111°F:  Steward of the Earth

Image: In normally cool and foggy San Francisco, temperatures reached 106 degrees Friday afternoon, smashing records all the way back to 1874 when they began keeping records. In this photo of a bicyclist near Sausalito, the San Francisco skyline, normally visible, is obscured by smog from the fires burning in Northern California and the Sierras. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

“Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted?” (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. – Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 7:13

I live in a neighborhood above the San Francisco Bay that is known for its mild weather.  In a bitter winter, we might see freezing temperatures once or twice. In the warm months, we all begin to whine if the temperature exceeds 80°F (26.6C.)

This summer has been different. A stretch of days around 100°F killed several California native plants in my garden. Yesterday and today we had the sort of heat I associate with Death Valley. The high today was 111°F, or 43.8°C. 

The dogs and I decamped at 105° and went to stay with a friend who has air conditioning. I have been monitoring the temp at home remotely with horror. My garden is the least of it; this sort of heat can be lethal for people and animals and most people in this area lack A/C.

Meanwhile I’ve kept track of the slow unfolding of stories from Hurricane Harvey and the flooding in South Asia. A tropical storm is battering Baja California, and more hurricanes are forming in the Atlantic. 

Also in the news and on the air: firefighters are battling dozens of fires in Northern California and some people in Southern California are packing to evacuate as fires threaten the suburbs north of L.A. The same east wind bringing burning winds to my neighborhood carries with it the smoke from fires in the Sierra. Usually I can see San Francisco from my patio; today I can’t see San Leandro High, less than a mile away. Our air is gritty, nasty, and dangerous to asthmatics. 

I might be forgiven, then, for a somewhat apocalyptic mood as this past Shabbat drew to a close. I know there is controversy about how much of the storms and heat can be traced to climate change. But I also know that some climate scientists warn us that these storms may be a new normal

I refuse to accept that the damage is done, or that any connection to human activity is just politics. The Torah teaches that individually and communally, human beings are responsible for the preservation of the earth.

What can we do? This season of Elul, let us each look around our own lives for ways to be good stewards of the earth. Some possible questions:

  • What can I do personally to preserve the quality of air and water where I live?
  • Do I waste resources? What can I do to waste less?
  • Is there a way I can reuse or recycle things I have been putting in the garbage?
  • Are there ways I can partner with others to be a better steward of the earth? 
  • Are there organizations that will provide me opportunities for action in the right direction?
  • Do I encourage local elected officials in their good programs, and let them know when I disapprove?

And finally:

★ Can I identify one single, specific change in behavior I am willing to commit to for the year 5778?