God and the Weather

June 3rd: Bechukkotai
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As much as the Torah is a theological and religious book, it is also an agrarian book. Though the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob suggest semi-nomadic shepherding origins, once we arrived in the Land of Israel, our ancestors were farmers. This destination was the goal of God’s promise in the Patriarchs’ time and in the message to Moses at the Burning Bush. Other than, of course, our relationship with God and the Torah, the acquisition and possession of the Promised Land, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” is expressed as the purpose of the Exodus: the blessing of the relationship with God is a place of agricultural abundance.  Thus it should come as no surprise that the enforcement clauses of our covenant with God are also expressed in agrarian terms. Here is how this week’s Torah portion begins:
“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.” (Leviticus 26.3-5ff)

The concomitant curses section—“But, if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules…”—mixes natural disaster with conquest by cruel enemies. Not only will the land be infertile, “I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit,” but any produce that somehow grows will be eaten by the enemy!

Though our ancient ancestors thought of reward and punishment in terms of nature and its ability/willingness to help us live, there is a tendency for us to feel far away from this agrarian world. Industrialization and urbanization have changed our locations and our sensibilities. Rather than the farmer’s existential concern with rain and sun and the natural world, for most of us, Nature is a matter of scenery, farmers’ markets, and our AccuWeather® Apps. But, of course, we cannot escape the natural world, and many people are concerned with what seems to be the increasing violence of the weather and its effects on human habitation and agriculture. In previous generations, extreme weather was often seen as a plague from God (see the 1927 flooding in the Mississippi River), but today many attribute our weather problems to human induced global warming.

There is a lot spoken and written about global warming, and it is has become a kind of political football. Almost every week, someone makes a provocative statement and incites another round of arguing about the “evidence” or the “science.” What is interesting to me is how important the question of belief has become. Do people believe in the climate scientists’ conclusions, or do people not believe (or refuse to believe) them? There’s a lot of hot air expended on this debate, but, at a certain point, I wonder why belief matters so much. If all the climate change deniers would change their minds and start believing that human produced CO2 emissions are indeed causing global warming, would this change in belief result in changes in action?

Would we all stop using electricity and driving our cars? Would we all sell our gas guzzlers and buy Prius’ or Tesla’s—or bicycles? Would we all install solar panels on our roofs? It seems to me that all these solutions are already and gradually gaining steam. Saving money on energy costs, minimizing waste, and maximizing efficiency are natural and obvious goals in a capitalist system. Would we really be able to pursue strategies a lot faster without causing other very serious problems?

Would we shut down our industrial capabilities? Would we make gasoline so expensive that people cannot afford to drive? Would we shut down coal mining any faster than natural economic forces are already doing? And, what would we do to/for the people who make their livings mining coal or working in polluting industries—or simply driving to work? Would we stop jetting around the country and the world for business or pleasure (or sporting events!)? Look at the millions of people who travel and who find it necessary and/or pleasurable despite expense and inconvenience. Even if we all would agree that human activities are causing global warming, how much faster and more could we decrease all these CO2 emissions?

Would we jettison our nation’s military and economic superiority and let nations like China or India or the entire Third World catch us and surpass us? Yes, Americans may use more resources and emit more per capita, but, other than the gradual decrease in American CO2 emissions that seems to be happening anyway, what would/could/should we really do?

(We’ve all heard the doomsday predictions: “If we don’t cut CO2 emissions by 50% next Tuesday, it’s too late!” Even if we believe them, we know that the country will not cripple itself and our lifestyle, so I’m seriously asking the question: if everyone suddenly believed in global warming, what would we really do differently? And, if this belief is really not that important, what’s with all this consternation over opinion?)

In the ancient world, people thought of good and bad weather as reward or punishment from God—dispensed on the basis of obedience or disobedience to Divine Law. Today, we are discussing whether we humans can affect the weather. If there are natural consequences to the decisions we make, then it would behoove us to make good decisions. The question is, however, what decisions would we make differently?