Hands cradling Mother Earth against starfield background
(Getty Images)

Avoiding the Abyss

Despite the incredible human accomplishments over the last two millennia, we don’t have many more tools than Moses had to shape collective behavior.

This summer, in the middle of a fifteen-hour drive from Michigan to New Jersey, I stopped to buy two old wooden doors from a salvage shop in Cleveland. I found the seller, a kind, middle-aged dad who I’ll call Jim, on Facebook. Jim renovates properties and has amassed a collection of old doors rescued from various job sites. His “shop” was a covered section of his suburban yard. 

Jim had exactly what I was looking for: two matching solid-wood five panels, unpainted, 24 inches wide. When we pulled them out into the sunlight to look them over, Jim struck up a conversation.

“So, what do you guys do?” 

“My wife and I are clergy,” I told him. “She works at a congregation and I work in education.”

“Oh nice,” Jim said. “What kind of congregation?”

“Well, a synagogue. We’re both rabbis.” 

I shot my kids a look to see if they were monitoring the conversation. 

“Oh, you’re Jewish. My favorite person is Jewish!”

“Really?” I said, with false curiosity and a hunch about what was coming next.

“Yeah, Jesus Christ! You know, there’s a Jewish cemetery across the way from our house. Sometimes I do some tree work over there. I tell my friends that Jewish cemetery is proof the Bible is true.” 

He paused for a second to make sure I was listening. I nodded for him to continue. 

“You see, the Bible says that if God’s chosen people don’t follow God’s ways, they would be kicked out of their land and scattered all over the earth,” Jim said. “The fact that there are Jews buried in a cemetery in Cleveland, so far away from their homeland, means that the Jews weren’t following God’s ways.”

At this point, I was strapping the doors to the rack on my car and all I could manage in response was, “That’s one way to look at it.”

The theology Jim espoused isn’t only, or even primarily, a Christian belief. Jews throughout history have believed that being scattered around the world was punishment from God for not following in God’s ways. We say it in the liturgy, and it appears in this week’s Torah portion: “If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this teaching in this book … the Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other,” we read in Deuteronomy

When I was a young rabbi, I completely dismissed the idea that Jews would be punished because of our lackluster compliance with Jewish tradition. But the more I thought about this idea — or more accurately, this threat — that bad things will happen if we don’t behave properly, the more empathy I felt for what Moses and God were trying to teach. Moses and God were concerned about what would happen to the Israelites if they behaved poorly as a collective. If enough people engage in selfish behavior, society will disintegrate. To avoid this, Moses and God browbeat the people with two long lists: threats if they don’t behave, and blessings if they do.

Today, we face the same problem Moses faced — how to shape the collective behavior of a society — only the stakes are much higher. Put simply, there are many more humans using many more technologies that have much greater impact. Our collective behavior is having enormous consequences for the planet, leading geologists to label our era the anthropocene

And yet, despite the incredible human accomplishments over the last two millennia, we don’t have many more tools than Moses had to shape collective behavior. We have democratic governance, but the track record of democracies is lackluster in this regard, with some so-called eco-authoritarians now arguing that democracy ought to be set aside to address climate change. We have mass social movements, but anyone who has spent time working within them (I count myself in this category) knows how difficult it is to actually galvanize a collective movement that shapes behavior at the societal level.

My father used to say, “People will never change their behavior unless they are forced to.” By people, he meant society. And by forced to, he meant that the negative consequences are so drastic there is no choice but to change. Was he right? Is humanity incapable of anticipating a societal-level threat and changing our behavior to avoid the abyss?

This is a great spiritual challenge of our generation. We live in an era in which we are likely, just by going about our lives, to cause planetary damage. Will we develop new ways to shape collective behavior for the better before it is too late?

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on Set. 2, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

Discover More

Parashat Sh’lach: Dreams and Disappointments

What is this generation of Israelites to do in the face of a collective terminal diagnosis?

Kiddushin 72

The capital of going astray.