The fires this time: public goods, the Jewish community, different time horizons

Tuesday, September 15, 2020 | 26 Elul 5780


Dear All,

We weren’t going to send an email this week. We figured there’d be enough in your inbox in the days before Rosh Hashanah.

But I am prompted by the fires out West to write something I have been thinking about for some while. This isn’t an appeal email, it’s not really a “shana tova” email, but I hope you’ll take a few moments to read it.

The fires out west go to the heart of so many of the challenges we presently face, and Covid has provoked its own further re-assessment for us as an organization. We intend that Hazon will come out of this stronger and more focused. But part of that focus is striving to be as truthful as we can about what is possible, what is necessary, and the relationship between the two – for the Jewish community institutionally and for each of us as individuals.

What is possible: every single thing we do to help create a more sustainable world is arithmetically close to meaningless. One change in behavior. One fewer plane trip. One donation to NRDC, one vote for the more sustainable candidate. Individually our actions are so negligible, in their aggregate impact, that I do believe we have to face this sense of futility, of overwhelmedness. I feel it myself, very strongly. I imagine that Bill Gates feels it, and Greta Thunberg, and Michael Bloomberg. Even those who have punched a thousand-fold above their weight, a million-fold, nevertheless go to bed at night knowing that the world is, as yet, headed in the wrong direction, and that not one of us has sufficient of anything to fix it. The wildfires – the worst in history – are yet one more example of this, if further example were needed, which of course it is not.

So the fires this time amplify this clarity. This is no longer some future climate crisis. This is what happens when you have a hundred years of uncontrolled output of oil and gas and coal, and then another forty years when we knew as a society that we needed to hammer on the brakes, but did not. The changes to come in the next ten or fifteen or twenty years – the hurricanes, the droughts, the fires, the die-offs – these are en route. At best (and this is not minor; it is huge), in relation to direct impacts during that period, we must do much more in the way of adaptation to make our cities and our communities more resilient. This alone is why we need a new president and a new congress to invest trillions of dollars into a green new deal, because there is critical work to be done on infrastructure, health care, public health and planning, to name just four, if we are to better cope with known-but-unknown crises yet to come.

But this of course, all of it, is only half the story.

Because the line about “all our behaviors are arithmetically close to meaningless” is true also of voting. Yet we vote – hundreds of millions of us. And when we do so it is not because we believe our own vote will make a difference. We know that, statistically, it will not.  Has your one vote ever been the difference between a winning and a losing candidate? And yet we vote not merely because it is a civic duty but, more than that, it reflects our implicit understanding of the commons. To vote – and, by extension, to take any action which is individually insignificant, but which in aggregate, as part of the wider whole, is vitally vitally necessary – is to attest, almost theologically, to our ultimate significance, and to the moral force of choosing to be part of that larger whole.

What Covid has made so very clear is the extent to which so many of the things we really need are public goods in the first place.  The goods we need we cannot individually buy. You may send your kids to private school, but you don’t drive on private roads. Public health is a public good, and its absence endangers us all. Roads, police, hospitals, health insurance… Just a year ago I sat shmira for a 27-year old woman killed on her bicycle by a truck. None of us individually can pay for protected bike lanes, yet we all of us – car drivers, cyclists, pedestrians – in our busy urban eco-systems rely on research, planning, implementation, civic involvement to hold leaders accountable, and good public leadership in the first place, to create the public goods that keep us safe.

The fires out west are a visceral microcosm of this. My heart goes out to the families of the people who have died; to the many many more made homeless.  These individual deaths – as with deaths from Covid – may seem more or less random. We none of us know when our turn will come. And this is the very point of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – to remind us of our mortality, despite the defenses, psychological and actual, we strive to place around us.

But here are the punchlines from all this:

1.       It is worth taking a moment, quite calmly – as calmly as we can –  to acknowledge our insignificance, because this is honest, and I think we have to sit with it for a moment. You don’t dive back to work after someone dies, or someone had a heart attack. Sit with it. Just allow some time – including over the chagim – to allow ourselves to feel how scary this all is; this sense of the world hurtling in the wrong direction and nothing I, I by myself can do about it….

2.       and then move past it.  This is the key Jewish move, the key civic move. To be mired in our insignificance is to give in to despair or a kind of theological disempowerment. This is unwarranted, and also unhelpful. Fackenheim’s “614th commandment” has fallen out of popularity in recent years, but it ends, Jews ‘are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz…’ The language is gendered and old-fashioned, but the point is spot on. We can feel despair, or be cynical, or retreat into otherworldliness, and each of these is its own pull. But – in the modern parlance – leaning in is the very opposite. We lean in. We vote. We act. We do change our behaviors. We do call upon others to do likewise. We do commit our institutions to change. We do see honest language and straight science as bedrock from which we build.

In the near-term we must support our rabbis and cantors and everyone leading Jewish institutions, and just send love and elbow hugs, and show up as and how and as safely as we can.

Then we need to vote and encourage others to vote – including our own friends and family members in swing states; if you personally know someone who’s on the fence, your voice will count.

Then we have to get through the weird period from the election to the inauguration – January 20th – and hope that the US democracy holds solid.

And then it’s the rest of our lives – and on to Tu B’Shvat and Earth Day, the start of the shmita year (September 2021) and COP 26 (the UN climate conference, in Glasgow, in November 2021) and then in September 2022 a new seven-year cycle in Jewish life starts.

Strangely enough, that’s where I think we need to be pointed. Day-to-day we must do what we can, each one of us. But between now and September 2022, every single Jewish institution, every school, every synagogue, every federation and foundation, every JCC – every single one needs to develop a 7-year plan, to weave a deep commitment to environmental sustainability into the fabric of Jewish life. The food we serve. The power we use. The education we deliver. The voices we raise. The relationships we build. That is actually how we respond to the fires this time. By striving, very determinedly and very systematically, to rally all of the resources of the Jewish community – and, of course, of every single faith community, every ethnic community, every local community, every intermediate institution of which we are part – in order to work for a more sustainable world for all. There is, quite literally, no greater task that we can engage in the coming decade.

And that’s why I and we wanted to send this email now. As we are buffeted by the news, by personal and familial challenges, by an unfamiliar and unsettling set of Jewish holidays, let us have some real sense of why we feel insignificant; why it’s ok to feel that; why and how we must move beyond it; and some of what we must do on the other side.

And that’s what I’m working for, and in different ways, Hazon’s staff and programs, our volunteers, our interns, our board members and stakeholders.

Shana tova – a healthy and sustainable and sweet year. May it be so.


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