The Power to Make Change
April 21, 2022
By Sara Schultz

Tomorrow is Earth Day 2022. As this day approached and the reality of climate chaos is present in our lives, I am both frightened and energized.  While the challenge of being a climate activist is daunting and most often frustrating, Rabbi Tarfon’s words in Pirkei Avot 2:21 continually motivate me not to despair. “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” 

Amos Oz, the famous Israeli writer and intellectual, also brings Jewish wisdom to grassroots activism, “Bring a bucket of water and throw it on the fire, and if you don’t have a bucket, bring a glass, and if you don’t have a glass, use a teaspoon, everyone has a teaspoon.” We all have the power to make changes within our own lives and to make change happen on a larger scale. It is, indeed, up to each of us to engage in tikkun olam for the wellbeing of all creatures, human and otherwise.

There has been much written about the deep relationship between Judaism and caring for creation. Isn’t G-d the original proponent of biodiversity! In Biblical times, we understood that the soil needed to rest every seven years and that trees needed protection during times of war. There was consideration for the wellbeing of animals and the minimizing of their suffering. Think of the importance of the story of Rebecca watering the camels at the well. The intricate laws of Kashrut perhaps had some purpose that kept nature in balance. Perhaps now we need to not just care for creation but also live in relation with the natural world. The attributes of G-d may include both justice and mercy but nature shows no mercy, only justice. This is clear in the following warning, “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it*.” *(Kohelet Rabbah 7:13)* The connection between our addiction to dirty energy, drought, war, migration and suffering are abundantly clear. Our ancient wisdom is screaming at us to wake up and start a true teshuvah, a turning toward the light “as Abraham, the prophet of light, took the greedy kings out of the pits of bitumen, the original fossil fuel.” (paraphrased from Rabbi Yonatan Neril).

Recently I listened to an interview with Rabbi Yonaton Neril, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainability and Development. In the first of his two volumes of commentary,  “Eco Bible, an Ecological Commentary on Genesis and Exodus,” he eloquently made the case that to achieve the technical transformation that we need to safely sustain our society (renewable energy, electrification of transportation, heating/cooling and more) we need a spiritual transformation as well. In one passage he shares Rabbi Hanina’s interpretation of Genesis, 1:26-28. The hidden message conveys that if we are not worthy of ruling over all other life then we will be “taken down” by it. It is up to each of us to walk with humility within the circle of life. We are intricately connected to all of it. We depend on it.  In spite of the fact that the science of climate change has been around for over 100 years, the trajectory for our planet becomes ever bleaker. Accordingly, Rabbi Neril makes it clear that we desperately need not just an ecological awakening but a spiritual awakening to prevent the worst effects of a warming climate. We must all live like Rabbi Hanina, humbly planning and planting for future generations.

Sara Schultz is the chairperson of Sierra Club Niagara Group. A proud member of the Buffalo Jewish community, Sara also is the liaison to the Interfaith Climate Justice Community of WNY, Amherst Energy Conservation Citizens Advisory Committee, and Amherst Clean Energy Community Committee.

The Power to Make Change - Jewish thought of the week graphic