Even with a few recent showers here in Southern California, we are in the midst of what is, according to some scientists, “the worst drought in 500 years.” The cumulative effect of the past three dry years has implications for our well-being and the well-being of our planet. The threat of fires and lasting damage to the natural environment is dire. Rural areas that rely on well water (some within an hour’s drive of Los Angeles) are at risk of dangerously low levels of drinking water.
In response to this ongoing crisis, I am undertaking three personal fasts based on the model outlined in the first chapter of Mishnah Ta’anit. Fasting is a traditional religious response to times of crisis and has been a resource in the rabbinic toolbox for generations. I am refraining from eating, drinking and washing (to conserve water) sunup to sundown Feb. 10, Feb. 13 and Feb. 17. Other religious and communal leaders have agreed to join me.
For some, historically, fasting may have been an attempt to influence God and to evoke a response to our plight — a theurgic effort to bring the rains. My intention is different (although I’m open to the possibility of divine intervention). My goals are to, in the words of Maimonides, “awaken hearts and open pathways to repentance.” (Rambam, Laws of Fasts 5:1)
[Related: California needs water – and Israel]
The current drought is an issue that deserves the attention of our community and requires practical responses. The first step to making those changes is internalizing the depth of the crisis.
For me, fasting is a way of standing in solidarity with a parched earth. When I am thirsty or weakened from a fast, I am reminded of my utter dependence on the bounty that God has provided me through this earth. The conditions of modern life have insulated us (especially those of us in urban settings) from the ways in which our well-being is intimately connected to the well-being of the environment. It’s easy to forget how dependent we are.
Ritual can help evoke an emotional response and inspire change in action. Since I announced the fast, community members have already responded, sharing ideas of how to conserve water in our homes. They have told me that they feel moved by an act of personal piety to re-examine their own behaviors and many are joining me in fasting. My intention isn’t to impose a fast on others (I don’t believe I have that authority), but the communal response has added meaning to what started as an act of personal religious expression.
The Mishnah describes a ritual performed by Jews in times of severe drought. They would travel to the cemetery and offer special prayers there. The communal leaders would chastise the congregation into repentance, saying, “You will be like these dead if you do not turn from your ways.” In a less dramatic fashion, I hope that this fast will achieve a similar spiritual reaction — one that will connect our souls to the world and the world to our souls.
As a rabbi, I am ultimately more concerned with personal responsibility than public policy. Through prayer and fasting, I hope to engage in an act of teshuvah — repentance. I do not believe that this drought is a punishment from God for our transgressions — at least not in a particularly causal way. Eating cheeseburgers doesn’t cause hurricanes. My theology is much more in line with the Talmudic adage, “olam k’minhago noheg — nature pursues its own course.” But I do believe that the current environmental crisis is one of human making. We are victims of our own abuse and misuse of God’s abundant gifts.
My hope is that the time spent in fast and prayer will lead me to greater responsibility for and sensitivity to the challenges that face our natural world. And if this fast inspires the same in others, all the better. I pray for God’s mercy on us and on the earth. May God open our hearts and open pathways to repentance.
Ari Lucas is assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Am and a recent transplant to Los Angeles.