By Rabbi Devorah Lynn
As is appropriate for a people consumed by books, texts and words, Tisha B’Av, the commemoration of the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples, is introduced by a pun in the very first word of its scriptural reading, the Book of Lamentations.
“Eicha,” the first word, means “lamentation”: “Woe is me,” “Oy vey iz mir” or “How did it come to this?”
“Ayeka” makes its first appearance in the Torah way back in Genesis, in the Garden of Eden, where God confronts Adam with “Ayeka,” which means “Where are you?” in a challenge to Adam to come out of hiding after eating the forbidden fruit.
Eicha and Ayeka are the exact same consonants, very different vowels and drastically different meanings. “How did it come to this?” versus “Where are you?”
We can now breathe with the surprise good news of a deal, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, brokered between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), but we cannot rest easy. It’s a start, but not enough for a climate emergency and begs the two questions above. How did we get to this point of divisiveness, a nation torn apart and unable to address the climate crisis and where am I as an individual actor?
Abraham Joshua Heschel speaks clearly to us on this topic: “Some are guilty but all are responsible.” When we look at the root of “responsible,” we see “response.” Have we been hiding like Adam in the bushes because we are too distracted and overwhelmed by the climate reality to respond with active citizenship?
What we thought was responsible citizenship, like cooking with gas and recycling plastic, is yet another marketing ploy, backed by enormous fossil fuel profits to distract us from the real problem they are creating with dirty energy and plastic, both made from oil. The fossil fuel companies’ plan B is to push more plastic on us to offset the decline in their energy oil earnings.
We may not be guilty but we sure are gullible. This strategy is cunning and easy to fall for. Nevertheless, this is in no way to excuse us from a response.
We must choose to be loud, vocal, consistent, active citizens and hold our elected officials accountable. Ten or 20 years ago, we didn’t have the technological solutions to our climate problem. But now we do. Widespread use of renewable energy sources, electrifying transportation and buildings, elimination of plastic and smart changes in waste, agriculture, livestock and fisheries will give us a cleaner, more beautiful world and survivable earth. And now there are a number of citizen groups to work within our community: Jewish Earth Alliance, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Interfaith Power and Light, and Dayenu.
Making the right personal choices is not enough. Elections have consequences. We must work for the election of courageous climate activists in Congress and at every level of government. The Environmental Voter Project is getting nonvoting yet declared environmentalists to commit to being regular voters. All our elected government officials must have the will to make bold changes, enact courageous legislation and help us to make climate-friendly choices.
It is a healthy response to allow for some time, certainly the 25-hour fast of Tisha B’Av, to wallow in our grief and sorrow at how we got here. Let us howl from the heart “Eicha” of a world gone upside down. However, the next day we must lift ourselves up to ask with blinders off, Ayeka? Where are we in responsibility and response? And what are we going to do about it? As Paul Hawken writes in “Drawdown,” “From the earth’s point of view, there’s no difference between a climate denier and someone who understands the problem but actually doesn’t do anything.”
Our “how” must have a vision that ultimately facilitates real accountability and effective action. Remember that with the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, a group of Jewish survivors evacuated to the city of Yavneh and saved our traditional values while relinquishing the sacrificial priestly system that was no longer sustainable.
We must answer the question that God posed to Adam, Ayeka, “Where are you?” in the same way that our ancestors did when Jerusalem was destroyed. They stood up, took responsibility and created a new form of Judaism that has lasted 2,000 years. It turns out that Eicha, “Woe is me!” and Ayeka, “Where are you?” are directly related. Responding to the latter will lead to the solutions we need to save this world.
Rabbi Devorah Lynn is a community chaplain and co-chair of Jewish Earth Alliance, a grassroots network of communities calling on Congress to act on climate.