Judaism, Israel and Nature-OMG

Shabbat shalom. Judaism, Israel and Nature-OMG Hmm.

When Rabbi Perlin first asked me if I would speak on TuBishvat several months ago I jumped at the opportunity to talk—about what I had been teaching in my Religious school class for almost 20 years and immediately started a draft of the issues I wanted bring up.  Besides, who was I to turn down a chance to talk?  Many of you know that I’ve worked with wildlife for over 35 years and feel it a mark of valor that I have been chased, scratched, molested by and peed and pooped on by some of the world’s rarest and most exotic animals.  I use these experiences and my fascination with Judaism’s link to nature to personalize my message in class in which we discuss issues as widespread as the Hebrew calendar or to how to react to that deer in the road.

So I was all set to begin by listing those species that are in peril, how black rhino populations have plummeted 90% in the last 40 years, how we may be looking at the extinction of the Tiger in our lifetime, what it’s like to hold the last individual of a species in your hand before it dies out forever . I was going to bring in our liturgy from the High Holy Days about who shall live and who shall die and compare it to how conservationists have to make decisions about which species will survive and which ones will go extinct.

I was going to talk about how TuBishvat was originally a tax day and later became the Jewish earth day with its own Seder. I was going to point out the congruity of science and religion and how the sequence of creation in Genesis parallels that found in evolution only the time span differs.  And then challenge you with what we are charged with by God with respect to the earth in the two creations stories: whether we were to subdue it or till and tend it.

And of course I was going to bring in our beautiful Shevat tapestry and how it shows the earth, water, science.  Together. No arguments about which is righter.

Then I went to Israel with 33 fellow congregants and all that I thought I knew –my perspective of Judaism, Nature and Israel Changed—and I had one week to put it together.  Oh My God

Prior to leaving on the trip I had no idea what to expect upon visiting Israel for the first time.  Would I weep at the Western Wall and would the Holiness of Jerusalem affect my very soul. Not so much.   It was the land of Israel that did that.

So let me begin with a new list of animal species –a sort of paradox.  The common mynah, the common crane, the common cormorant and the common kingfisher three species uncommon to this Jewish bird nerd.  The common Kingfisher is a small spectacularly iridescently colored bird found throughout Israel.  The common crane is an elegant meter tall bird that flies with neck and legs extended and a “common” species that I had never before seen.  To be honest there wasn’t anything common about these animals. Each one had a special place in nature with plumage to camouflage it and allow for fruitful multiplication.   For some birders if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.  For me each individual was a precious new discovery that began mixing the cement that would bond me to the land of Israel by the time we departed. By the way for your scorecards we identified 35 birds, 4 mammals, 2 trees, 1 reptile and 1 fish.   I’m sure we saw many more that we could not ID.

Yes I was awed by the holiness of Jerusalem and its complex religious history.  But on our third day we ventured out to the stark scenery of the Dead Sea as we climbed Masada, on a picture perfect day.   Midway through the climb up I spotted some blackbirds with a sepia-like orange wing coloration, I whipped out my handy fold-out Birds of Israel Identification Chart and discovered these were Tristram’s Grackles.  They seemed to follow me up the snake path where I continually stopped to take in the magnificent vistas of dried brown Earth and deep azure Sea below, until, when we finally reached the top there appeared to be flocks of them surrounding us as we walked and prayed in this ancient fortress of Masada.  We could approach these birds without them flying away.  They did not fear us.  We were in their land,

This was my Israel.

As we left Masada I spotted a lone, leafless tree overlooking the Dead Sea, a survivor in its own right defying the wind and sun and arid climate.  The tree, the land and our people were all survivors

And a few thousand feet down at the Earths’ lowest point, the Dead Sea,  Sue pointed out the absence of life around a lake that at first glance should be teeming with life.  The only life were those visitors experimenting with the 30%+ salt content that allows us to float effortlessly yet prevents any fish life from existing and with no fish there are no gulls (teachable moment there are no seagulls for if sea gulls are gulls that fly over the sea what do you call gulls that fly over the bay)

This was my Israel. This island of green in the vast brown desert of the Middle East.

Once, before the State of Israel, this land held was home to many large mammals but the leaders of the region hunted them to virtual extinction.  Some, like the Arabian Oryx and Asiatic wild Ass have been saved by conservation work in zoos and reintroduced. Others like the leopard and Acacia Gazelle are nearly extinct from the area.

As Jews settled the area they began planting trees to allow the soil to gain a firm foothold for agricultural purposes, developing drip irrigation to conserve every precious drop of water as it nourished the land. Israel was the only country in the world with a net gain of trees at the turn of the 21st century and scientists continue working with counterparts in neighboring countries to study the ecology of the land and find ways to till and tend the land without changing its nature.  Israel agricultural products are the result of little if any pesticides and it produces large, succulent and delicious pomegranates, avocados, oranges and other delectables.

Now, let me tell you about the Hula Valley.  For millions of years this area, sitting at the midpoint of migratory paths between Europe and Africa has attracted over 500 million birds, half a Billion birds as they fly through on their migratory routes.   Twice during the 20th century to control malaria, the water –Mayim, the source of all life, was drained. But in ecology you must understand the ecosystem before you change it for it is a system and ecology is simply understanding consequences.  Just as the song from Ecclesiastes points out for everything there is a purpose.  If you remove one thing, one element, one species, something else will replace it–Nature abhors a vacuum.  But we don’t always know what that one thing is.   As a scientist you don’t change things if you aren’t sure of the outcome.  And if you do you should change one thing at a time to see what happens.   With the water drained from the Hula Valley brush fires broke out from the extreme dryness.  The migrations continued but with greater competition for resources.   One species of amphibian, the painted frog, was seen no more. Years later the water was carefully reintroduced into this system. The birds continued their migrations with renewed resources and miraculously, a little over a year ago, the supposed extinct painted frog was rediscovered. Hula became Israel’s first nature reserve and the problem associated with its drainage was the impetus for the creation of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Now I have to mention that our visit to this bird sanctuary began with a wonderfully done film at the visitor’s center.  While it delayed our explorations into the marsh that day it was worth the time in the theater to hear the Rabbi scream like a school girl when the 3D experience simulated meadow mice scampering over her feet and up her chair.

On the Boardwalk of the nature center Susan and I renewed our wedding vows on the eve of our 25th year of marriage with Rabbi Perlin’s blessings.  As at our wedding a quarter of a century earlier, the songs of birds emanated from everywhere and as the mist cleared we had yet another spectacular day with eastern pelican taking off in formation and spiraling into the sky before they departed. Spur-winged plover, black legged stilts, shovelers, teal, coot, moorhen, grey herons were all indifferent to us as we strained our older eyes through binoculars.  Sardinian warblers, spectacled bulbuls and little grebes.  This was my Israel. Perhaps Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel also witnessed this spectacle.

Oh my god I must go back during migration season

Now in the service folder last week my talk was titled God and Nature.  I always been awed by nature, the diversity of creation and life on earth, the awesome power of a thunderstorm, volcano, earthquake and our helplessness in the face of these natural events. What events sculpted the incredible tool we call the human hand or allowed vertebrates to develop the egg and conquer the land? The rhythm of the universe as Stevie Wonder has written is constant:

“As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as time knew to move on since the beginning
And the season know exactly when to change.”

Or to make it more Jewish Sunrise Sunset, every day, every week, every month every year, without fail.  I’ve taught about the Hebrew calendar for year but in Haifa we experienced a full moon, the middle of the month, Tevet and the Israeli moon taught me that night.

Now this biologist’s view of God has always been of something like a Force for all you Star Wars fans, a sort of electromagnet energy that permeates the universe and holds it together.  In fact several mammal species use electromagnetism to find food and birds use it along with the sun moon and stars (all found in the third day of creation) to navigate during flight.

In my mind we emit this energy during the Misheberach.   Overlooking the Harbor in Haifa on a Shabbat morning two weeks ago I felt like a massive communications tower while singing this prayer I felt as if I was broadcasting waves of healing across the Mediterranean and Atlantic. Could this be God?  The sunset the previous evening, one of the many gorgeous sunsets was captured with my camera.  I didn’t notice the Star of David glow you can see on your service folders until I arrived home.  Noticing it was another OMG moment, a long stunned Oh My God. Is there a photographic God filter?

You don’t have to be in Israel to experience these natural OMG moments.  Two days ago on my drive to work I gasped as I caught a glimpse of the waning moon–the tiniest sliver of white just rising over the horizon.   But witnessing these sights in Israel, the land where so much of our tradition radiates from makes it even more powerful.  To think that our ancestors used this sliver of moon to determine when a new month was so close, to allow them to keep time on a monthly basis in conjunction with the sun, and that we are seeing that same moon now unites us with them.

Returning from Israel I really had to rethink this.  Why this island of green in the sea of desert, why the incredible wildlife concentrated in the Hula. I could explain it all scientifically with the Mediterranean currents and moist air, the formation of the coastline and the geographic formations created by seismic activity.  But this was a spiritual journey.  And every new discovery was an OMG moment.  But now it seemed not to be just an expression.

There is a Midrash, so I’ve read, of a man fishing in a boat in a lake in Scotland.  Suddenly the Loch Ness monster rears up out of the water tossing the boat and man high into the air.  As the man starts to fall into the monster’s open jaws he blurts out,
“God please save me from this terrible fate.”

Suddenly everything freezes. God appears and asks the man “Why should I save you. Up until a moment ago you didn’t believe I existed.”  The man replies “up until a moment ago I didn’t believe in the Loch Ness monster either.  Well maybe it’s time to I start believing in the Loch Ness monster at least a little, what could it hurt.

And maybe just to be safe I can make room for God in my force idea.  The land of My Israel teeming with life in some places, devoid of it in others, cold with snow, searing hot desert and, lush green valleys, warm coastal areas just about every type of environment found on earth all in the space of a country the size of New Jersey (hey finally a good use for New Jersey).

Chief Seatl once wrote that the earth does not belong to us we belong to the earth and the United Nations Environment Program notes that we have inherited the earth from our parents and borrowed it from our children.  William Beebe the first curator of Birds at the Bronx Zoo and scientist once wrote that:

 “The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”

Think about that for a moment.  The frog in Hula that scientists thought to be extinct may just have experienced another heaven . It was probably just hiding and we got lucky but when a species it’s gone, we have to wait a long time to see it again if ever.
Charles Darwin who conceived the Theory of evolution was often charged with being heathen and an atheist, that his theory denied the existence of God.  Yet his idea merely explained how life, once created developed into today’s amazing complexity. In closing his landmark thesis “On the origin of Species” he writes:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Once at the zoo a 4th grader asked me why I liked working with animals.  It was a question I had never been asked nor asked of myself so I had to think about it. I told him that I enjoyed working with other species totally different from me, often bizarre and with behavior, abilities and language totally foreign to us.  They place their unseen, ungiven trust into our hands and we have no choice but to handle them, these precious fellow passengers on our Earth ark, with the greatest care.  They speak to us.  And we, well at least I, speak right back to them.  You might do the same thing.  How many of you talk to your dogs and cats when no one is around and they understand you.  Working with wildlife is one more step to communicating with our natural world.

I have taught about Judaism and Nature and about Israel and now I have experienced all of them together.  Reading about how our ancestors worked and respected the land is very different from standing on Israeli soil, looking up at a full moon from a thriving, vibrant community that regards its natural world so highly and works so hard to conserve its benefits.   In our world, wildlife knows no borders.  The only impediments are resources and geographical barriers.  If we dismiss the miracle of evolution however it started we are blinding ourselves to the incredible richness and diversity of life (that was started by God?) and what we can learn from it.

I’m not sure I can ever adequately articulate my awe of the natural universe.  Maybe, as I am re-inspired by MY Israel, more simply, the beauty and wonder of our awesome universe is best acknowledged with a simple Oh My God

Shabbat shalom.

Frank Kohn