Guarding the Earth–a sermon for Parshat Noach

I am well and truly blessed that part of my bicycle ride from home to the synagogue takes me along Adelaide’s gorgeous Linear Park. I rode in this morning, revelling in the shrieks of the lorakeets in the gum trees, admiring pink-breasted galahs on the grass, and enjoying the Torrens gently trickling down. It’s almost too beautiful for words. As I was riding, I was reflecting on the news from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the terrifying report it issued early this week. The grass is already turning brown after the dry winter—what will this park look like in ten years? Twenty? Will rainbow lorakeets still flock to the gum trees? Will galahs still be able to find tasty insects in the grass?

The release of the IPCC’s report fortuitously falls in the week that synagogues around the world read the story of Noah, his ark, and the destruction of the world. In recent years, parashat Noah has become an unofficial environmental Shabbat, as Jews reflect on the possibility of a second global catastrophe.

Climate change is, without a doubt, the most daunting challenge the world has ever faced. Decades of technological and medical advances have enriched us in ways that would have been unimaginable one hundred years ago. We can now travel anywhere in the world we want. Some of us own large homes and enormous cars. Our food comes from all over the world. It has occurred to me lately that two of my favourite foods—coffee and chocolate—are also among the least environmentally friendly, as both have to travel vast distances to reach me. We are increasingly reliant on technological miracles—phones and tablets and computers spun together from rare earth minerals dug up at great expense and dramatic environmental impact. Entire nations (including ours) have become wealthy through digging up, refining and selling coal and petroleum to perpetuate our lavish lifestyles. Why would we ever want to give all that up?

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Noah to build an ark of cedar wood. In an ancient midrash, Noah plants cedar trees and nurtures them for a hundred years until they’re ready to be harvested and their wood used to build the ark. Year after year, people would approach Noah and ask him why he was letting his trees grow taller and taller. Year after year, he would warn them of the impending flood and of the need for them to repent. They never did. Some climate scientists have been issuing warnings for decades, and now the estimate is that 97% of scientists are in agreement that climate change is real and caused by human beings. Humanity is quick to embrace the innovations of medical science, engineers, and agricultural science. But somehow a 97% consensus on climate change is still not enough to bring about the radical, systemic change that is desperately needed right now, and in all probability thirty years ago.

As a small start, this week I went onto the website https://livingthechange.net/ and made a personal commitment to reduce my demands in three areas: energy, transport and food. I have given up red meat entirely and am making an effort to minimise the amount of milk and cheese I consume. For several years, all of my energy has come from renewable sources. All electric companies will give you that option, and of course thankfully South Australia is ahead of many other places when it comes to our renewable energy production. And finally, I’m trying to ride my bicycle and take the bus more. I’m a bit appalled at the cost of taking the bus in this city, but would still like to do it more often. Making these commitments hopefully shows our federal government and other nations that we, the voters, are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to preserve our world for the future.

It says in the Torah that God gave Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden to tend and to guard. In a midrash, God further warns this first human pair: Be careful how you look after the garden, for if you destroy it there will be none after you to restore it. This amazing world is our garden. Let us do all we can to tend it. Shabbat shalom!

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