Once a month I take part in an interfaith conversation with a group of Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. Over the time that our interfaith council has met, we have learned to trust each other and become friends. Our discussions are open-hearted. Despite the vast differences in faith and outlook, we are able to really hear each other and share.
Last Wednesday, we looked at each other through the eerie haze that blots out the blue sky and sun. I asked each of them how they interpret the meaning of this environmental catastrophe through the eyes of their faith.
It was remarkable to me to hear that all of them — Christians, Muslim, Hindus, and Jews — all see the smoke of the burning Canadian forests as a grim warning. Not a divine punishment, but a consequence of human activity-caused climate change that has raised temperatures and caused the ongoing drought in Canada that set the stage for the hundreds of wildfires. People on the West Coast have experienced this for years, a pastor said. They are far away — but now, what they experienced has come here.
One of the Hindu teachers spoke about the doctrine of Karma, where actions feed back to create consequences. If you take from the earth without caring for it, without giving something back, then destruction will result. Our Muslim member said that the founder of his faith, Mohammed, taught to use natural resources sparingly and gratefully.
I shared that the Torah teaches that HaShem placed Adam in the Garden l’avda u’l’shamra — to care for and to preserve the earth. Humanity’s role in the stewardship of the earth is a core Jewish value.
When we break bread, we say a blessing: hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz. We bless God who “takes the bread from the earth.” But baguettes or loaves of sourdough don’t sprout from the fields. Human labor, skill, and artistry are needed. In the same way, Judaism teaches that we all are God’s partners in caring for, preserving, and cultivating the world.
What came through in each faith leader’s teaching was the recognition that the Divine — by whatever name — worked through the human heart, human will, human recognition of each other’s humanity, and inner divinity to bring blessing. But if that human heart and will and recognition should close down and fail, then only smoke remains.
When we’d each had a chance to share, we stepped outside and saw the scary sight of the smoke billowing in from the north. We saw fear in each others’ eyes. Yes, we all knew that in a few days the winds would change, the smoke would recede, and blue skies, sunlight, stars, and fresh air would return. But would these days of hazard and danger help us realize the critical importance of awareness, advocacy, and action in environmental preservation, remediation and recovery, each of us in our own way?
In the plague of darkness, a “darkness that can be felt” descended on Egypt. The Egyptians literally were frozen in place for three days, paralyzed by their refusal to free the Israelites. Let us pray that this episode, this experience, can produce the opposite effect of paralysis: may this darkness be a darkness that moves us, all of us, to action.
Rabbi Moshe Rudin, the spiritual leader of Adath Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Parsippany, is a founding member of the Parsippany Interfaith Council and a member of the Morris County Human Relations Commission. Focusing on spiritual empowerment, he recently mentored the adult bat mitzvah journey of congregants at his synagogue and is creating a partnership program between his religious school and a middle school in Ofakim, Israel.