A radiant world? Or a planet on fire?
At the start of parashat Lech Lecha, the third parasha in the book of Genesis, God commands Abram and Sarai — not yet renamed Abraham and Sarah — to leave everything they know to follow God’s call. The commandment, with all of its power and complexity, gave rise to a beloved midrash that speaks with uncanny resonance to our current moment.
“‘God said to Abram: Leave your land, your birthplace and your parents’ home…’ (Genesis 12:1). To what may this be compared? To a person who was traveling from place to place and saw a palace that was doleket (illuminated or ablaze). They wondered, ‘Is it possible that the palace lacks an owner?’ The owner of the palace looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ The traveler said, ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?’ The Holy One, blessed be God, looked out and said, ‘I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.’” (Bereishit Rabbah 39:1)
The meaning of the midrash turns completely on the meaning of the ambiguous Hebrew word “doleket.” It may mean "radiant" or “illuminated." In this reading, the traveler looked up at the horizon with wonder and was mesmerized by the radiance of creation. The answer to the question, “Who is the master of this place?” is God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote long ago, the only possible response to God’s self-revelation is a life suffused with radical amazement (God in Search of Man, Chapter 10). The world is so breathtakingly beautiful that we must regularly pause and contemplate it, and fashion a life in relationship with the One who created it and continues to renew its splendor.
But later in the same book, Heschel considers the other possible meaning of "doleket" (Chapter 39). In this case, the palace that the travelers see in the distance is ablaze. The travelers are frightened and are immediately moved to find help, lest the fires ravage not only the castle but the surrounding lands. They sound the alarm and call out, “Who is in charge of this place?” God responds, presumably to say, “Do not fear. I will tend to the fires,” and perhaps, “But I will need you as partners in my work.”
One can hardly read this passage without thinking of the firestorms that have afflicted Northern California and too many other regions of the country and the world. Firefighters have responded valiantly to the immediate dangers. But no one who is paying attention can say, “Do not fear.”
Our beloved planet is almost literally ablaze with fire and with sweltering temperatures, causing unmanageable and chaotic weather patterns that have already ravaged many places on earth. (In a perverse and predictable pattern, those least responsible for global warming are the most severely impacted by the devastation so far.) The alarm was sounded long ago. Rachel Carson’s clarion call, Silent Spring, was published in 1962. How much destruction has ensued while the “master of the house” — that is, the human race — has failed to respond?
I see hopeful signs suggesting a turning point in the world’s response. The much-discussed 2021 IPCC report on climate change has sounded the emergency alarm, declaring the global consensus of climate scientists that the climate crisis is with us in the present, not only as a risk for the future. We are all witness, with particular force this summer, to the horrifying havoc ravaging our beautiful world before our eyes. Perhaps we, the human race, are preparing to step up and say, “This is our house. We must take care of the fire before more devastation ensues.”
But I suggest that the first meaning of "doleket" also has profound importance for our time. If the midrash imagines that the travelers saw a splendid and spectacular palace, this too is an essential part of our journey as a human race. We must refocus our vision on the grandeur and magnificence of the world in which we live. Surely, the beauty which we have been given to care for must awaken us to the danger we all face. So too, the world offers its beauty to us as a source of nourishment and spiritual refreshment.
The climate crisis is so big that it requires everyone to be meaningfully engaged in solutions. But it is also so overwhelming that we need the blessings of nature more than ever to nurture, soothe and elevate us. In radical amazement, we are lifted above the horrifying realities and the stress and fear sometimes evoked by climate work. Regularly pausing to marvel at nature and the precious gift of life itself is precisely what we need to replenish ourselves for the work ahead.
Like our ancestors Abram and Sarai, may we respond to the call of Creation to step forward in concert with the rest of the human family in the vital work of repair. And may the Master of the House bless our efforts.
(This post originally appeared at https://www.jweekly.com/2021/10/15/a-radiant-world-or-a-planet-on-fire/ in the J Weekly. The photo was taken by the Napa County Sheriff outside St. Helena in Napa County, CA, 9/29/20.