Murky Sunset

Last night’s sunset was downright creepy. The Sabbath departed amidst the smoke of several huge fires upstate. The horizon was obliterated by the filth in the air; the murk appeared to swallow the burning orange ball of the sun.

The land is dry from four years of drought. Unwise management in the past has left us with a huge fuel load in many of our wild lands, and in some places there are stands of exotic (non-native) plants that add to the danger because they are rich in super-flammable oils. Now firefighters are risking their lives to try to protect people, animals, and property from the ravages of the fires – and fire season in California has months yet to go.

The facts of the drought here in California are sobering: right now, we have made our water supply almost completely dependent on the Sierra snow pack, which has not been replenished in four winters. The coming El Niño weather system may or may not bring the snow our system requires. Paleoclimate research by Dr. Lynn Ingram at UC Berkeley suggests that we are entering a period of prolonged drought: the “unusual weather” was the weather of the last 100 years, not this new and much drier weather. Ever since the snowpack water has gone, farmers in the Central Valley have been drawing on groundwater, a very limited resource that is also going dry. Many people in the Valley no longer have running water at home. Some species, like the Coho salmon, are now nearing extinction. And it is fair to say that this summer the state is burning up. Right this moment, 21 huge fires are burning across the state, only a few contained by firefighters (meaning that firefighters have managed to keep them from spreading, but they are still burning.)

What are we to do?

At least twice every day from the end of Sukkot to Passover, an observant Jew prays the words, “Mashiv haruach umorid hagashem.” [who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.] It is a daily prayer for rain, composed originally in the Land of Israel, which has a climate much like ours in California. Rain falls mostly in the wintertime, and it is scarce enough to be a constant concern. So it became our practice to pray for rain in its season.

In the dry season, we pray for dew (“morid hatal”) which reminds us that the tiniest drop of moisture is precious. When we cannot expect rain, we must still pray for dew, so that life can continue. The very text of our prayer causes us to remain mindful of water, regardless of current circumstance.

According to the experts, a lack of mindfulness about water is a big part of our problem right now. We have consumed recklessly, assuming that the snow will come to the Sierras so that we can plant whatever and wherever we want. We can use water – a limited resource – in whatever way amuses us, and we act as if we can afford to waste it.

Some Jews also recite the verses from Deuteronomy that make up the “second paragraph” of the Shema in their daily prayers:

So if you listen carefully to my mitzvot which I am giving you today, to love the Eternal your God and serve him with all your heart and all your being; then I will give your land its rain at the right seasons, including the early fall rains and the late spring rains; so that you can gather in your wheat, new wine and olive oil; and I will give your fields grass for your livestock; with the result that you will eat and be satisfied.’  But be careful not to let yourselves be seduced, so that you turn aside, serving other gods and worshipping them. If you do, the anger of the Eternal will blaze up against you. He will shut up the sky, so that there will be no rain. The ground will not yield its produce, and you will quickly pass away from the good land the Eternal is giving you. Therefore, you are to store up these words of mine in your heart and in all your being; tie them on your hand as a sign; put them on your forehead; teach them carefully to your children, saying them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up; and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates — so that you and your children will live long on the land the Eternal swore to your ancestors that he would give them for as long as there is sky above the earth. – Deuteronomy 11:13-21

Some may scoff and say, “Oh, rabbi, do you really think that drought is a punishment from God?” I believe that it is, given my understanding of “God.” When we disregard the laws of nature, when we act as if  we can consume resources at will, without concern for anything or anyone else, when we worship the idols of the market and technology, we court disaster.

What can we do? Prayer and study are a beginning. Let us listen to the words of our prayers as we say them, and remember that we are merely stewards of creation, not the owners of it. While some make a pshat (surface) reading of Genesis 1 and say, “Ahh, we can do whatever we want!” the rabbis have long cautioned us that this is an improper reading. In Kohelet Rabbah 7:13, we learn that:

God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are — how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

The words of Torah in our prayers teach us  that we are the stewards of creation. We have more important things to do than merely to consume goods and services. We must care for creation, and for one another, whether we do that by fighting fires or by conserving limited resources. We can do it in our homes and in the voting booth. We can do it with our choices about consumption and tzedakah.

It is not too late to change our ways.

We’re About to Stop Praying for Rain

Food grows where water flows in the Central Valley of California.
The Central Valley of California:
food grows only where there is water.

This was going to be the Year of the Garden. When I moved into the new house, I had great plans for a garden of California native plants, plus vegetables and fruits and a few old favorites. So I paid some nice folks to dig everything up, enrich the tired soil with compost, and cover the lot with some wood chips that will gradually decompose into the earth.  By the time it was all done, it was clear that we are in the midst of a terrible drought in California, and it is simply not responsible for me to go planting a bunch of tender new stuff that needs gallons of water. 

So the California natives and the iris and the day lilies will have to wait for next year. I’m getting ready to plant a little vegetable garden in barrels (easier to protect from wildlife and small peeing dogs) and I’ve got my two new baby figs. They are leafing out nicely, the little leaves looking like tiny hands that uncurl and reach for the sun. I’m glad I ordered the fig trees before I knew about the drought. Soon I’ll have the cukes and ‘maters and okra going, too. I’ll water them by drip and they’ll feed me and my family and maybe a few others as well.

I feel embarrassed to whine much about my little garden, when so many California farmers are trying to figure out how to survive this terrible drought. Water is expensive for them even in good years, and this year it sounds like no amount of money will buy the water they need, because the Sierra has little snow. When I served a congregation in the Central Valley, some of my congregants were small orange farmers. Their families had grown citrus for generations, and it was a beautiful thing to see the labor of the farmers and the natural wisdom of the trees come together to make a harvest of glowing fruit. Now they and others like them in the Valley are having to do a dreadful calculus: how many trees can they afford to irrigate? How many trees will be lost?

Over the months ahead, food will be more expensive for everyone in America, because the farmers of the Central Valley don’t have water. One third of all the produce grown in the United States comes from the Valley, and this year is a drought year.  That means that more people in America will eat less, and that much of what they are able to eat will be lower in quality, because fresh fruits and vegetables and meat will see the worst price increases. Drought means that there will be less work in the Valley, where poverty already runs rampant among the farmworkers, the people we all depend upon for our food.

Living a Jewish life pushes me to pay attention to these connections. The movement of the sun across the sky determines times for prayer. The sun sets at a different time every day, but its setting marks the beginning of a new day. From Sukkot to Passover, we pray for rain three times a day; soon we’ll change that prayer to a prayer for dew, which is the most an Israeli or California farmer can hope for between Passover and the High Holy Days. We Jews are tied to the natural world by our prayer cycle and our calendar; no matter how urban our lives, the connection is inescapable.

And that is a good thing, because we  – not just Jews, all of us! – need to remember that our lives and well being are linked with the lives of others. When I say motzi before eating a meal, I remind myself that bread doesn’t grow in the grocery store, or in a bread machine. It comes from the earth, it comes from all the creatures that fertilize the plants that went into it, it comes from the people who harvested the plants, it comes from the people who transported it and who worked in the factories that processed and packaged it. It comes from the people who stock the shelves, it comes from the checker who rang it up, it comes from a million parts of creation. Every bite of bread is holy.

So folks, it’s time to pray for the Valley. Time to pray for the people who live there, the people who work there, the bees that pollinate plants, for the earth itself. It’s time to pray that the politicians can find a compromise (that is what they do, when they’re doing their jobs) that will make it possible for find water to route to the thirsty plants before all the fields fall idle. It’s time to pray not just with our mouths, but with our hearts and hands and email and telephones, to insist that ways be found for vulnerable farmers to survive a bad year. It’s time to give money, or volunteer at the Food Bank, because the 49 million Americans who were hungry last year are going to be hungrier this year, because food prices will go up and up and up.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously spoke of “praying with his feet” when he marched at Selma. We are the hands and the feet of God in the world. God is not sitting idle, waiting for the right words to be spoken that will cause magical rain to fall from the heavens. God waits dormant within us, waiting for us to get off our collective tuchus and act.

This is a season of drought. It’s time to take care of one another.

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Adam Reeder