Even though the media seems to be giving the issue relatively short shrift – at least compared to more pressing topics, such as what the President-Elect and Mitt Romney had for dinner during their latest meeting (frogs’ legs) -- I have been thinking lately about the North Dakota oil pipeline dispute. The reports that have emerged are very disturbing. Allegedly, the members of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are being told in essence to trust the powers-that-be that their native lands will be fully secure even though a burst in the oil pipeline could have catastrophic consequences to that land. At the same time, we all are being told that the new Administration intends to make major rollbacks on regulations, including environmental regulations.
What then should be the basis for the Standing Rock Sioux’s confidence that their sacred lands will be protected? Am I missing something?
If we pay close attention to the needs of our planet, the Standing Rock Sioux dispute is but one of many environmental controversies that we can expect to hear about in the upcoming months. Personally, I am very fearful about how the environment will fare in the next few years – and believe me, it’s not exactly like our nation’s record over the past several years has been stellar, but I’m preparing for matters to get far worse at a time when we can least afford it.
Given that we are precisely one week away from the Washington, D.C. Imam-Rabbi Summit, I am reminded of a passage from one of my novels when a character discusses the importance of environmental protection in the context of a Scriptural story that is sacred to Jews and Muslims alike. The book is Moses the Heretic (published by Aegis Press), and the passage I have in mind begins at page 93. It is told from the perspective of the book’s title character, a contemporary rabbi named Moses Levine. I will end this blogpost by quoting the passage in its entirety. May it remind you of the duties that we all as individuals have to our planet and the fact that these duties arise not only out of secular principles, but religious ones as well. Here are the words of Moses Levine, talking about one of his sermons:
I told my congregation that it always bothered me to hear people interpret the Akedah as pointing out the importance of obeying God. “Because of this story,” I told my congregation, “Abraham has gone down in history as the quintessential servant. His master says 'Kill your son.' And Abraham doesn't need to know why. He heard the command, and that's all he had to hear.”
“Frankly,” I continued, “that Abraham sounds more like a Nazi executioner than a Jew. My Abraham is a little different. He isn't just any Jew, nor is he just any Patriarch. He is the very first Jew, a true pioneer. He is the one who saw for himself that only the one eternal, limitless source of all beings, living and dead, is worthy of the term 'God.' And Abraham had the will to commit himself to this philosophy when all around him worshiped idols.
“Does that man sound like someone who doesn't question, but just follows orders?
“If you want the Akedah to symbolize something meaningful, you don't have to rip apart your image of a great Patriarch. You only have to consider what finally happened, and why. At the end of the day, Abraham didn't kill his son. We learn, in fact, that such sacrifices are contrary to Judaism. The Akedah demonstrates in the most graphic way possible that some conduct is simply unacceptable no matter what the circumstances.
“A great story like the Akedah has many lessons. Perhaps the most powerful is that one generation has no right to sacrifice the next. Most people understand that we’re not meant to be our children’s executioners, but few appreciate their proper role as trustees. Think of the Akedah when businesses spoil the environment. Think of the Akedah when politicians run up the national debt. Think, too, of the Akedah when you contemplate a really good grade-school teacher you once had. That teacher could surely have made so much more money in another occupation, yet for some reason she chose instead to educate a future generation. She decided to enrich and nurture those who will follow her as adults. So did Abraham.”
“Thomas Jefferson wasn't a Jew, but he often wrote like one. In a letter to Madison, he wrote that 'The earth belongs in usufruct to the living.' I'd never heard the term 'usufruct' before I read that letter, but it was the perfect choice. To possess property in usufruct means to have both the right to enjoy it for the present and the obligation to preserve it intact for the future.
'Usufruct' is a difficult word; it almost makes you grind your teeth to say it. But that's fitting, because holding the earth in usufruct isn't an easy thing to do. Consuming is fun, and serving as a steward can be frustrating. But Jews have no choice. We adults owe it to our descendants to let them inherit all the beauty we were given – every species of animal we can befriend, every rose we can smell. This earth, God’s earth, belongs as much to our children as it does to us, just as Jewish traditions belong as much to us as to those who stood at Sinai with Moses.
“That, my friends, is what the Akedah means to me.”