As the calendar year of 2018 draws to a close, I know that many of us are looking towards 2019 with great trepidation. I certainly am, and there are so many intertwining causes for concern:
Liberal democracy, the best guarantor that we have ever known for the promotion and protection of human rights and dignity (including for us Jews), is being eroded in many nations around the globe. This includes of course our own United States of America, the unquestioned leader of this order since the end of the Second World War, and our beloved Israel as well.
The internet, a wondrous development in technology, has also unleashed unfettered and unregulated speech throughout the world. The initial excitement of being able to connect with people around the globe has been replaced by dread, as corrosive hate speech and systemic lying undermines our social fabric and the tenuous mutual trust that allows us to live peacefully together. Judaism’s insistence on the immense power of words and the requirement to control our tongues has never been more relevant. Yet in the absence of any legal regulation or consequences the internet seethes with humanity’s worst tendencies.
Climate change is truly upon us, a roiling catastrophe that we can barely grasp. Poorer nations are already collapsing under the strain of droughts and heat, sending millions of refugees around the world in search of basic needs. This further destabilizes more prosperous nations and their ability to maintain civilized order. The human suffering and the suffering of our planet that confront us break my heart and make me want to turn my face away.
There is good news, too. People of courage and good will continue to combat these trends with vison and resolve. Just two weeks ago diplomats from nearly 200 countries managed to reach an agreement that keeps the Paris global climate accords moving forward. This is, of course, a cup half-full at best, given the limitations of the agreement in the face of this global crisis. But I am still heartened that there are people in positions of authority around the globe who are working together with foresight. I love this photo of Michal Kurtkya, president of the climate talks in Katowice, Poland, leaping over his desk after the agreement was reached:
Here in the United States millions of ordinary citizens mobilized to end one-party rule in Washington, DC., showing that despite anti-democratic trends in our country political change is still possible.
I am buoyed constantly by all the good people in the world and by the countless acts of love and kindness that are with us every day.
Yet I would be lying if I denied being afraid. We can and must learn from the past, but the problems our planet faces today are unprecedented in human history. And we have to face this, and think together, and plan together, and work together, even though we cannot predict with certainty any outcomes. What a challenging time this is!
This week’s Torah portion is Sh’mot, the first chapters of the Book of Exodus. A cruel tyrant has ascended to the throne in Egypt. The Children of Israel are crushed by slave labor. Their cry of despair rises up to YHVH, the creative power in the universe that desires life to flourish. YHVH calls to Moses from the burning bush with the astonishing instruction to confront Pharaoh and tell him to “Let My People Go!” Moses’ natural response is “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11) YHVH does not respond by telling Moses that he is someone extra-special. All YHVH says is, “I will be with you.” (3:12) So it is with us. None of us is that special, and it is natural therefore to doubt that we are up to the task or that we can make a difference. But we can be strengthened in our resolve if we are able to sense that we are not alone in our desire to be a positive force in the world. We are surrounded by countless other good souls who share our concern. The earth itself sustains and supports us. Our loved ones and our community are with us. And, Judaism assures us, the infinite Source of Life, the creative energy that fills the universe, that loves life and desires life, is with us, too. May we step forward into this next year with courage, humility, humor and resolve, doing our own small part to support, to repair and to strengthen the fragile tapestry of our civilization and our world. May we drink deeply of the pleasures of life, even as we confront our fears. And may we be nourished and sustained by the joy, wonder and flowing love that always accompany true connection.