“How can I be bringing a child into a world that’s on fire?” a new client asked me the other day.
It was his first climate-change chaplaincy session — a session that had been pushed back a few weeks because a hurricane had disrupted his recent travel plans. His wife is pregnant with their first child, and over the last few months, he’s felt more climate anxiety than ever before. “Climate change is the silent drumbeat under every conversation I have,” he shared.
Last week, another client, this one living in the American Midwest, lamented the fact that this past summer. Her 3-year-old daughter had learned to ask: “Is the air quality OK today?” That day, the air was smoke-free. Still, she reflected, “the world is on fire.”
At the World Economic Forum in January 2019, Greta Thunberg — whom multiple clients have named as an example of who they would ideally be, if they could make fighting climate change the organizing principle of their lives — stated: “I am here to say our house is on fire.”
What does it mean to be living in a world on fire? When fire is sometimes metaphor and sometimes call to action; sometimes smoke from a distant catastrophe and sometimes a reality one has survived, a dark miracle unasked-for? And can calling “fire!” ever be a stay against disaster?
“YHWH said to Abram: Go, you! From your homeland, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, toward the land I will show you … And Abraham went forth, as God told him to.” (Genesis 12:1,4)
In the midrash Bereishit Rabbah the rabbis are discussing Abraham’s response to God’s command, “Go, you/lekh lekha” (Genesis 12:1). According to Rabbi Yitzkhak, Abraham’s “going forth” was not so much a knee-jerk reaction to Divine command as it was a budding theologian’s considered decision. In this midrashic imagining, the first steps of Abraham’s physical journey come only after he has reflected deeply on the nature of God. Rabbi Yitzkhak describes this inward journey with a metaphor:
[Abraham] may be compared to a man who was wandering from one place to another, and saw a castle alight (dolek). He said, ‘Is it possible that this castle does not have a caretaker?!’” (Bereishit Rabbah 39:1)
Dolek, “alight,” has two possible translations. Dolek can simply mean “illuminated.” It’s the verb we invoke when lighting the Shabbat candles, as we bless God for the commandment “to kindle the Sabbath lights/le-hadlik ner shel Shabbat.” Dolek evokes a fire that is contained; a fire that is ordered and orderly. It lends warmth and light, and invites delight.
But dolek can also be translated as “ablaze.” Alight, not in the sense of delight but in the sense of destruction.
In Rabbi Yitzkhak’s metaphor, then, we have two possible scenarios in a single story:
Option one: A traveler is stopped in his tracks by the sight of a castle aglow. This castle is such a beacon of order and delight that its illuminated windows invite the traveler into reverie. He marvels at this beautifully appointed house, and wonders at who might be its owner.
Option two: A traveler is stopped in his tracks by the sight of a castle that is on fire. A magnificent building is burning, but no one seems to be responding. The traveler is baffled. Where is the urgency? Where is the alarm? Who is responsible for putting out the flames?
The same midrash continues:
The owner of the castle peered out at him and said, “I am the owner of this castle!” What happened with Abraham our forefather was similar. He said, ‘Is it possible that this universe lacks a person to look after it?!’ The Holy Blessed One looked at him and said: ‘I am the Master of the Universe.’” Then Abraham bowed deeply. (Bereishit Rabbah 39:1)
Ultimately, we don’t know through which lens we’re meant to read this encounter. We don’t know whether the God that Abraham bows to — the God who moves Abraham, theologically and literally — is a God who caretakes a radiant castle or a God who claims ownership of a house left to burn.
It’s easy to imagine how Abraham’s response to the former God felt; something akin to how we’d feel if we received an engraved invitation to a fabulous event: awe, delight, curiosity, deference. It’s also not hard — though it is more theologically and emotionally troubling — to imagine Abraham’s response to the latter God: awe, dread, terror. Flattened, on the ground.
“I feel like everything is falling apart,” a client says to me.
When I encourage them to get specific, they name a loss of faith in the American government dating back to the 2000 election, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and worsening since 2016. They share their sadness and disappointment at how the American public has responded to COVID. They worry that as the effects of climate change worsen, more and more people will prioritize personal freedom and damn the consequences for the collective. They say: “I feel like the world is crazy, or I’m crazy. It’s like watching someone walk off a cliff, except it’s all of us.” More than ever before, they are struggling to maintain hope, even though hope is a discipline they actively practice.
“I feel woefully unprepared for what I feel like is coming,” another client says to me, early in our work together.
When I ask him to elaborate on the future he’s imagining, we toggle back and forth between the dystopic (scarcity of food and water; violence; pure survival; enclosures) and the utopic (communities based on a sharing of resources; taking in climate refugees; connection; trust). Opening a vein of curiosity invites in imagination dark and light, and dissipates some of the heaviness in the Zoom room. What he’s conjuring is rooted in the unknown, but it clarifies what he holds dear and the yearning that lives under the fear. Together, we shed enough light to outline what’s possible.
The alternative — an unnamed, dark void — is where many of us are stuck. Why? In part because “no one wants to talk about this,” as clients keep saying. Some have been told by family and friends that they sound like “doomers” and feel obliged to cut themselves off before conversations about climate change go on too long or get too deep. Even clients with the most supportive partners, relatives or friends are learning that their loved ones have a limit on how much of someone else’s climate anxiety they can hold.
Again and again, clients say how relieving it is to have a space to name what the fear. There’s a sense that in speaking the fear, they can begin to find a path through it.
“YHWH said to Abram: Go, you! From your homeland, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, toward the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
Why is “home” named three times? Repetition reinforces the magnitude of the command: Abraham must leave behind everything familiar and dear to him and venture into the unknown.
Not only does our ancestor not have a map of where he’s going; he also has no map for this relationship with the Divine. “Lekh lekha” is the first time in Torah that Abraham encounters God. At the outset of the journey and the outset of this new faith, all Abraham has been told is his name will eventually be made known and great. Still, he leaves behind the familiar and walks out into change.
It’s a truism that humans don’t do well with change. The longer I work as a climate-change chaplain, though, the more I’ve come to believe that it’s not change we hate so much as stepping into the unknown without a map or a guide.
It’s possible that it wasn’t as hard on Abraham as it would be on us. After all, early humans were largely nomadic. But agriculture, and the written word, and maps and ships and medicine, and steel, and concrete — by which I mean, the arc of human civilization — came to offer us two sweeping promises to cushion our encounters with the unknown. One: Things will keep getting clearer. Two: Things will keep getting better.
Now, climate change is tearing holes in both these promises. We feel the changes we’re already living through — never mind the changes we’re fearing — as invasion, destruction, and therefore, loss.
Our known world is becoming foreign to us. The castle we assumed would always be alight with possibility is catching fire. How do we understand how to live when our map is going up in flames?
Jews have always experienced periods of conflagration — sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. There is considerable Torah (writ large), a beautiful and profound Torah that speaks meaningfully to the questions of the fire this time. But the Torah of climate change isn’t the purpose of this essay. This is an attempt to explore how we as human beings and as Jews — striving, yearning, urgent — face this call to navigate uncharted territory.
In times of uncertainty, it’s deeply human to reach for what we know. In times of relative certainty and uncertainty, it’s deeply Jewish to respond with an urgency that becomes action.
Option one: A traveler is stopped in his tracks by the sight of a castle aglow. He marvels at this beautifully appointed house and wonders at who might be its owner.
Some of us are responding to the climate crisis by reforging our connection to the earth’s seasons and species, seeking to shift from an exploitative relationship with the more-than-human world to a more interconnected and balanced one. We go into nature to breathe in its beauty and order and vast richness; we note and bless how the earth nourishes us; we celebrate shifts in time; we plant, tend and harvest; we caretake animals and limit the extent to which we treat them as resources for our consumption.
Option two: A traveler is stopped in his tracks by the sight of a castle that is on fire. The traveler is baffled. Where is the urgency? Where is the alarm? Who is responsible for putting out the flames?
Some of us are responding to the climate crisis by clanging into the halls of power. In a world where corporations have known about climate change for decades and still abdicate responsibility in the pursuit of profit, and a world where governments fail to live up to their promises to pass legislation to fight climate change, we are sounding the alarm and ensuring it is heard: we lobby; we phonebank; we petition; we protest; we campaign; and we hold accountable.
When humans encounter fire, everything inside us screams to stamp it out. And everything inside us screams until we stamp it out.
We may not be able to put out these fires in their entirety or not in the ways we’re used to.
It is a tremendous burden to live with the knowledge that the world is on fire and the world is falling apart. By which I mean, living with the knowledge that the world as we know it is changing. It is a tremendous challenge to understand that our world is, in many ways, burning and transforming, and yet instead of running, to remain with it and with ourselves.
A third option, then — and one that extends our capacities to connect and act: Not so much a knee-jerk reaction as an inward journey. Some of us are noticing the urgency that calls us to douse the flames and are sitting with our fear, our rage, our grief, our heartbreak. This may be one of the hardest and most soul-stretching things to do with our tremendous love for the world. We are expanding our species’ capacity to be in this moment.
Listen, my beloveds: Your smoke detectors are quiet. Your family will, God-willing, fall asleep safely in their beds tonight. Your important documents still rest in their drawer. You haven’t fled home today.
Here is a truth: You are not, at this moment, on fire. Here is another truth: It is extraordinarily hard to live in a world that feels like it is on fire. It may be the biggest challenge to our psyches and souls that we have ever encountered.
When God told Abraham to go — when Abraham first faced an unknown God and an unmapped journey — he was 75 years old. I think about him sometimes, not as mythic ancestor but as human: an oldish person leaving behind the only home he’d ever known. In what ways was he trembling? What did he gather to prepare himself for the journey? What and who did he say goodbye to before he left? Who went with him?
Listen, my beloveds: One day we may be called to leave behind the reflecting, the marveling, the mourning, the alarms. One day we may be at the receiving end of a new lekh lekha.
One day we may step into a new relationship with mystery. What will we need for that journey?
So much gratitude for who and what helped shape this essay: Rabbi Eric Woodward’s Rosh Hashanah 5784 drash on Bereshit Rabbah 39:1; Hannah Louise Poston’s poem The News; Cherie Brown’s concept of “scared active”; Kate Schapira’s brilliant essay Time to Be Something Other Than Human; and lastly and most deeply, the brave folks who work with me, whose words and ideas appear here, and who I am privileged to journey alongside.