My first tallit was based on the second verse of Genesis. Inscribed on the atarah/neckband was: V’ru’ach Elohim mirachefet al p’nai hamayim – “And the spirit of God hovered over the face of the water.” All that existed was God and water amid the void. My teacher, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank z”l, taught that this was the moment of greatest potential, when anything could happen. Indeed, with two words, God created light, and then the rest of the universe. I would reconnect to that sense of possibility each time I put it over my head to say the blessing.
Last month, as I listened to indigenous elders in northern Minnesota talking about their responsibility to the water and relationship to the Divine, this moment from Torah flooded my imagination.
I was one of 2,000 people that morning in Anishinaabe territory, sitting in silence, honored by hospitality and humor, captivated by stories of struggles for human and cultural rights, and inspired by education about treaty rights and the campaign against the rebuilding of Pipeline 3 by a Canadian multinational. This pipeline would carry tar sands from Alberta through untouched wetlands and the Mississippi headwaters before terminating in Superior, Wisconsin. The following day we accompanied the Anishinaabe leaders to vulnerable spots along the pipeline route to amplify their call to protect the waters and their rights to hunt, fish, gather and grow on the wetlands.
Of the thousands in attendance, 300 were members of an interfaith coalition, bringing the values and voices of religious traditions to the gathering. The Jewish delegation, about 30 strong, included groups from Chicago and Minneapolis and a diverse cohort from Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Justice, including two of us from Milwaukee. We shared an understanding of earth and water as gifts we’re called to protect and repair, and of air as ru’ach Elohim.
Bringing a Jewish perspective to the environment is not new. COEJL – Coalition On the Environment in Jewish Life – has been bringing groups together for decades. Adamah and others have been forging a reconnection of Jews to the earth. But the climate issue is different, which is why it is paired with words like “emergency.”
Dayenu is a newer organization, growing rapidly. Two Milwaukee-area synagogues, congregations Shir Hadash and Shalom, are establishing formal Dayenu Circles focused on organizing a national Jewish response to climate emergency. Members of congregations Beth Israel Ner Tamid, Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun and Sinai have also explored participation in this issue. Dayenu is focused on national and international action and policy. As Jews, the future of our planet should not be a political issue. Tikkun olam – repairing the world, and l’dor vador – “from generation to generation” are foundational Jewish values that will be meaningless when the earth becomes uninhabitable.
Pipeline 3 is a human rights, environmental and climate disaster. As Jews, we must respond to the plight of indigenous communities removed from their lands and fighting for their legal rights. We must object to a pipeline carrying tar sands that are impossible to clean from the waters feeding our Great Lakes system and the mighty Mississippi River. And we must demand a future that does not depend on fossil fuels, especially tar sands that require significantly more natural resources to produce and create three times the greenhouse gasses of crude oil.
Rabbi Michal Woll is rabbi of Congregation Shir Hadash in Milwaukee.
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The project to rebuild Pipeline 3 is nearly done, except for a Minnesota portion, which is about 60 percent complete, according to the Associated Press. Critics say the project will contribute to climate change and it risks spills where Native Americans hunt, fish and claim treaty rights.