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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345

Yom Kippur 2020

Kadish for Extinct Species: Seems Whacky!

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It seems the Corona virus didn’t arrive by pure chance. Human activity is certainly a major causal component of the pandemic. Some suspect that people actually created the virus, perhaps in a Chinese biological warfare lab, and that then it either accidentally or purposefully was released by those in charge, and began to spread. Some think the virus may have developed as the result of people eating animals, apparently, specifically, an infected bat. Not kosher, and BTW — the meat industry we have created, and that we actively fund and maintain by continuing to purchase and consume meat, is a leading cause of pain and suffering to living things, and one of the main polluters of the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses.

So human behavior is implicated in the creation of the virus; now we can look at our part in its transmission to the level of pandemic. First, we have the over-population we have created, and our over-crowded cities: high population density increases contact and viral transmission. Then we have widespread air travel (another major polluter): infected individuals fly from one country to another, infect others on board, and bring the virus everywhere around the globe within 24 hours. (This gives a new meaning to “aircraft or airline carriers”.)

From a religious perspective, one might assume that Corona was punishing us for our sins, mainly for sins relating to preparation for war and economic competition, to sadistic behavior toward animals, and for excesses that pollute the environment, and destroy the balance of nature. Regarding air pollution, many noted how the air became so much cleaner during Corona lockdowns. So more than a few concluded that someone is sending us a message: If you want to live — stop what you are doing, and change.

Then, in case we weren’t paying attention, or the force of habit and yetzer hara were too strong, we got a second message with perfect timing, at least here in Israel. Just when we thought we had survived another long, dry summer, with some record-breaking scorching hot days, we were hit by the worst and longest heat wave in living memory. It so happens that this kind of unusually extreme weather is exactly what the vast majority of scientists predicted would become more and more common as global warming continues. It joins other catastrophic weather-related events, from the deadly fires of Australia and California (hell on earth) to the massive hurricanes of the southern USA. And our heat wave arrived just in time for Rosh Hashana preparations! This is precisely the time of year when we take stock of our individual and collective behavior and think about where we may have gone off track and need to do better. I think the lessons are fairly clear. And this year more than ever, the blasts of the Shofar accentuate the traditional call to WAKE UP!

The evidence continues to mount, the situation is ever more desperate. Scientists predicted that global warming would continue to melt the Ice Sheets and Glaciers of Greenland and the Poles, and this has happened and continues at an alarming rate. They predicted this would cause sea levels to rise, and they have. So far, places like Venice and huge low-lying coastal areas of the world (like the coast of Bangaladesh) have been inundated and are becoming unlivable. In addition to the extreme weather-related events above, scientists said that climate change would lead to increasing desertification, the decimation of numerous species, the waning of fish and all sea life. All of these predictions have already come true, even faster than feared. One may think of cataclysmic natural events of biblical proportion, such as Noah’s Flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah. One may also recall the warnings of our prophets when greed and unethical behavior become rampant in society. Shall we continue to turn a deaf ear to the warnings of our scientists today? Or will we have the foresight to wake up and change business as usual?

We actually will have little choice, in the end we will be forced to change. The question is only how much suffering our children and grandchildren will have to bear because we waited so long, how many thousands of species will be extinct and what unpredictable ramifications this will have on the entire earth-ecosystem and on human civilization as a whole.

This RH, I began devoting one mourner’s Kadish each service to the tragedy of species extinction. For at current rates, dozens of species of plant, animal and insect life are being extinguished forever every day. They lived over eons of time and they deserved to go on living.

One of the people I am closest to in life told me told me that when I repeated this on the second day of Rosh Hashana, it seemed kind of whacky. So I wanted to explain it a bit more. The unnecessary loss of a species of living things can be seen in different ways. To me, if we cause this loss by tampering with nature, it is fundamentally wrong. Most people can relate to the tragedy of the extinction of species of our fellow mammals, the big cats, elephants, gorillas, koalas. Bird-watchers may lament the disappearance forever of various species of birds. But the case can be made that there have always been extinctions in nature, and that life is so bountiful that this is to be expected, accepted, and life will go on. The problem, as I see it, is first — the order of magnitude of the extinctions, second 鈥 our part in them, and third — the ramifications. Scientists who specialize in this field tell us that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of hundreds of thousands of species of life. It is true that there have been mass extinctions before, like when most species were wiped out with the dinosaurs, and then life bounced back. It just takes millions of years to recover, and is changed forever. And our own species, Homo Sapiens, has no a priori guarantee that it will be one of the few to survive. Not to mention that we had no responsibility for the extinctions that occurred before we came upon the scene, and little control over huge meteorites crashing into Earth. But now we are the life-form in charge, we have control, we are apparently the ones causing the extinction and therefore we do indeed have responsibility.

The extinction of a species of life that took hundreds of millions of years to evolve only to be wiped off the face of existence forever by human activity seems to me a crime of the highest order, as a matter of principle. Take any animal you know, imagine the last remaining breeding pair, and then imagine a hunter shooting them for target practice, or to hang as trophies on the wall, or to eat them, or purposely to be the one who exterminated their species.

In terms of the ramifications, even from a purely selfish point of view, many of our medical advances stem from research and development of substances or genetic material from plants and animals. Every species we erase is one less potential source for a future miracle cure of disease or prevention of pandemic.

All life is interconnected, an ecosystem, a web. When I was a kid, there was a game called Avalanche, perhaps you’ve played it? You took turns putting marbles in holes at the top of the board, and the marbles lodged on the way down on plastic stoppers facing right or left. Eventually when the stoppers were filled in one direction, the next marble would turn them and a number of marbles would cascade down to the bottom. It’s something like that in life 鈥 everything is connected. We use a lot of pesticides in order to increase food yields. This is great for the companies that produce pesticides; their factories provide jobs and make money. It seems good for the farmer who makes more money. It seems good to the people who can buy more for lower prices. Politicians support it to be popular, the agro-conglomerates support it as they rake in profits, the government gets more taxes, countries like the USA and Russia can export their grain to poorer countries鈥 Everyone gains, it would seem. But our miracle pesticides also poison the bees that are critical for the pollination of most plant life, so we get more food in the short-run, but risk no less than starvation in the long term. I’m talking the extermination of thousands of plant species, of the animals that depend on them, and global hunger of unprecedented magnitude. The kind that can launch desperate countries into war over dwindling food resources, entire populations into refugee status as they move desperately in search of food. If 10,000 or 100,000 refugees cause such havoc in Europe today, what will happen when 100,000,000 or even a billion desperate refugees flood a continent with lower food reserves than ever before? And what pandemics may arise in the wake of all this?

We have developed systems of manufacturing and commerce, consumption, and transport that allow us to enjoy changing fashions in apparel and electronics, the girls can whirl, the boys have toys, multinational companies grow and lobby politicians to keep things rolling; and we do like to travel, even as things unravel. It’s been fun, at least in the developed world. But if we pollute the environment to obtain these candies, the next generations will pay the price for our excesses. We kill and maim ourselves by the hundreds on the roads for the luxury of moving around at high speeds. We die of cancer and heart-and-lung-related illness due to air pollution, so we can manufacture consumer products. We waste time and money and energy on superfluous and superficial decisions and activities (what to buy, where to buy it, comparing models and reviews and prices, going to buy it, learning to use it, trouble-shooting and fixing, etc.)

Waste is a huge problem in and of itself. Look at it from an individual perspective. Most of us in the “developed countries” suffer no lack of food. On the contrary, we throw away a good part of what we buy. Our problem is what to choose for each meal. Our fridge may be so full that we don’t see some of our food, till it goes bad. And we have too many choices. Not to mention the option of going out to eat, where to go, and then what to choose from the menu. Then we have the problem of over-eating, leading to over-weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and heart-related health problems. We waste so much time and energy on eating, and then add extra time in the bathroom (what goes in must come out) and at the doctors and dieticians and hospitals. We consume food and new gadgets like candies: we know that too much candy leads to damaged health, and time and suffering spent with physicians for diabetes, and dentists for damage to our teeth.

Here is a major lesson: The punishment is inherent in the crime. If we over-eat we get fat, look and feel worse, and suffer from health problems. If we over-consume? Some 20% of clothes purchased in “fast fashion” are never worn; all the effort and child labor and pollution created to manufacture and transport those clothes is wasted, and the garments themselves with their highly toxic dyes end up in our groundwater and oceans, and come back to us. Our landfills are filling up, we are overcrowded, our quality of life is suffering, and it will decline much further in the decades to come, unless we change direction.

Returning to species extinction: the web of life demonstrates how mutual interdependencies have formed over the ages. Every living species depends on other species for its survival. When one species disappears, all species that depended upon it are at risk. Whole branches of the tree of life may whither and die. If too many species die off, or if species that are critical to most of the tree (like the bees) go extinct, the whole tree is at risk.

I started this apologia with reference to the Corona virus. Well, guess what, and please let’s take this very personally: The only kind of thing that could have the kind of devastating effect that we are having on all life on earth is a VIRUS! My friends, to quote Walt Kelly from 50 years ago: We have met the enemy, and he is US!

We need to get active: we need to devote ourselves to Tikun Olam! We were told to tend God’s creation, the Garden of Eden. We have been neglectful. Ashamnu, bagadnu. We need to do Tshuva. I challenge us all to check on the net what we can do as individuals and as a community to help stem global warming and climate change. Shul go’ers, whether physical or by Zoom: Consider saying Kadish for the tragic loss and final extinction of a different species of life every day, and tell the people who ask you why you are doing so. It’s not whacky. What is whacky is that we are whacking living things that form the base, the foundation of the pyramid of life that we sit upon. We are so proud of being at the very top. We forget that the higher up you are, the more you depend on everything below, and the farther you have to fall.

BTW, to the decreasing number of people who are not convinced that global warming is a reality and that it is caused by human activity, allow me to say this: Let us say that you are correct. If we go green anyway, the price to be paid will be a shift from petro-chemical to green energy and smarter use of resources, with the up-side of cleaner air and water, and survival of more species currently at risk of extinction. But if the green folks are correct and we don’t go green, the price to be paid is horrendous: increasing temperatures, catastrophic climate change, desertification, hunger, mass migrations and wars over fundamental resources, in short鈥攃atastrophe, potentially collapse of the social order and the end of life as we know it. It’s simply far, far safer to err on the side of caution. The stakes are just too high.

So let us raise awareness, join the Green Movement on the net, on the streets and in the polls. The time for action is now! It’s not too late, we can still inscribe our kids and grandkids in the Book of a reasonable Life, and not an impoverished, hellish existence fighting for survival, because of our greed and apathy. We can do it, and we must do it; we owe it to them and to ourselves. L’Shana Tova v’Yeruka! To a good, green and healthy year!


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