A specialday to celebrate the Earth sounds suspiciously pagan, bringing to mindimages of Druids conducting fertility rites at Stonehenge or modern witchesdancing to invoke nymphs in a misty forest glade. Perhaps what makes us sowary of this modern festival, first celebrated in 1970, is the idea ofintroducing the Earth as a "being" or moral agent with its own needs andmystical powers.
And yet, ironically, the Bible is full of references to the way in which theEarth responds to the behavior of the people who live on it. The book ofLeviticus, for example, warns the Children of Israel that immorality willcause the Land of Israel to "vomit" them out (Lev. 18:24-28, 20:22).
In theshema prayer, it describes both the earthly benefits - rain, fertility andabundance - for listening to the commandments and loving God, and the costs- drought and famine - for ignoring God's word (Deut. 11: 13-21). Onecompelling way to read this text is to think of it as suggesting that amajor way for us, as individuals and as a society, to judge our actions andpolicies is by their environmental consequences.
The shema warns: "Beware that your heart be deceived and you turn and serveother Gods and worship them" (Deut. 11:16). The "other Gods" need not beidols, but could just as well be the idolizing of wealth and power thatoften has profound negative environmental consequences. As we know,corruption and oppression frequently lead to poverty and hunger. Thepoorest people often pay the price of pollution, drought and deforestation.
For example, Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen demonstratedin his book "Poverty and Famines" that many of the major famines of thetwentieth century were not caused by a lack of food, but were due topolitical and economic inequalities that prevented poor people fromobtaining it.
Likewise, much of the deforestation of tropical rainforests is driven by acombination of political and economic insecurities, leading powerful peopleto liquidate invaluable natural resources, and put their personal interestsabove the basic interests of their people and the long-term interests oftheir countries. And the extreme poverty of landless peasants explains whythey cut down the very forest that is the only enduring basis for theirfuture material well being.
In fact, almost every environmental challengewe face has its roots in pervasive social imbalances, from pollution andwater shortages to falling bio-diversity and global warming. In a way, ournatural environment is acting as a barometer of the spiritual and ethicalhealth of our societies.
As Americans, it is our own increasingdemand for material goods and for better returns on our investments that islargely driving the global economic and political system. Our own politicaland financial decisions have a profound impact on the Earth and the morevulnerable people who live on it.
Earth Day, then, is a time to appreciate the many gifts we receive from theEarth, from clean air and water to the many plants, animals and otherorganisms that fill our world. To celebrate it, take some time to considerthe wondrous abundance of the good Earth that we have been given. Buy anature book, watch a wildlife documentary with your children, or best ofall, spend some time in the outdoors.
But Earth Day is also a time to mark our personal connections to the world'smany environmental challenges. So, this Earth Day, make a commitment to acton that connection -- at least for one year. A good place to start is tocommit to buying specific products with sound environmental and socialrecords, such as organic food or clothing.
A bigger challenge is to committo supporting a project working to improve life in a place suffering frompoverty and environmental degradation. If you have kids, involve them inyour research. Alternatively, take a quick inventory of your investments,and retirement and savings plans. Consider socially responsible investingand ask about the environmental records of the companies in which you havestock.
Whatever you do, challenge yourself to take responsibility for the realconnections that you already have to the world's poorest people and mostdamaged environments. If Earth Day has a message beyond the celebration ofnature, it is that we all need to be more attuned to what our damagednatural environment is telling us about our world's spiritual and ethicalhealth and to commit ourselves to becoming part of the cure.
It's not onlypart of the Jewish tradition; it's a global human imperative.