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Crisis: Climate or Otherwise

07/10/2020 12:23:07 PM


                Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Pinchas, in which we read briefly of God’s praise over Pinchas the priest killing an Israelite man and a Midianite woman for coupling. The Torah then segues on to another census, and the story of five daughters claiming their father’s portion of land since he left no son to inherit his estate. Moses is obnoxiously dense about this, but God comes through for the women, and then shows Moses a view of the Promised Land from atop a mountain and tells Moses how to confer ordination upon Joshua. The parasha wraps up with some holiday sacrifice commandments.

            There’s a lot in this parasha, and I tend to focus on the end of it most years. Obviously, the story of the daughters of Tzelofechad is compelling to a Jewish feminist. Women inheriting property! God telling Moses that the women are objectively right to ask! It’s exciting! But this week, we heard from Rabbi Katy Allen who said that she reads climate change into every Torah portion. I thought that sounded like an interesting challenge, and although I try not to talk about the same thing every week, I wanted to at least see if I could find a lesson about climate change in this week’s parasha.

            Pinchas is a troubling character. Without consulting with anyone else or getting any notice directly from God about the right choice, he spontaneously walks away from the conversation he’s having with Moses at the end of the last parasha to just go stab this other couple. Then in the beginning of this parasha, God praises Pinchas and his actions, and reaffirms his right to the priesthood. The traditional understanding of this was that this couple was representative of a wider problem that had brought about God’s wrath. There was a plague in the Israelite camp (again) because of the mixing of cultures. It wasn’t necessarily bad that the Israelite men were shacking up with Midianite women (the Moabite women were a bit more of a problem themselves, but that’s a different story). The trouble with the Midianite wives were that they were luring the Israelites away from HaShem to follow their gods instead. By killing this one couple in the sight of the whole community, Pinchas makes a strong statement, and the Israelites presumably stop what they are doing and the plague lifts.

            It’s still a pretty troubling narrative, especially given that one of the big takeaways from the Akeidah is that Jews don’t do human sacrifice. But let’s distance ourselves from the murder and human sacrifice and potential xenophobia of the text on its face value, and understand it as a metaphor. There was a widespread problem in the camp, that seemed near impossible to stop all at once. The people weren’t listening to those who recognized the problem for what it was and continued on or chose to look the other way when their neighbors continued on. Some decided to take drastic action to set an example and affect big change that went far beyond the immediate consequences of the action itself.

            We have a system of using fossil fuels, unsustainable factory farming, wasteful use of resources, and so on, that feels incredibly difficult to break away from. It is pervasive throughout our community, and even those who know it’s a problem seem to not really know how to address it effectively or at least cannot seem to encourage those with the ability to affect change to do so. There are those among us – and I must admit I am not really one of them – who have taken it upon themselves to take drastic actions to set an example and force change. They tie themselves to trees to prevent deforestation, they occupy oil rigs to stop drilling, they lay down their lives to protect sacred indigenous lands and water resources and keep pipelines out, they go vegan and manage to live trash-free lifestyles. Perhaps these actions will ripple out beyond those immediately affected by them and institute widespread change, will cease the plague of climate disaster that looms over us. It won’t be an easy or immediate change, I think, but it is necessary, or just like with the Israelite camp more people will die – of scarcity, of war driven by scarcity, of floods, of poison from the polluted water, air, and land.

            May we learn to sacrifice convenience for the sake of safety and health for all, for future generations, and may we avert plague and climate crisis now. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781