gatherings, my father has raised a glass with tears glistening in his eyes to toast to my great grandparents. All eight of my great grandparents came over to this country, leaving behind their entire world. Some of them came as young teenagers, and never saw their family again.
I was raised with deep gratitude for these immigrants, who had the foresight and the courage to leave Europe when they did. The branches of my family that did not come over in the early years of 20th century died in the Holocaust. Had my great-grandparents not made the journey, I would not be free, or even alive. I know many of us in this room have similar stories.
My great-grandparents were part of a tide of immigrants who sought life and thriving in America. They did what was necessary so that their children and grandchildren could live as free Jews here. Now it's our turn to do what is necessary, for the sake of out great-grandkids, and for the millions of people currently alive today who are already feeling the effects of climate chaos. ּIf we don't address climate change, there is no goldene medina, no golden land, to sail away to. Our descendants will live on a livable planet or they won't live at all. This is the job we have being born now. We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and we are the last to be able to do anything about it.
One of the most phenomenal and noteworthy religious events of last year was Laudato Si, Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change. This global religious leader claims, "The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. We cannot adecuately combat environmental degredation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation." "The Earth herself," he writes, "burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and malreated of our poor. She groans in trevail. We have forgotten that we are... made up of her elements."
But we as Jews don't need to go to the Pope to know this connection! Torah teaches us many ways in which social justice is linked to how we treat the land, to how we allocate her riches to each other, and how we spiritually understand ourselves in relationship to her. We are taught to let the land rest every seven years and to remit debts at the same time, to leave the corners of the field and the fallen gleanings for the poor, and to understand rain or drought as a direct mirror of the health of our relationship to God, a sign how well we are holding up our end of the Covenant.
We as Jews care about the neighbor, the stranger, and l'dor va'dor, the continuity of generations; we care about Israel with her fragile ecology, and those great lowlying Jewish lands of Manhattan and Florida that are at risk from rising seas. We care about the sick, the hungry, and the vulnerable among human beings and animals. So we care about climate. This work ultimately brings us together, as Jews, as Americans, as global citizens. We belong in this movement.
But how do we address a threat that is so powerful, so overwhelming? How do we orient ourselves in the face of it? How do we avoid being paralyzed by the obstacles, feeling despair at the odds, and burning out from the hard work? These are questions I am struggling with every day, so I offer not solid answers, but three ideas that help me. I offer them to you, and hope they are useful in all our struggles for justice.
LOVE: We draw strength not from rosy pictures or false optimism, but from fierce love for life. Love for our children, love for people across the globe whom we will never meet, love for the birds we see on our porches and love for the buzzing vibrancy of thousands of species in the tropical forests. Love for our home – quite literally our own neighborhoods and houses, but also this great Home that is the biosphere.
When I tune into that love and all that is at risk, I feel sorrow and I feel anger, and yet I am lifted out of paralyzing despair. I find an inner strength that is my birthright as a human being with a conscience. This love has helped me wake up and get more and more involved, and the more involved I get the more love I feel.
BRING OUR OWN GIFTS: As I'm sure the DC community understands, I used to think policy was the only way to make a real difference. I felt terrible guilt when I discovered that I wasn't drawn to working in policy! When I finally let myself off the hook for this imaginary ideal, I was able to bring my own gifts to this movement. We each have gifts we can bring to social change, and thank God they are not all the same. We need parents, poets, writers, analysts, people who can facilitate meetings, people who can arrange carpools. We need people with loud voices and people who can sing and cry and comfort the weary. We need people willing to risk arrest and people to feed the kids lunch. We need educators, administrators, and visionaries. With all of these skills together, we need bold action in the public arena, not just private life style changes. The stories of great social transformation, from Abolition to marriage equality, are stories of a tide of human beings in different strata of society realizing an injustice and working to change it. The courts and lawmakers and industry follow our lead.
SACRED STORY: As religious people, we know the power of sacred story. Coming out of Egypt, receiving Torah, wandering in the wilderness... these stories help us navigate our lives and become at home in the world. Sacred stories are crucial to our ability to sustain climate change work, and indeed any justice work where the odds are daunting and the stakes are sky high. One sacred story that inspires me these days is from Paul Hawken's book Blessed Unrest. Hawken describes a great global movement to protect the future from the forces that would squander it to satisfy greed in the present. This movement includes all those working for so many causes, including democracy, conservation, healthy food systems, the rights of women, children, the poor, and indigenous peoples, and animals the world over. Hawken likens the movement to an immune system. It springs up organically from the organism of the living Earth. It is decentralized and robust.
When I understand myself as a cell in this immune system, I feel energized and hopeful. I don't know if we will win, if we will keep warming under 2 degrees Celcius or be able to deal with the consequences of even that much. Honestly, the odds are not good. But I know that being part of the resistence and holding vision of a just future is holy and obligatory work. It is the tremendous opportunity of those of us living right now, in the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last to be able to do anything about it.
FAITH: We as a religious community are called to lead the charge on climate, not only because a strong prophetic and moral voice is needed to take on powerful systems of oppression, but because this movement needs faith. Faith, in this case, doesn't mean blind trust it will all be ok. It means faith that showing up for justice matters - that it matters to other people around the country and the world, it matters to our children and people reading the histories of our time years from now, it matters to ourselves when we look in the mirror and I believe it matters to God. History cherishes the stories of those who stand up for justice even when they are not obviously successful in their time. It is a terrifying but beautiful opportunity to summon kind of faith that we need right now, as the climate science continues to be bleak but our movement continues to grow.
When we are faced with giant challenges, and odds of success are really small, we are not called on to be successful - we are called on to be faithful. I love this line, which I learned from my interfaith activist mentors - we are not called on to be successful - we are called on to be faithful. We will work like hell for success, but we actually have no control over it, and we can burn ourselves out and drive ourselves crazy trying to have control. Instead, we can work in a way that bears witness to the love we feel for life: it is the same love that gave my young great grandparents the courage to cross an ocean and leave behind everything they knew. It is the same love that draws us to serve our families, the world, and God. This kind of radical devotion makes room for all emotions - hope, fear, grief, joy, even rage. It just doesn't make room for sitting out.
Thank you for being cells in the immune system together.