Hope, Trees, & Timbrels: A Message for Shabbat Shira and Tu BiShvat

On Tuesday evening, Nigel Savage of Hazon delivered a powerful keynote address as Kavana kicked off The Urgency of Now: Seattle's Jewish Climate Festival. At the outset, he acknowledged that one of the challenges in dealing with the climate crisis is that it's so hard for us to quantify or even imagine success. The audience laughed as he quipped about how unlikely it would be to read a New York Times headline 50 or 100 years from now that read "Climate Crisis is Over!"

On Tuesday evening, Nigel Savage of Hazon delivered a powerful keynote address as Kavana kicked off The Urgency of Now: Seattle's Jewish Climate Festival. At the outset, he acknowledged that one of the challenges in dealing with the climate crisis is that it's so hard for us to quantify or even imagine success. The audience laughed as he quipped about how unlikely it would be to read a New York Times headline 50 or 100 years from now that read "Climate Crisis is Over!"

That said, being able to envision a hopeful future is critical to any change movement. It's the reason that the Seattle Green New Deal (which Kavana has proudly endorsed) sets specific targets, calling on the City of Seattle "to eliminate climate pollution by 2030, address historical injustices, and create thousands of good jobs."

Human nature inclines us to believe that what we see now is what will always be. This is why it can be hard -- for example, in a week as rainy as this one -- to recall that there is a blue sky somewhere out there behind the clouds.

This week's Torah portion, Beshallach, begins with the Israelites in their peak moment of tension and constraint. They feel boxed in, with Pharaoh's army behind them and a sea before them. And then, in the famous story we all know, Moses holds out his arm and God causes the sea to split, such that "the Israelites pass through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left" (Exodus 14:22). When they reach the other side, crisis now averted, they sing songs of praise, triumph and gratitude. The Torah goes so far as to share the detail that "Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels" (Exodus 15:20).

Stop for a minute and consider this question, which the midrash poses (in the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael): "Whence did the Israelites have timbrels for dancing in the wilderness?" In other words, as the Israelites were preparing to leave their life of enslavement behind, fearing for their safety and for their future, and scrambling to grab their still-unbaked dough to bring along for the road, who could possibly have stopped to think that they needed to pack musical instruments or choreograph dances?  "Rather," the midrash continues, "the righteous trusted in God, they knew that there would be miracles and mighty acts when they went forth from Egypt, and they prepared for themselves timbrels and dancing." Their faith was one of optimism, and of being able to envision a hopeful future. And, their hopeful outlook motivated them to act, taking concrete steps to ready themselves for both the immediate and the longer-term future.

In a Dvar Torah at the Hadar National Shabbaton last weekend, I heard Rabbi Shai Held share a similar message.  He said: "Hope implies commitment. Hope without commitment isn't really hope; it's just wishing. Hope is a virtue, but wishing isn't."

We cannot close our eyes and wish away the climate crisis that looms before us (nor any other crisis we might be thinking about this week). Addressing it will take commitment, creativity, optimism, and collaboration. But, as Nigel and our panelists reminded us on Tuesday evening, incremental steps help, as they will lead us to more systemic change. Soon, perhaps, we will find ourselves dancing with timbrels in celebration as we look back on how much progress we've made towards helping human beings to live sustainably on the planet we all call home.

Wishing you all a happy Tu BiShvat and a week of vision and hope!