A spiritual reflection one of the biggest elephants in our room.
It’s basic to our religious system that when human life is in danger, we stop and pay attention. This is true not only when human life is clearly and certainly in danger, but also whenever there is a reasonable possibility that life is in danger. We set aside Shabbat and virtually every other law in order to address even these possible dangers. Equally indicative of this religious attitude are the stories told in Mishna Ta’anit about the circumstances that prompted the Sages to declare days of communal fasting and prayer. On one occasion they declared a day of fasting because a tiny amount of wheat in Ashkelon had been ruined by shidafon, a dry, destructive wind. On another occasion they declared a communal fast when two wolves- capable of killing children – were merely spotted in an inhabited area. This is the way we live. When a real possibility of danger to life lurks, we don’t avert our eyes. As a matter of spiritual course, we take notice, and consider how to respond.
We’re at an interesting and challenging juncture right now in humanity’s journey on Earth. There’s at least a reasonable possibility, and many respected voices insist that it is more than just that, that in the coming years and decades, we will be dealing with a natural world that is less accommodating, and more hostile to human life, than the one we’ve come to know. We will experience bigger and more destructive storms, longer and deeper droughts, more frequent wildfires, and the spread of crop-threatening insects and fungi to places where they didn’t use to appear. These are reasonable enough possibilities that normative Jewish law and thought indicate that we are obliged to pay attention to them – and to their possible consequences. Accordingly, simply as a regular Jew doing what regular Jews do, I recently began the process of trying to place these possibilities into a religious framework, into a framework of appropriate spiritual response. Here are three ideas, drawn from our classical sources, that I believe serve to create this framework, both for today, and more importantly for tomorrow and beyond.
The first idea is SOLIDARITY. Back in the 41st chapter of Genesis, Yosef accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream about the years of plenty and the years of famine that will come, and then finds himself charged with the awesome responsibility of storing food in the good years that would be eaten in the bad ones. In the middle of that story, we find the report that “two sons were born to Yosef, before the years of famine came”. The Talmud wonders about the significance of that last phrase. Why did the Torah specifically point out that the sons were born during the years of plenty? The Talmud then concludes – and this conclusion is codified into law with only with slight modifications – that we are to learn from Yosef’s behavior that it is prohibited to engage in marital intimacy during years of famine. There is a limitation on pleasure-taking during times of suffering.
The medieval Tosafists though challenged the Talmud’s analysis, pointing out that Yocheved the daughter of Levi was born just as Jacob and family were entering Egypt. Clearly, she must have been conceived during the years of famine! And while many answers are offered to this question, one of the most compelling is the one given by a 19th century thinker, Rabbi Boruch HaLevi Epstein. There would have no purpose in Levi’s refraining from marital relations, Epstein explains. The Talmud’s teaching is specifically about people like Yosef, who due to their own personal social or economic circumstances, are not personally affected by the famine. The Talmud is teaching us to vicariously experience other’s people’s suffering, and to consciously cultivate a sense of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by nature’s unfortunate surprises. And out of this solidarity, to develop the will and the strength to make political and economic decisions which respond to the challenging circumstances being experienced by others.
The second idea is PRIORITY, i.e. giving priority to human life over all other considerations. Here we’ll draw upon the example of a halachik decision made by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector in the spring of 1868, in the midst of drought that had dramatically affected numerous crops, leaving peas and beans among the few foods readily available, especially to the poor. Rabbi Spector decided that the custom forbidding kitniyot would be lifted for Pesach of that year. While this may sound like a no-brainer of a decision, we know that rabbis face numerous pressures around decisions such as these. Would he be accused of overstepping his authority? Was he setting a dangerous precedent for the waiving of other time-honored customs? Was such a move especially perilous at a time when Jews in other parts of Europe were abandoning Jewish practices with abandon? Rabbi Spector might have decided differently based upon any of these considerations. But he did not. Because human life and welfare had to be given higher priority than any of the political or historical considerations that in other circumstances might militate against taking action. In times of trouble, human life must the highest priority.
And finally, we come to PRAYER. The model here is the prayer attributed to Avraham on the morning after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prayer which our morning Shacharit is modeled upon. The Torah records that in the morning Avraham returned to the spot overlooking the cities, and saw nothing but smoke. The feared destruction had occurred. We can’t help but wonder, “What kind of prayer would he have said at that point?” I think that we must assume that it was a prayer similar to the one that we ourselves say each morning. “Place in our hearts the ability to understand and discern”. Teach me, God, what I should be doing differently. What changes I need to make in the way I conduct my own life, in the way that my household and my society conduct their lives, so that next time the outcome will be different, so that destruction can be averted? “You, who shine light upon the earth and its inhabitants with compassion”. You, God, are a benevolent God, who created out of love, and who does not desire the death of His creatures. Standing in Your presence, we do not despair. We continue to look forward, for we know we stand before God who desires life.
This is the prayer of our time and for the decades to come. It is the third element of the spiritual framework. We know before whom we stand. And we know what He expects of us, when we live in challenging times.