Bringing Fire & Water Back into Balance

Each fall, my sukkah serves as my personal "weather station." Some years, my family is able to eat all our meals outside, and other years, heavy rains make that impossible. In several recent past years, fall storms have brought winds strong enough to blow the schach (branches that form the roof) off the top of our sukkah and to mangle our decorations.

Each fall, my sukkah serves as my personal "weather station." Some years, my family is able to eat all our meals outside, and other years, heavy rains make that impossible. In several recent past years, fall storms have brought winds strong enough to blow the schach (branches that form the roof) off the top of our sukkah and to mangle our decorations.

Not this year. This Sukkot, our sukkah didn't lose a single branch to wind; on the contrary, the air was eerily still for most of the week. There was zero rainfall (in fact, since late June, we've received only about a half-inch of rain in total, making this one of the driest stretches in Seattle's history!). And yet, there were several days when we could not eat outside, because of the smoke-filled air that hung over the metro area. This smoky "weather" has ebbed and flowed for weeks, producing beautiful/awful sunsets (see image below), hazardous health conditions (for all, but especially for sensitive groups), and an overall ominous effect. The campfire smell and my burning eyes have served as a daily reminder of climate change, and how our world is out of balance.

This coming Shabbat, we will read Parashat Bereishit, which features the story of the creation of the world. I've been preparing a short Torah reading for the Shabbat Minyan -- and as such, have been reading a few verses over and over, Genesis 1:6-8:

God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.” God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. God called the expanse sky. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

From ancient times, commentators have noted the similarity between the Hebrew word for "sky" or "heavens" -- shamayim -- and the word for water -- mayim. The midrash, in Bereishit Rabbah 4:7, records a creative etymology:

"And God called the firmament heavens (shamayim)." Rav says, [shamayim means] fire (aish) and water (mayim) [mixed together]. Rabbi Abba the son of [Rav] Kahanah said in the name of Rav, the Holy Blessed One took fire (aish) and water (mayim), joined them together and made the heavens ((ai)sh+mayim = shamayim).

On one level, this midrashic interpretation feels sweet and a little quaint. It's easy for me to imagine that our ancestors in ancient times marveled over the "miracle" that both fire (e.g. the sun) and water (e.g. rain clouds) could exist simultaneously in the sky, without the water extinguishing the fire or the fire evaporating the water. As the commentary in the Etz Hayim Chumash says, "God works a daily miracle. Fire and water agree to co-exist peacefully so that the world can endure." (Incidentally, this interpretation also lies behind Oseh Shalom, in which we pray these words: "May You who established peace in the heavens [teaching fire and water to get along] grant that kind of peace to us and to all the people of Israel.")

After several consecutive days of being choked by terribly unhealthy air, this reading of "shamayim"/ the skies -- as representing the interaction between fire and water -- feels more true and profound than ever. Thankfully, tomorrow's forecast calls for abundant rain... and hopefully this barrage of water will, in fact, extinguish the fires blazing east of here and put an end to our smoke (for now at least). But, the smoke has been a reminder that the balance of our "skies" is radically out of whack.

We cannot just wait passively for the balance of Bereishit to be restored. True to the responsibility placed on the first humans in this week's parasha, we must step up and act as the custodians and guardians of the world, and as God's partners in creation.

This coming Tuesday, we have an opportunity to participate in phone banking with Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action. While our personal decisions and actions do matter, we know that what makes a far greater impact is working collectively for change and putting elected officials into office at every level of government who will acknowledge what's transpiring before our eyes and enact policies to address these realities. (Parenthetically, I'll say that the same elected officials who share our values on climate change are likely to share our values on a wide range of other issues our community cares deeply about too.) Please join us for this phone banking, and stay tuned for more activities from Kavana's Dayenu Circle throughout the year.

I took my sukkah down today. By the time we put it up again next fall, I pray that together, we will have made progress in addressing climate change, if not by effecting repair of our environment (yet), then by making this a legislative priority, on election day and beyond. Parashat Bereishit reminds us that we human beings are part of the created world, and bear special responsibility to "tend the garden."

May we find the power to bring fire (esh) and water (mayim) back into balance, for the sake of heaven (shamayim).

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum