What Hanukkah can teach us about preserving sacred space

NEW YORK — When my home lost power for a week during Superstorm Sandy, I felt that my most obvious priority was to make this situation tolerable and manageable to my two children — a first-grader and a fourth-grader. The urgent priority facing our country, however, is not to merely tolerate and manage environmental tragedy, but to build greater consensus around the way we use and acquire energy.

It saddens me to think that I must prepare my children to tolerate the aftereffects of super storms, but climate scientists tell us more severe weather is in the offing. When I was growing up only 15 miles from where I now live in suburban Westchester County, power didn’t go out with anywhere near the frequency it now does.

What will be the long-term effects on some of our towns and neighborhoods in the aftermath of Sandy? New Orleans has not yet recovered from Katrina, and that was seven years ago. Whatever the discomforts, the worst was the gnawing feeling, at every turn, that I am leaving my children a world much worse than the one I grew up in. Is that really the best we can do?

As children growing up in the’70s, my friends and I learned much and knew much about conservation. But as a society, we did little.

I have a very vivid memory of my father sitting at the dining room table reading an article about the ozone layer and going out that day to buy a shaving cup and brush that he still uses 40 years later. My father never called himself an environmentalist or a conservationist, he wore no badge, but he determined that if he wanted his children to live on this planet, it would be better not to blow a hole in its atmosphere with his shaving cream. If more of us took the same approach, we would be in a different place, as we face a far worse situation today than we did 40 years ago.

Hanukkah, a festival of light in the darkness of winter, shares much in common with other religions that also emphasize a light motif in overcoming the negative feelings that human beings often associate with extended darkness. The frightening darkness that so many experienced in the aftermath of Sandy, and many are still experiencing, was a stark reminder of the effects of climate change.

The Hanukkah story of the oil in the Temple — a measure enough for one day that lasted for eight — speaks to the intentions and motivations that must underlie our efforts at conservation and our work to slow climate change. The theme of Hanukkah is the rededication of sacred space. In order to preserve the oil to make it last, the Jews in the story needed to appreciate the true value of the oil and the source from whence it came.

The Temple was a centerpiece of a way of life that had order and meaning, that saw human effort in service of the sacred. The purpose of natural resources, like the oil in the ancient temple, is to make it possible for us to live in and contribute to the world and to recognize our power to build or to squander. We must see our work as building a world in which we conserve the gifts we have been given for our children, rather than just teaching them to better tolerate environmental tragedy.

When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, the concept of our sages was that each Jewish home would become the symbolic holy place for that household. Judaism developed an understanding that the sacred work that was once conducted in the Temple must be found in all of daily human conduct and interaction. Like the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days, so too must our consumption of resources reflect a sacred understanding of our lives and our work.

Our acts of conservation — greening our homes, workplaces, synagogues and schools, changing our habits of consumption — is the modern-day equivalent of a “rededication” of the places we dwell in as sacred. We are part of a larger reality; as the Torah teaches, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”

(Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinical arm of the Conservative Jewish movement.)

Copyright: For copyright information, please check with the distributor of this item, Religion News Service LLC.

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