When Pharaoh -- and Bush -- Can't Stop

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[This essay apeared on the Op/Ed page of the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 16, 2002. ]

One of the key moments of the Biblical story of the Exodus is when, after seven eco-disasters, Pharaoh's own advisers shriek at him: "Do you not know that Egypt is destroyed?" (Exodus 10:7).

In case you thought this was a sardonic elaboration on a mythic tale, much the same story actually took place in Washington recently, and President Bush responded much like Pharaoh.

First, you recall, came the "plagues" - environmental disasters. The rivers became poisonous, undrinkable. Frogs swarmed everywhere and then died in stinking heaps. Vermin swarmed. Venomous, bloodsucking flies followed. Mad cow disease descended. Airborne infections raised boils on everyone.

Unprecedented hailstorms signaled radical climate change, shattering grass, trees, animals.

Experts in the ecological balance, who had taken to heart the unity of the universe and whose warnings had been borne out again and again as these plagues struck, now warned that the ecosystem was so ruined that a monstrous plague of locusts was about to strike.

And Pharaoh's own advisers shrieked at him: "These people deeply understandYHWH, the Breath of Life that holds all life together! Let them go forth to serve this Breath of Life" - and that's when they added: "Do you not know that Egypt is destroyed?"

But Pharaoh hardened his heart once more, and the locusts came. And after that, so darkened were the eyes of the people that the land itself was darkened as a thick dust swallowed up all vision. And then came an illness that left no house untouched by death.

On June 3, the New York Times reported that the United States had submitted to the United Nations, as required by treaty, a report on the expected impact of global scorching on the United States. The report was written not by radical outsiders, but by the President's own advisers.

The Times continues: "The report says the United States will be
substantially changed in the next few decades - 'very likely' seeing the disruption of snow-fed water supplies, more stifling heat waves and the permanent disappearance of Rocky Mountain meadows and coastal marshes, for example."

The report does stress that global warming carries potential benefits for the nation, including increased agricultural and forest growth from longer growing seasons, and from more rainfall and carbon dioxide for photosynthesis.

But in summary, the Times concludes that the report says environmental havoc is coming as well: "Some of the goods and services lost through the disappearance or fragmentation of natural ecosystems are likely to be costly or impossible to replace.

Other ecosystems, such as Southeastern forests, are likely to experience major species shifts or break up into a mosaic of grasslands, woodlands and forests."

And how did our Pharaonic President respond? The usually staid British press agency, Reuters, put this headline on its report: BUSH: GLOBAL CLIMATE REPORT IS BUREAUCRATIC HOT AIR.

Welcome to Egypt, friends.

Hearken to the warnings of those who focus on the Breath of Life that intertwines us all. And if you think they are doom-besotted radicals, listen to the Pharaoh's own advisers.

Time to bethink ourselves - What should we be doing? Should we be introducing prayers for the earth into every service in all our synagoguesm and churches, all our mosques and temples?

Should we be radically reducing our own households' use of fossil fuels? Is it "kosher" to drive an SUV? Or should our next car be a fuel-saving hybrid?

Should we be replacing the thick-headed, hard-hearted, pharaonic politicians -- who will not turn to mass transit and encourage bike paths and apply fuel-efficiency standards to Detroit's chariots?

Should our congregations be teaching eco-truth to our teens and adults, as an integrated part of religious studies?

Does this century of human and planetary history need to be different from every other century?