December 22, 2014 · 30 Kislev

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Sermon for Shabbat Pinchas: A Present Tragedy
This sermon was originally delivered in July, 2010 by Rabbi Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Synagogue in London, England. All personal references to congregants of the Liberal Synagogue have been removed.

This sermon was originally delivered in July, 2010 by Rabbi Alexandra Wright, Senior Rabbi at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John's Wood, London, England. All personal references to congregants of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue have been removed.

One of the peculiarities of being Jewish is that we live across two time zones.  We live in the world of the secular calendar from January to December in the year 2010, but we also live within the Jewish calendar in the year 5770 and currently in the month of Tammuz.  The calendar determines liturgical readings, our celebrations and commemorations, our moods and observance.   So while the British world bakes under hot July skies, enjoys Wimbledon and looks forward to the freedom of the summer holidays, we Jews occupy a rather different time frame.  It is still a little way off to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the season of repentance, but the current Hebrew months of Tammuz and Av are both marked by solemn days of mourning.  Last Tuesday was the Fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, a day to which Jewish tradition ascribes a number of catastrophes, most notably the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE.  The day inaugurates a three week period of mourning known simply as the Three Weeks, culminating in the major fast of the 9th Av which commemorates the destruction of both Temples and more recent tragedies in Jewish history, including the Holocaust.

While there are those who question the observance of these two fasts, particularly after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Liberal Jews acknowledge, in the words of the biblical author of Ecclesiastes: et livkot v’et lis’chok -  ‘that there is a time to weep and a time to laugh.’  In other words, as Jews we have our simchas – our times of rejoicing, but we also have collective times of sorrow when we associate ourselves with the suffering of those who lived through the destruction of the Temples, through the Crusades and Spanish Inquisition, which affected Jews catastrophically, and particularly with those who lost everything they had including their own lives during the Holocaust.

Now, you might ask why I draw attention to this season of sadness in the Jewish calendar on a day when we are celebrating [a] Bar Mitzvah and [a] Naming and Blessing.  For these are joyous days, celebrating your entry into adolescence and Jasper’s welcome into the community of the LJS.   But even as we rejoice…it might be appropriate during these Three Weeks of solemn commemoration, to draw our attention to one of the greatest tragedies that is unfolding before our very eyes even as we speak.

I am referring to one of the worst environmental catastrophes in history: the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig on the night of April 20th and the spillage of thousands of tons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico that remains unstoppable even until today.  One hundred and twenty-six men were originally working on the platform.  Eleven of those men lost their lives as the platform collapsed into the sea.    Experts estimate that nearly seventy-thousand barrels of crude oil gushed into the sea per day in the weeks following the disaster.  The volume of oil in the sea makes the Deepwater Horizon tragedy one of the worst in history: worse even than the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.  One statistic claims that the volume of oil spilled, if collected into milk jugs and lined up one next to the other, would span 11,300 miles, from New York to Buenos Aires and back again.

Four hundred species of wildlife are threatened by the oil spill: whales, tuna, hundreds of species of birds, turtles, alligators, and land mammals such as the grey fox and white-tailed deer.  The explosion took place at the beginning of the breeding season for birds and many endangered species including the state bird of Louisiana, the pelican; while migratory song birds, marsh and ocean-dwelling birds have all been threatened by the pollution.  Twenty-five million birds each day during springtime, use the coastal region of Louisiana as a stopping point on their migration from the south to the northern hemisphere.  All of them are vulnerable and many of us have been moved by the pictures of sea birds coated from head to claw with layers of thick, syrup-like, toxic oil and horrified by satellite photographs of the oil slick as it spreads both beneath and on the surface of the waters.

The efforts to plug the leak may have seemed to be like the proverbial ‘finger in the dyke’ – so ineffectual have they remained.  One attempt to pump vast quantities of mud into what is called Deepwater’s ‘blow-out preventer’ sitting on the sea-bed, quite literally backfired when the pressure of the oil upwards was greater in force than the mud being pushed downwards.

Now BP is injecting concrete deep into the sea-bed in the hope that this will stop the leak permanently.  The process, though, will take many more weeks as BP drills deep down, and as the hurricane season gets underway, it may take even longer.  But even if this works, the environmental cost remains massive.  In the weeks following the spillage, BP began to use two different types of spray to disperse the oil on the surface of the water, now banned by the Environmental Protection Agency, because of their toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.  Fishermen have lost their livelihoods and the risk to health from the food chain grows every day.  This is aside from the financial cost to BP.

These are the facts of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy that may not affect us directly, although in the last forty years, since the dawn of the super-tanker, millions of tonnes of crude oil have spilt into the oceans, affecting coastlines.  Some of them have been closer to home than others.  In 1967, a tanker ran aground off the coast of Cornwall spilling 80,000 tonnes of crude oil into the sea.  In 1993, 85,000 tonnes spilt after a tanker hit rocks off the Shetland Islands, and in 1996, the Sea Empress spewed 40,000 tonnes of oil into the sea around Milford Haven – and these are only those disasters that affected the UK.

I wonder whether it is time to ask ourselves some other questions that go beyond the facts of these disasters?  How dependent is our world on oil as a single source of energy?  What lengths, as human beings, are we prepared to go to drill even more deeply and more extensively into the earth to rob its resources for our own ends?   Are we prepared to put men’s lives on the line to satisfy our craving for this source of energy?  Why do we seem to be unable to learn any lessons from previous disasters?  How is it possible for us as sentient, intelligent human beings to ignore the toxic waste of drilling for oil and these massive environmental disasters at the cost of the needs of the environment, the fragile habitat of some of the earth’s most endangered species, most fabulous birds and extraordinary amphibians?

I wish I could understand the drive that prevents us from pulling back from this headlong, greedy thrust for yet more wealth and the plundering of yet more of the earth’s resources.  Who are the people who decide to corral hundreds of sea-turtles and other marine life of this region into 500 mile ‘burn-fields’ so that they are burnt alive in operations that are intended to contain the oil?

The destruction of the First and Second Temples which we commemorate on the 9th Av in just a couple of weeks may seem distant in memory and remote in understanding for the Jew in 2010.  But the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon explosion is immediate and it is appropriate and timely that these commemorative fasts also force us to reflect, not only on historic disasters, but on current tragedies.   The Haftarah reading which is associated with this Shabbat reminds us keenly of humanity’s capacity both to create and to destroy: ‘See, I appoint you this day over nations and kingdoms: to uproot and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’   But, the prophet continues, it is only under the watchful eye of God, whose words Jeremiah discerns through the symbol of an almond tree, that we can be watchful about our own behaviour, our natural greed, our propensity to destroy, fight and overthrow.  How appropriate that God appears to Jeremiah in this form – as a tree with everything that it symbolises: growth, new life, energy and the capacity to renew creation when we put back into the earth what we have plundered.

…[Young people] represent our future here in the community of the LJS, but also out there in the world, where the voracity of the current generation must be replaced by a new set of temperate and restrained values which encourage us to build and plant for the future.

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