Half a Year In, We Know We Have Moral Muscle

Photo: Rabbi David Basior

Around this time of year – the High Holidays – Judaism calls us to take an annual look in the moral mirror. This year more than ever, we may be afraid of what we might see. Yet that pessimism does not serve us, and it may not even be accurate. By the time these High Holidays arrive, the pandemic will have consumed over half a year of our lives and collective history. The virus has killed more than 800,000 people and counting, and has altered the lives of everyone on the planet to some extent. The High Holidays are a season for taking moral inventory for the sake of Teshuvah — turning and returning — and a global crisis must also be a time for self-examination for the sake of learning and changing course. The confluence of the High Holiday season with a global pandemic that has touched us all therefore makes this perhaps the ripest time in our lifetimes for a collective accounting of our moral state and our future direction. Though we often assume that such a reckoning should be focused on searching out our faults and making amends for them, true reflection finds whatever the mirror reveals, be it bad, good, or complicated, discouraging or hopeful. So if we take this time leading up to and including the High Holidays to look back and consider what has happened, how we have responded, and how we can prevent it from recurring, what do we see? What have we done, who have we been, and what can we learn from this debacle for the future?

Believe it or not, here’s what I see from where I sit: we are actually rising to the occasion in the most important and holy way – we are preserving life. Crisis has shown us who we really are, and this is what it has revealed – we are champions of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish principle that saving a life is of paramount importance, superseding even our most precious institutions like Shabbat. We have acted – or refrained from acting – in order to preserve life at the expense of not only conferences and family visits, large weddings and prayer services, school and sports, but that most untouchable of American idols: constant economic growth. This is how we are showing up in this moment of crisis.

Though there has been much sound and fury in the news media and on social media about resistance to the shutdowns, when viewed from high up, these exceptions only prove the rule. Without some dissenters, we might mistake our restraint for something that was truly out of our control, a constraint that no one could resist. But that’s not the case — we don’t absolutely have to follow the public health rules, we are choosing to. In fact, a recent poll showed that 86% of us are wearing masks outside the home and 75% of us support requiring everyone to do so. Most importantly, almost three quarters of us say that virus-prevention restrictions trump concerns about economic damage. And the relative few who aren’t following the rules aren’t primarily responsible for the virus spiraling out of control in the U.S. – other countries also have people who won’t follow rules, but those countries’ coordinated responses are keeping the virus in check anyways. Don’t get distracted by the drama; the reality is that we the people are doing this right. For the first time I can remember, the world is engaged in one giant exercise in Jewish, religious, and humanist values: we are putting life above all else. We are responding in the affirmative to the Torah’s great challenge to us — issued near the end, in the portions we read right before the High Holidays — to “choose life, that you may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

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I hate to say it, but in a certain respect this comes as a surprise. To the extent that we have tried to dedicate some of our time, efforts, and resources to the wellbeing of humanity beyond our immediate circle of family and friends, we may even experience this as nothing short of a shock. The list of phenomena that kill or threaten to kill massive numbers of people, and yet are tolerated by most people — at least insofar as we do little or nothing to stop them — is far too long to enumerate here, though climate change and our addiction to the often lethal personal automobile can stand in for the full set, representing the much-reported and the normalized-to-the-point-of-invisibility ends of the spectrum, respectively. It is the constant underlying angst of organizers and would-be change-makers: human beings’ seeming inability to break out of the routines of our daily lives and the structures in which we live to prioritize life over the pursuit of everything that capitalism tells — or compels — us to focus on. Again — though now in reverse — the fact that some resist this trend only proves the rule: there is nothing forcing most of us to ignore these causes of death, we just do. It is just as hard — harder, even — to shut down major portions of our lives to preserve life in the face of COVID-19 as it would be to change our ways to prevent the looming climate catastrophe, but we are willing to sacrifice for one and not the other. The question of how to relay our willingness to “choose life” against this threat into a willingness to do the same with respect to many others is not merely an exercise in speculation about human nature, it is the most fundamental question of our time.

So our seasonal reflection on how we have performed in this moment of great consequence — the pandemic — must turn to the question of how we will perform in the face of a crisis with eternal consequences — climate change. Remember, the point of our looking back over the past year at High Holiday time is ultimately for the sake of the future. So how will we turn our willingness to “choose life, so that you may live” into one that also fulfills the next few words of the verse: “you and your descendants”?

Again, there is good, and surprising, news. Just as the pandemic has shown that we are capable of prioritizing life, the pandemic has also given us an unexpected boost in the daunting task of extending that will to preserve human life by averting climate catastrophe. According to the United Nations, the world’s carbon emissions must fall almost 8 percent each year from now until 2030 in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. It’s a goal that seemed incredibly daunting, at best, just a year ago, given the inertia of the global economy. But the pandemic has resulted in an 8 percent drop in coal use in the first quarter of 2020, and an increase in the use of renewable energy.  In other words, because of the pandemic, we have taken the first necessary step towards saving the future of life. The task is now a little simpler — to continue that trajectory. The problem with how we have taken this first step, of course, is that it was linked to an enormously painful economic shutdown. If the price of preserving life is destroying our economy, robbing our children of their education, and not seeing our loved ones — among other terrible consequences — it seems less likely that we’ll be willing to do the same in the face of future threats to life, like climate change.

Fortunately for us, it doesn’t need to be this hard. Much of the hardship involved in slowing the pandemic was avoidable — failing to heed many warnings about the likelihood of pandemics and the government’s gutting of our public health infrastructure are just two of many choices that were made that ultimately led to the need for the dire sacrifices we are now all making to mitigate its consequences. As Barrett Swanson wrote in his indictment of American disaster culture in Harper’s Magazine, the pandemic and its consequences are not “acts of God,” though government officials, news media, and corporations have all rushed to categorize them as such.  Even more so than the pandemic, we have ample warning about the likelihood and dangers of climate change, giving us even more opportunity to make choices ahead of time that will avert not only the last-resort response of upending our lives to slow its progress, but the catastrophe itself. Instead, we can make measured, conscious, strategic, and ultimately far less painful choices now to prevent crisis and death later. Whatever limited sacrifices might be necessary now — and in truth, it is more likely that only certain corporations’ carbon-based business models would ultimately have to be sacrificed — the suffering and death that would result from not addressing the problem in advance would be many orders of magnitude more painful. A move towards preserving life now would in fact be joyful and meaning-making affirmation of our collective will to live, which is no sacrifice at all.

So finally, if we have discovered that we are willing to sacrifice even our precious economic growth to save lives, and if proactive measures to preserve life from climate disaster would not be nearly as painful as ignoring the threat, if at all, why then is the United States being ravaged by the pandemic and why does it seem so difficult to change our collision course with climate change? Again, it is not the fault of those individuals who aren’t being careful enough, or who are outright flouting the rules — at least not primarily — because most of us are in fact acting to preserve life. Rather, the answer to both is that we the people have not yet claimed enough of our power to let our goodness determine the outcome. We are not failing; our national government and certain overly-powerful corporations are failing us. In fact, when I said earlier that I was surprised that we rose to the occasion and sacrificed to save lives during the pandemic, I should not have been, because we the people were never the primary cause of societal failures to effectively address the other major threats to life in the first place. Responding to overwhelming threats to life that respect no borders and feed on our interconnectedness — as both the pandemic and climate change surely do — requires massive coordination and direction, and a certain unity of purpose. In other words, they require leadership. We would not have had to give up so much — or endure so much death — if our leadership had risen to the occasion during the pandemic as we have, and we will not have to sacrifice to stave off mass death from climate change if our leaders meet the climate challenge as we now know we are able to. We need leadership that is willing to rise to the call of history, to match our commitment to life, to stitch our individual goodness together into a coordinated response, and to help us preserve life for the ages. We cannot wait for leaders to lead the way, we must become our own collective leadership, leading our leaders to choose life as we have. Our reflection in this High Holiday season has revealed that we have what it takes to preserve life; now let us find the power within us to lead ourselves to a future that chooses life.

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