We are now well into the Hebrew month of Elul, which provides an incentive for heightened introspection, a chance to practise teshuvah, changes in our lives, before the Days of Awe, the Days of Judgment, the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The shofar is blown every morning (except on Shabbat) in synagogues during the month of Elul to awaken us from slumber, to remind us to consider where we are in our lives and to urge us to consider positive changes.
How should we respond to Elul today? How should we respond when we hear reports almost daily of severe, often record-breaking, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and storms; when July 2019 was the hottest year since temperature records were kept in 1880; when 18 years in this century are among the 19 hottest years and 2014, 2015 and 2016 successively broke temperature records; when polar ice caps and glaciers are melting far faster than projections of climate experts; when climate scientists are warning that we could be close to an irreversible tipping point when climate change could spiral out of control with disastrous consequences, unless major changes are soon made; when we appear to also be on the brink of major food, water and energy scarcities; and when, despite all of the above, so many people are in denial, and almost all of us seem to be, in effect, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as we approach a giant iceberg?
Israel is especially threatened by climate change since, among other dangers, a rising Mediterranean Sea could inundate the coastal plain, which contains much of Israel’s population and infrastructure; and the hotter, drier Middle East projected by climate experts makes terrorism and war more likely, according to military experts.
It is well known that one is not to shout fire in a crowded theatre – except if there actually is a fire. The many examples of severe climate change indicate that the world is on fire today. Therefore, we should make it a priority to do all that we can to awaken the world to the dangers and the urgency of doing everything possible to shift our imperiled planet onto a sustainable path.
We should urge that tikkun olam (the repair of the world) be a central focus in all aspects of Jewish life today. We should contact rabbis, Jewish educators and other Jewish leaders and ask that they increase awareness of the threats and how Jewish teachings can be applied to avert impending disasters. We should write letters to editors, call talk shows, question politicians and, in every other way possible, stress that we can’t continue the policies that have been so disastrous.
As president emeritus of Jewish Veg, formerly Jewish Vegetarians of North America, I want to stress that shifting toward a vegan diet is something that everyone can do right away. It would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and it would be consistent with Jewish teachings on preserving human health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and helping hungry people.
The afternoon service for Yom Kippur includes the book of Jonah, who was sent by God to Nineveh to urge the people to repent and change their evil ways to avoid their destruction. Today, the whole world is Nineveh, in danger of annihilation and in need of repentance and redemption, and each one of us must be a Jonah, with a mission to warn the world that it must turn from greed, injustice and idolatry, so that we can avoid a global catastrophe.
Richard H. Schwartz, PhD, is professor emeritus, College of Staten Island, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and president of Society of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians. He is the author of several books, including Judaism and Vegetarianism and Who Stole My Religion? Revitalizing Judaism and Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal Our Imperiled Planet, and more than 250 articles at jewishveg.org/schwartz. He was associate producer of the documentary A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World.