This is a difficult pair of parshiyot. If I were to look for readings for a Shabbat that featured young school children, I’d choose any of a half-dozen readings that would yield a really fun conversation with our students. However, we don’t pick and choose our readings. They are when they are, and so we find ourselves tonight considering readings that contain one of the most difficult passages of Torah to read. I might have avoided them because tomorrow morning we’ll be looking at other passages of Torah, but in truth, there is a lot to be learned from the passage dealing with the blessings and curses that are the rewards and punishments intended for Israel depending on whether the Israelites follow the mitzvot God gave them, and by extension, us.
Let’s look at some of the text. If we follow God’s laws, we will have rain at the appropriate time (and by implication just the right amount). Our crops will be plentiful and there will be no hunger. The land will be at peace. God will dwell among us and we will no longer be enslaved. This is a beautiful vision.
But – if we don’t bother paying attention to what God has taught us? There will never be peace in our land. Our skies will be like iron and the earth like copper. We will work hard at trying to grow crops but we will not succeed. We will never know peace and we will be dispersed among the nations, vulnerable to expulsion and prejudice.
Today, most of us no longer believe that droughts and crop failure has to do with punishment from God. Most of us look at the world through the eyes of science and try to figure out how to make the crops grow in dry years, how to feed the world’s hungry when there seems to be no food in some countries and lots of food in others. But I think that if we think about the blessings and curses in Torah not as rewards and punishments but as logical consequences, we might learn something very important.
My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, taught that all the Torah that we read that warns us about good things happening if we follow God’s laws and bad things happening if we don’t is really very modern. If I tell you to put the milk back in the fridge or it will spoil, and then there will be no cold milk to drink with your Oreos, and then you leave the milk out and it goes sour, is that a punishment? Or just the real consequence of leaving milk out of the fridge too long?
God has given us a beautiful world. God wants us to take care of the world, and if we care for it properly, it will nourish us. If we are careless, we will damage the world and then we will suffer.
I’m thinking particularly about this subject this week because of the oil spill that’s spreading over the Gulf of Mexico. I’m looking at the fragile eco-system in the delta of the Mississippi in Louisiana. And I’m remembering the catastrophic oil spill in Alaska 21 years ago when the Exxon Valdez split apart. And I’m reacting with horror when I learn that the oil from that spill is still there, on the beaches of Prince William Sound. In that event, a record-breaker until now, thousands of animals died immediately; the best estimates include 100,000 to as many as 250,000 seabirds, nearly 3000 sea otters, a dozen river otters, 300 harbor seals, nearly 250 bald eagles, and 22 orcas, as well as the destruction of billions of salmon and herring eggs. Some scientists estimate that some shoreline Arctic habitats may take up to 30 years to recover.
And now it’s happening again. When people believe they can do whatever they want in order to have something they believe they must have, when we look at the world as a kind of toy store where we can just go in and pick what we want and never have to worry about the consequences, when we think we can take from the earth without thinking of it as theft, we get into trouble. And the world gets into trouble.
There’s a beautiful midrash in which God and Adam are looking around at Eden and marveling at how beautiful it is. God cautions Adam: “I have made many worlds before this one, but in this one I have placed you to tend it. Take care not to destroy it, because if you do, I will not make another.”
Talmidim, the world is in our hands. We have an obligation to take care of it, not to abuse it. We have an obligation to look at the world as though we are only a part of it, not better than it. When we forget that, we get into trouble, and birds and fish die and sand and rocks remain covered with oil for years and years.
The following prayer was written by Rabbi Danielle Upbin and Rabbi David Weizman of Clearwater FL. I’ll be sharing it again tomorrow morning during our Torah service.
"Ribono shel Olam, Master of the Universe, עֹשֶׂה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ אֶת־הַיָּם וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּם – Maker of the heavens and earth, the seas and all they contain:
"Grant protection and sheltering peace to the myriads of living creatures who make their watery home in the Gulf of Mexico. Shield them from the slick, suffocating forces of the oil geyser. Guard every turtle and every fish, every crawling creature and every swimming creature. Protect each and every organism from microbe to mammal. The Psalmist wrote:
מָה־רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ ה' כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ: זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם, שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם־גְּדֹלוֹת
"How varied are Your works, Adonai! In wisdom have You made them all. The earth is filled with Your creatures.Here is the great, vast sea, teeming with numberless living things, large and small. [The Psalmist goes on:] All these creatures look to You.
"May we cease from obscuring Your countenance with our contaminants.
"הַבּוֹרֵא - Creator of the Universe, grant us the ability to act responsibly with Your planet. To till and to tend it, to guard it and guide it, to preserve it and to ensure that there is a healthy earth for us and for the next generation to enjoy. Awake in us the spirit of stewardship, to use our resources wisely, to create sustainable energy solutions, and to love and live deeply in harmony with all of Your creation. We are but sojourners on this planet, as we read in Your Torah: כִּי־לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי־גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי - The earth is Mine, says God, and you are but strangers resident with Me.
"Each Shabbat, as we recall Your covenant, may we be strengthed as partners in creation, never to destroy the earth. May we return from our environmental transgressions and set our path straight for a cleaner, clearer and healthier planet."