In the Beginning …

In addition to its specific, text-related theme, Simchat Torah has an added significance: It marks the end of the month-long cycle of holidays that begins with Rosh Hashanah. It is an emotional roller-coaster of a month for observant Jews, running from the trumpeting grandeur of the New Year proclamation to the anguished soul-searching of Yom Kippur to the joyous simplicity of the sukkah to the raucousness of this last day.

Binding all these separate moments together, besides the endless rounds of honey cake and sweet wine, is one dramatic theme: the gift of the Earth. The message weaves itself throughout the holiday season, from the stark Rosh Hashanah pronouncement, “This is the birthday of the world,” through the Yom Kippur protestation of our individual smallness in the face of creation, to the final, triumphant recitation of the Torah’s opening words: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.” Taken together, the holiday season can be seen as a reminder — more like a hammering home, actually — of our place as tenants and stewards on this sphere that has been entrusted to us.

In the spirit of the holiday season, we note a sudden rush of new scientific studies that has been announced in the past month, detailing the fate of the planet under our stewardship. Not surprisingly, they all say pretty much the same thing: the mean temperature of the atmosphere and the oceans is continuing to rise, as a direct result of our burning of carbon-based fuels, and the toll on current and future human life is becoming increasingly unmistakable — and increasingly ominous.

Two new studies — one by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the other by the Purdue University Climate Change Research Center — document a growing tendency toward extremes of weather over the past two decades as a result of atmospheric warming. The two studies point to more intense precipitation and harsher storms, coupled with desertification of some currently fertile regions, as the warming increases. Yet another report, by a coalition of environmentalist investors, has found a 15-fold increase in insured losses as a result of extreme weather events over the past 30 years.

A third study, this one by the United Nations University in Bonn, calculates that as many as 10 million people per year are currently being displaced by catastrophic environment changes, including desertification of their farmlands and flooding of heavily populated coastal regions. The study projects 50 million such refugees over the next five years, and calls on the U.N. to begin redefining the notion of “refugee” to include environmental as well as political and religious displacement.

Most dramatic, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the International Council for Science, comprising the national science academies in 103 countries, announced the launch of a two-year study to assess the state of the polar ice caps, determine their rate of melting and calculate the impact on ocean levels. Most current studies show the ice sheets melting at an alarming rate, with the likely result that vast areas of current human habitation will be swallowed by the oceans in the next century or two. Until now, however, no attempt has been made to quantify the rate of melting, identify the populations under threat or come up with a plan of action.

Finally, the Bush administration has made its own modest contribution to the ongoing debate. On September 30, the federal Bureau of Land Management issued new guidelines, authorized in the energy bill passed by Congress in August, that drop the requirement of new environmental impact studies when energy companies propose new drilling. The purpose is to make new sources of oil available more quickly, so we can speed up our burning of carbon-based fuels.

Tradition teaches that the gates of repentance, although formally closed on Yom Kippur, remain open for last-minute appeals until the final minute of the holiday season. Next week, when we come to “In the beginning,” let’s give it everything we’ve got.

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In the Beginning …

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