Haazinu: Heaven, earth, and hope

Haazinu: Heaven, earth, and hope

Give me your ears, Moses says at the beginning of the week’s Torah portion.

But for a change, he’s not addressing us – the Israelites about to enter the Land of Israel. He is addressing heaven and earth – he is summoning them as witnesses to his parting poem.

Why them?

Because, Rashi explains, the heaven and earth are “witnesses that endure forever.” Rashi adds a second reason: Heaven and earth will be the instruments of God’s punishment to Israel if we violate the covenant. Heaven will dry up, the earth will fail to yield produce, and Israel will be dealt famine as a warning and prelude to the ultimate exile from the land. Heaven and earth may endure forever, but as Moses warns, our continued presence between them is conditional.

We have just finished celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world – the heaven and the earth. Now, on Shabbat Shuva, we are engaged in the pre-Yom Kippur introspection, contemplating how we live our lives on the earth and beneath the heavens.

At the same time, as we begin the shmitta year, the “Sabbath of the land,” we are reminded that the land and the heavens have an existence independent of us.

In that context, it makes sense to consider how our lives are affecting the earth and the heavens.

As world leaders gathered this week at the U.N. world climate summit, the news wasn’t very good. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are higher now than in more than 5775 years – in fact, than any time in human history. Worryingly, there are many signs that feedback loops are beginning to melt arctic glaciers and bring frozen methane into the atmosphere faster than the worst-case predictions made only a few years ago.

That’s why more than 100 Jewish organizations joined last week’s climate march in Manhattan, to raise awareness and call for action

Shmitta teaches us that we don’t own the earth – a message brought home further by the Torah’s teaching of the jubilee, which mandates that after a cycle of seven shmitta years, ownership of land is redistributed, returned to the original families.

Known reserves of fossil fuels, if burnt, are so large that they would put enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to guarantee a greenhouse catastrophe. Stopping that will require the world’s largest companies to write assets now valued at trillions down to zero, as the oil remains untapped. (This is why divesting from fossil fuel companies makes not only moral but also financial sense.)

Shmitta reminds us that really, the land – and the untapped oil and unmined coal – belongs not to the companies that bought mining rights, but to God.

Putting the needs of the planet ahead of those of investors requires a reorientation. But that rethinking of our human desires is in fact an ancient Jewish teaching, argues Rabbi David Seidenberg.

In his book, “Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World,” he writes: “Humanity as a social order, as a species, and all the more so as a collection of individuals, has no moral standing when its interests conflict with the intrinsic interests attributed to the land, who will ‘enjoy her Sabbaths’ – even if that means seeing the humans who dwell on her exiled or wiped out.”

Given the stark nature of Moses’s warning in this week’s parsha, we shouldn’t be surprised. But the magic of the pairing of Ha’azinu with Shabbat Shuva is that we believe we always have a choice. Our resolve, and our actions, make a difference. This new year, we are told, can be different. We begin every year with ten days of repentance – granting hope its annual triumph over experience.

That spirit of hope has enabled us to end its year by chanting Ha’azinu, with its horrible warnings that more than once have come true.

And as we watch world leaders again pledge to make a difference in the health of this earth beneath its increasingly carbonated heaven, let that spirit help us approach this challenge with action rather than cynicism.