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Climate, Catastrophe, and Coming Together

09/24/2021 08:59:34 AM

Sep24

                Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! This Shabbat we celebrate Sukkot, the week-long festival of harvest and dwelling in temporary huts. As such, the Torah reading this Shabbat is a section from Exodus in which the rules of the three pilgrimage festivals, which include Sukkot, are given, along with the story of Moses desiring to see God’s face. God tells Moses that no human may see the face of God and live, but that God will make Their goodness pass before Moses, upon which Moses declares the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy. When we dwell in the Sukkah, we are more acutely aware of the goodness of Divine Mercy that we experience day-to-day in our warm and safe homes. When we welcome in guests and share the bounties of our harvest – however removed we might be from the physical harvesting act itself – we are able to see the trail of Divine Goodness leading us on the path of community love and care.

            On Sukkot, we also read Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes. Kohelet shows a bit of depressive nihilism, but also a naïveté in that attitude. Clearly, he did not know about the possibilities of climate change when he said that the earth never changes and the seas never fill. We are in a moment of great concern over the changes to the earth and the seas overflowing. Recently, Hurricane Ida touched down in Louisiana on the 16th anniversary of the catastrophic Hurricane Katrina. It was the second most damaging hurricane to make landfall, just behind Katrina, killing over 100 people, the plurality of whom were split between Louisiana and New Jersey.

            Hurricanes are, of course, natural disasters. As Kohelet might remind us, they have always been and they will always be. They have always been damaging and frightening, and no amount of modern science can eliminate weather risks altogether. However, as the sixth named storm to hit landfall this year before hurricane season even hit its peak, 2021 is settling out to be another record year, just like 2020 with it’s eleven touched down storms. There have been seven category 3 or 4 hurricanes destroying homes and disrupting lives in the last five years, a marked increase from previous decades. These increases in storm frequency and severity are a result of human-created climate change. The warmer winds whip up into tropical storms and hurricanes more quickly and with wider geographical range, and the water surges increase as ocean levels rise with the melting polar ice caps.

            While the systems put in place in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina helped tremendously to mitigate the level of destruction, it’s the same people who suffered the most – the same people who always suffer the most during natural disasters – populations already vulnerable to oppressive social systems. The predominately Black and Brown neighborhoods closest to the energy plant built to help manage just such crises, over the protests and concerns of the hazardous waste the energy plant may produce, nonetheless had to deal disproportionately with the loss of power. While those with means were able to evacuate, poor families of color, among whom unemployment rate is high, homes have a net worth of $0, there are often no cars and no where to go even if they had a way to get there, are left to sit in the flood waters without the modern comforts we associated with being housed. The phenomenon of people already at the bottom of the social hierarchies being left most vulnerable and least helped during natural disasters is known as environmental racism. We know that the environment cannot be racist, and yet the effects of environmental problems can be exacerbated by human systems of oppression.

            Kohelet does not seem to believe there is much we can do to modify the world around us. Everything is preordained, and all we can do is enjoy the time we have on Earth. Praising God is good, for everything is in God’s hand, but ultimately the faithful and the idolatrous, the wicked and the righteous, the rich and the poor, all end up in the same place. To some extent, I see his point. But if the purpose of life is to enjoy the time we have, knowing it is finite, how much more so it should be to also help others enjoy their finite time as well. Although in the end we all die and each of us individually may not make significant changes to the world, we can make a difference in each other’s lives, in the lives of our children or the next generation of our communities, and we can at least mitigate the harmful damages that have for sure been done by other humans and continue to have lasting repercussions for humanity and the natural world. In chapter four, Kohelet does say that navigating the world with a partner is essential. What is the purpose of this partner if not to work together and lift one another up?

            This Sukkot and coming year, may we partner with other vulnerable communities to staunch the damage of climate crisis, may allow for equity in disaster relief, and may we find shelter in life’s storms. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782