here a text version of yesterday’s Shabbat sermon (11/8/14)
Interstellar is the name of a new big budget science fiction movie that opens this weekend starring Matthew M. The premise of the story is that humankind has used up virtually all of earth’s natural resources. Climate change has wrought destruction across the globe. Unpredictable storms rage, famine is out of control, and humankind, in a short period of time, is looking at the literal end of the world. A crack team of astronauts is recruited and sent into deep space with the hope that they can find new worlds that will either be habitable for humans or give humans the resources they ned to survive. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t tell you what happens exactly, but the early reviews have been very positive.
But as well made as the movie may be, Interstellar is hardly original. Over the years Hollywood has produced dozens of post apocalyptic movies that deal with various end of the world scenarios, from the Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 to Planet of the Apes in the late 60s, and The Road just a few years ago and World War Z just last year. And the truth is human interest in the end of the world – what it would look like, how it would happen, who would survive – is at least as old as the Bible, and probably quite a bit older than that. If you think of our Torah readings from the last few weeks we have not one, but two end of the world scenarios that play central roles in the biblical narrative. What are they?
Just a few weeks ago we read about the flood that God brings to destroy the earth, and in this morning’s Torah portion we have the description of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is true that with the flood it is the entire world that is destroyed, and with Sodom and Gomorrah just a single city, but biblical commentators have long noticed the parallels between the two stories – 1. destruction by natural elements, in one case water in the other fire. 2. in each story a population is destroyed, while one family is saved – with the flood Noah’s family, with Sodom and Gomorrah Lot’s. 3. Also at the conclusion of both stories the male survivor becomes drunk, and in his drunkenness commits a sexually immoral act. 4. And finally both stories understand that the reason the destruction comes about – whether by flood or by fire – is because of human action. In the flood story we read “God said to Noah ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with lawlessness מפניהם because of them.’” And in this morning’s portion, when describing the situation in Sodom and Gomorrah, that same sentiment is expressed by God – “the outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” In both stories destruction may come at the ‘hands’ of God, but it is brought about by the actions of human beings.
We may read these stories today and struggle to make sense of them, because we don’t have a reward and punishment theology, we don’t believe that God will judge humankind and finding us wanting bring about mass destruction – and that is the core narrative of both stories. But what I would like to do for a moment with you this morning is to take God out of the stories – I know that may seem like a strange thing for a rabbi to do – but just for a moment think about the stories without God. In both cases the narrative would be something like this: human kind becomes destructive, lawless, dangerous, out of control, unaware of the consequences of its actions, and then something happens – a flood, a fire storm – that brings about terrible destruction. And that actually is exactly the narrative of Hollywood’s end of the world movies. Humankind has lost its way – its moral purpose, its ethical compass – and commonly we introduce an agent ourselves that threatens our existence. A micro-organism that turns people into zombies, a nuclear weapon that wipes out a city, a deadly plague for which there is no cure – or, in the case of Interstellar, climate change, which in the movie has destroyed the environment to the point where it cannot be repaired. Crops cannot grow. There are fewer and fewer hospitable places for people to live. There are terrible storms, unending droughts, tidal waves. It is a picture of a world gone haywire, and on the edge of being swept away.
Fifteen or twenty years ago that picture of the world on the verge of destruction because of climate change would have seemed just as fantastic and impossible as a world where people turned into zombies. But today we understand that climate change is not only real, it is serious and growing more and more dangerous by the year. This week the United Nations released a fifth and final report by its specially appointed panel charged with scientifically investigating the causes of climate change and its potential long term effects. The report did not paint a pretty picture, and perhaps most alarming of all of its findings is that the window of time in which we can begin to limit the warming of our planet is shrinking rapidly. According to the report emissions of greenhouse gases caused by humans have to be brought under control within 30 years in order to ward off effects that could be devastating across the globe. I don’t need to tell you that 30 years is not the distant future. As Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sang ‘the future is here, we are it, and we are on our own.”
The challenges are daunting. A solution to this problem will require global cooperation. Essentially every major nation in the world will have to work together, create standards together, and agree to abide by those standards as quickly as possible. Resources – from food to financial – may need to be allocated on a global scale. On the surface it sounds impossible, too big to even get our heads around, let alone to begin to work these issues out and make progress. But it has to be done, and it has to be done now. As it says in the Mishnah, אם אין אכשיו אימתי – if not now, when? One thing I know for sure is this – if we don’t start, we’ll never finish.
What can be done? First, we must be aware, knowledgable, and engaged. We should let our elected officials know that this is an issue we care deeply about. Political leaders are much more likely to get things done when the think their constituents truly care. Next week international delegates from around the globe will convene in Lima Peru in the hopes of creating a global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions. If they can successfully complete their work that will be a first step on a long road, but it will at least be a step in the right direction.
And America has to lead the world in this process, through words and through actions. The President has been meeting with Republican leaders all week after Tuesday’s elections, and both sides are saying that they want to find common ground to get something done for the American people and to move the country in the right direction. I hope the issue of climate change will find a way into their discussions. If it does and they are able to make real progress on arguably the most important issue in the world today, it won’t only be good for America and Americans – it will be a blessing for all people, in all places. –