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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

Green thoughts I: Answer us!

Galilee Diary #430, February 22, 2009

Marc J. Rosenstein

Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord's anger will flare up against you and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain…
-Deuteronomy 11:17

If the rains have not come by Rosh Chodesh Kislev, the Bet Din decrees three days of fasting for the entire public…
-Mishnah Ta'anit 1:5

Here it is past mid-February and we are finally having some winter storms. But it is clearly too little too late. The disappearance of the Kinneret – like that of the Dead Sea – is already taken for granted. It used to be that the level of the Kinneret was frequently front page news. But by now, no one is really interested, as there is a feeling that there's nothing we can do about it, and it's not going to change, so why go on about it. I mean, we don't have a government, we have Hamas on the south and Hezbollah on the north, don't nag us about water conservation. Actually, as I write this, the two main spring water bottlers in the country have shut down because of mysterious contamination, so there is a looming shortage of bottled water. Now maybe people will get upset…

It's interesting to look at the classical view of drought in the land of Israel. The Bible makes it very clear that God's favor is bestowed in the rain – and when there is no rain, it is because we have behaved in such a way as to anger God; the drought is a punishment for our sins as a nation. Hence, when there is a drought, the Mishnah teaches, we are not helpless: there are things we can do. The entire tractate of Ta'anit is devoted to the details of the escalating regime of special prayers and public fasts intended to convince God of our remorse for our wrongdoing, and to implore his forgiveness – to be expressed in rainfall.

To our modern scientific consciousness, this system seems hopelessly primitive. It seems a bit ridiculous to think that our morality can affect the weather. And many people smirk at the news reports of Orthodox rabbis, in our time, holding special public prayers for rain.

And yet, from another perspective, what's so far-fetched about thinking we do bear responsibility for our water crisis? After all, isn't it our sins of over-consumption, waste, and selfishness that are indeed the primary reasons for the shortages we now experience? OK, not eating for a few days won't make it rain – but using less water and other stuff, day after day, might have averted this drought. For Deuteronomy it was a God who gets angry and punishes. For us today it is an awareness that our behavior does indeed affect the balance of nature and has the potential of bringing disaster on us; punishment? Cause and effect? Whatever, acting as if we were not involved, as if it were fate or sunspots – or a problem to be solved by future generations – was not acceptable for the rabbis of the Mishnah, and it is not acceptable in a world of scarce resources and global interdependence.

In Israel, in addition to the general lack of consciousness of the large scale effects of small scale actions (waste, pollution), our water crisis has been exacerbated by an ideological mismatch as well. Zionism was all about pioneering, about settling the land, about reclaiming the swamp and the desert. It was about being reborn as earthy, productive farmers instead of parasitic luftmenschen. So agriculture, even water-intensive agriculture not suited to the local conditions, has a special place in Israeli history and culture; cutting what experts say are exaggerated water allowances for agriculture is perceived as violating the Zionist dream. Exporting oranges is, after all, exporting water. So we don't just need conservation campaigns and policies – we need to re-imagine our vision of restoration, to reformulate what it means to love the land.

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