Of Sheds and Songs

A reflection from Rabbi Daniel Swartz, Rabbi of Temple Hesed in Scranton, PA, and vice president of the PA IPL Board.  He also carries the important title of dad to Alana, who wrote for this blog last year

Of Sheds and Songs

This past week, I’ve had some experiences that have highlighted for me both our connection to the world around us and what we should be doing about that connection.  I learned my first series of lessons as my wife Marjorie and I worked on getting a shed set up in our back yard.  We needed to first create a completely level gravel pad for the shed to sit on.  The problem was that our yard, like most of the natural world, was not level.  So we built a retaining wall — and that’s where the first lesson came to my attention.  Just a few years ago, you had to look far and wide to find any wood treated for outdoor that did not incredibly toxic chemicals put on it, including significant levels of arsenic.  At that time, the Environmental Protection Agency tried to issue a “health standard” on arsenic that protected the chemical companies involved with treating wood, but did not protect children.  Faith groups helped convey two key messages to our government — first, that children both need and deserve special health protections, and second, that “environment” is not something that consists of faraway parks and pandas, but is where we live, eat, play, work, and pray.  EPA was forced to issue a stronger standard — and now, I can go into a store and don’t even have to ask about arsenic — because its use has been banned.

The second lesson was a bit more physical.  Once we finished the retaining wall, we were supposed to get 11 tons of gravel (from a nearby quarry, so the carbon footprint was lower!) put into it. Because of the warm winter (climate change all around us!), however, the ground was too soft for the truck to get all the way to where it was supposed to be.  So in the end it delivered about 3 tons of gravel into the walls, and about 8 tons outside of them.  Marjorie and I suddenly had to shovel 8 tons of gravel!  At first, it looked completely impossible.  And even after an hour of shoveling, it didn’t look like we had made even an dent in the wrongly-placed pile of gravel.  But we didn’t give up — and by the end of the afternoon, all the gravel was inside and beautifully leveled!  The next time that I start feeling despair about the difficultly of changing our society from its current dependence on fossil fuels into one that functions sustainably, I’ll remember the gravel pile and how the impossible can become very doable with a little persistence.

My next lesson wasn’t quite so fun.  A couple of days after we were done shoveling, my wrist started to swell up painfully.  About a day after that, it actually began to squeak when I moved it — loudly enough that someone sitting next to me could hear it clearly!  A quick call to my doctor (and a quick Google of “squeaky wrist”) made it clear that I had tendonitis.  The lesson — all of us, and the ecosystems we live in as well, have limits.  When we exceed those limits, things might still appear to be fine — but over time, problems become clearer and clearer.  By the time these problems become clear, however, it is really too late.  It’s much better to make the effort to prevent them in the first place!

The final lesson of the week took place today.  We were having a PAIPL executive committee call.  I had to leave just a bit before the end to go teach a music class at the local Jewish Senior Home.  Without having planned it in advance, I realized that the psalm we were going to explore musically, Psalm 92, had some very relevant themes in.  It read, in part, “How great are Your works, O Eternal, how very profound are Your designs.  The brutish one cannot know, the fool cannot understand this.”  Wow, what a vivid description of the current situation of the world — some appreciating the wonder of the world around us, some being foolishly unaware.  The psalm then continues, “The righteous bloom like a date-palm, thrive like a cedar of Lebanon.”  In the Hebrew Bible, righteousness and the flourishing of the natural world are inextricably intertwined.  Without righteousness, the world withers — and no one can be truly righteous if they don’t consider the treatment of the world around us as part of their moral calling.  But when righteousness is tied to care for the earth, then we, like the earth, bloom and prosper.

So, even though I am typing this with a wrist brace on, all in all, I’d have to say its been a very good week.  Kind of reminds me about another week called “very good,” come to think of it.
Daniel Swartz