Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Book of Life, Sarah and the Fairy Godmother: Stories and Prayers for the End of Industrial Society

I attended last year's Community Solutions Conference with some reluctance, because it was scheduled for Rosh Hashanah, and I didn't much enjoy being away from my family over the high holidays. But I went, and I had a wonderful time, and I was selfish enough to end my talk with some meditations on the connection between my faith and peak oil. I honestly don't remember what I said - I was making it up as I went along. But some bits and pieces remain, and I thought, in honor of the new year that begins tomorrow, I would meditate a bit on the same subjects here. This is not the speech I gave, but a variant on similar themes, brought about by the forthcoming holiday.

In Judaism, we tell the story that at the beginning of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), G-d decides the fate of all human beings in the next year. They are, metaphorically speaking, "inscribed" into the book of life or death. Now there are several variants of this story. In some, those who do not fall in the category of obviously wicked or obviously good (that is, most of us) are not inscribed at all until Yom Kippur, ten days after. That is, there are ten days left for us to prove our worth, and to repent for our sins. Other versions suggest that G-d makes a provisional decision, but may change her mind in the interim, if we truly alter our ways during the ten days of repentence. In either case, as the story goes, our future hangs by a thread, by the things we do now to make ourselves worthy to be inscribed in the Book of Life.

I know that the New Year is coming, but somehow, it always sneaks up on me. First it is summer and there's all the time in the world, and then, in a blink, the high holidays are upon us, and I am unready to face my future. I have not prayed or prepared or thought as far as I ought to - even though I knew it was coming. I have not been the person I ought to - I have left things undone and done things I shouldn't have, and failed to make amends. And thus, I am grateful that G-d understands us so well, that grace is offered for those, like me, who miss the obvious, who somehow convince ourselves that there is always more time, even when there isn't.

I would suggest that this is in many ways, an apt metaphor for the place we find ourselves in right now, facing peak oil and climate change. The world is becoming something very different, something that we have made it and yet, that we are almost wholly unprepared for. We are entering an era in which the cheap energy we've relied upon for our wealth and comfort is moving out of our reach. We are in danger of transforming our planet in such a way that billions of us may die. The New Year, the new era, is upon us. And we are not ready. We are desperately pleading for more time, an easier transition - and the inexorable reality, which does not negotiate, confronts us. But perhaps, just perhaps, there's a little grace left for us. We can at least hope that we still have time to repent, make good, repair.

In some senses, our fate is sealed and scheduled. We do not have the range of choices any of us would like. All of us would like to make gradual cutbacks and a smooth adjustment to the coming hard times. But that's not an option any more. The new data about ice loss in the arctic suggests we are hitting one of the major tipping points in climate change *NOW.* Data coming in on world food supplies suggests that the confrontation between population and resources is coming very soon. We are probably already past our oil peak, and all sources of reliable energy may well peak within two decades. Our choices are few and hard, and those who will pay most and longest are those who had the least to do with causing the problems. If we are to fix things, it will involve a great deal of self-sacrifice and difficulty.

And the environment may not give grace periods. If we were to make draconian energy cuts, along the lines of the ones that the Riot for Austerity advocates across the board, we'd still have no better than a 2 in 3 shot of avoiding a tipping point - and the odds are probably worse now than when they were calculated almost two years ago. James Hansen has said that any solution that doesn't include the extraction of carbon from the atmosphere will probably fail.

It might be helpful to imagine ourselves in another story - Sleeping Beauty. The child is blessed by each of her fairy godmothers, until the one who was forgotten, the embodiment of the things we have left undone, returns and curses the innocent child to pay the price for the adults' neglect. There remains only the last fairy godmother, who cannot undo the curse - she can only soften it a little. We too are the last and weakest of the fairy godmothers, unable to undo all that we and those before us have undone. But that does not mean that we cannot soften the curse a little. We, like the fairy godmother, can make a small recompense for what we failed to do before.

We cannot undo everything. We cannot go back 30 years and make better choices. We can, at best, only soften the blow a little, take the burden that will fall upon our children and grandchildren, and carry a little of it ourselves. We will give them a warmer world, fewer resources, fewer choices. But perhaps it need not be a disaster. We can recognize the harm we've caused, and resolve to shoulder as much of that burden as each of us can possibly bear, but we cannot make it go completely away.

We could weep for that. We could and rightly do mourn the possibilities we no longer have. We could, even knowing that it is just, weep for what we have, mostly unknowing, inflicted upon ourselves and our children.

Or (or perhaps "And"), we can stop weeping, and shoulder our burdens, and face the truth and find satisfaction in honor and courage. What if the stories were real, and one's fate could be known? What should we do, if we knew that this year, this month, were our very last, that we had been inscribed for death in the coming year? Would it still be worth repenting? The parents of Sleeping Beauty know that no matter how long it is delayed, someday, death will come for their daugter - perhaps the day after she awakens from her hundred year sleep. Is it still worth softening the curse? Would any parent ever answer "no?"

It would still be worth repairing the evil one had done, even if one was to die, because in doing so, you transform both the history of your life and the nature of your death. It would still, to the parents of the sleeping child, be worth it to give her one more day, for them all to have one more day. And it will still be worth it to us to make the tremendous sacrifices necessary even if we cannot fix everything - because we will have done what we could, what we should. Even if we cannot perfectly mend the future for our own children, we will have done what we can for someone else's, and given one less grief to the world.

It isn't that there isn't every reason to weep, but there are greater reasons to get to work, to face the future square on, and with all the courage we can muster. Because even if our magic is weak, and our future foreordained, we can still change the way that future falls upon us. We can face it with honor or dishonor, courage or moral cowardice, concern for the future, or eyes looking only back to what we've lost. The facts may not change, but the stories we tell about them, the way we understand them, the way we understand ourselves, that we have power over. And we may still be able to change the facts as well. If we are willing, if we have courage, we might still make a fairly graceful descent. If we are willing, if we have courage, we might still preserve what is most needed for the future. If we were willing to give up enough, to act, as David Orr has put it, as though we truly love our children.

At Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of the binding of Isaac, the Akeda, the classic story of faith. I admit it is a tale that fills me with great ambivalence, because I certainly have no such faith, and I'm not sure I can admire Abraham for having it. Abraham, who argues with G-d in other contexts, takes up the knife here. I've never fully been able to come to terms with Abraham, even through the lens of Kierkegaard's Panegyric. Nor, as is often the case, I think in religious life, am I all that happy with G-d.

I have often wondered what the story would look like if Sarah, rather than Abraham, had been asked by G-d to sacrifice her only son. I enjoy constructing Biblical sounding variants of "Are you out of your freakin' omnipotent mind?!?!?" I cannot imagine a scenario in which Sarah and her son would walk willingly together to the mountain. That is, of course, perhaps why Abraham has the job, but I have often wondered whether it would truly be a poorer Judaism if a different sacrifice were as hallowed. Perhaps this illuminates some essential limitation in me, or perhaps in Jewish mothers.

We learn from the commentaries that Sarah dies from this event - and at least one of the tales that is told of her death is that she dies at the moment that Abraham raises the knife, whether from fear or knowledge, or perhaps, as seems appropriate, because she, at a distance, inserts her own life in front of the blade that is set to take Isaac. It is never described as such, but whether or not her sacrifice was required, in some sense, Sarah does what many parents would literally choose - to lay their bodies in the place of the children they are asked to sacrifice. I cannot imagine any conversation between the woman who had the courage to laugh at G-d, and G-d that does not include the request that the sacrifice G-d asks be made of her, not her child. Because, to the extent that we parents have the courage, that is the way of things. It is our job to value our own lives less than the lives of our children.

It is our job to find a way to return to living our lives, as David Orr says, as though we truly love our children. It is our job to find the way that Sarah found. We are not told why she died at that moment. There is no indication that her sacrifice made any difference in the outcome. Perhaps she thought it might. Perhaps she did not expect to die, merely wished for it. Perhaps she knew it would not matter, that G-d would not alter the outcome.

When Sarah was barren, she sent her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham. G-d had told Abraham his descents would be as many as the stars above, but Sarah was old and the ways of women had ceased for her. So she tried to formulate a response to bring about the future that her husband and G-d seemed to want. It is not hard to believe that Sarah, who laughed when G-d told her he could make her pregnant, believes, because she has done it (with admittedly mixed results) that she is powerful enough to transform the future, to insert herself into what is foreordained. It is not impossible to imagine that Sarah died at the moment Abraham raised the knife because she hoped, she tried to replace his sacrifice with hers. Perhaps it didn't matter whether she believed she could alter what was ordained by G-d. It mattered that she knew that she had no choice but to try and alter it.

We are not asked anything so great. For us, the requirements are fairly simple. That we recognize that other lives are at stake, in danger of sacrifice. That we do what is necessary to preserve them. That we make radical and difficult changes very rapidly, so that others may live. That we live our lives as though we love others, and value their lives more than our own comfort. That we, like Sarah, believe that we are powerful, and that our actions can alter what seems to be ordained, at that we live our lives as though our actions matter - even if sometimes it seems they don't, that they aren't enough, or that the future is not in our hands.

And doing so, we can hope for something better. That we, all of us, regardless of faith or origin, will be inscribed in the Book of Life. Not merely for this year, or the next or the one after, but for 100 years, and 1000, and 10,000 years. That we might be better, in the next year, that we might overcome some of our selfishness, that we might remember to do what we must do, and to preserve what we must preserve. That we might do well, and honorably, and deserve to honored by future generations.

May you all be inscribed in the Book of Life, and may you do and be well in the coming year.
L'shana Tovah Tikatevu.



ByTheBay said...

L'shanah tovah to you!

Rosa said...

Thank you, for the post and the good wishes.

Canadian said...

If any of your readers are interested in Christianity and peak oil, I recommend the blog God in a Shrinking Universe for his "theology of decline". Nothing New under the Sun also posts about peak oil as does Rev Sam at Elizaphanian -- scroll down look at the headings on the right hand side under "Peak Oil Related".

CLM said...

Thank you for your touching and inspirational post. I will give much thought to how "my book" will be inscribed.

BoysMom said...

On the subject of Artic Ice loss, my dad, a paleontologist, and I were talking about that. He mentioned that he has seen some good evidence that the Artic ocean was open during the last North American glaciation.
In his opinion, we could possibly see glaciation here again, just as Europe may thanks to the Greenland melting, except in our case it would be due to increased humidity of artic air combined with warmer temperatures leading to increased snowfall. As all us northerners know, we'll get much more snow at 30 than -30.

Leila said...

Happy New Year, Sharon and family. (from Bedouina, real name Leila)

Sacheen said...

Happy New Year and thank you for the reflective post.

Cindy said...

Thank you for this post and your blog. Your views are amazing, interesting, thought provoking, and refreshing. You show so much courage in your expressions. I imagine you get a lot of people searching to poke holes rather than for a common ground but I really appreciate your thoughts. Thank you again.

Robyn M. said...

Thank you for this post.

Nikol said...

That's all fine. What, however, do you think about Obadiah Shoher's criticism pf Rosh Hashanah as aholiday that has nothing to do with New Year? Here, for example http://samsonblinded.org/blog/petty-paganism.htm

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