I love that feeling of sinking my boots into virgin snow, leaving freshly made footprints. There is a quietude to fresh snow that is magnificent and spiritually resonant; like the Shekhinah has draped Herself in a fine tallit. Watching the sunlight glitter on the ice, and my children carry their sleds to our nearest hill, a darker thought occurred: will my children’s children still get to experience the richness of our clearly defined seasons in a heating world? Will my children one day explain to theirs that during the first third of the twenty-first century, they still got to play in the snow?
The environmental challenges we face as a species are of an order of magnitude that seems impossible to chip away at. We run the risk of becoming morally paralyzed, or worse yet, existentially numbed. Or, to put it in Biblical parlance relevant to the Torah readings of this season, hardening our own hearts.
The point of this sermon is not to debate the evidence-based facts of our heating planet or what we should do about it. I am not a climate scientist or a policy maker. We may differ on how to interpret the data or enact particular policy, but perhaps we can reach consensus that the Anthropocene (the age in which collective human behavior is indelibly reshaping the biome) has well and truly started. That collapsing biodiversity, a toxic environment and an altered climate are consequences of this. If we are ready to face these truths and sit with our own discomfort, then perhaps we as a sacred community can explore some of the spiritual, existential and ethical ramifications.
The story of the Exodus provides us with the model to do some of that exploring. There are two texts that come to mind. The first is a narrative from this week’s portion, Va’era. The second is a text from last week’s portion, Shemot. Let’s start with the first: it is the recounting of the first three of the ten plagues. In chapter seven, we encounter the plagues of ‘dam’, blood in the Nile river, ‘tz’fardia’, the abundance of frogs that plagued the Egyptian population and, of course, ‘kinim’, the plague of lice. It is tempting and also a little too easy is to draw a direct line between the plagues of yore and the environmental catastrophes we are facing today and it is actually not what we should focus on in this sermon. The plagues are overwhelming, destabilizing, paralyzing. They are the Bronze Age equivalent of the constant churn of ever-present news media. They represent, in some excessive ways, the outrage machine that has become such a pervasive feature of the Internet age. It is not that we should ignore the plagues, of course, or the challenges they represent. But perhaps we can rethink them in a more spiritually effective way. This brings us to the second text I wanted to bring. This is the scene where Moses is addressed by the voice of the Divine in the burning bush.
Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Eternal appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” When the Eternal saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.”And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
On a first reading, the text seems straightforward. Moses, during his ‘wilderness experience’, is confronted with and overcome by the Divine encounter. In a prefiguring of the notion that no human can see God and live, he turns aside. Still, God perseveres in the encounter and calls Moses. Moses famously heeds the prophetic call with ‘hineini’, ‘here I am’, and God tells Moses to remove his sandals for the ground he is standing upon is ‘adamat kodesh’, holy ground. We can sense the awe and reverence in that moment. But how can we unpack this terse piece of text and how does it relate to the encounter of God in the plagues?
First of all, the deep sense of awe felt by Moses is inextricably linked to a profound sense of mortal danger. God is not just a magnificent Presence but a terrifying one. There is a paradox in God cautioning Moses to not come closer, but also to take off his shoes. We are called to experience God in the intimate encounter with our natural world yet also charged to have a healthy respect for that world and its potential to do us harm. God is both the giver and the taker of life, and Moses’ spiritual consciousness balances on the edge of a blade. Out of that sacred tension comes the call to holiness and mission.
We know what happens in the rest of the story. God identifies God’s Self as the God of the Hebrew ancestors, just like God does in the opening lines of this week’s portion, Va’era – ‘and God made God’s Self appear’. The encounter is the start of a relationship, the ‘ahavah’, love and ‘yirah’, awe, and paraphrasing the 111st Psalm, the beginning of reverence and wisdom.
We individually may not be able to solve the environmental challenges of our time. But a start to facing those deep questions is not paralysis but wonder. We are granted an opportunity to sink our boots into the snow, to witness the dance of light on ice, to bear testimony to the living, breathing world we inhabit, pulsating with Divinity, alight but never consumed. It is our task to reimagine our relationship to the natural world; to be aware of both her blessings and dangers. To see ourselves as quivering leaves on the branches of a single Tree of Life.
The Torah charges us to ‘not look away’. Let us not look away from the plagues – the wanton, random and seemingly cruel forces of nature that castigate the human species. More importantly, we are charged to not look away from the beauty. We are to take off our figurative shoes and absorb the blessings of the Earth through the skin of our soles; to feel every ripple, every tremor and every nuance. To internalize deeply, not just intellectually but emotionally, that we as humanity are privileged and honored to be called into prophetic service, to say ‘hineini’ and to know that we are standing on ‘adamat kodesh’, holy ground.