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Reflections on Climate Change, Hate Crimes and my Bar Mitzvah, 40 Years Later

Maybe, it takes awhile to become a Jewish man

As California reels from the most destructive and deadly fires in its history, I, a resident of the Golden State for 24 years, have been thinking about the convergence of natural disasters, climate change, hate crimes and hate speech.

Experts believe that there is a connection between global warming and an increase in violence in the world. 

For all the stories about communities coming together in the face of an inferno or a flood, I am not the only one who can foresee other stories with a darker tinge.  It does not stretch the imagination to anticipate the scapegoating of one group of people, the turning of neighbor against neighbor.

We have seen this before over the centuries, through the ages. 

As a Jewish-American, I may feel it in my bones more than most people do.

But that does not make the prospect of such violence any less likely.

Climate-propelled scapegoating is coming, and, with it, crime as old as the murder of Abel.

In some parts of the world, it has already arrived, in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, low-lying regions, particularly vulnerable to global warming, rising seas, and, perhaps, racial, ethnic and religious animus.

We have always had people with grievance issues on this planet.

And we always will.

But I fear that the current infernos, as well as recent floods, hurricanes, and tsunamis, will presage more anger, more violence, more misdirected animosity and more hate crimes.

Hate crimes, as we know, have been increasing in recent years, including against Jews.

In the wake of the massacre of 11 congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, said to be the deadliest attack on Jews in this country’s history, the Anti-Defamation League pointed out that anti-Semitic acts rose 57% in 2017, the largest year-to-year increase since 1979 when the ADL began keeping records of these crimes.

No one can directly link any one particular hate crime to the weather or to a natural disaster.

But hate crimes can be traced, to an extent, to feelings of resentment and jealousy of the other.

And there appears to be a correlation, if not a causation, between a rise in temperature and aggression.

Of course, global warming is not only producing higher temperatures that can lead to more violence and more fires; it is also causing sea levels to rise, and as a result, we should not be surprised at the greater likelihood of an epic flood.

It is not Venice, Italy, alone that is contending with rising waters.

We need only recall how water drenched the subways and streets of lower Manhattan, when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

As Al Gore famously showed in his video presentation years ago, the projected melting of Arctic ice, due to global warming, could end up burying Manhattan under water.

All of these natural disasters should remind even the mostdevoted agnostic or atheist of the Book of Genesis, the Great Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Tower of Babel.

I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of the apocalypse, and I am not an Armageddon worshiper.

But there is no denying that we are living at a time when the Earth seems to be rebelling against our stewardship of it.

And there is no denying that our country is led by a man in Donald Trump, who is as corrupt as any from Noah’s time.

Are the end-times near?  Is the next great flood on its way?  Or will it be the Big One, an earthquake, or a fire that wipes out much of civilization?

Where shall we turn for wisdom or guidance?

As it turns out, as I leafed through a childhood scrapbook, I re-discovered that I gave my Bar Mitzvah speech 40 years ago on Noah.

Here is an excerpt from that speech in November 1978:

“God wanted to put an end to the Earth when he saw how corrupt man was.  He told Noah he was going to destroy the Earth by flooding it with water…God warned Noah about the flood because, as the Bible states, ‘Noah was a righteous man.’”

So said I, a young lad of 13, as I stood on the bimah. 

Back then, the Torah, which I carried from the ark to the pulpit, was taller than I was.

And that was fitting since the history of the book, the history of the planet, and the history of the Jewish people dwarf all of us.

When I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony that goes back to Moses and Aaron, the first high priest, the associate rabbi at my synagogue told me that I was like Joseph in that most of my metaphoric brothers and sisters were jealous of me.

It is true that, over the years, there have been times when I felt as if I had been tossed in a ditch; buried in the sand of schizophrenia, psychosis and depression, with which I have grappled; sold into slavery; left to die.

That is not to say that my behavior has been perfect. 

I too have definitely been jealous at times, jealous of some, who have not had to battle mental illness, who have not suffered from abuse and hatred, as I have.

Thankfully, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, I have learned how to dodge people’s games better over the decades.

And I have tamed my illness due to work and love, as well as a fierce will to survive.

I want the planet to survive too.

For those who believe that the end is near, we might all remember that, according to the Bible, chaos prevailed before the creation of the world; and God filled that chaos, filled that void, with the earth, the sun, the moon and every species, including man.

In the midst of our current toxic environment, we should try to keep in mind that we have been here before. 

Swords have yet to be turned into plowshares, and the wolf may still devour the lamb, but never, in our long history, has the Earth disintegrated.

And we, as a species, have proven hardy enough to survive the Black Death, the Crusades, the Civil War, two World Wars and other calamities.

We will survive Donald Trump.

But will we survive climate change?

Perhaps, if we honor the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by limiting the increase in global temperature, from pre-industrial times, to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030.

Of course, even if our planet reins in global warming by that measure, we will still have to deal with more fires, more floods, more hurricanes and more tsunamis in the next 12 years.

What about the concomitant rise in hate crimes?  What about the increase in acts of violence?  What about the greater chance for a nuclear war?

How will we handle these risks?  How will we handle people, who have rage issues and easy access to murderous weapons, let alone the nuclear codes?

Maybe, we need once again to study Genesis.

I noted in my Bar Mitzvah speech 40 years ago that God hailed Noah as “righteous,” but Noah is viewed by many rabbinical commentators as being righteous in a somewhat situational sense.

Unlike Moses and Abraham, Noah did not speak to God on behalf of all the world’s sinners.  He took care of his own family.

And he later became arguably the world’s first, documented drunk.

Like Adam, Noah misbehaved while he was naked.

But what did Noah do that was so wrong?

Wasn’t Noah simply human, a decent and even righteous fellow, who was not completely devoid of selfishness and gluttony?

Has it taken me 40 years since my Bar Mitzvah to realize the truth of the very words I spoke in 1978 from the pulpit?  Has it taken me 40 years to become a Jewish man? 

The country right now is searing from Trump’s scorched-earth rhetoric and from his destructive actions.

As California started to burn a few days ago, Trump blamed our state for its supposedly poor forest management, and he threatened to withhold federal support.

He later backtracked, but his lack of empathy and his vengeful attacks on a state that did not vote for him showed his true colors.

At a personal level, I, like Joseph, a dreamer, have been on the receiving end of much fury, much cruelty, in my life.  But 40 years after my Bar Mitzvah, I stand a foot taller and weigh close to 200 pounds.

I would like to think that I am wiser than I was in 1978, though I remain dwarfed by the Torah, by its infinite wisdom, its unlimited light and truth. 

Like the number seven, the number 40 shows up quite a bit in the Hebrew Bible.

Seven, of course, is known as a lucky number because it derives from Sheva or Sabbath, the day of rest, the day that we honor God.

As for 40, it is associated with endurance, with persistence, with faith and with devotion to God.

Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai, only to come down from the mountaintop and find that many of the Israelites were worshiping idols, like Baal.

And, as we all know, Moses led the Israelites on a 40-year journey through the desert, after fleeing slavery in Egypt.

Moses is said to have conjured the body of Joseph from the Nile, where the dreamer, who advised Pharaoh and who had elicited so much jealousy from his brothers, had been buried.

According to Jewish tradition, Moses and the Israelites took the body of Joseph through the desert to the holy land, where he now rests.

I don’t know if, at this point in time, we need a savior or even a Moses, who, we might recall, never set foot in the Promised Land.

And I certainly hope that we don’t need to wander in the wilderness for 40 years to recover from Trump, to address climate change, or to stop demonizing or scapegoating the other.

Maybe, after nearly two years of Trump, it will take us only another 40 days and 40 nights, roughly when the new Congress is sworn in, before we start dealing with these issues.

At that time, the House will be able to exercise its constitutional duties and serve as a check and balance on Trump.

We can hope that the country will then resume our bedrock tenets, notably freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press, and seize the opportunity to live once more by some semblance of an ethical code. 

There is a difference between the fibs that every politician tells and the nonstop lies spewed by Trump.

I do not want to browbeat anyone or sound too religious, but we must end lying as a matter of policy and restore our historic link to theTen Commandments, rather than allow what I once termed Trump’s Baalism or bullyism to destroy our inner core, our ethos as a nation.

We also need to return to holding politicians and others accountable for their lies, for their attacks on the free press, and for their treachery.

And we need to protect our country and our planet not only from hatred but also from the existential threat of climate change.

I can be glad that I have figured this out, even if it has taken me 40 years since my Bar Mitzvah.

And I can be glad that I live at a time when there is an America, when my people are not enslaved to Pharaoh, when we are not killed in gas chambers at concentration camps or brutalized by pogromists in Russia, when Muslim organizations have raised funds for the Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue, when the African-American pastor of the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C., and the rabbi at the Pittsburgh temple joined in an interfaith service and sang, “This Little Light of Mine,” when the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Societyis still helping refugees acclimate to our country.

We all have our unique trajectories.

Mine has involved a few harrowing setbacks.  But I am grateful to be around at this point in history.

Like Joseph, I remain a dreamer.

Is there a positive future for our country and the world?

There is, if we harness the free will in all of us.

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