Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Donald Trump: environmental Pharaoh

Runoff from farm fields reaches a sediment-laden stream in southwestern Iowa in 2011. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/USDA/Lynn Betts

First, they threatened to come for Muslims.

Then, they threatened to come for immigrants.

Then, they came after health care.

They are gunning for culture.

And, now they’re coming for the earth itself.

Which brings me to Passover.

Dam, tzfardea, kinnim….

That is the familiar cadence of the ten plagues that fell upon Egypt — plagues that were necessary for the Jewish people to declare its physical and spiritual independence of the Egyptian gods, and to finally leave that land of slavery.

Dam: the plagues begin with water. The Nile, the very life force of Egypt, turns to blood. The symbol of life corrupts itself and becomes a harbinger of death.

For, when we tell the story of the enslavement and the exodus from Egypt, we are tellings stories about water:

  • Pharaoh throwing Hebrew infants into the Nile
  • The infant, Moses, floating in a secure basket on the Nile
  • The Nile turning to blood
  • Moses striking the Sea of Reeds so that it will part and welcome the Israelites into their new-born freedom
  • The Israelites crying out for water in the wilderness
  • Moses, in his anger and frustration, striking the rock at God’s command, so that mayim chayim, waters of life, will flow forth and nourish his people
  • The bowls of salt water, symbolizing our sweat and tears, that adorn every seder table.

Today, we continue the story of water.

We invoke the eleventh plague – the plague of climate change and global warning.

Since we celebrated Pesach only two years ago, carbon dioxide levels rose more than 2 parts per million.

It is now at its highest level – in more than 10,000 years. It is happening 100 to 200 times faster than what the Earth experienced during the transition from the last Ice Age.

Even if the world stopped burning fossil fuels right this second, the carbon dioxide would still be trapped in the atmosphere for the next few decades.

And with global warming comes the twelfth plague – the plague of Sea Level Rise.

Play Jewish geography. How many Jewish communities are within ten miles or less of a major coast line?

All of Florida, Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk, the Jersey shore, the north and south shores of Long Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan, coastal Westchester County, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts.

Throw in New Orleans, Houston, and the Pacific coast. The vast majority of American Jews live in those affected areas.

By the end of this century, Sea Level Rise could force 13.1 million Americans from their homes.

This would become the largest galut – forced exile – in history.

For the Jews, this is an old story.

In the 1500s, in Rome, the Pope forced the Jews to live in cramped quarters on the left bank of the Tiber River — the lowest point of the city; below sea level; and prone to constant flooding.

The Church had power, and the Jews did not.

The story is still with us. Today, Sea Level Rise disproportionately affects poor, low-lying neighborhoods.

The plagues of Pesach proceeded in an grim and orderly fashion. Each plague brought another in its wake.

So, too, our modern plagues. Let us echo dayeinu:

  • If the seas rise and only flood our roads: dayeinu.
  • If the floods enter and damage our homes and property: dayeinu.
  • If the damage only brings about mold and mildew: dayeinu.
  • If the mold and mildew only brings about more health risks: dayeinu.
  • If the health risks only impose more burdens on our over-burdened and under-funded health systems: dayeinu.
  • If the over-burdened and under-funded health care systems bring about health costs that rise faster than the seas themselves: dayeinu.

There is one more plague. At the risk of imposing a pun, it is the plague of denial.

And we are not talking about that river in Egypt.

With his desire to eradicate federal regulations that protect the environment, Donald Trump is the king of denial.

Americans overwhelmingly believe that global warming is happening.

We believe that we must scale back carbon emissions.

But, like Pharaoh, whose stubbornness during the plagues proved to be lethal, few of us believe that these changes will harm us personally.

In every congressional district, a majority of adults supports limiting carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power plants.

Nationally, about seven in 10 Americans support regulating carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants.

75 percent support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant more generally.

But too many lawmakers continue to ride in Pharaoh’s chariot. They refuse to see.

“The message they are sending to the rest of the world is that they don’t believe climate change is serious. It’s shocking to see such a degree of ignorance from the United States,” said Mario J. Molina, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist from Mexico who advises nations on climate change policy.

And so, what must we do?

In many ways, the Egyptians were more rational than Pharaoh.

If the government will not do its part, then the lot falls to all of us — individuals, local communities, states — even and especially corporations — to self-regulate and to continue our covenant with the earth.

We can hear and internalize the wisdom of the ancient sages:

“Who is wise? The one who can see ha-nolad – that which is about to be born.”

Our future is about to be born.

We are its midwives.

We have no other sane choice – to heed the call of the rising temperatures, and the rising waters, and scream, and teach, and cajole – and act.

 

 

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.

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